Dog Bites and Journey’s End
Summary - Hickling to Great Yarmouth, Distance 22 miles (35.4kms), Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 134
Day 14 - Hickling to Great Yarmouth
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I started out from the car park of the Greyhound in Hickling Green where I’d completed the previous day’s soggy walk. Today it was dry and breezy but the clouds were still threatening. I’d reverted to my original Meindel boots as the lighter Merrells that I’d used for most of the walk had split the previous day. These boots are much heavier and intended for rougher terrain but would suffice for this final day’s journey. I heeded the advice given to me the night before and took the direct route out of the village.
To my great relief the Weavers’ Way leaves the Potter Heigham road along a quiet (and safe) lane before skirting the southern edge of Hickling Broad. In the bright sunshine the broad appeared a slate blue colour with flecks of light glittering off the crests of the waves driven across the broad. The wind hissed through the brittle stalks of the reeds lining the banks while wild fowl rode the gusts overhead.
I ignored the view and put my head down as I needed to cover as many miles as possible. And so it was I walked at a tremendous pace until I came upon a birdwatcher’s hide at the waters’ edge. I completely failed to see the lens of a telescope protruding from the hide and I startled the female bird-watcher as I rounded the front of the structure. Startled I took a small leap back and offered my apologies. Composing ourselves again we chatted briefly about the weather, birds and walking, until I set out once again.
I turned west on to the northern bank of the River Thurne flowing west to the village of Potter Heigham . This village is the at heart of the Broads but people rarely see more than the boat yards on the banks of the river the village proper is about half a mile to the north. Today a good number of tourists were roaming around the attractions, restaurants and bar I seated myself on a bench beside the quayside. For the time of year there were a lot of pleasure craft negotiating the tricky span of Potter Heigham’s medieval bridge. Each summer the local paper carries a story of a hapless tourist jamming his unfortunate pleasure craft under the low curved span of the bridge. The passage is so tricky a bridge pilot is provided by the Broads authority to guide the craft through the 6’ 9” arch. Beyond the comely old bridge is a modern road bridge carrying the A149 high above the River Thurne.
So I sat on the bench at the water's edge watching the manoeuvrings of the craft passing under the bridge with a hopeful eye but none of today's skippers were the reckless tourists of summer. I contented myself watching the moored boats as they bobbed gently at the quaysides while the few land-based tourists, mainly of advanced years, wandered by me. To my right the white walls of the Herbert Woods Tower dominate the flat skyline of the Broadland countryside. This was once the headquarters of one of the leading pleasure boat firms of the broads but has been partially converted into holiday accommodation. I’d removed my jacket and sweater in an attempt cool myself but now I’d become chilled necessitating redressing myself.
I made my way over the narrow old bridge to the southern side of the Thurne. This side of the river is initially lined with small wooden chalets that abut to the river bank so one is forced to walk on the landward side of them on the low flood defence. Between them or over a fence I could glimpse narrow views of the river and on the far bank the boat yards gave way to similar chalets that mirror those on my side. I was by the odd shape of a building on the opposite shore. It didn’t fit in at all whereas nearly all of the wooden buildings conformed to the regular box shape this didn’t fit in at all. It was cone shaped with flat angled panels forming the walls that converged to a domed roof; beside it stood a smaller version of the main building. I stared trying to work out what it was that these buildings reminded me of until the owner came out and stared back at me. It was then I realised what it was or had been, a helter-skelter. This piece of seaside funfair was spending its retirement as a holiday chalet.
The chalets ceased and the countryside opened to reveal the surrounding marshlands stretching away to the south and east. The river lay concealed behind banks of reeds occasionally the upper section of a boat would float past disconcertingly disconnected from the water as if supported by the reeds themselves. Often the driver of the craft would give me a wave as they passed me I, of course glad of the company, would wave back. I was left on my own following the meandering curves of the river head bowed against the wind and occasional squall of rain. From time to time my baseball cap would be blown from my head I would chase it back down the path. I walked with my head down so I was startled to look up and find another walker on the path walking toward me. I managed to blurt out a startled ‘Hello’, before falling into conversation about our walks and the, of course, weather. This young guy was a tall dark haired Australian fellow named Rick from Canberra who was studying in Edinburgh. He’d spent most of the summer walking parts of the British coast and was on his final walk, destination Potter Heigham, before returning to Great Yarmouth (by bus). I told him of my Great Norfolk Walk and the trials and tribulations around it. We compared the relative merits of each of our respective countries. It struck us just how incongruous we were standing there in the middle of nowhere chatting as if we were good friends and we laughed. Then we bade each other good bye and we went on our ways.
The sky darkened and the wind blew harder and the occasional showers became more frequent. The curve of the river made the walk to the village of Thurne take forever. I passed the white Thurne Dyke Windpump, this iconic landmark of the Broads - it has become an often used symbol of Britain in overseas tourist information - normally appears brilliant in sunshine but today the overcast made it grey and drab. Standing there looking at the mill I felt a sudden splat of a raindrop against my cheek then the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain upon me.
The wind whipped the halyards of the moored boats as I walked the length of Thurne Staithe as I made my way into the village. Standing under the trees at the foot of the staithe I lent on the back of a bench as I struggled to remove my leggings. Just across from me the Lion pub stood temptingly but I maintained my resolve and moved on out of the village.
Slogging uphill past Thurne’s St Edmund Church I turned right off the road and out back into open countryside. The ground falls away here giving views down the Bure river valley, the Thurne joins the Bure just south of the village. The fields offered a welcome relief from the bleak river banks but again I emerged at the side of the River Bure at Wisemans Oby’s Mill, again I was beside a river. I made my way along the river until I came to Clippesby Mill. Beyond the mill the path hadn’t been cleared or mown but the vegetation on top of the flood bank had been flattened. Now I’m not sure who would come up with an idea like this as the long grass and plants entangles the walker’s boots until they are quite unable to proceed.
I progressed, slowly, to the A1064 a road that runs from the town of Caister, in the east, skirting the northern edge of the old marshlands in a gradual curve to Acle, to the west. Here I clambered up the embankment to the roadside. The road leaps the River Bure lifted above it by the steeply ramped Acle Bridge. I stood gauging the speed and volume of the traffic waiting for a big enough gap to allow me to scuttle across the road.
Safely on the far side I made my way down the opposite embankment to the Bridge Inn pub, a fine looking establishment with a conical shaped restaurant. As usual I was tempted but schedule wouldn’t permit me to stop.
The Weavers’ Way doesn’t follow the A1064 road but loops around the pub to continue along the river bank. At Acle Staithe the path turned west toward the town of Acle but before entering the town it turns south until it arrives at the A47. This is a major trunk road and hence carries much more traffic than the road I’d just crossed. The path deposits the hapless walker at the western end of what is known as the Acle Straight. Drivers hurtle down the straight, from Great Yarmouth, at grossly illegal speeds while the drivers from Acle accelerate hard off of a large roundabout. Either way the traffic is often bunched and travelling at high speed, making it difficult to cross the road. After a few abortive attempts I finally dashed through a small gap between two trucks.
The noise of the A47 faded behind me as I passed into a hedge lined lane that crossed the Norwich to Great Yarmouth railway line. I was passing around the south eastern edge of Acle through woodland and fields surrounding the villages of Tunstall and Halvergate. In Tunstall I rested on a grass verge outside the ruined village church and sat there for a while in the afternoon sunshine; the breeze wrapping my map around me as I considered the last leg of the Great Norfolk Walk across the mashes to Great Yarmouth.
The path to the neighbouring village of Halvergate runs along field edges between two vast open fields the eastern one dropping away to the east revealing a panoramic view of the marshland spreading out toward Yarmouth. Suddenly the wind rose and a rain shower enveloped me. Once again I was rummaging in my rucksack for my waterproof leggings and I struggled to pull this awkward garment over my boots. As I balanced on one foot my thoughts drifted back to events on this path two years before.
In 2003 I’d returned to the walk few weeks after I’d broken down in West - Norfolk and managed to chip away at the circuit around Norfolk over every other weekend until at last on the 8th November I came to this final section. My brother offered to complete the final section of the walk with me.
We started out from Acle just after eight in the morning and arrived at this point a couple of hours later. As we were crossing the fields when, on their far side, a small grey dog of the terrier variety, emerged from bushes and began to survey us as it stood on its hind legs. My brother, walking behind me, said as soon as he saw it. ‘It’s going to come after us’, with some alarm. Being the elder brother and experienced walker I replied, ‘Nah, don’t show any fear and it’ll ignore us’ and kept walking purposefully ahead. ‘It’s really going to get us!’ my brother said with even greater alarm. ‘Just keep going, we’ll be fine’. As if in answer to this statement the dog hurtled along the path and over the furrows of the ploughed field toward us like a furry missile. Going for me the little bastard only got a mouthful of trouser leg. Instantly releasing it he headed on to my brother’s right leg. He had adopted the more traditional hikers’ style and had his trousers tucked into his tall socks unfortunately this afforded our new found furry friend a convenient and possibly tasty ankle to bite into. Soon both he and my brother were engaged in a merry little dance as my brother tried to dislodge the dog from his leg. At that moment an elderly lady ran up to us crying, ‘He only wants to play, he only wants to play’. ‘I’ll give him play’, said my brother and with a kick launched the recalcitrant mutt into the field. It instantly jumped up and went to go for my brother again but its owner caught and restrained it. With a few muttered oaths we left this scene. And that was my brother’s thirty-third birthday too.
I passed the scene of this incident into Halvergate village through a leafy lane lined by attractive houses. Turning east on to the main road I bumped into an old man wearing a flat cap and a worn jacket over baggy trousers, he looked the complete old farm hand. ‘Were you goin’, boy’? he said as I approached. So I said I was off to Yarmouth. ‘You ain’t gonna make it before dark’ said with vehemence and I conceded that he was probably right. Then explained about the Great Norfolk Walk, he shook his head doubtfully but wished me luck and that I should take care out on the marshes.
Passing the Red Lion pub I followed the road gently downhill out of Halvergate along a pathless section of road to the level of the marshes. The quarter of a mile stretch of road became busy as soon as I set foot on it. The drivers generously allowed me enough room to carry on walking on the carriageway which was a bit of luck as scrubby trees crowed the roadside banks. The road was covered in a thick layer of muddy tracks that trailed down to a farm entrance on the opposite side of the road. Suddenly a huge green tractor drove out of the gateway and I leapt on to the bank grabbing hold of a low hanging branch. The tractor roared past with chunks of mud being hurled from the deep tread of its tires. Relieved I lowered myself back on to the road and followed it down to the start of the marshes.
The road out of Halvergate veers off to the left following a straight course to the A47 while the Weavers’ Way turns continues along a track to the right curving gently to the south out in to the flat marshes.
The metalled track passed by a collection of wooded buildings surrounded by rusting tractors, cars and discarded tyres but my attention was caught by a derelict steam engine beside the rest of the scrap. It leaned at an angle its chimney pointing to the sky while the redundant firebox gaped open. It is probably the remnant of a steam driven drainage pump but the black body of the boiler and the prominence of the rivets sticking out from it reminded me of an extinct animal. And, that I guess is what it is, rendered useless by the advent of the diesel and electric pumps.
Walking on out on to the marshes I became more exposed to the wind while the track narrowed beneath me. I was soon faced with a dilemma. The route I normally use at this stage of the Weavers’ Way leads further south-east toward the River Yare then follows the course of the river to Great Yarmouth, while the alternative route strikes out east more directly across the marshes. This alternative route weaves along the small river Fleet until it empties into Breydon Water, the estuary that lies behind Yarmouth. I hadn’t taken this route before but I thought I could make better time by following it. I set out checking my map for dubious directions while I made my way toward Manor Farm.
I came to another track that headed south off the main track toward Berney Arms. This was my last chance to take the southerly route. Standing at the junction lost in my thoughts I failed to hear the elderly Range Rover bearing down on me and it was only the cheerful toot from the horn had me leaping out of the way. The driver and his girlfriend gave me a wave as they passed. Waving back I fell in behind their disappearing taillights along the northerly route.
The track was made up of a lacework of puddles broken up by small stony ridges and I weaved my around them until I came across a guy with a gun dressed in a camouflage jacket accompanied by a dog of the collie breed. I could see more clearly that his camouflage jacket consisted of the urban greys in an interlocking scatter pattern. He peered into one of the ditches beside the track as his dog bounded out the reeds and ran toward me. The man let out a call and the dog stopped in its mid-stride but as I drew near it sniffed my hand. I bade the guy a ‘Good day’, and passed comment on the weather. He struggled to talk above the wind – which was blowing into his face, ‘At least it’s not raining here, yet!’ He was right of course shower clouds where passing to the north and the south of us.
The track took a sharp right turn around the garden of Manor Farm. Now I followed the line of the river Fleet sweeping in curving meanders gradually east to Breydon Water. Doubt began to grow in my mind as to whether I was on the right trail as I couldn’t see any way markers. For the first time I wished I taken the southern route along the River Yare. With increasing uncertainty I carried on along the track. In the distance I could see a couple of guys trying to round up sheep in a field. Their efforts appeared strangely amateurish with arms flailing as they chased the sheep around a field. ‘Sheep rustlers’, I thought, as I walked toward them. Then they saw me and leapt into their truck – with trailer – and drove away at speed, definitely sheep rustlers. So there I stood on my own surrounded by a bunch of confused sheep, and they were no help whatsoever.
I decided I’d missed a turn and leaving the path I set off to the south across a field to reach a raised bank on its far side. Soon I found the ground becoming boggy, then swampy and then water-logged. In my stumbling progress I disturbed a Muntjac deer which exploded from some bushes ahead of me and hurtled away from me across the field. Startled I regained my composure and managed to scrabble up the bank and took stock of my circumstances. I’d obviously taken a wrong turn and realised I’d have to backtrack along the field edge to where I started from half an hour before.
The perturbed sheep greeted me with more bleating as I stood amongst them once again while I tried to determine which way to go. I orientated myself and scanned the distance for an indication of the Weavers’ Way. To the east I could just make out a small round patch on a post nestled in a thicket of bushes almost due east. Hopefully this was a way marker so I struck out in its direction.
The white and green patch did turn out to be a Weavers’ Way marker and I resolved to pay more attention to my map. Again I regretted having not taken the southerly route. From my map I found that there were two wind pumps that I would pass along the way and I could make them out further in the distance. With a reassured stride I set out with renewed confidence.
Passing High’s and Howard’s drainage mills, sail-less windmills, I was overtaken by squall of rain. Cursing I hauled on my waterproof leggings; once again struggling to pull them over my bulky boots. I hopped from foot to foot in the rain but eventually I was protected against it.
The rain cleared and the sun broke through the clouds and covered the surrounding countryside in a welcome warm glow. I came upon a beautiful thatched house surrounded by apple trees and lawns. It had ivy overgrowing the lower storey forming an arch above the front door creating a bucolic scene. This lovely place is, I later found out, called Marsh Farm but I must say it didn’t look like a working farm but who knows. A little further on I passed Fleet Farm on the opposite bank of the Fleet. A domestic tableau was unfolding as a four-wheel drive pulled up in front of the farm and kids cascaded from it while parents followed them struggling with over-sized shopping bags.
The track followed the last loops in final meanders of the Fleet just before it empties into Breydon Water. The track itself had turned from a pot-holed muddy lane into a tarmac covered road. Here and there signs proclaimed a conservation project taking place on the marshes and that the diggings should be avoided. The going was better on the even surface of the track so I wasn’t deterred when another shower of rain overtook me.
I crossed the Reedham to Great Yarmouth railway line near a weir gate at the mouth of the Fleet. Climbing the flood wall on the northern side of Breydon Water I stood on its summit, a lofty ten feet above the marsh, and took in the panorama before me. Straight across the water lay Burgh Castle which I had passed at the beginning of the walk around Norfolk two weeks previously, to my left - the east - Great Yarmouth nestled on the horizon. This was an important mile stone for me this was it the final run into my destination the target I’d been walking toward for the last two hundred and twenty-two miles as well as the efforts of the previous two years. A shiver of anticipation ran through me and I set off into the east.
The flood defence I walked upon is an earthen bank hardened with a weave of perforated concrete panels that allows grass to grow through it. This formed a cushioning layer beneath my feet. With an even surface I was able to maintain a quick pace although I now found myself walking into a stiff breeze and more than once I lost my trusty sweat stained baseball cap and had to chase it back along the ridge of the bank. The sky was still clearing and the sun broke through to give a clear afternoon backlight to the scenery so I stopped at a bench and while removing the constrictive waterproof leggings I surveyed the wide flat landscape. Sitting there with my boots removed, and what a pleasure it is to sit down, I massaged my feet as I looked out over the grey brown water of Breydon Water to Burgh Castle, the Roman fort of Gariannonum. I recalled I’d sat on ‘Rob’s Rock’ amongst the fort ruins in the late summer sunshine looking across at the very spot where I now sat. I could hardly believe it I was on the verge of accomplishing the challenge I’d set myself two years previously; and maybe complete the one conceived of twenty-nine years before.
Re-lacing my boots I began the final haul into Great Yarmouth. The wind still whipped around me and its chill reminded me it was autumn. Overhead flocks of birds were heading to their roosts and I reflected that the last migrant birds must have departed for Africa. In answer to my thoughts a house martin buzzed me and was soon joined by a group of its companions; together they followed me along the top of the flood bank as if to accompany me. I guess they were hunting insects disturbed by my progress but in the early evening sunshine they seemed to be escorting me as they darted before and after me. Feeling lifted by their presence I walked in their company as other birds settled on the marshes and gulls stood on the blackened timbers protruding from the mud.
Tracing the outline of Breydon Water I gradually reduced the distance to Great Yarmouth. To shelter me from the wind I walked sometimes at the foot of the northern slope of the flood bank only climbing to the top occasionally to orientate myself and to gauge my progress. While carrying out one of these reconnoitres I encountered the white shape of a barn owl hovering close in to the northern face of the flood bank. Its feathers were glowing golden in the setting sun as it silently flapped its wings to hover as it scoured the ground for prey. I stood still bathed in the golden sunlight watching this beautiful bird before me until it gave up its quest, perhaps disturbed by my presence, and disappeared off into the distance.
The last few miles dragged as a melancholy mood began to pervade me; part of me didn’t want this journey to come to an end. The sun dipped behind me painting the outskirts of Great Yarmouth in a red wash as I joined the railway line heading into the town. I turned to take a last look out over Breydon Water as the sun neared the horizon it seemed to be melting into the western horizon behind darkening clouds; flooding the estuary with liquid gold.
I passed under the shadowy concrete structure of Breydon Bridge just as the sun dropped below the horizon and darkness surrounded me.I was on the opposite bank from the one I’d walked along two weeks before. Then I was beside a harshly illuminated ASDA car park with Friday night shoppers walking to and from their cars oblivious to me and what I’d just accomplished. Despite an urge to punch the air with my fists and declare my triumph to the shoppers I walked the last few hundred yards to the Start/Finish of the Angles and Weavers’ Ways. I took a picture of the sign, of myself and then stood there beside the sign contemplating all of the two hundred and twenty-seven miles I’d walked over the last two weeks and the hundreds of miles I’d put into the two failed attempts and the numerous training walks over the previous years. But here I was finished at last. Some of the drivers leaving the supermarket looked at me in bemusement as they drove past this odd figure standing in the dark beside the wooden sign.
I had intended to have walked across the old pedestrian iron bridge beside the Great Yarmouth railway station hand in hand with my young son, just as I had with my father when I was a child. It wasn’t to be; I was two hours late and my wife and son were in the Marina Centre on Yarmouth’s sea front.
I made my way through the streets of Great Yarmouth; across the empty market place, along the normally busy Regents Road lined with restaurants full of early evening diners sitting in the warm glow of light oblivious to my passing. Then I turned right on to Marine Parade, Yarmouth ’s Golden Mile. I continued to be surprised by the lack of people as it was after all a Friday night there should be lots of young people heading out into the night.
Under the vivid neon colour of the promenade illuminations I passed the town’s seafront tourist information centre, closed of course, where I had originally intended to complete my journey. Tonight my passage was marked by the flashing lights of the amusement arcades with their swirling signs. Eventually I arrived at the Marina Centre and took a seat on a bench at its entrance. Sitting on the bench I looked across the road to a nightclub, Atlantis, hundreds of youngsters clustered outside the doors. Through middle aged eyes I looked and thought, ‘They’ll catch their death dressed like that’. Their numbers continue to build up at the club’s doors until they opened and allowed them to drain into the club.
Alone on the bench I began to mull over memories of the last two weeks and the previous years; all the miles, all the blisters, all the pain, the explanations to my wife and the organisation; and now, at last, it was finished. There wouldn’t be any more walking tomorrow no more paths to follow or horizons to walk toward. I guess that’s the end.
Feeling a hand on my shoulder I realised that I’d been nodding gradually into sleep. My wife and son were there beside me. I felt all of my forty-four years but I jumped up and hugged them, both it was great to see them. Walking with my wife and carrying my son we headed off to the car.
Finished 19:15, Miles: lots – well actually 22 miles, Weather: Windy but dry early on turning to showers, then dry again later.