In the Shadow of the Legion
Summary - Knettishall Heath to Thompson, Distance 15.7 miles (25.3kms) , Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 144
Day 6b - Knettishall Heath to Thomspon
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I walked the three quarters of a mile between the end of the Angles’ Way and the start of the next path; the Peddars Way. This path runs from Knettishall Heath to Holme-next-the-Sea 46 miles north, roughly, along the line of a Roman Road. The road was driven through the heartland of the Celtic tribe, the Iceni, famous for being led in revolt by Queen Boudicca, in AD60. The feat of Roman engineering is reduced to shadow of its former self, a mere occasional mound of earth tracing a course amongst the woods and hedgerows of Suffolk and Norfolk beside footpaths and tracks. Its beginning is in a small leafy deciduous wood at the road edge a finger post pointing north to Holme-Next-the-Sea. While on the opposite side of the road another long distance path starts, the Icknield Way, that runs 120 miles to Buckinghamshire and then on, with the addition of the 85 miles of the Ridgeway, eventually to Lyme Regis on the south coast. The Icknield and Peddars Ways are ancient paths with their origins shrouded in the mists of prehistory.
Standing at the start of the Peddars Way I felt a pang of temptation to turn the other way and head down to Buckinghamshire and perhaps on to the South Coast. It was a strong impulse but resisted it and instead took a picture of the Peddars Way finger post. These paths should have a fitting monument at their terminuses as tribute to the intrepid walkers’ efforts or to encourage them on their journey. Lost in my thoughts I missed a young couple walking down the path toward me and felt quite embarrassed at my posturing with the camera. They said Hello and asked whether I was about to walk the Peddars Way. I told them of my walk around Norfolk they volunteered that they thought I was completely mad but they wished me luck anyway.
I crossed the road and stood in the green light of the tunnel formed by the trees overhanging the path. This is my home path and I was sure I would make good time as it’s nice and straight; I must have some Roman in me. Then I plunged into the trees and was on my way. The green hue gave way to dappled sunshine further into the wood as the trees thinned. On either side the mixture of trees gave way to more pines but amongst their roots pretty lilac flowers stood erect with petals reaching for the sunlight. I followed in the footsteps of the legionaries along a route that would have once echoed to the tramp of sandled feet. It's likely the Roman road was forced into the land of the Iceni for the same purpose that trails and railroads were built to subjugate native peoples in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
At the Little Ouse River, or Blackwater, I paused on a wooden bridge and I watched as the water flowed quickly beneath it to the west. The branches of the surrounding birch trees hung low as if caressing the water as it gurgled over the gravel riverbed. I left the bridge and the path led me north toward the A1066 with vast fields to the east. Walking along the path taking in the big skies over the crops I could see trucks travelling on the road ahead of me. Then a rustling started in the bushes beside me, a Muntjac deer burst out of the ferns. It froze in front of me its eyes staring at me equally startled I stood stock still watching the frightened animal. Then it shot off out, east, over the fields.
By the side of the A1066 I was surprised by the speed of the vehicles but it was easy to cross. I found an old section of redundant road overhung by trees and being gradually absorbed by moss and grass. A thin ribbon of tarmac twisted ahead of me with the occasional white line peeking out from the undergrowth. This stretch of road had once connected the A1066 to a country road running down from East Harling.
Passing the villages of Shadwell and Brettenham, to the west, my course was barred by another river, the River Thet, the path snaked across the flood plain; here and there it was raised on boardwalks flanked on either side by tall green reeds up to the river edge. I crossed the river via a sturdy wooden footbridge and headed up the path beside Brettenham Heath. Sheep stood scattered here and there across the heath land; a few were being rounded up into pens for inspection.
I walked in the cool shade of the pine trees; until I came to another country road crossing the course of the Peddars Way. The entrance of the path was strewn with piles of broken tiles, obviously the detritus from a kitchen makeover. Setting foot on the path I immediately had to jump back as a beat-up old Ford Fiesta van bowled down the track and skidded out on to the road, the tile dumper, I suspect.
Back on the track I could make out the ominous noise of traffic, in the distance. The A11 is the main road artery out of Norfolk linking Norwich to London; at this point it is a major dual carriageway. This should make it easier to cross but I had reached it at a particularly busy time of day. The south-bound carriageway was a solid constant stream of traffic. For some minutes I stood baffled and buffeted by the displaced air of the trucks and cars as they sped past at what seemed unbelievable speed. A gap opened and I quickly crossed the first carriageway wide-eyed as the vehicles bore down upon me, allowing for the speed limit they were closing on me faster than they should have been. On the central reservation I collected myself between the two noisy streams of traffic. Fortunately the traffic was lighter on the north-bound carriageway and I quickly made my way across the road.
Leaving the A11 behind me I found myself on a rough road leading to the Norwich to Ely railway line. Coming to the trackside I looked over the gate and saw a train speeding down the line toward me. With a hoot of its horn and a whump of displaced air it hurtled past me and soon disappeared, in the direction of Thetford. Well, that was certainly much more impressive than the traffic on the road, you can’t beat heavy engineering.
Safely on the far side of the railway I followed a stony track that was flanked on either side by tall, very straight, pine trees forming dark walls of timber. I come to one of the outlying stands of Thetford Forest, Roudham Heath, I found myself at once weary and elated by the progress I was making; it was a vast improvement on my stumbling crippled gait two years before.
Then I had been walking in a fog of agony from the blisters on each heel and the pressure sores under the balls my feet. Every block of flint felt like a dagger while searing pain shot through each foot as I put them down and even more as I lifted them. Through that day shuffled along until I resembled Ozzy Osborne. It was hell.
This day was different. I still didn’t like the flinty track but at least I could walk pain free. And I was free to notice my surroundings. Another path curved in from the south-west, along the line of the old Thetford to Swaffham railway. The Peddars Way follows the line of the old track to Stonbridge. It passes through a pair of former rail bridge supports that flank the old line as if they are were Assyrian Gates. The shadow cast by overhanging tress lent a menacing appearance to their grey/black bricks reinforced the dark brooding atmosphere. I wonder what future archaeologists will make of them, places of worship maybe? At the end of the path a way marker was attached to a road sign, the footpath is also a track at this point, the diagonal black line on a circular white background indicates the national speed limit, that’s an optimistic sixty miles an hour!
Stonebridge is a small hamlet bisected by the A1075 between the towns of Watton and Thetford. This can be a busy road at times but it has a proper path to provide sanctuary for the pedestrian. Sadly the village pub, the Dog and Partridge, was shut down some time ago, as the signs on the roadside wall declare, which is a shame as it was the only pub directly on the Peddars Way.
I turned off the main road into a country lane headed due north to Galley Hill, which is simply a name on a map. The Peddars Way follows this road alternately flanked by trees on one hand and tree bordered fields on the other; implying the encroachment of the woods as the way begins to skirt military danger zones to the west. I arrived at Galley Hill along one of the two roads that form a v-shaped junction at this point and I found my thoughts returning to the events of two years before.
My battered body insisted in its need for rest, so I had taken refuge beneath the trees on a carpet of dry pine needles covering the ground. I lay there pulling my provisions from my rucksack and finally ate the orange I carried with me for four days from Great Yarmouth. I tossed pieces of orange peel at the trunk of a tree contemplating my immediate future. Looking at the map, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it through the woods before me, let alone all the way to Little Cressingham, about five miles to the north-east, my planned destination for that day. For the next few minutes I wrestled with the urge to give up and call my wife to come and pick me up, this would be the last point where she would be able to reach me, by road, before I headed into the depths of the forest. In the event and to my later regret I carried on.
On this occasion, in tribute to my former self I took refuge once again in the trees and I sat down with my back against a trunk. After a brief interlude of cursing, I had put my hand on a wasp, I tucked into my provisions from my rucksack, including an orange of course. I sat peeling the fruit and piling the peel into a pyramid when a grey car pulled up at the entrance to the track. A woman dressed in a business suit got out and vehemently slammed the drivers’ door then walked briskly down the track into the woods. Watching her head and shoulders disappearing into the distance I renewed my dissection of the orange. Suddenly I heard screaming and swearing from a female voice. I jumped to my feet and ran to the edge of the forest and looked down the track, the swearing had stopped. Calmly the woman I’d seen moments before was walking back up the track her face a little flushed but composed. ‘’You OK?’ I asked as she drew nearer to me. Startled she blurted, ‘Fine, fine…everything’s just fine, now’, as she passed me and as an aside, over her shoulder, she added, ‘Just a bad day’. With that she got back in her car leaving me standing there with a half-eaten orange in my hand. That must’ve been a really bad day at the office.
Underway once more I followed the track past a military road sweeping off to the west and plunged into the forest for the last leg of the day to the village of Thompson. I passed the place where, on the 2003 walk, hobbling along like Ozzy Osbourne I had the feeling of presence behind me. A cursory glance over my shoulder indicated that it was a large white car that filled the track so I hauled myself on to the bank on the right. It was only then that I saw it was a police car. The driver gave me a wave of acknowledgement as he went by, returning it I stepped down behind him and watched as he drove further up the track then off to the right into the entrance to Thompson Water.
Thompson Water is an artificial lake created in 1854 by the Fifth baron of Walsingham, Thomas Grey. It’s now owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and is a lovely place to bird watch, fish or just walk. At this point the Peddars Way forms part of the Great Eastern Pingo Trail, pingos being the circular ponds formed, during the last ice age, by the collapse of hillocks made up of a core of ice. As the ice melted the crest of the summit of the hillock would slide off forming a rim and thus we are left with the shallow depressions of the present era. The Thompson area hereabouts has a large number of pingos, which is an amusing name for a geological feature. I was tempted to wander around the park surrounding Thompson Water; indeed, I walked a few yards into the entrance but I decided against it and I returned to the Way.
It was along this section I first came across one of the stones of the Songlines sculptures that have been erected on the course of the Peddars Way. This is was the one I think of as the 'Footprints of our ancestors', after its first line.
A few yards beyond Thompson Water the Peddars Way is crossed by a track emerging from the south west and crossing to the north east. This was my way into Thompson itself. I covered the mile and half into village as quickly as I could manage; I wanted to catch the Peddars Wayfarer minibus. This was a great new service that ran from Swaffham to Thetford stopping at villages either on or near the Peddars Way. Note: at the present time this service is not running.
At the village green I waited for what seemed an interminable time walking around and chatting to the locals, regretting missing the Chequers pub, and kicking my heels. Eventually the bus hove into view and I clambered aboard for the ride back to Knettishall Heath where I would rendezvous with my wife and son.
The driver and his girlfriend chatted to me and each other as we hurtled through the country lanes, the towed cycle trailer clattering behind us. Both young and attractive, as this was the last run of the day, they were eager to finish so they could be together. We fell into silence as we neared the A11 and passed beneath it to follow the B1111 road to East Harling. This is a more substantial village than I had imagined a small town really. Its size could be due to the regular lamb markets that took place here into the early 20th century which attracted farmers from all over the region to buy and sell thousands of lambs. Unsurprisingly the village sign is a lamb.
I must have dropped off; we were suddenly passing Knettishall Heath Country Park and I had to shout at the driver to stop. Screeching to a halt he offered me an apology but thanking him I clambered out of the bus and gave them a wave as they pulled away. I walked across to the car park to meet my wife and son. Finding them snoozing in the car I gently tapped on the driver’s window then opened the passenger door; got in to head back to the Weathercock Barn.
Weather: Bright and dry Finished 16:15