The Great Norfolk Walk
Bob Cains

Day 7 - Thompson to the A47


Summary - Thompson to the A47, Distance 15.5 miles (24.95kms) , Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 144

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  Day 7 - Thompson to The A47
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The previous evening had been spent at the Vine pub in Hopton, near to the Weathercock Barn. We’d sat, eating dinner, in the beer garden while our son played on the pub’s swings.  While we watched the sun melted gold and red into the west horizon.  We returned to the barn intending to get a good night’s rest.  However, our slumber was disrupted by the mighty thump, thump, thump of the rotors of a military helicopter hovering directly overhead in the dark early hours.

The next day my wife and son were off to the town of Milldenhall but we needed some supplies and so a trip into nearby Diss was required.  The supermarket we came upon was busy and while I went into the store my wife took the car to hunt for a parking space. As I had slammed the car door she had shouted that she needed some cash.  I picked up a few groceries I then joined a long queue for the cash point. In the queue I listened as a couple of women discussed their husbands’ poor dietary habits until their conversation turned, not unsurprisingly, to life insurance.

Some minutes later I extracted the money for my wife and returned to the car park.  I searched up and down the rows of cars for our black Ford Focus but I couldn’t pick it out in the multitude of cars shimmering in the dazzling sunlight.  I had to resort to my mobile phone and I found my family in the furthest corner of the car park tucked away behind a skip.  Escaping the slow traffic we headed north out of the town to the village of Thompson.

Thompson Village SignIn Thompson my wife and I kissed our goodbyes and I gave my son an enthusiastic hug. I stood watching the tailgate of our Focus disappear around a corner then I realised that I still had the money, from the cash point, in my pocket. Ah well, at least I’d be the wealthiest walker on the Peddars Way.

Retracing my previous day’s steps back to the Way I paused and was about to set foot on to the path when I was almost ploughed down by a group of cyclists silently heading north. They didn’t even notice me as they passed. Having allowed this pathway congestion to pass I stepped on to the path and turned north to start my day’s walking. On the path the bright sunshine was blocked out by the trees and the air soon became stifling.

This part of Peddars Way runs beside the Stanford battle area, an army training area established 1942 during the Second World War.  About forty-six square miles were set aside for the training of troops in preparation for D-Day and several villages were evacuated to make way for the wargames.  These villages; Buckenham Tofts, Langford, Stanford, Struston, Tottington and West Tofts remain, awaiting the return of their long-gone occupants.  The villages had the impression, at least, that they would return after the war but instead over the years the military exercises have served to preserve the flora and fauna of the area; so much so that parts of it are classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  This landscape is interesting in an archaeological respect as well and special measures have been taken to preserve the village churches.

With the thought of these villages scuttling around my mind I came to a perpendicular track across the line of the Peddars Way.  Here I found a couple sitting on large concrete cubes set across the Way resting from their morning’s walking. I gave them a ‘Hello’, and they asked how my walking was going. I, of course, told them about my walk around Norfolk and they began to question me about the practicalities of such an exercise particularly with children. Apparently they were having a day off from their kids, who were with his parents.  He was a tall solid fellow with thinning closely cropped dark hair. She was slim with long dark hair and an enquiring face. And she made the conversation asking about my earlier walks, where we’d stayed how much it cost and the difficulties of holidaying with children.  They’d walked in the Peak District, before kids, and now they were trying to get back into it.  I told them about the Peddars Wayfarer bus (not running at the time of writing) and gave them one of my leaflets because he was determined to walk the path.  Time was pressing so wishing them luck I bade them farewell as I returned to the path.

The path follows a more or less straight line until it passes Sparrow Hill.  Here, I was surprised to have to give way to a group of Lamas, walking with people, I might add.  Taken aback I forgot to ask them anything and all got from the people was a polite ‘Thank you’ for letting them through and an inscrutable look from the animals as they passed.

To the west of the village of Merton I skirted the last of the military danger areas and the grounds of Merton Park.  I was leaving the trees behind, for now, and walking I contemplated the plantations that were laid in the area after the First World War.  At that time the poor quality of the Breckland soil lent itself to the large scale planting of trees.  It had seemed to me that it was a bit of a myth about the sandy nature of the soil but I came across a historical record of the village of Santon Downham almost being overwhelmed by sand in the 17th century.  Sand dunes moved, over number of years - 1665 to 1670 - from the Lakenheath area to the vicinity of the village overwhelming fields and houses, and silting up the Little Ouse River.  Through the actions of nature and the intervention of man the village was eventually cleared of the sand. Santon Dowham still stands beside the Little Ouse but it now lies at the heart of the Thetford Forest, over whelmed by trees rather than sand.  This story brought home to me just how different this area has been in the past when it was wild and dangerous, the haunt of highwaymen.

The Way abandons the straight line of the Roman road and meanders across the countryside until it came to the B1108 road, to the west of Watton.  Turning to the west I followed the road behind hedge rows to the village of Little Cressingham.

The ex White Horse Pub Little Cressingham Norfolk This had been the location of a sad scene on my first walk two years before.  On that occasion I managed to stagger into the village on blistered feet; exhausted from the agonising walk from Knettishall Heath.  I had hoped to have finished the day in the village pub, the White Horse, but I found that the bloody place had shut down - permanently.  The signage had been removed leaving shadowy outlines on the walls and the first items of household life were placed on the window sills.  Beside the front door a blackboard simply stated ‘PUB CLOSED’.  I could have cried but instead I sat down opposite the now ex-pub, leaned against the Peddars Way sign and made a few notes as I sipped water; I nodded and fell asleep.  I woke just as my wife pulled up to collect me.  These days the old pub is an attractive established home and there’s nowhere to get a drink within two miles.  So I passed quickly through the village and took the road north to South Pickenham.

Passing along this road I reflected on another, more amusing, encounter I’d had the day after the pub incident. I’d been dropped off back at Little Cressingham early and took a picture of the old White Horse as a memento and I turned north to walk out of the village.  Gingerly I made way down the road toward South Pickenham on my excruciating feet; hurting with every step.  Thus I was making steady, if slow, progress, when I heard a brace of energetic footsteps behind me.  Oh no, I thought, 'I’m about to be shown up by a couple of young energetic hikers'.  Without looking back I managed to raise my pace.  I maintained my distance from the following footsteps but gradually they reduced my lead until they drew level with me.  I was surprised to find a middle-aged couple, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, now overtaking me.  They were walking almost at a power-walking pace with vigorous strides and they cheerfully wished me a ‘Good Morning’ as they drew level.  I managed to keep up with them and began to talk to them.  They were preparing for a sponsored walk up Kilimanjaro!  indeed they only had seven weeks left to prepare.  We spent the next few minutes walking together chatting to each other about walks and the impact they had on us. I was impressed they were taking on such an ambitious challenge.  The woman, slim with greying auburn hair, spoke with a received-pronunciation accent and he, with a hint of a South African accent.  Their kids had grown up and now they were doing the things they wanted to do. She, in particular, liked walking, having done some in Thailand and they also shared an interest in boating.  I stayed with them until they turned east to Saham Toney, their home; waving our good byes we went our separate ways.

The road between Little Cressingham and South Pickenham climbs to higher open ground becoming sandy with tufts of grass growing in the centre of the carriageway.  It was quite isolated here and I wasn’t entirely surprised to find a couple of trucks parked up with their drivers asleep.

Derelict House near Pickenham Hall NorfolkI passed Pickenham Hall following the road down to the B1077.  This B road is very quiet so I stood in the middle of the carriageway.  I looked up the Way to a derelict house beside the track.  I wandered into its, once well-tended, garden. Weeds had sprung up through the lawn and the overgrown hedge leaned inwards over the garden.  The windows and front door standing glassless and woodless, like sightless eye sockets and a gaping mouth.  Carefully I peered through the doorway the rooms were wrecked with rubbish and rubble strewn on the floor.  A room that had been a parlour showed some signs of habitation with piles of grass formed into a crude bed on the floor.  Perhaps this was a home once again for someone, even if they were sleeping rough. Stepping out of the house I looked at the house appraisingly realised this had once been a respectable red-brick house with patterned brick decoration on the eves of the roof.  It now stands with its wooden outhouse tumbling down, the walls streaked with bird droppings and ivy had wrapped itself around the chimney pots toppling them over.  The house was a sorry sight but felt it could make a fine home for someone with the time and money to put it right, it was a tantalising idea which I toyed with for a few minutes but then thought better of it.

I followed the road as it curved around to the north-east while the Peddars Way leaves it to head down into the River Wissey’s river valley.  The view across this small valley, was filled with dark blue rain clouds heading my way.  Soon a fine drizzle enveloped me and I hauled my water proofs from my rucksack.  This was the fourth time I been through this part of the Wissey’s valley and it has rained on each occasion.

North Pickenham Village SignIn North Pickenham I was tempted by the Blue Lion but it was 15:45 and I felt it was too early to stop. I loitered in a bus shelter in the vain hope that the rain would stop.  It didn’t of course it seemed to increase in intensity.  An old man in a flat cap walked by, eyeing me with suspicion, dragging a Jack Russell along on a lead.  Maybe he was just thinking about telling me that there wasn’t a bus for week.

From 1959 to 1963 North Pickenham, the RAF base was home to Thor nuclear missiles, a rocket developed in a rush to plug the perceived missile gap consequent to the Soviet rocket program, following the launch of Sputnik.  These missiles formed part of a joint UK/US deterrent to the USSR until they were removed in 1963.  It’s quite a chilling thought that I, as a baby, had these deadly weapons as companions in my home county.  The base itself became inactive for a time after the removal of the missiles was used for the development of the Hawker P.1127, the precursor of the Hawker Harrier but now the base is a turkey farm.

Leaving North Pickenham there is a particularly nasty half mile stretch of road that I walked in the rain against oncoming rush hour commuters returning home. I was relieved when I crossed the Swaffham to Bradenham road on to a section of the original Peddars Way, marked clearly on my map as a ‘ROMAN ROAD’. This would be my last section for the day a straight run up to the A47 road then swing west across country to Swaffham, then beer and maybe food.  Well, the miles dragged in the pouring rain and cold began to seep into my legs from my chilled feet.

In my isolated rain drenched state I took a right turn too many, having cut down a track to the west to toward Swaffham.  It deposited me at a road covered in deep puddles of standing rainwater.  I should’ve turned left into the town but the road was pathless and the grass verges were sodden with water.  Taking a look at my trusty ordinance survey map I could see a disused railway line on the opposite side of the road, this was the old Thetford to Swaffham line I’d walked along earlier in the day, now I couldn’t give a damn I just wanted to be dry somewhere warm, sitting down drinking a beer.  I approached the town centre from the north and east.

I squelched into the town centre wet past the impressive edifice of Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s church then into the main square of the town. It was early evening and the light was dimmed by the blue/black clouds while the neon lights of the shops and pubs stood out vividly.

The Red Lion PubSettling on the Red Lion which looked like a traditional pub I entered and ordered a pint of Stella, a pack of crisps and a packet of peanuts, for muscle relaxant and salt loss you understand.  I sat at the bar reading the Eastern Daily Press trying to ignore an argument between a customer and the barman.  Perched on my barstool I began to dry out.  I took in the interior of the pub that while it retained the traditional layout but suffered from some unsympathetic redecoration on a grey theme.  The hard dark furniture added to the gloomy atmosphere of the pub while the glare of a plasma screen TV drowned out most of the other features.  It was, however, at least a local pub with young women from the nearby banks having an after work drink.  It was the place to come on a Friday night and it served adequate for is intended purpose.  The on-going argument between the customer and barman continued, in the background, while I drank my pint now it was becoming irksome. The customer, a slovenly fat faced man, sat with his, equally slovenly, wife and son making increasingly bellicose threats in the direction of the barman who seemed untroubled by them.  I, on the other hand, ordered a second pint and withdrew to a table, on the other side of the bar, reviewed my day, writing notes and checking my camera.

I left the pub and walked a couple of times around the square until the rain started again.  I took shelter under the dome of the market cross, with a group of disconsolate teenagers, while I waited for my wife to pick me up.  Eventually even the teenagers abandoned me and I was left standing alone peering through the gathering gloom at one of the roads that led into the town square. Whether because of the beer, fatigue or plain stupidity, I found I’d been looking in completely the wrong direction; I only realised when my wife drove past, from behind me.  After a couple of circuits of the town she returned to the square and parked nearby.  I staggered damply to the car got in and returned to the Weathercock Barn for the last time.

Weather: Fine at first then breaking down into rain Finished 17:15

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