The Great Norfolk Walk
Bob Cains

Day 9 - The Peddars Way and Norfolk Coastal Path -
Harpley Dams to Thornham

The Mist on the Barrows

Summary - Harpley Dams to Thornham, Distance 12 miles (19.3kms) , Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 132

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  Day 9 - Harpley Dams to Holme-next-the-Sea
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I arrived back at Harpley Dams late in the morning.  I wanted to get to the coast, at least, Holme-next-the-Sea, the end of the Peddars Way.  The weather was clear and windy and as I started on the Peddars Way I came upon a father and son, in their back garden, carefully attending to a bonfire.  They acknowledged me as I walked the plume of their smoke that the wind drove across the path.

The path climbed to higher ground, seventy metres, where the wind dropped and damp misty conditions asserted themselves.  The mist wrapped itself around the path over-topping the bushes and trees. I made my way through this shadowy day though the path was divided by large standing puddles.  While I negotiated a particularly big puddle a couple of cyclists came down the path from the north.  The first, a youthful fellow, looked completely prepared for their journey in skin-tight Lycra shirt and pants but his companion, a more mature chap, appeared totally ill-prepared with everyday clothing and a visage that matched his discomfort.

I came to Harpley Common. This is one of the sites listed in my old copy of Discovering Regional Archaeology Eastern England, number ten in fact.  It consists of a set of bronze age round barrows that cross the Anmer to Harpley road in a rough south-east to north-west line.  In this area there’s a swathe of archaeological sites that surround the line of the Peddars Way.  These barrows actually look like the real thing, they could be from a Tolkien story, distinct green hillocks standing proud from the surrounding ground Harpley Barrowsrather than vague scrubbed covered mounds.  In the past I’ve visited them in brilliant sunshine which made it hard to grasp their importance.  Today it is a remote isolated area; made up of heath land, fields and woods.  These mounds gave me an appreciation of the effort it took to build them.  I looked out over the mist shrouded barrows when a shudder ran through me, it felt this was a day full of ghosts; the mist lent the place an eerie atmosphere.

I reflected on my life over the intervening thirty years since I’d first read about these burial mounds – it could have been a bit better but could’ve a lot worse.  They weren’t entirely happy thoughts, or for that matter entirely unhappy.  So, to give myself a sense of achievement I climbed the nearest of the mounds, nearest the road, and in triumph surveyed the scene alone with my memories.

Beyond the mounds I passed the curiously named Anmer Minque and almost straightway the weather began to improve, the mist thinned.  A little further on I encountered a couple of birders.  They were a pleasant retired couple from Lincolnshire who spent their spare time bird watching and walking.  I gave them my now standard story about my Great Norfolk Walk and my reasons for doing it.  They listened with patience and sincere interest.  Then they wished me luck and gave me reassurances that they thought I’d make it. With their hands patting me on my back I recommenced my progress north along the path. 

To the east is Houghton Hall, one of the stately homes I was taken to as a child, the ancestral home of Robert Walpole, old Etonian, de facto first Prime Minister of England and saviour of the nation from an economic crash. That’s the South Sea Bubble, the economic crash of 1720 triggered by the collapse of the South Sea Company share price; the price had been vastly over inflated to the point that each share was valued at £1000. The company had also bought a large portion of the national debt – its real purpose - trading the high interest debt for shares. Needless to say the price had been artificially raised by a gamut of underhand dealings and its business was bolstered by downright corruption. Robert Walpole was just the steady sort of fellow to manage the crisis and his prominence at the time lead to him being referred to as ‘Prime Minister’, a term of abuse at the time. He was also unkindly referred to as a Norfolk Squire by those who wished to deride him.

Songline Stone 4The village of Fring was concealed in the mist that remained in the folds of the land.  However, I could see the opposite side of the little Heacham river valley.  It’s more of a stream at this point.  The path rises and falls here as the land undulates as it nears the North West coast of Norfolk.  Usually this would be a place to stop and take in the view however the overcast conditions dampened my enthusiasm.

Although I didn’t stop I did take care to look for one of the Norfolk Song Line stones.  These are a series of stone inscriptions written by Hugh Lupton and sculpted by Liz McGowan.  The idea is based on the Australian aboriginal belief system where ancient tracks carry their own story made up of verses that reflect the landscape and history.  Perhaps because I’d been so wrapped up in my own thoughts or maybe because of the rain I hadn’t noticed the stones beside the way; I’m pretty sure that some of them have gone missing.  Maybe with every step I was writing my own song.

From Fring the path follows the contours of the land; passing huge haystacks like the houses of giants amongst the lush crops.  But I found myself preoccupied with the effort of covering the miles as until the ground levelled out onto a ridge leading north to the village of Ringstead.  I crossed the B1454 at the wonderfully named Littleport just to the east of the village of Sedgeford.  Sedgeford Magazine Here stands one of the most remarkable buildings on the Peddars Way, the Sedgeford Magazine.  This distinctive stone building stands beside the Way where it leaves the B1454.  It’s thought to be a gun powder store dating from 1640.  It is now a private residence and I’m sure the occupants appreciate the walkers and tourists taking pictures of their home so not to disappoint them I took one and quickly carried on.

I continued along the straight line of the Peddars Way to Ringstead.  On a fine day this can be one of the most picturesque approaches to any village with well-tended gardens and flowers beside the path.  Today the path was stony and puddle strewn but I did have a surprising encounter as I entered the village.  As I approached a young couple came out of the village hand in hand.  They looked most ill-suited for walking under the circumstances right down to their white trainers.  I guess they had other things on their minds.

The Gin Trap Pub I made my way through the village eschewing the attractions of the Gin Trap pub. I paused at the village green and recalled on the first walk I encountered another walker.  He was a fit looking guy in his late forties; in t-shirt, shorts and walking sandals accompanied by a spirited brown and white spaniel.  He had appeared from the northern end of the green and took a seat on a bench. I had hailed him and asked how the walking was going. He spotted my map and asked if I knew the area at all.  Unfolding his own map he pointed at a grey shaded area indicating Hunstanton Park and asked if it was accessible.  He’d tried to get in but had been turned away. I suggested that it was private and he wouldn’t have any luck.

He spoke with a soft London accent he explained that he was staying in a friend’s cottage just along the coast at Titchwell.  We fell into talking about walking and of course I told him about the Great Norfolk Walk and how I’d trashed my feet a few weeks earlier.  Looking at my bulky boots he said, ‘There’s your problem. You can’t walk in hot weather in big clumpy boots and thick socks.’ ‘You need sandals like these’.  Lifting his left foot he showed me their deep tread. ‘They allow your feet to breathe naturally and water just drains away’.  His arguments were impassioned and made sense and I said I’d keep them in mind for future walks.

 We both fell silent until I broke it by telling him how disappointed I was that I hadn’t completed the walk around Norfolk in one attempt.  To which he replied ‘You’ll do it one day, you know you will’.  With that thought I said that I had to be on my way. Standing he shook my hand and introduced himself as Terry, ‘Bob’, I said and with a slap on my back he hastened me on my way.

Songline Stone 5On today’s walk I had no one to share my excitement on nearing the coast so I stopped on the northern edge of the village. I turned and looked back across the landscape, over the undulating higher ground of West Norfolk.  Then I turned to the north, it is only a couple of miles to the sea from here, and downhill to the last leg of my day’s journey.

Last of the Peddars Way signsI descended from Ringstead Downs to Holme-next-the-Sea emerging from the hedgerows beside the busy A149.  I crossed this busy road and followed the narrow lane to the beach.  This is an important milestone for me as I’d finished a another section of the Great Norfolk Walk, the forty-six miles of the Peddar’s Way was behind me; together with the seventy-eight of the Angles Way I had achieved a total of one hundred and twenty-four miles.  I made my way through the sand dunes, between the two sides of a golf course, across the beach to the water’s edge.  I let the water ripple around my boots cooling my feet by proxy.  That done I returned to the path. I was now in new territory.  I could have stopped at this point, a good one psychologically, but I needed to take out another chunk of miles before I could finish.


A New Path - The Norfolk Coast Path

The Norfolk Coast Path Marker I set-out again to reach Thornham before darkness set in; it shouldn’t be too difficult just over the sand dunes and along the flood defences into the village.  No problem. But I forgot to allow for the energy sapping effect of walking on sand and the big arc of the flood defences as they curve toward the village of Thornham.  I made my way as quickly as possible through the Holme sand dunes beside the Hunstanton Golf course out on to the wilder dunes. Thick darkening grey clouds covered the sky above me and a strong breeze lashed me from the north as I progressed along the sandy path and boardwalk over the dunes.  In places the boards were being enveloped by the sand.  I thought I was alone today because of the poor weather but up popped a couple, of retirement age, walking briskly down the path. They greeted me heartily and I replied about the weather of course. ‘At least it isn’t raining’, the man answered cheerily as they passed.

Gore Point is the place where the path turns toward an area of pine trees planted to stabilise the dunes.  These dunes are managed by the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust and so quite naturally it is the home of the Holme Bird Observatory in the care of the Norfolk Ornithologists’ Association.  I welcomed the shelter of the trees and just over the crest of the landward dune is their observatory.  This area has many hides and seats where it is possible to watch birds and maybe add to the 285 species already recorded.

Leaving the trees I came to an exposed dune crest where they join the flood defences leading south to Thornham.  Behind me I could just make out the sound of waves breaking on the beach driven by the wind.  Looking around I found the grey sky blended into the equally grey sea, broken only be the white horses rolling on to the beach.  I turned along the crest of the flood bank losing sight of the sea and bypassing Broad Water to my right.  Ahead of me the village of Thornham stood at the foot of the higher ground on the edge of the salt marsh that begins here and stretches east almost all the way to Weybourne 41 miles (by path) to the east.  The village once had a thriving harbour but like many other ports along this coast it had silted up leaving it as part of the Heritage Coast.

Norfolk Coast Path Sign on the way into Thornham I looked out over the marshes with the muddy creeks winding their serpentine courses through the clumps of Sea Lavender and Sea Aster.  Here and there an odd boat was hauled up on to the banks of the creek and in the distance a flint and brick building stood out distinct from the irregular natural beauty around it.

The path skirted the edge of the salt marsh until came to a small wooden bridge over the last of the creeks before it turned to Thornham.  Walking into the village I came to the A149, the coast road, and I took shelter in the village bus stop feeling damp, bedraggled and weary.  Opposite was the King’s Head pub, now called the Orange Tree, appearing freshly renovated and well cared for in its fine green paint finish with distinctive black and orange livery.

I sat making notes and began to chill down after the walk.  I watched the happy and sated customers emerging from the pub and despite of my muddy condition I was on the verge of heading into it when my wife and son arrived to pick me up.  But I was quite content to ride back to Kelling Heath to a meal and a comfy, and welcome, bed.

 Weather: Windy but dry Finished 17:15

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