Norfolk is a long way from anywhere. Just ask anyone!
The County of Norfolk
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It's not really but growing up in Norwich, Norfolk’s county town, one becomes accustomed to the place being ridiculed by the sort of people who would have once made their jokes about black or Irish people but are not allowed to anymore. They will commonly refer to how backward and slow the locals, who are usually portrayed as stereotypical yokels, are and how there aren’t any motorways or enough murders and other unedifying pieces of nonsense. It’s not uncommon to hear a stranger retort, ‘It’s not the end of the World but you can see it from here’.
You wouldn’t believe that it’s only just over a hundred miles from London. It’s just that it’s not on the way to anywhere else, a bit like New Zealand. If you’re not familiar with the geography of Great Britain Norfolk is located to the north-east of London on a bulge of land, known as East Anglia and optimistically referred to as peninsula - that juts out into the North Sea opposite The Netherlands. Located at the northern end of this promontory Norfolk is bounded on three sides by the sea; while on its southern side it is bordered by the Waveney and Little Ouse Rivers.
Once upon a time Norfolk used to be important, rather like England, the county, along with the neighbouring counties of Suffolk and Essex had their own version of the Domesday Book, known as the Little Domesday Book. The entries for these counties were much more extensive than the main book reflecting the pre-eminence of agriculture in medieval times. Although it is now regarded as a sleepy backwater it has produced a surfeit of famous people; the earliest Boudicca is famed for rebelling against the Romans, Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister, this Eton educated Prime Minister saved the country from a financial crisis, the explorer George Vancouver came from Kings Lynn, Thomas Paine, maybe the most influential for his political writings which have shaped the modern world, Princess Diana, the people’s princess was born at Sandringham and of course the most famous Norfolk lad Horatio Nelson came from Burnham Thorpe on the north coast. However, the even humblest have made their contribution through the centuries; its citizens built the prosperity that made England florish and whenever there was a war its people would turn out without hesitation.
I, for my part, seemed destined to spend my life working away in a local factories and offices, until something adventurous awoke within me and financed by a redundancy payment I headed off around the world. I visited great cities, stood in the centre of red deserts, walked on the slopes of mountains and lazed on the shores of Pacific islands. On my return I walked the Peddars Way long distance path in two days as a kind of triumphant close to my travels. I spent the following years dedicating myself to fostering my resources in preparation for married life and raising a family. But then my father died and I found myself forced to re-evaluate things.
While clearing my father’s house I came across a couple of books I’d bought as a child; The Norfolk We Live In, a geological, historical and sociological local studies textbook and Discovering Regional Archaeology (Eastern England), by James Dyer, a introductory booklet on local archaeology. It was in a melancholy mood that I leafed through the pages of the books; the former book contained much on the wonderfully rich rural landscape, the meandering rivers and the, eroding and accreting coastline of the county. The latter held snippets of information on the top twenty-one archaeological sites, out of the thirty-six thousand known sites, found in the county. To the perception of a child these places had seemed inaccessible and incredibly remote. I realised that, in my focus on places foreign and far away, how much I’d forgotten my homeland and an idea began to form. Back in my teens I had suggested to one my friends, Clive Lemmon that we walk around the coast of Norfolk during the summer holiday of 1974; we only got as far as buying an ordinance survey map and a set of lightweight pots and pans – I found these while I was clearing out the kitchen.
Childhood had been pretty insecure; my mother suffered from mental illness for most of her life, which led to a pretty miserable time for me and my two younger brothers. While my father coped as best he could he was quite unable to resolve the problems we faced as a family. Much of our existence was a desperate struggle to make ends meet so holidays were normally out of the question, and any vacations were restricted to occasional days out to one of the local coastal resorts, most often the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, by train. Since then I’ve been left with an abiding love of railway stations; I am filled with a feeling of excitement when I enter them and the smell the scent of the diesel trains and their portents of impending travel and adventure.
It was fortunate that I had good relatives who were able to take me out on public holidays. These aunts and uncles were of a generation that had been in National Service during the Second World War and as a result had travelled to places they would have never seen under normal circumstances. They were, for their time, pioneering travellers visiting destinations seemingly beyond the reach of ordinary tourists visiting the Majorca of Robert Graves and the Florida of Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps that’s where my own restless spirit springs from or simply from a desire to get away from home life. They also encouraged me to develop an interest in literature but I did however turn down offers to go to ballet and opera, these seemed just too effete for me. These public holiday outings would typically be to places and towns of historical interest scattered around East Anglia, often to stately homes and country parks. Many of these lodged into my memory and I’d retain a vivid image of place while others have faded to vague impressions. Relieved as I was to receive these respites from my home life I rarely found myself bored or unhappy (well perhaps in some of the more dreary stately homes) so these journeys lacked many of the normal youthful discontent of ordinary family trips. Eventually as I grew older and left school these trips came to an end but their memory remained within me.
For a while time I wasn’t able to do much travelling but my desire lingered so I bought myself a small two-stroke motorbike - this was the late seventies - and spent a lot of time careering along the narrow roads across the local countryside, with my friends, at illegal speeds. Most of these activities revolved around finding out how quickly my friends and I were able to get to the nearest section of coast, interspersed with anxious trips to the nearest accident and emergency department, and researching practical human biology. However these activities didn’t consume all of my time. On occassion I would slip away from my friends and I would strike out on my own. One of the earliest places I visited was a Roman fort at Burgh Castle, just outside Great Yarmouth. This is one of the few historical sites I hadn’t been taken to as a child but I had read about it in my copy of Discovering Regional Archaeology. Now in later life I was inspired by these memories. I would revisit some of these old holiday haunts but that wouldn’t be all; I would do it on foot. I would circumnavigate my home county and turn it into a real journey of rediscovery.
Initially I kept the idea to myself; it was just an idle fantasy. Gradually I gave it more thought as to the practicalities of this venture. How would I be able to do it, which routes should I take? Crossing Norfolk east to west would be very difficult and the main north – south path, the Peddars Way, is in the west of the county, inaccessible from Norwich, no this was going to take a lot more thought. I gathered information on public paths running across the county and contemplated maps. The Peddars Way and its associated Norfolk Coastal path respectively running through the western side of the county and along the north coast of the county; these amount, in distance, to about ninety-three miles, a not inconsiderable distance but achievable nonetheless. Then I discovered the Angles and Weavers' Ways. The Angles Way runs seventy-seven miles, roughly east to west, from Great Yarmouth along the river valleys of the Waveney and Little Ouse to Knettishall Heath. Conveniently this is the starting point of the Peddars Way (well, it finishes a few hundred yards short actually). The Weavers' Way begins at the town of Cromer at the eastern end of the Norfolk Coastal path and meanders through the Norfolk Broads to Great Yarmouth, a distance of fifty-seven miles. This was great; I could form all the paths together and create a circular walk, The Great Norfolk Walk, as it were. Hold on, this would be about two hundred and twenty-seven miles hmm…I’d have to do some training.
Thus resolved I announced my intentions to my wife, friends and colleagues. I was met with, respectively: alarm, derision and concern. I’d just become a father, and my wife was, understandably, not very impressed about the prospect of being left on her own with a nine-month old baby for two weeks at the height of summer. My friends thought I had become some kind of latter day Forrest Gump. My colleagues were concerned for my physical well being and perhaps my mental condition. I’d been working as a computer analyst programmer and due to the sedentary nature of my job my once lithe physique had given way to a rotund middle-aged shape. Despite these doubts I was resolute and set about planning my journey.
Through the spring of two thousand and three I accumulated walking equipment, from new boots to water bottles. I bought as many gadgets and gizmos as I could lay my hands on but my budget wouldn’t allow my spending to run out of control, I particularly wouldn’t buy walking poles. I would spend evenings poring over maps checking the routes against the guide books. Everyday I would walk to work feeling very self-satisfied as I passed people stuck in their cars. At the weekends I would train but in the true spirit of British endeavour I did too little and far too late. With a plan born out of naivety I blithely predicted I would be able to walk 22.7 miles per day and complete the entire walk in ten days, no problem. How I laugh, 'Ha', at my foolish optimism and naivety.
So I found myself on my forty-second birthday - one of the hottest days of that year I might add - at the start of the Angles Way about to take my first steps on this Great Norfolk Walk. This was just a walk around Norfolk it wasn’t a climb of Everest or a trek to the South Pole. There were no bears to wrestle, no crevasses to traverse, what could possibly go wrong? Little did I realise that this was a journey that would take me three attempts and over two years to complete, hundreds of miles more than the two hundred and twenty-seven of the walk itself and a larger amount of emotional and physical effort than I’d ever devoted to any other endeavour in my life. Here follows an account of the three attempts to walk around Norfolk, the first a triumph of aspiration over ability and physical breakdown, the second where I took my mother-in-law with us to keep my wife and son company – just don’t ask - and the final successful attempt in two-thousand and five. Follow the days of the walk by clicking here.