The plan was pretty simple. I wanted to run/walk around the perimeter of Norfolk, with the minimum of support, and knock out around 170 odd miles in six days. Me and this route have had quite a bit of previous – I tried to run/walk it a couple of years ago, with disastrous results, and for many years I’ve been involved with the Round Norfolk Relay, a great event that follows a similar route, but with 60 teams over 17 stages of a continuous (and thereby, overnight) relay. The Round Norfolk Relay probably deserves a much better write-up than that, so I’ll crack on with that when I’m not wandering around with a stupidly heavy bag on my own.
As with most of these undertakings, I prioritised the playlist over any silly logistics like the best route or the right shoes. And so I set off, literally, with a song in my heart, courtesy of twenty of my favourite albums, a bunch of podcasts and, rather optimistically, a 54 hour audio book of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’. If you’ve not come across IJ before, I’d recommend a bit of caution when approaching. It’s sometimes referred to as the last great American novel – mainly by fans of post modernist literature who rave on about its meta-fiction leanings and use of tennis as a metaphysical trope. I’m reading IJ as part of a 10 week course where we’re being asked to read 120 pages a week, and so far I’ve managed 120 pages in four weeks, finding bits of it impenetrable, so thought someone else reading it to me might help. Which it has, thus far, but there will get to a point, about 6 hours in where the audio overtakes what I’ve actually read and stops making sense. Which is a delightful segue to the first album to listen to, starting on the early morning train to Cromer, in a bid to decide my favourite live album ever by listening to them really closely. And by the time I’d held both semi finals (Talking Heads/Stop Making Sense vs Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison and the all-R&B battle of Dr Feelgood/Stupidity vs Nine Below Zero/Live at the Marquee), and then held a very close final between Talking Heads and Dr Feelgood, and then allowing THs to clinch the final, partly because of the quality of suits worn by Messrs Byrne & Brilleaux – well, by then I was a good 8 miles into the walk and somewhere between Bacton and Mundesley.
I’d gone wrong at Bacton before by staying on the coast path and not being able to get past the power station without making a 3 mile detour, so I stayed on the beach from Mundesley, hoping to beat the incoming tide, which I just about did. Bacton has put in what I assume are sea defences to protect the cliffs next to the power station – about 3 meters of banked sand which sits above the beach, but which seems to be being blown away by the wind that comes down from the north. So I was lightly sandblasted for a mile or so before heading for Happisburgh, and its postcard lighthouse and church, both sitting perilously close to the cliff edge.
Up along the dunes as far as Horsey, where I took a quick detour to look at the seals. There was a blackboard where the seal people (I assume) had noted that the current seal count was 1,920, although I can’t help feeling that can’t be a particularly precise science.
Stayed on the sand up to Hemsby, where I climbed the steps up to the town, hoping to get something to eat. But Hemsby was shut, as far as I could see. If I’d wanted to fill up at Jack’s Seafood, the Veggie Hut, or Benny’s Beach Kiosk, I was out of luck. And no joy at the Beach Shop or even the RNLI Shop, let alone the giant fibreglass caveman crazy golf course. If you’re from this neck of the woods, you’ll know that Hemsby has been in the news of late, as quite a bit of the town has been condemned to fall off the cliff tops as the sea has washed away what limited defences it has had. And because people can be quite snobbish and cruel, there’s been a fair amount of ‘who cares?’ comment – Hemsby is seen by quite a few people as a poor cousin of Great Yarmouth. But as you walk away from the sad attractions and past/under the town, you realise that that attitude is, well, snobbish and cruel. You can look up at the edge of the cliff, where only last year there were front gardens and the row of telegraph poles that marked the footpath, and now you see the edges of buildings and the poles toppled onto the beach below and it’s really very sad. People lived their lives in those houses, looked after their gardens, tolerated the constant pedestrian traffic in front of them, had kids, moved in, moved out, grew up, lived and died, and now everyone’s being kicked out for their own safety. There are a few disparate concrete and rock defences that have been put on the beach recently to slow down the erosion, but slowing down is probably the best that places like Hemsby can hope for.
On, then, to the hopelessly optimistically named California Sands, then along to Caister, by which time the novelty of the walking /jogging on sand was beginning to wear off (or wear out) , so up to the road again and walked the last bit along the promenade into Great Yarmouth.
My friend P raves about Yarmouth and its history, and I need to go on a visit with him sometime to understand the town a bit more, as up to now I’ve not found that much to love about it. And today was no exception – the quickest way to get to the railway station was through some nondescript streets, an underpass that allowed me sight of the station, and access if I was prepared to cross a few lanes of traffic and a steel mesh bridge. Which I was, cos I had only a couple of minutes before the train left. So I ran as fast as I could, which was an excellent way to get mile 32 on the board.
Day 1 summary – 32 miles, 8hrs 5mins, 66,135 steps, powered by Talking Heads, Dr Feelgood, Nine Below Zero, Johnny Cash, 5 hours of Infinite Jest, and a 3 bean chilli with rice & chips in Winterton.
I’d gone back to Norwich to see Mrs E, sleep in my own bed, and get the heavy bag with all the camping gear. I really wasn’t taking that much stuff but it’s amazing how heavy all this lightweight equipment can be once it’s all packed together and on your back. Everything was in my lovely and cavernous rucksack which I’d bought online purely because it weighed very little, without realising that it was exactly the same material and colour as one of those Ikea bags that you used to get. Cue hilarious jibes from Mrs E as I got everything ready.
I left early, almost managing to avoid waking Mrs E and the dogs, and got the first bus to the station, almost the first train to Yarmouth, and was on my way at exactly 8:08. Which reminds me that I need to write a blog about the number 808… The idea today was to walk, rather than try running, with the Ikea bag, as I only had 20 miles to go to the first campsite. Decided to change plans after the first few miles – the route went inland and I managed to get lost fairly early on, and perilously close to some drainage ditches in finding my way. As it was, with the grass so high and so wet, by the time I was back on decent footpaths my running shoes and socks were completely soaked, and there didn’t seem to be much prospect of getting dry. The walk itself was lovely though, and I made really good progress across fields with no distractions, other than lots of horses, one of which bore an uncanny resemblance to Joey Ramone.
Anyway, after about 6 hours I was nearly at the campsite and it was still only 1430, so I decided to push on to Harleston, get into a hotel which would have a radiator, and cancel the campsite. So this made a nice easy 20 mile walk into a 31 mile route march in soaking feet. Grabbed some food at the Wherry Inn in Beccles and pressed on, through some lovely south Norfolk villages and got to Harleston at about 1900. On the plus side, the room had a bath. On the minus, no radiator, so tried to dry out my shoes in the bar (‘Can I put my shoes by the fire?’ ‘I’m afraid not sir, that fire is just for decoration and produces no heat’) so optimistically put them on the bedroom windowsill and hoped they’d air dry. Which they didn’t.
Day 2 summary – 31 miles, 9 hours 39 minutes, 68,177 steps. Powered by Stevie Wonder/Hotter Than July, Camera Obscura/Let’s Get Out of this Country, 3x Stewart/Campbell leadership podcasts, none of which said anything about leadership, 3 hours of Infinite Jest, and a sweet potato curry & chips.
Woke up in Harleston to sunny skies and the sort of positive feeling that a planned 22 miles, as opposed to the original 34, could bring. And soon I was skipping away from the hotel, literally full of beans and with a another song in my heart (Oliver’s Army, seeing as you asked). Of course, it wasn’t long before I got lost again, and the feet were reassuringly wet before I’d gone more than a few miles. Back on track, I wandered west along the southern county boundary, hopping between Angles Way and Boudicca Way, fields all around for miles, and the solitude only broken by hares and deer running off the path as I approached them. Bliss.
Stopped for lunch in Kenninghall, which also had a Co-op, so I popped in and bought some plasters, as by then I’d had that tell-tale message from my right foot that I was about to lose a toenail. I wasn’t sure what the campsite might have to offer so I also bought some dates and, ever with an eye for a bargain, a half price cheese slice.
This being Saturday on a bank holiday weekend, there were inevitably some other walkers, who seemed very happy to be alive, and a few large groups of teenagers, who didn’t. I met three of these groups, walking the paths with rucksacks even bigger than mine, and looking quite downbeat. You may be familiar with these groups, or even been in one yourself, if someone ever convinced you that you should do your Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme at school. I’ve not got a lot of time for the royal family, but I do have a sneaking regard for the Duke’s legacy, as he seems to have managed to take perfectly happy teenagers and subject them to abject misery for entire weekends in the name of service. I saw the last group in the distance towards the end of the day, and they all had marching orange rucksack covers, so they looked like they were transporting radioactive waste across the border. I caught up with the group eventually, and cheerily asked the girl at the back if she was having fun yet. ‘No, not really’ she replied, looking pretty fed up with her lot, and for a moment I thought she was going to burst into tears. Thankfully she didn’t, and I walked along the rest of the group trying to be pleasant and positive, asking the lad in front, how much further they had to go. ‘Only another 4 miles’ he replied, in the sort of tone that he might have used to announce that he has double maths next, followed by geography with the creepy supply teacher.
Soon after the DoE encounter, I got to the campsite, which was ideally positioned at the bottom of Peddar’s Way, a path that follows an old Roman road North right to Hunstanton and the sea. It’s a great route and it’s amazing to trek along it, reminding yourself that there were groups of legionnaires putting their backs into making another perfectly straight road across the country. Although you can’t help wondering whether they all got together a few years later and compared notes on their legacy:
‘Well, my crew finished Ermine Street in record time, and I reckon they’l be using that for years to come, possibly renaming parts of it something like the A10’
‘Well, my lot built the Military Way, as a means to support Hadrian’s Wall, and I reckon people will still be admiring its breathtaking engineering for a couple of thousand years’
‘That’s nothing, my team built a road from just outside Thetford to Hunstanton, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it got turned into a barely used footpath in the future.’
Day 3 Summary – 22 miles, 6hrs 30mins, 48,833 steps, powered by Elvis Costello/Armed Forces, Gram Parsons/Grievous Angel, Best of Elmore James, 99% invisible podcast, and a few hours of Infinite Jest. And a veggie burger & chips.
Anyway, I got to the campsite, checked in and got pointed to a field and chose a pitch between a couple of motorhomes. Set up camp, and then went to check out the campsite facilities. The on-site pub would not be providing food, I was told, but they had a few things to eat at the reception. Unfortunately, the only thing that wouldn’t need heating up was a tin of beans. So, cheese slice, cold baked beans and dates for dinner then. Spent a very demoralising couple of hours watching Norwich get taken apart (again) by a fairly average West Bromwich Albion, and, there being very little else to do, decided to go to bed. Had I mentioned how cold it was? It was really cold. So, going to bed was a challenge in itself. I just about had enough clothes to keep warm inside my not-overly-warm sleeping bag. And by enough clothes, I mean socks, pants, tights, trousers, 2 t-shirts, two long sleeve shirts, a down coat, hat and gloves. I convinced myself that I could keep warm like this, if I kept my face inside the zipped up bit of the bag, and tried to sleep.
Sleep did not come particularly easily, and I was conscious at about 0100 that the motorhome next door had decided to play some irritating dance music. This was just about audible enough to be annoying, and annoying is what it was. I managed to drift off, but the music kept up, and it woke me up fairly regularly through the night until about 0400, when I decided that I needed to make some sort of protest. I knew that I should have extricated myself from my sleeping bag to do this, but I was fairly well wedged in, and really didn’t fancy getting cold and knocking on the door of the motorhome, so I took the action that any right thinking Briton and Monty Python fan would take, and decided to fart in their general direction. Now, I’m not one of those amazing people that can summon up tumultuous trumpets at will, but I’m not bad, and I knew the tin of beans would work very much in my favour, so summoned up all my effort into producing something truly reverberating. Despite the racket I’d managed to produce, there was simply no effect on the music, so all was in vain, and I realised all too late, that I’d failed to properly think through my plan. Because farting inside a sleeping bag under multiple layers of clothing, inside a tent, when the only way of keeping warm is to keep your face well inside the sleeping bag, is not to be recommended. The noxious coughing fit that followed the fart also had little effect on the music, so all I’d really achieved was to add toxic fumes to the giddy cocktail of cold, discomfort and noise that had stopped me from sleeping in the first place.
By 0630 and with very little sleep, I decided to get up, pack up, and go, making sure that I knocked on the motorhome door on the way out. Surprisingly, as I emerged from the tent onto the long and inevitably very wet grass, I noticed that the noise wasn’t coming from the motorhome at all, but from somewhere in the distance – it was still going on, and (very obviously now) was some rave event going on a mile or so away in the forest. Obviously, I was a little embarrassed, and I think I noticed the curtain twitch in the motorhome as I stole away in my wet running shoes:
‘I see that idiot camping next door is off early then’
‘Yes, did you hear him last night?’
‘Hear him? Couldn’t not hear him, a bloody sight louder than that rave’
‘Still it’s not surprising – have you seen what he has to eat at night?’
‘Yes, no wonder he’s on his own’
Well, at least the early start would allow the long day (32 miles) to be achievable, and there was little chance of getting lost – where the Peddars Way isn’t completely straight, it’s pretty well marked, so I tuned into IJ for a few hours in the bright cold morning. This was the best bit of walking so far, although the silent forest was punctuated a fair bit by the Sunday morning trials bike riders who also seem quite keen on the soft sandy paths. And IJ was a lovely accompaniment. I wasn’t sure if I was really understanding it as deeply as I needed to (although it seemed to make a good deal more sense once I’d gone into that near-hallucinatory state that you get after about 7 hours of exercise), but I think that’s a feature of the whole post-modernistic schtick – if you don’t understand something, you can always tell yourself that the author never intended you to understand it anyway. I got a bit lost listening to a Thomas Pynchon novel once, and was half way through before I realised that the audio app was set on shuffle. So I started again, listening to the chapters in the right order, and it added absolutely nothing to my level of understanding.
Anyway, I was enjoying the whole experience, and decided after 10 miles to try to run for a bit – I was meeting Mrs E later that night and didn’t want to be late. I’d already sent her a series of ‘can you just bring’ messages (Walking boots! Ibuprofen! Nail clippers! Your warm sleeping bag! – it was almost as if I hadn’t planned this very well). I gave her a call and told her about the night’s events, and she convinced me to knock the camping on the head and get accommodation for the last couple of nights. I protested for a bit (my lovely lightweight tent was currently working out at about £50/sleep and I was quite keen to get a bit more use out of it), but I relented, not least as I know that my tent was wet and would be even less inviting next time I put it up. She later told me that, after hearing about the previous night, she was actually driven by the thought of me never, ever going anywhere near her sleeping bag in the future.
Stopped for lunch at a community pub that had just been renamed the King Charles III, and which was sporting a huge England flag outside. Inside, the small dog in the table next to me was trying to look fierce in a Union Jack collar. Almost managed to avoid conversation about the up-coming coronation. Away and a bit more run/walking, past the wind farm around Swaffham and soon got to Castle Rising, which I really wanted to stop at, but didn’t have time. And finally into Great Massingham, where the lovely people at The Dabbling Duck kindly ignored the smell (mainly my shoes) and pointed me upstairs to a room with a bath. Bliss.
Met up with Mrs E and took on clean clothes and walking boots in exchange for very dirty clothes and running shoes. She asked if I’d put the running shoes inside a couple of bags in the boot of the car, as they absolutely stank, and told me the next morning that even so, she’d had to drive home with all the windows open.
Day 4 summary – 32.3 miles, 8hrs 49mins, 67,421 steps, powered by Otis Redding/Soul Manifesto, Sturgill Simpson/Metamodern Sounds, 3 hours of Infinite Jest, and a nut roast & chocolate milk & chocolate drink (not all at once).
The days were going to get even better from here, the Ikea bag was much lighter without the camping gear, and I didn’t have the option of running, as I was in my boots. And the route was into North Norfolk, full of impossibly beautiful villages between great swathes of fields. More and more horse parsley on the road verges and the paths, which seems to be a coastal thing, and which smells of vanilla and celery. And a hill, which I got to after about 9 miles. So I’d been going for about 125 miles at this point, and this was the first hill, which tells you all you need to know about the landscape of Norfolk. Anyway, it’s called Bloodgate hill, and when you get to the top there’s the site of an iron age fort, and you can stand there, and because Norfolk is as flat as it is, see right over the the woods before the sea at the Burnhams, and out to properly shaped fields on all sides, today almost all dark brown and freshly ploughed, with an occasional flashes of early rape seed yellow. I could have stayed there for ages, but I was getting hungry, and headed north to Burnham Market.
Burnham Market has a couple of claims to fame – it was Nelson’s birthplace (although I passed a sign for Nelson’s birth a good two miles before I got to the village), and it’s known by people in Norfolk as Chelsea-on-Sea, for all the second homes and ridiculous cars that descend on it at weekends, spilling out Jessicas and Marmadukes and designer dogs and bemused young nannies. The village centre has a dozen or so shops, one of which is a Joules – hard to imagine that the local population (724 in 2021) can keep that one going. But there’s also a cafe (or, more likely a café) called Tilly’s that made me a sandwich and a coffee without pretending that we were in South Kensington, and I headed out shortly afterwards, narrowly avoiding a collision with a couple wearing matching Breton tops and non-matching but complementary gilets. They were hurrying to miss the rain – when I’d gone onto the cafe the sky had been a glorious blue but now it was really grey. (If you’re from Burnham Market and you’re reading this, it had gone from Lulworth Blue to Elephant’s Breath.) Dodging rain, and more Boden coordinated families, and soon I was heading for the sea.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the sea for the first time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6 years old and competing for space to look over your Dad’s shoulder to be the first to say “I can see the sea”, or if you’re a 60 year old bloke on his own, climbing over a stile into a field with only half a mile between you and the water. And if you’ve got something wonderful in your headphones at the same time, well it just feels…right. And that’s why, if you’d been travelling on the road from Burnham Overy Staithe to Wells at about four o’clock on the first of May, you might have looked out of your window to see an old man standing on top of a stile, silently and enthusiastically dancing to ‘Life During Wartime’.
This part of the coast has lots of flats and marshes before you see too much water, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I thought I was on my own when I turned on to the coastal path, but realised, sometimes quite late on, that I was sharing the path with quite a few fully camouflaged bird watchers, lying, sitting or standing perfectly still. They were friendly enough, but I sensed that they were a bit disappointed by their cover being blown by some twit with a big Ikea bag on his back strolling along and wishing them a good afternoon.
The grey sky now just a memory, I headed for Holkham. The beach at Holkham must be a good couple of miles across, and has enormous sandy beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in a brochure for the Seychelles:
After Holkham, across some dunes and woods and into Wells, which was selling Bank Holiday ice creams to familes on the front, and further back into the town, lots of beer to happy people with red faces. Found my bed for the night, left the Ikea bag in the room, and headed to join them.
Day 5 summary – 24.8 miles, 8hrs 08mins (there it is again), 54,881 steps, powered by Long Ryders/Final Wild Songs, Nick Cave/Abbatoir Blues, several hours of Infinite Jest, a demoralising Norwich City podcast, and a prawn sandwich and slice of Billionaire’s (I know, but it was Burnham Market) shortbread.
And so to the last day, the shortest leg, and the delights of the Norfolk coast path for the whole day. The sun was shining, my feet were dry and had the same number of toenails attached as when I’d started, and all was right with the world. And typically, this is where you’d find a ‘however’ thrown in to darken the mood. But there isn’t one, really. I didn’t want to rush this leg, so I just followed the long and winding sandy path past Stiffkey and Morston, passing the sort of harbour that ought to be in a Famous Five book:
Then on to Blakeney, and looking out to Blakeney point, still on the path, before turning back into Cley, crossing over the river and through the village and out again to the beach where, for the first time, I could wander down to the water edge. I say wander, but it was more like moonwalking, as the beach at Cley is gravel, and lots of it, and really difficult to walk on without sinking. And by lots of it, I mean miles and miles, all the way up to Weybourne, where at last you can get on to a cliff path again. The route from Cley through to Cromer is stage 5 of the Round Norfolk Relay, and I made a mental note as I waded through the shingle not to offer to run that leg in this, or any other year. Just before the end of the leg, there’s a climb up the ‘Beeston Bump’, which is one of those hills that is so steep that you have to use your hands to run up. I ran this leg a few years ago and can vividly remember panting my way to the top of the hill, and finding myself at eye level with the shoes of a couple of the running club’s supporters, who’d positioned themselves on the top bench with the express aim of watching their fellow runners go through agony after 10 miles of really hard slog. As I finally got to the top of the path, they both shouted out ‘Well done!’, and Great Running’, which are exactly the things that you shout at runners at any race, but this time I think they really meant it.
After the Bump, it’s a fairly easy stretch down to Cromer, with West and East Runton on the right, and the crashing sea a few yards to the left and lots of yards below. Eventually you get to the bit where you re-join the beach, and with only about half a mile to go, my fairly slow walk turned into a bit of a sulky saunter, as I realised that I didn’t really want this bit to end. It was 1630 and I’d not eaten since breakfast, so I was really hungry, and if I just walked to the steps and went up to the promenade, I could have my fill of anything that Cromer had to offer. Ok, this was basically chips or ice cream, but both sounded quite good. So I climbed the steps. I decided I couldn’t be bothered with chips or ice cream, so I sat on a bench, fished around in the Ikea bag and found a manky protein bar. And then I stopped my watch.
Day 6 summary – 22.3 miles, 7hrs 31mins, 52,465 steps. Powered by The Kinks, Hamish Hawk, Teenage Fanclub, Aztec Camera, T Rex, Velvet Underground, The Bluebells and The Staple Singers. And another 4 hours of Infinite Jest. And one manky protein bar.
Overall – 167.2 miles, 357,952 steps. I listened to almost 19 hours of Infinite Jest, which means I have a mere 37 hrs and 48 mins left. Oh, and 870 pages. Wish me luck x
2 thoughts on “County lines”
Laurie has just come in from the pub bearing a copy of IJ (which I hadn’t heard of until I read your post today) gifted by a friend. I had to send him a copy of this as a cautionary tale 😂
Crikey, I hope he’s got some time on his hands…