COASTAL WALKS OF GREAT BRITAIN – Robert & Jane Taylor
This week I thought I would take a break from Lionheart and show the first part of our Coastal Walk of Britain. Hope it is enjoyed. These blogs will be few and far between.
COASTAL WALKS OF GREAT BRITAIN
My wife, Jane, and I moved to our new home in Great Massingham, Norfolk in early September 2017. New house, new beginning. We are now moving into the autumns of our lives so, apart from bringing the house around to the way we want it, what challenge could we set ourselves!
“I know,” I said. “ We could walk around the entire coast of Great Britain.”
“How long will that take us?” Jane asked with a slight skepticism. Or, was it sarcasm. A thin line between the two!
“I don’t know. Maybe a couple of years if we do a little each weekend and we take our holidays on the path somewhere.”
“How far is it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a couple of thousand miles. Does it matter?”
Sunday 29th October 2017
The dreaded day has come! Not the day we decided to continue with our coastal stroll but the day the damn clocks go back, the day that marks the end of British Summer Time. We didn’t walk last week for the country was in the grip of Storm Brian. The weekend was a bit grisly but by no means the storm-ravaged conditions we were promised by ever more careful weather forecasters! In the end, Brian was a little tepid! It is a strange thing, though, how the last Sunday every October should mark the end of BST when, in my humble opinion, it seemed to have disappeared a long time ago; indeed, you could argue that it never arrived in the first place. I heard a radio show asking for listeners to ring or email in with their wondrous feelings of winter. It amazes me how people’s minds work. I can’t think of anything worse than winter, it is totally gloomisome. All sorts of fancies were signposted up as reasons to look forward to winter. Wonderful snuggling up in front of an open fire or log burner; really! It’s blowing a gale outside and pitch black! Where’s the fun in that? Fantastical icy walks in a sparkling winter sun. You what? Where’s the fun in taking longer to get dressed for a walk than actually going on the walk itself? I hate winter.
We went back to Thornham where we finished off last time. Walking past the church there I realised it was called All Saints. How did the folk of yore name their churches? Did a group of village elders gather at the local tavern, none of which in Thornham were called the Lifeboat Inn. The Orange Tree or the Chequers back then, I would doubt. I can’t decide how these men, I seriously doubt that Thornham would have been any different and have been enlightened enough to allow womenfolk to have been present for such important decisions, made their minds up? Were they so pretentious that they thought their church, of all churches, should be named after all of the saints? Or, was Thornham such a den of sinners that it was only all of the saints that could cope with such immorality? Or, was it more along the lines that the evening was getting long and ale and mead was taking over from reasoned debate and before the final one for the road they opted for All Saints because agreement couldn’t be reached? I would like to think it was the latter!
We retraced our route inland so that we could follow the marked path and pick up from where we left off last time. In a way, this was slightly disappointing as we missed out the reserve at Titchwell Marsh. It was probably a couple of miles or so of walking with nothing more to look at other than fields and hedgerows. Beautiful in the right context, but a coastal walk? Not sure! I do wonder if we went wrong.
We crossed the main coastal road at Brancaster and noted that their church was only dedicated to one saint, Mary. Obviously, the poor relations! We proceeded back to the coast. In the last chapter I described the wind as a breeze but, trust me, it was nothing more than a scented summer zephyr compared with the brain-pounding gale that met us on the coast this time. Wimps, I hear you cry, this wind wasn’t even strong enough to be rated up there with the aforementioned tepid Brian! Nevertheless, we continued on, buffeted by the un-named hurricane and occasionally coated in spits of spume. The going was mainly boardwalk which was a mere two planks laid side by side. Not too good for wheelchairs that need to pass one another I mused.
The path, literally, ran alongside seaside cottages whose gardens matched the surrounding environment of sea-grasses and decking that mimicked the boardwalks. It was hard to work out where the marshes ended and the gardens began. There was a remote beauty about this area in the windy sunshine. It was here that we met a rather exuberant black Labrador who, with his sharp sense of smell, was more interested in what was in my backpack. Having recently owned an ever-hungry lab this one was typical and jumped at me in a bid to push me off the boards and, therefore, rip open the bag and gorge on our packed lunch. I stood firm in the face of this brutal unprovoked attack and the owner managed to control the demented beast and then said, not very helpfully, “At least if he had pushed you off you wouldn’t’ve got wet!”
That was true, I wouldn’t have got wet as the soil to the sides of the boardwalk at this point was particularly dry. I would have probably broken my neck, though. But, I wouldn’t have got wet! Right result, then!
Not too much further and we encountered the old Roman fort of Branodunum. Well, that’s not strictly true. Rather, it was a field where the fort used to be. Can you imagine what crime a centurion would have had to have committed to having been banished from a gorgeous Italian summer to a bleak marsh on the north Norfolk coast? No, nor can I But it would have been serious, I’m sure! There is not much more that gets me going like a pile of stones in a field other than an empty field with some artists’ impressions of what the pile of stones used to look like. I will return here for an exciting visit in the future.
We came across a marina, the wind still blowing and the spume was replaced with an icy sleet. Not too heavy so we decided to carry on. Passing through between two sheds we went up onto a seawall which reached out for miles into the distance. It took us through the marshes and as bizarre as it seems there is a golf course that appears to lay further out than we were! The Royal West Norfolk course, no less and Jane with her slightly better eyes than mine confirmed that there were golfers in action. I was beginning to think they must have been touched in some way as the precipitation turned to a ferocious sleety squall but to be walking round a greensward with a bag of sticks and giving a tiny white ball a good thwack from time to time is beyond even our stupidity. In my mind, it’s what separates the British from the rest of the world; good or bad, who knows or, for that matter, cares?
We were glad of our coats to keep the breeze at bay but they did nothing to stop icy rivulets running down one’s neck and soaking backs! Trousers were wet through and the insides of my boots were beginning to squelch. Then the squall would stop just as suddenly as it had started and the sun broke cover from behind scudding clouds and with the wind dried us out again. The sea wall just carried on for miles. And, miles! And, miles! The skin soaking squalls continued followed by a drying wind. I didn’t want to be seen to complain but I did think when is this torment going to end? Jane then announced that she could see some building. I couldn’t! We continued on for an age and I began to wonder if she was seeing a mirage!
From the se-wall, we crossed a field heading inland again and the rain took on an unseasonable malevolence. Icy spikes shot-blasted our faces and un-gloved hands. We came to the main road but, luckily, the foot[path continued inside the hedge which sheltered us from the wind and the roaring traffic. A sign extolled the virtues of the Hero restaurant in a quarter of a mile or so. A welcome refuge it would have proved but the sun made a timely return and we bravely soldiered on. By this time we were at Burnham Overy Staithe and after a short distance on the main coastal road we turned left again for the coastal path and joined another seawall before turning onto a boardwalk which appeared to head straight into a sand hill. As we drew closer we saw there was a gap in the gloriously white sand dunes and we passed through their cleavage onto a brilliantly tropical appearing strand. The similarity between this and some of the most stunning sunny beaches in the world is unbelievable. The difference is that the wind was blowing a mixture of sand and spindrift into our faces and the temperature probably wasn’t as much as ten degrees! Breathtakingly beautiful, though.
It was on this part of the journey, just as we had joined the seawall after Burnham the path narrowed and we were confronted with a giant of a man who without modern accoutrements would have resembled a Viking freshly landed from a long boat looking to ravage the fish-smokers in the area. He was at least six feet six tall and looked nearly three feet across the shoulders, with wild long hair framing an open face. Faced with such intimidation we pulled over to the side. Victory comes to those who wait rather than those who press on regardless and before our eyes as time appeared to slow this giant of a marauder toppled off the path into stinging nettles, swamp-grasses and, unfortunately, bared flints and suchlike. He had a camera around his neck and managed to hold this up, protecting it from the fall! When we bent over him asking, inanely and uselessly, if he was alright. What a stupid question,! Of course, he wasn’t alright! He had just made himself look a total twerp in front of a couple of strangers. As we helped him to his feet we realised his face was lacerated by non-life threatening cuts. This twitcher was nothing less than a hard northern sole and ignoring the stinging mess on his face he examined the camera first.
“Aye. I’m fine,” he lied. “National ‘Ealth can mend me. The camera might need money spending on it!”
Ah! Not only was he northern, he must have been from Yorkshire! We continued on and looking back over my shoulder and, obviously, thinking we had moved on, it was only then that he removed his spectacles and tended to his face. Hard as nails!
The sun was now splendid in its blue Heaven again for the last part of today’s walk. The white crested combers were thunderously crashing onto the beach and the sand sparkled in the brilliant autumn light. Moving up the beach the going became slightly tougher as we begun to sink into the sand which, at this point, was like trudging through snow. We made Holkham Gap and mounted the boardwalk, this time hand-railed, and headed into the shelter of the pines. After the sandblasting of the beach, the trees provided shelter enough for a sublime stillness and walking became a joy again. We joined the trail back to the coastal road through a pleasingly busy car park. Metres and metres of Heras fencing protected the site of a new Reserve Centre from the investigative public and we decided that we would look forward to visiting this superb facility after it opened. We made the coastal road and Jane espied a bus stop and with relief, I thought, there were people waiting there. Jane studied the bus timetable and was mightily pleased to see the next bus was due in no more than two minutes. It came spot on time and we took our seats for the ride back to Thornham.
A postscript is important at this juncture! Mrs Taylor became a real Doubting Thomas as her hip began to pain her and her legs were becoming as stiff as wooden poles. She was convinced that the buses wouldn’t be running on a Sunday afternoon. Thank God they were. Obviously, all the saints were looking out for us. Never ever doubt the dedication of a church again, I thought, as her smile was lighting up the infringing greying dusk, her face glowing from the beating it had taken from the weather. My mind was on the full glass of restorative waiting back at home!
I should make a note here and apologise to a host of Burnhams for not mentioning them. We by-passed these as we skirted out to sea on that, seemingly, never ending leg out to the briny on the seawall! So, sorry to Norton, Deepdale, Market and so forth.
Saturday 14th October 2017
We decided to start our stroll at Hunstanton. This is a particular favourite of Jane’s for it was here many years ago that her family would come on holiday year after year. The place was full of kiddie-fun including crabbing and shrimping. This was the late sixties and early seventies when a luxury holiday was an apartment in Hunstanton and not a four star hotel on some God forsaken Spanish island full of teenage drunks glued to their phone screens. Cockles and whelks would have been on the menu when pizza and burgers were foods only seen on Starskey and Hutch! Oh! What wonderfully innocent times.
First of all, and the most challenging part of the day was the car park ticket machine! For some reason, the Dabbling Duck, our local pub where we had sat the night before planning our journey had seen fit to hand us a load of old pound coins in our change. I don’t mean old in the grubby sense but the fact they were going to be withdrawn as legal tender in the near future: midnight tomorrow! We had found an immediate receiver of such specie. But the infernal machine would not accept the more modern two pound coin! We raked around in every conceivable nook and cranny of the car and managed to discover a magnificent hoard of five p coins. Thousands of the little blighters who thought their realistic life was over. But, they saved ours and much to the shagreen of a cue of people forming behind us we fed the greedy machine in tiny little titbits rather than the usual glutinous feast they were used too.
Off we sauntered. Our target on this unseasonably warm day for mid-October was to reach Brancaster. I carried the back-pack that contained our lunch and set off in pursuit of Mrs T. Jane set a fine pace along the beach. We didn’t know it, but this was our first mistake! Gulls swooped and dived, kite-surfers were pulled along the beach by the firm breeze, and dogs frolicked in the North Sea. The beach was busy with families playing, children racing one another up and down the dunes, plastic spades carrying out incredible civil engineering constructions like damming and diverting water courses. Stone breakwaters held in by steel cages came and went to our right. The further we went the population became less dense until, all of a sudden it seemed, we were utterly on our own. The silence was noticeable, even the wind had abated now we were in the lee of a dune. Jane realised there were more people taking the more inland coastal path but we were happy with the beach. It was idyllic. Apart from one thing, I was busting for a slash! The extra coffee before we left home was a mistake. Why is it that the female of the species is so much more sensible than the male and had put a final penny in the pot before setting out?
“You’ll have to wait,” she announced. “ You can’t get it out here; people will see you from the path and you’ll frighten the birds!”
I grunted something in response.
“Can you let me have one of the water bottles?” she asked with a sort of a glee in her voice that bordered on the gentle talk of an SS officer about to torture his prisoner.
Holme-next-the-Sea, the lowest point on the North Norfolk Coastal Path, passed on our right. We carried on. Then we realised. We were trapped. A deep creek wound its way across the beach. We headed inland to escape but when we crested a low dune we realised the creek had been tracking our course for some time. There were two options: ford the water or return to a less wet crossing area. We took the latter.
Jane went ahead, forging a path through the dunes, me following on behind like some poor relation of Jean Passepartout! Up and down we went. On the up slope it was one step forward, three-quarters of a step slipping back and another forward, so on and so forth.
Eventually, we reached the path and safety. It was a magnificent boardwalk. Except, it was not quite so magnificent. Every now and again there was a board missing. Now, one thing I need to say at this point, the reason Jane is always in front is not some sort of under-the-thumb rule that I have adopted to cope with married life or a sense of duty like the Duke of Edinburgh always following a couple of paces behind the Queen, I am partially sighted and, therefore, registered blind. I now had a feeling of foreboding that must have greeted the beach-landers at Utah and Omaha beaches. It was like I was advancing along a mine-strewn path not knowing whether my next step might be my last before a broken leg saw the local air ambulance carting me off to hospital and the walk around Britain dead-in-the-water before it had really got going. Jane managed to locate all the unexploded mines and we got through.
The next bit was a well-constructed path atop a stretch of sea wall protecting the village of Thornham. We sat down for lunch at a bench, with a splendid view of the sea across salt-marshes, dedicated to the memory of Mary Elizabeth Brown, 1949 – 2015. If there is a better place to sit and eat tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches I am yet to discover it. Jane took another slurp from her water bottle which served as a reminder of my predicament which was not easing.
The contents of our Tupperware devoured we got on our way again. The sound of a football match reached our ears as we descended into a car park. Up onto the sea wall again, this time with high grasses and bushes up to above waist height.
“There is no-one around,” Jane announced. “ You could get Percy out here.” Don’t ask. It goes back to our honeymoon!
“You’re sure?” I didn’t want to be suddenly confronted by a group of nuns or some such enjoying a nice breezy walk on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
The relief was palpable!
We crossed a wooden bridge and were faced with a choice. There was a footpath sign directing us to the left which, one would have thought, would follow the coastal path. Or, there was one directing us inland but clearly bearing the mark of the acorn sign depicting the North Norfolk Coastal walk. The village of Thornham seemed well situated. A couple of pubs, the Chequers and the Orange Tree. The parish church of All Saints stood proudly and I wondered at the history it must have seen. Passing the Chequers to our left with drinkers enjoying al fresco libations at the tables, we found we could follow a busy road along the coast for the two miles to Brancaster or take the acorn sign inland. It was our mission to follow the acorn so that’s what we did. Walking ever further from the coast we came across the acorn again which now said Brancaster was another two-and-a-half miles. Concerned about the light and our slowly deteriorating limbs we thought it best to head back.
We returned to Hunstanton along a well signed path consisting of boardwalk, hard surfaced paths on sea walls and sand among the Holme dunes in particular. Avoiding watery cul-de-sacs we got back in a fraction of the time. Wearily, we climbed back in the car and headed back to Great Massingham and a well-deserved hot bath.
After our first day we had probably completed six miles of the coastal walk. We also decided that we would do as much as we could by doing day trips from home so we intend to go as far as Great Yarmouth in one direction before returning to Hunstanton and starting in the other direction, maybe as far as the Humber before we need to continue with longer breaks away. In future we will only walk in one direction and, where possible, head back to the car by bus. Next time we shall go to Thornham and aim for Wells-next-the-Sea.
A couple of thousand miles over a couple of years seems a tad ambitious. Try anything from four and a half thousand to eleven thousand miles, estimations are wildly fluctuating and, say seven or eight years. Apart from England’s coastal path planned for completion in 2020 it seems quite difficult to work out what the actual route is. Still, every long journey starts with a single step. Or, from small acorns giant oaks will thrive. We have now started something which we will not let go no matter how long it takes. We might, however, see if we can purchase a guide book before we go too far!