The land feels huge in Norfolk. Endless fields of arable crops run to the horizon; marshes edged with shingle beaches stretch on for miles and the sea is a moving boundary along the long sandy beaches that vary from grey to gold. All of it is over-arched with an enormous arc of sky, deliciously blue in summer and full of foreboding when storm clouds blow in. Norfolk skies are what I like most about the county.
The highest point in Norfolk is 103m above sea level: Beeston Bump, the highest point on the Norfolk Coast Path and Peddars Way National Trail, is a mere 63 metres high, a minor blip in a county famed for being as flat as a pancake.
Anywhere this flat goes unnoticed when the allure of the hills and mountains of Britain’s northern landscape are so fabled. This particular trail never got anywhere near my hiking bucket-list, and I’d take a guess it’s not made it onto yours, but I’ve had every opportunity to walk this trail over the last 25 years: my parents live in Hunstanton, the seaside town at the end of the trail on the Norfolk Coast Path section. Finally, I decided it was about time to give the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path national trail a chance to impress.
The Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path, as the name suggests, are two trails combined to make one long-distance National Trail. I decided to wild camp where I could with an overnight stop at my parents’ home in Hunstanton. I hiked the Norfolk Coast Path section solo and was joined by my son’s aunt and uncle on the Peddars Way trail. My itinerary looked like this:
It’s conventional to start the hike on the Peddars Way (which is 46 miles), head north-west to Hunstanton on the coast, then walk eastwards along the Norfolk coast path. I did it the ‘wrong’ way round (as you can see from my itinerary), as I was frequently reminded by other more conventional hikers en route. And probably with good reason!
My journey started in Cromer, an old fashioned sea-side town with a bustling centre and traditional Victorian pier, which is where the trail officially begins (or ends, if you go the ‘right’ way round!). I got there late, thanks to a broken down bus, but decided to sit and eat my lunch overlooking the sea, watching kids crabbing and gulls soaring above. It was high tide, pebbles knocked and rolled, rinsed by grey waves, and the sun was shining, glinting on the horizon where I was headed: it was a perfect spring afternoon.
The Norfolk Coast Path claims a significant role in the country’s history, from the birth place of Nelson to the coastal defences of the first and second world wars, still very much in evidence. This is where The Wash meets land, reclaiming much of it at an alarming rate, creating a marshy, watery landscape with big over-arching skies. It’s a bird-watchers’ paradise for migrating sea-birds and waders and the RSPBs Titchwell Nature Reserve is not to be missed. I was excited and hopeful, full of anticipation for the wildlife I might see on this trip.
My first wild camp at Salthouse was only about 10 miles from Cromer. I set off along the seafront through unremarkable suburbia, caravan parks and dog-walking fields, hoping things would get more interesting. The view finally opened out a bit on Beeston Bump and I got that glorious long view of where I’d come from and where I was headed. After the thrill of being so high the trail soon dips to sea level again. I followed a shingle bank to Salthouse and spent most of the miles watching oyster catchers and terns flying low over the sea.
I didn’t get a great night’s sleep that night curled up in my black bivi bag in a meagre bit of scrub, the village lights blinking behind me. An unfamiliar noise scared the crap out of me. Not a vixen screaming, but shadowy, man-made birds. Fast, low-flying military jets filled the skies directly above me. I felt intimidated and paranoia crept in; could they see me, was I about to become target practice? Irrational things go through your mind when you’re wild camping sometimes.
I woke up in the morning in heavy rain, looking like a drenched slug. The rain soon blew across though, bringing perfect walking weather behind it. The huge blue skies arced over cumulus clouds that swept their less menacing shadows across the increasingly marshy landscape. This was classic Norfolk, the sort of landscape I wanted to experience and I could feel my excitement welling.
The swifts had arrived. There were oystercatchers, Brent geese and their chics, elegant avocets and deceits of lapwings on the marsh. Generous bird-watchers were happy to pass the time of day and tell you what they’d seen and what they were looking for. There was an air of peacefulness and gentle anticipation.
I followed bare earth paths in straight lines along the top of raised sea defences. They were like exposed seams of rich sienna juxtaposed against the vivid green of the marsh, the heavily scented yellow Alexanders and intense blue sky. I was crossing an abstract painting in waiting: it was an assault on the senses, and I didn’t have time to get my sketchbook out.
I hiked on through Blakeney, a pretty, quintessentially Norfolk village replete with flint studded cottages, where the path heads straight towards the sea. But, as was often the case, you had to trust the sea was actually there because you rarely caught a glimpse of it. Muddy footpaths run along the back of immense tidal salt marshes, covered in a white, salted crust, with shoulder high reeds and cow parsley rustling in the breeze beside you. The sound is like a gentle warning to stay back.
It was fantastic hiking that day. After 16 miles I walked on through Wells-Next-The-Sea (chips for dinner) and through the woods at Holkham Gap to find a place to camp. The sun was about to sink below the horizon and the tide was just a thin strip of blue-grey in the distance. Miles of rippled wet sand stretched away in front of me as the sky become a blaze of rich colours. I slept on the beach like I was marooned on a beautiful desert island, and it was utterly magical.
The path from Holkham meanders through an extensive system of dunes. Sometimes it led to the top of unstable mounds where you could watch vast sandy beaches disappear under the incoming tide. It was like watching a blocked sink slowly fill with water from the plug hole. This is a shifting landscape, disorienting. The wind blows a hiker’s footprints away as quickly as they’re trod and only the deep-rooted marram grasses have any tenacity. At the top of a dune a finger post pointed left. Squarely. Abruptly. An incongruous straight line in a world of sweeping curves.
A white sailed windmill was behind me, with a vast emptiness ahead. Cuckoo cuckoo… came a call across the fields. It felt like nothing had changed for centuries here on the marshes near the village of Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a deceptive timelessness that would soon be gone. From Burnham Overy Staithe I walked through Thornham and Titchwell*. Then, eventually, into Hunstanton. A town of amusement arcades, fairgrounds and fish and chips, where timelessness has no business.
* (The RSPB Nature Reserve In Titchwell is well worth a visit: have a read of my trip report Birdwatching In Norfolk)
It was a slog to Hunstanton and by the time I got there the sun was setting on a beautiful day. The tide was low so I walked across the sands, climbing over groin after endless groin towards the familiar red carstone cliffs. By the time I got to my parent’s home I was ravenous.
I went to bed on a tired high wondering what the Peddars Way would bring the next day.
A lot of whinging, that’s what the Peddars Way would bring. In my head at least; I was walking in excellent company with my son’s aunt and uncle on this section and if it wasn’t for their presence I’d have been moaning out loud most of the way from Hunstanton to Knettishall Heath. If I met another person that said we were walking it ‘the wrong way round’ I may even have ended up in a prison cell. They were right.
The Peddars Way is an ancient track that follows the route of a Roman road as closely as possible. Parts of the Way have been subsumed into the network of tarmac roads, still dead straight, linking villages and hamlets for modern day traffic. Other sections cut through vast arable fields, woodland and forest with the promise of a tangible connection to all those that have walked along it for centuries.
But Roman roads were built for armies with nothing more in mind than transporting soldiers and supplies across the country as efficiently as possible. Straight lines through flat lands: boring. Straight lines through flat lands with the views obscured by straight lines of trees: oh. so. tedious. And way too much tarmac. It was like walking from the light into the dark. Imagine that the other way round, heading from the dark into the light. That would be a fitting and metaphorically wonderful way of hiking this trail: that would be walking the trail the right way round.
Unfortunately, as well as the straight tracks, the tarmac and the ‘darkness’ there was the arable. Miles and miles of monoculture with yellow rapeseed as far as the eye could see. The diverse habitats of field boundaries seem to have been grubbed up. Now they were edged with sad-looking hawthorn hedges and not much more than a few bereft patches of cow-parsley to light them up. After the initial appreciation of the vibrant colour and dusting of hawthorn confetti, the joys of the Norfolk countryside soon wore off.
That night’s wild camp was the icing on the cake. After sharing a fab meal in a nearby pub I set up camp on a verge of nettly, brambly scrub, right beside a busy road. It was freezing cold and absolutely chucking it down all night. I pitched my tarp as low to the ground as I could in the pitch black and pouring rain. I was not a happy camper. My hiking family had more sense: they were tucked up in a dry, warm bed in a hotel.
And they had plans to do the same for the next couple of nights too. They were staying at The Old Windmill Inn in Great Cressingham (a little off trail) and persuaded me to set up camp on the neighbouring campsite. It was a decision that made life much easier: hike, walk, eat, laugh into the night and then fall into your sleeping bag under your tarp.
One of the major highlights of this section of trail was Castle Acre. After all those straight tracks we arrived in a village laid out in characteristic medieval streets. The main road through the centre is broad and bifurcates around a traditional village green, with The Ostrich, an evocative old coaching inn, at it the heart of it. It drew us like magnets to its door; weary travellers desperate for a cup of coffee. Inside, the gold wallpaper was as ostentatious as its namesake’s feathers and the place had an unexpected air of faded grandeur about it. A bit at odds with the green nylon abode I was accustomed to.
Just down the road from the Inn is an old bailey gate that leads along a narrow street to the ruins of Castle Acre Priory
...one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090.(English Heritage).
It’s an impressive sight, intricately decorated and built on a grand scale surrounded by meadows (today at least), which help the fertile imagination create a picture of what it must have been like as a thriving community. Before Henry VIII got all vindictive.
The Peddars Way seemed to almost drift around Castle Acre, across a river filled with reeds and through a landscape not dissimilar to something Constable might’ve painted. But it wasn’t long before it was back on the straight and narrow.
One of the most exciting distractions on the Peddars Way is hare spotting. How many are in that field? Look how fast they run! Look at the size of their feet, their ears! I was constantly looking for distractions. The wildlife seemed as depleted as the landscape: pheasant after pheasant after pheasant. But then I’d spot deer tracks or see an orange tip butterfly and my heart lifted. Somewhere in this ‘barren’ corner of England wildlife was still going about its daily business.
The Peddars Way came to an end at Knettishall Heath in Suffolk, where nature and wildlife are given some respite. Knettishall Heath is a 175 hectare nature reserve of national importance, where many rare species thrive.
Despite its name the Heath is made up of more than one type of habitat and we came to rest at a stile in broad-leaved woodland. It was late afternoon and the shade was bliss after the clear heat of the day. We posed for photos under the trail sign (obligatory, obviously) and a feeling of contentment and achievement finally washed over me.
Still, there’s no doubt it would have been a much bigger wash of contentment if I’d walked it the right way round!
There are very few amenities along this section of the trail, unless you’re prepared to leave the Way and head for larger villages. These are the places I stopped en route: