Good Friday, Breydon Water, Norfolk. A feature in last Saturday’s Guardian reminded me of a Norfolk long-distance walk I had been contemplating for some time – the Wherryman’s Way that roughly follows the course of the River Yare between Great Yarmouth and Norwich. A glance at the Wherryman’s Way website made it clear that the section between Great Yarmouth and Berney Arms would be closed for flood alleviation work between April 1 and the end of September. It seemed like a good idea to walk this stretch before the month was out, so on a cold Good Friday morning Jackie and I took the train to Great Yarmouth before setting off west along the north shore of Breydon Water.
The route starts inauspiciously around the back of the Asda superstore next to the railway station. Passing under the rumbling road bridge, the estuary that is Breydon Water suddenly opens up ahead – muddy grey water, a Turneresque sky, a raised bank snaking east. Over the fence to our right the shunting tracks of the railway have been colonised by large clumps of pampas grass that, curiously, seem to thrive here. Perhaps this austere flat landscape is a microcosm of the southern Argentine pampas? This may be the edge of the estuary, a vast wild area where three rivers come together before flowing to the sea, but it is also an edgeland par excellence, a periphery where urban bleeds into rural, human and physical geography overlay one another and nature finds a foothold in unlikely places. But the whole of Breydon Water is an edgeland of sorts: wild, raw and lonely it may be, it is also a place that has long witnessed the taming hand of man.
The course of the bank is traced by a tideline composed of weed, fragments of reed and plastic bottles. Here and there the jetsam reveals other treasures: a plastic safety helmet, a golf-bag (no clubs), several odd shoes (never a pair), a mouldering grey seal carcass with ribs revealed like an ivory toast-rack. Passing through a gate, a tattered prayer book lies open by the path bearing the reading for February 14 – ‘Love Is The Power Charge’. A gentler cipher for our walk than the graffito on the bird hide we had just passed in which the scribe claimed intimate knowledge of the mother of someone called Dan.
February 14, the random day displayed by the book’s wind-fluttered pages, seems about right: Easter may have come early this year but it still feels like winter. And it looks like it too – grey-yellow grass, very few green buds, icy white flecks falling from the sky; red-beaked redshanks and dapper shelducks the only bright points in a near sepia landscape. A kestrel perched on a post ahead of us flies off grumpily as we approach. The bird, a female, seems larger than normal, as does the heron that rises sluggushly from a reed-bed. Perspective plays tricks in this flat, treeless landscape – far objects look close, near objects appear supernaturally large, distant hares might easily be mistaken for deer.
After an hour, we arrive at a large capped windpump that has been looming ahead all the way from Yarmouth – the four-storey Lockgate Drainage Mill. The door is open and we find the mill’s iron gear wheels rusted yet still intact inside. The floor is covered by furry owl pellets jettisoned by the occupant of the wooden box installed in the beams above. Next door to the mill, a pile of brick rubble indicates where Lockgate Farm once stood. The railway line runs right past, on the other side of a gate.
Another hour along the water’s edge and we arrive at the Berney Arms, a remote riverside pub famous for only being accessible on foot or by water. The pub always was seasonal, operating through spring and summer only to serve passing walkers and boaters. But it seems that its previous tenants, a no-nonsense Birmingham couple, have left and currently there is no-one to open up for business this year. Like so many other struggling Norfolk pubs, this is an all-too-common story.
There’s another lofty black mill just a little further on, and it is here that we turn inland to head to the Berney Arms railway stop. It is a strange sensation to walk across fields towards an isolated platform that consists of little more than a station sign, an information board and incongruous ‘Exit’ signs – a stop for which the expression ‘the middle of nowhere’ seems wholly appropriate. Thankfully, the two-carriage train arrives right on time. We flag it down (Berney Arms is a request stop) and climb aboard to speed across the marshes through Reedham, Cantley and Brundall back to Norwich.