It is the second Sunday in April, the warmest day of the year so far. Shirtsleeves weather at last despite much of the landscape still looking bleached and lifeless thanks to a long winter that has only just finished. Look closely though and leaves are unfurling and buds are loosening, finally awakened by longer days and soft southern breezes. The object today is to complete another stretch of Norfolk’s Wherryman’s Way. The section between Great Yarmouth and Berney Arms, and Berney Arms and Reedham, has been walked over the previous two weekends so today’s journey begins by taking the Wherry Line train from Norwich to Reedham.
It’s a short walk from Reedham station down to the River Yare and then a further kilometre or so along the bank to reach Reedham Ferry, a combined riverside pub and a chain ferry operation. The ferry, which can deal with three cars and a handful of pedestrians at a time, is super efficient and moments later we are standing on the river’s south bank. Just 50p (cars £4) for a three-minute trip that avoids the necessity of anything up to a 30-mile detour seems like a real bargain. The curious thing is how the River Yare manages to be so completely devoid of places to cross. Between Norwich and Great Yarmouth there are no bridges whatsoever and because of this villages that stand opposite one another on either bank are forever strangers, rarely, if ever, visited by neighbours from across the water.
Once across, the route follows minor roads away from the Yare as we are obliged to detour around the tributary of the River Chet. A meander of the river that veers close to the road seems the perfect place to stop for lunch. As we eat, a small solitary bird swoops in an oddly familiar way above the reeds opposite, then two more do the same: swallows – the first seen this year. It is hard not to view such an unheralded yet welcome sight as a favourable omen. One swallow may not a summer make, but three certainly do.
Further on, passing through woods close to the hamlet of Nogdam End, a buzzard circles and vocalises with incongruous high-pitched screams, not at all the gruff pugilistic tone you might expect from such a tough-looking raptor. Meanwhile, chiff-chaffs chiff-chaff (or, to my ears, chaff-chiff) in the upper branches of trees while, down on the grass verge, primroses and violets bloom in bright clusters. In the hedgerow above, blackthorn – frothy white blooms guarded by cruel spikes – is starting to blossom, more than a month late. It must be official – spring is finally here.
We leave the road to take a look at Heckingham’s St Gregory’s Church, a small thatched structure atop a grave-littered mound: round-towered – as so many churches in Norfolk are – with a semi-circular apse and a Norman doorway of Caen stone soft enough to be carved with the initials of Victorian graffitists. Although still consecrated, the church is rarely used these days. Nevertheless, it seems prepared to receive any impromptu congregation: a hefty bible sits ready on the pulpit, open on the Book of Job, and a tattered exercise book next to the organ asserts that the instrument it is tuned and fit for use. Black ledger stones in the floor unsentimentally brandish skulls and details of the late 17th-century demise of various members of the Crowe (or Crow) family, an appropriate name now that we have reached the part of the Yare Valley that is undeniably Crow Country.
Leaving the church, we cross bare fields towards Loddon, the strong southerly wind blasting through hedgerow gaps to lift the light soil to dustbowl effect. In Loddon, there is just enough time to wash the dust away with a pint of Humpty Dumpty before catching the bus back to Norwich.