A Bend of the Coast

Late July. It is the hottest day of the year and recent deluges are quickly forgotten as the earth bakes beneath a cloudless sky. North Norfolk’s pristine air glows with the sharp blue light that seems only to be found close to the coast – a light that bears the reflected promise of the sea just beyond. The notion is to celebrate my birthday with a circular walk that takes in the curve of the county at its northwest extremity: that charmed stretch of sand, marsh and hinterland chalk that curves west to south between Holme-next-the-Sea and Hunstanton.

I set out from Old Hunstanton at St Mary’s Church on the fringe of the Le Strange estate, a curious feudal relic of Norman patronage that historically even has possession over the seashore as far as Holme-next-the-Sea, the incumbent bearing the complimentary title of ‘Lord High Admiral of the Wash’ and the limit of the estate boundary traditionally measured by a spear thrown into the Wash from horseback at low tide.  I circumnavigate the dense woodland of Hunstanton Park before heading south along a track marked by a sign that calls it Lovers’ Lane. But there are no lovers today, just me, and it is not really a lane as we tend to know them either, more a greenway enclosed by hedges and tall stands of nettles, one of the less pleasant by-products (along with more than usually plentiful mosquitoes) of this unseasonably wet summer.

A mile or so later, following a short interlude along tractor-rutted farm-tracks, I climb gently up to a point where I can see the evocative ruin of St Andrew’s Chapel across the fields. Dropping down again, I soon reach the eastern end of Ringstead Downs. A large chalk-built barn and stark white cliff face serve as a reminder that this corner of the county is where the underlying chalk comes right to the surface. This, terminating in the striated chalk and carstone cliffs of Old Hunstanton, is the northern end of a seam of chalk that cuts diagonally southwest to northeast through southern England – the geological marker of the miscellany of paths that once constituted the Icknield Way. Chalk generally brings a gift of rich flora and Ringstead Downs, a shallow valley with the scarp slope on its northern side, does not disappoint. Thyme, eyebright, vervain, centaury and the charmingly named squinancywort are all to be found here: jewel-like miniatures that embroider the grass with pointillist spikes of colour. It’s humid and warm – a chalk valley microclimate; microscopic storm flies find their way through hair to scalp. There’s no breeze and little extraneous noise other than the summery coo of pigeons in the trees and the well-nourished buzz of satiated bees. Butterflies sip nectar; a buzzard swoops before flying off into the woods that flank the down’s eastern limit; a group of peahens – hardly native – screech alarmingly as they waddle for cover in the trees.

Ringstead village, a roadside strip of neat carstone and chalk cottages, is almost as silent apart from a few muffled voices emanating from the pub garden and the sudden scream of a dozen swifts plundering the sky overhead. From here, it is a plod along quiet country roads to reach the coast. Barely a car passes, just a man on a bicycle with panniers who bids me ‘Good afternoon’. Afternoon? Already? The road runs mostly parallel to the coastline, the sea out of sight but with long views over the valley to the south with its harvested cornfields and sparse green hedgerows.

This corner of Norfolk flaunts its geology quietly but confidently: the gently contoured topography, the chalk and sandstone of village vernacular. There are more discrete clues to a glacial past too: just below the road lies Bluestone Farm, a name undoubtedly adopted because of the presence of glacial erratics (‘blue stones’) hereabouts – northern rocks carried here by ice and unceremoniously dumped like strangers in a strange land.

As the road climbs to its highest point – a lofty (for Norfolk) 50 metres – the coast comes abruptly  into sight: a blue salt-haze with a large wind farm on the horizon, turbines spinning slowly as if doing their bit to keep the world turning. Thornham village is but a short walk downhill. Once considered to be a ‘smuggling village’, the village is now largely a smart enclave of expensive 4x4s and wealthy folk ‘up from London’. Thornham is undeniably attractive: set just back from the coast, separated from it by bird-rich marshes, its brown carstone cottages look as if they are made from gingerbread, good enough to eat.

The coastal path crosses the marshes to reach a staithe before following the line of sea defences all the way west to Holme-next-the-Sea. At Thornham Staithe, and later at Holme, the busy car park exerts a curious gravitational effect that seems to prevent the majority of its visitors ever breaking much beyond its orbit: home, car, car park, beach, picnic, swim, car park, car, home. Nothing wrong with that of course, it allows the rest of us  to have the paths to ourselves most of the time. A boarded walkway leads over the top of the dunes to reach the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, then briefly plummets through the deep shade of pines at the bird reserve before continuing between beach and marshes as the coast tips southwards towards Hunstanton. Pipits rise in alarm from the path in my wake; pyramidal orchids, slightly past their best, dot the sandy hollows in magenta clusters; yellow ragwort is everywhere.

Approaching Old Hunstanton the coastal path follows the line of shingle between the dunes and a golf course. The buildings of Old Hunstanton eventually become distinguishable on the cliffs ahead.  Finally, beach huts in the dunes announce the outskirts of town, where a track leads up past the Le Strange Arms Hotel to the main coast road. My coastal circuit – less a circle, more a wobbly ellipse – is complete.

Walking the Edge

The latest issue of Geographical magazine has a feature by Alastair Humphreys on walking around London following a route as close to the M25 orbital as possible. The focus here – other than the testing of outdoor clothing and equipment – seems to be that of ‘micro-adventures’ in one’s local area: a worthy notion in this information-bloated age where, if truth be told, there are few exotic places left to explore. The adventurers of yore usually had an ulterior motive anyway – empire carving, resource procurement, trade – and so latter-day explorers, unsponsored by king and country (and usually publishers) and wishing to find something new, have to look instead at the finer detail, examine the way countries have changed, focus on the small print of ‘place’.

The writer Iain Sinclair has already written about the M25 at length in his book London Orbital where, instead of sleeping in a bivvy bag in green belt fields (and tweeting about it) as Humphreys has done, the author completed the circuit by way of day-long excursions from his Hackney home in the company of a handful of friends. Sinclair’s clockwise plod reveals a twilight zone where megalopolis begins to morph into leafy shires. Most revealingly, he identifies a ring of vanished mental hospitals and institutions that trace the course of the future motorway with uncanny accuracy. Like plague pits located beyond medieval city walls, it appears as if it was decided in Victorian times that illness – especially the mental kind – had to be kept at arm’s length and well beyond the city’s grasp lest it infect the metropolitan populace. The distance necessary for this physical and spiritual separation seems to coincide almost exactly with that of London’s orbital racetrack.

Turning to a more rural setting, here in East Anglia both Norfolk and Suffolk may be circumambulated (more or less – let us not quibble about precise boundaries) by following a series of long-distance footpaths. In Norfolk, begin with the Angles Way in Great Yarmouth, follow it along the Waveney Valley almost as far as Thetford in Breckland and then take the  Iceni Way along the River Great Ouse and across the Fens north to Hunstanton where the Norfolk Coast Path can be picked up to continue east. At Cromer, the meandering Weaver’s Way can then be followed through the Broads to arrive back at Yarmouth. In Suffolk, the Suffolk Coast Path can be walked from Lowestoft to Felixstowe before continuing around the Suffolk estuaries by means of the Stour and Orwell Walk to Cattawade. Here, the county boundary may be traced west to by means of the Stour Valley Path, straying occasionally into Essex and Cambridgeshire, as far as Sudbury before continuing to Bury St Edmunds along the St Edmund Way and Icknield Way path to Breckland  from where the Angle’s Way completes the circuit back to the Suffolk Coast.

Last year I had a notion that it might be interesting to split the Norfolk boundary circuit into four seasonal portions, four lengths of the county rectangle that would be walked around each of the year’s cardinal points: the Angle’s Way in mid winter; the Iceni Way in spring and so on, completing the circuit to arrive back at Great Yarmouth around the autumnal equinox. Starting out with good intentions, I walked the length of the Angles Way in late December 2009 and early January 2010. Plans for setting out on the next section, the Iceni Way, were abandoned however – or, rather, put on hold – when a commission to write a guide for Cicerone Press on the three long-distance walks within the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB turned my attention to trails a little further southeast. My forthcoming guide Suffolk Coast and Heaths Walks: Three Long-distance Routes in the AONB will be published in November this year.