The month of May gave the UK two Bank (public) Holidays, and since there won’t be another until late August, we took advantage of the Spring Bank Holiday to stretch our legs. Our (admittedly ambitious) goal was to walk some of the distance between the city of Norwich and the village of Castle Acre.
Since returning to Norfolk, I’ve spent a lot of time shoogling around the county by car. As a relative newcomer to car ownership, I carry some guilt with this. This guilt does not relate to my carbon emissions or the amount of money I’m spending to tax, insure or fuel my Italian stallion, but rather because of the way in which the car muffles one’s experience of the countryside. Given that I regularly trace the spine of mid-Norfolk along the quiet and engaging B1145, at some unremembered moment over the winter I got the idea of setting out to walk the route instead of driving it. What if, when the oil runs out, I have to walk this route regularly? Could I manage it? How long would it take? And how would the cost of food and water necessary compare to the £0.14/mile it costs me to fuel my car? Could it be done? If I were Ian Sinclair, this idle question would easily lead to an 80,000 word manuscript and a host of poetic musings on the social, political and cultural history of Norfolk. But I’m clearly not Ian Sinclair, so it has produced this blog post instead.
I was reminded of my vague intention to walk this route with the largely unremarked opening of a new public trail, the Wensum Way. Since May 2012, Norfolk County Council has changed the way that it maintains public rights of way across rural land, suspending programmes of regular maintenance on hundreds of miles of public footpaths, instead depending on reports of obstructions or problems from members of the public. The decision to shift from proactive to responsive path maintenance has not been without controversy. On the other hand, the alignment and connection of various existing rights of way into a new national trail is a major achievement.
For the most part, the only signs of investment are… signs. The little pink waymarkers (above) and a series of solid looking new signposts indicate the route at key junctions. At the western end of the trail, this signpost (below) points west and east, modestly reminding one of the significance of this new connection.
Here, where this photo was taken in Gressenhall in mid-Norfolk, the Wensum Way reveals itself as a missing link. It is now possible to follow a continuous sequence of marked National Trails from one side of the Norfolk to another. The Nar Valley Way starts in King’s Lynn in west Norfolk and ends 34 miles later in Gressenhall, where the Wensum Way now continues 12.5 miles east to Lenwade. At the end of the trail in Lenwade, one can join the Marriott’s Way to Norwich, and from Norwich the Wherryman’s Way continues to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.
Mark my foolish words, but one day I will walk the length of this route, from one end of the county to the other. Perhaps it is today’s summer solstice that has prompted me to revisit this ambition in publishing this blog post.
In light of the crap summer that followed it, Norfolk was looking exceptionally pretty in the spring. Mid-Norfolk is often overlooked by visitors, it being primarily a conduit to the better known North Norfolk Coast or Norfolk Broads. Although Wensum Way is remarkable for being another route through, it is just as important as a route that opens up this under explored region of the county.
Although some of the route follows single track C roads, much of the Wensum Way routes you along narrow paths alongside or between doubled hedgerows. Starting at Lenwade (where the hourly Norwich/Fakenham X29 bus sets down), we were shadowed at a distance by the noise of the A1067 Norwich / Fakenham road for the first few miles. Somewhere over the hills to the north was the reminder of this rapid country trunk road along which I’ve now driven many times. The aggregate pits that once fuelled Lenwade’s industry (and the justified the former railway that is now tracked by the Marriott’s Way) are now Sparham Pools, a beautiful nature reserve. The trail continues via the villages of Lyng, Elsing and Swanton Morley, the soft sandy paths and rolling landscape belying the popular misbelief that Norfolk is flat. Leaving Swanton Morley, we ploughed through air thick with the sweet pollen of rape fields, their electric yellow flowers carpeting the landscape around us.The stretch of narrow paths, farm tracks and single track lanes that leads from Swanton Morley to the hamlet of Hoe are perhaps the most beautiful parts of this entire trail.
Hoe Hall is exquisite in its setting, and the southern fringes of Hoe itself are a charming remnant of an estate that once employed many more than it does today.
Between Hoe and Gressenhall, the path crosses the restored Mid-Norfolk Railway, which recently welcomed a High Speed Train as a celebration of the extension of the line’s working length this far north. Although diesel rail cars and heritage trains currently potter up and down the short section of track between Dereham and Wymondham Abbey, this line will eventually reach County School station and perhaps one day be rebuilt as far as Fakenham.
Here, mid-Norfolk reveals its more intensively agricultural side, with a series of large pig farms and orchards framing the path into Gressenhall.
Lunch was partaken at Gressenhall, amongst spring flowers and families out for the bank holiday weekend. At this point the Wensum Way takes a sensible but longwinded diversion to the north to the village of Mileham. With unfit lungs and stiff muscles protesting against a three mile diversion, we proceeded initially down quiet and fully hedged single track lanes before taking our chances on the busier two lane Litcham Road from the parish of Bittering to the village of Litcham. It was here, perhaps five miles short of our destination, that I must confess we conked out. Had it not been such a warm day, had we done some exercising before embarking on this long walk, had the Litcham Bull not had such an enticing selection of real ales, and had the offer of a lift from Litcham not been so available, we might have made it all the way from Lenwade to Castle Acre.
All told, we walked seventeen miles that Bank Holiday Sunday, with a few additional miles the next day from Castle Acre to West Acre and back. I answered my question. I can’t manage it, and we definitely spent more than the equivalent cost of 30 miles’ worth of unleaded fuel in food and drink to get our aching joints barely half the distance I usually drive.
But it was a beautiful day, and the beautiful landscape of mid-Norfolk finally revealed itself.