Day Three – Stalham to Thurne
The Broadsedge Marina at Stalham is a very peaceful place, we enjoyed a restful night in the new camping area here before packing up our tent in the early morning sunshine. As we left, children in school uniforms were emerging from moored boats that seemed to be their families’ summer homes – what fun! With the sky already greying and a forecast of heavy rain later, we ambled through the sleepy town and along a web of quiet lanes before trekking off over the fields to Sutton Mill.
Here we were confronted for the first of several times on the Weavers Way by one of the strangest mysteries of Broadland – why the distinctive and historic windmills so characteristic of this landscape have in many cases been allowed to fall into dereliction. Each individual mill has its own unique issues of course – ownership, access, structure – but over the last few decades their shambolic condition has been so universal that some over-arching policy or regulatory problems must surely have been involved. Hopefully these are now easing and more recently there are signs of progress under the auspices of Water, Mills and Marshes: the Broads Landscape Partnership.
Sutton Mill was built in 1789 and in 1982 it was still the tallest windmill in Britain. Until 2008 it was a museum. Now it stands tall but sad, its sails and cap removed in 2014 and its future seemingly uncertain. [Update – it was hoped this mill would be restored to house a National Milling and Millwrighting Academy but in 2018 the funding bid failed and it seems Sutton Mill will now become a private home]. The trail skirts the mill through a strangely urban concrete underpass, into which someone had thrown some unpicturesque ceramic waste including an old toilet and some eerily disembodied feet.
The trail is henceforth a series of contrasts. Quite a long stretch of road walking took us through the pretty village of Hickling (where there’s a pub and allegedly a BnB). The current Weavers Way route now takes the long way around past the staithe (where there may be another pub), rather than the previous short cut down Heath Road as shown on my old OS map. In bad weather I’d revert to the short cut.
Ignoring one of Norfolk’s less attractive public footpaths (left), the trail then leaves the lanes onto one of its wildest sections. Hickling Broad is huge and beautiful and was recently secured by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust after a successful appeal. Sadly, although giving a good flavour of its surrounding fens, nowhere does the Weavers Way deliver us even a hint of the broad itself’s extent and atmosphere, let alone a proper view of the water.
The interesting and diverse nature reserve on the north-east side with its famous Cranes and winter raptors must await another day, we must instead trudge around the much quieter south-east corner, past Heigham Sound. Still, sandwiched between the foregoing farms and roads and the forthcoming tourism, this amounts to a pleasantly wild interlude.
Again, my old OS map shows a short cut off along Middle Wall but now the official trail goes all the way along Candle Dyke to the River Thurne then turns south-west along its bank, which is, in the third of the quick succession of contrasts, lined with diverse and rather funky holiday shacks. After the sadness of Sutton it was good to see High’s Mill under ambitious (and expensive-looking) restoration, and that Repp’s Mill has obviously been a much-loved home for some time, although in Norfolk I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a second one.
Potter Heigham with its famous old bridge is something of a holiday metropolis and has a reputation among Norfolk residents as a bit of a tourist trap. Hence we were slightly surprised to find that the food at Bridgestones was really lovely, genuine family grub, freshly cooked and cheerfully served in a pleasant atmosphere. In fact we keep saying we must get in the car and go there again just for lunch, but then thirty miles, a distance many Americans would routinely drive to get a pizza, is considered a once in a lifetime expedition in Norfolk.
Leaving Potter Heigham, the trail follows the Thurne into what is now, finally, the classic Broadland landscape. The waterways are invisible, so yachts appear to be sailing through dry fields. More derelict mills punctuate the horizon like sore thumbs. The massive backdrop of the sky dominates your view and your consciousness.
The campsite at Thurne is quite a dogleg off the trail and annoyingly its location is clearly visible but completely inaccessible, on the far side of the marshy fields, for several miles.
Thurne Mill is in reassuringly good shape (above) and the village pub had even reopened (July 2017) although we didn’t call in as the rain was clearly imminent and we needed to get our tent up. The campsite is a very hands-off affair, you need to book in advance and pay by bank transfer, even though it turned out we were the only tent there. In fact we didn’t see another human being during our entire sojourn, apart from one chap briefly exercising dogs on the field (thankfully with plastic bag in hand) between the downpours.
Seconds after we pitched up, the heavens opened. It poured and poured, luckily we’d had a big lunch at PH so didn’t need to venture out. There’s nothing better than snuggling up with your loved one in a compact but reliable tent, while stair-rod rain hammers on the flysheet and cocoa warms on the stove*. A happy day on the Weavers Way, and an early night in preparation for the longest walk and the wildest landscape tomorrow.
*as everyone knows, cooking in a tent is lethally hazardous and universally deprecated, so don’t do it kids.