It seems incredible that a whole year has gone by since on June 5th 2019 I ambled with unusual optimism off my own front doorstep and onto the first long distance hike I’ve ever devised myself.
It was to be my best and most unique adventure yet, the summer weather would be perfect. To mark six decades on this planet I would walk from my home near Sheringham to my parents’ home at Bangor, North Wales, arriving on the morning of my 60th birthday to a hero’s welcome in the bosom of my family.
My birthday is the longest day of the year, hence at some point during the planning phase this walk became known as Andrew’s ‘Cosmic Solstice Rebirth Pilgrimage’.
After days of squinting at screens and clicking mice I’d successfully pieced together a novel but feasible-looking route, the terrain would be mostly flat, the nights would be warm, what could go wrong?
I was so pleased with my cunning plan I’d started imagining I could even produce a guidebook. I could call my trail ‘The Whole Sherbang’ – Sheringham to Bangor. Of course, everyone would then ask why I hadn’t extended my walk to its logical conclusion, to Holyhead via the coast path around Anglesey. I’d have to admit that after 320 wet and sore-footed miles I’d been taken there in a car for my birthday dinner.
A year later I’m finally able to remember this hike with something approaching equanimity. It was a bit of a struggle. Not because the idea was bad or the route a dud, but due to two bits of bad luck.
My carefully chosen trail shoes (a brand I knew and trusted but a model new to me) started to fall apart after just a few training walks. At the last minute based on a dodgy recommendation I bought new shoes of an unfamiliar make. By day three I had blisters and by half way a bloody open wound on one foot. There were days on this hike when, with every step I took, sweat literally popped from my brow with the pain.
Still, for the first three days the weather was perfect; I strolled along with a light heart.
Then, as I awoke from a short night in a foetal position on a sea wall and surrounded by angry cattle, the rain started.
For the next ten days it hammered down and hardly stopped. I’d chosen to hike across Britain through the wettest June on record. I had only lightweight gear and no tent, just a bivy bag and micro-tarp. Twelve months on, as I type this memory, an uncontrollable shiver passes through me. Pardon me, I must pause for a hot mug of tea and to find an extra woolly.
It’s surprisingly tricky to plot a route across the centre of Britain from east to west, even by road. Most of our well-worn routes run north-south along the spine of the island, radiate from London or follow the coast. Nobody travels in a straight line across the middle, unless they’re daft enough to live in Norfolk and have family in North Wales. In which case they soon discover that each of the half a dozen possible driving routes is equally wiggly and indirect. There is, obviously, no designated hiking trail.
There were macro- and micro-geographical issues. At the macro level I had great difficulty deciding just how to thread my way between the cities and towns of central England.
Only on a recce trip (mainly to find out how on earth I’d get across the M1) did I finally realise that the Grantham Canal provided a legitimate and level footpath into the heart of England. The basic route which then snapped into place at either end of that waterway formed a more or less flat and more or less entirely rural corridor all the way from King’s Lynn to Llangollen. This map shows my route from home to the canal.
In England and Wales there’s no general right of access to the countryside, walkers are limited to the Public Footpaths shown on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps. After several frustrating attempts to plot my route from paper maps in Norwich library I spent actual money on a subscription to the OS app. This enabled me to piece together footpaths into a route on my PC then download the resulting GPX files to my phone.
Job done, except that at the micro level there were several niggling little gaps in my spidery string of footpaths and in particular it was a bit of a mystery from the map exactly how I’d get across several other busy major roads. Oh well, I’d just have to cross those when I came to them.
All that remained was to find places to sleep. Oh dear, there weren’t any, apart from a very few AirBnB’s in unlikely locations. It became clear that to make the trip affordable and the route anything like a straight line across Britain I’d have to camp out illegitimately in whatever dodgy spot I could find at dusk every other night or so, regrouping in an AirBnB or other budget digs in between. Had it not been for AirBnBs and two kind hosts in particular I’d have given up. AirBnB saved the whole Sherbang.
Norfolk and The Wash
I’m lucky to have the Norfolk Coast Path National Trail on my doorstep and although not the shortest route out of Norfolk it made the obvious start to my adventure.
Topography is not a feature of the Norfolk Coast Path but wildlife is. Near where an Avocet was fussing noisily I saw a clump of dumped fishing line with some nasty rusty hooks. I went to pick it up. Two paces ahead of me I suddenly saw the eggs, three tiny precious lives, absurdly vulnerable and blood-warm to the touch.
Luckily there were no gulls but when I’d walked 20 yards further one suddenly moseyed in off the sea, heading towards the nest. I shouted and waved my sticks, the gull got the idea and veered off. Mrs Avocet sidled back onto her nest. With all the disturbance and predators, Avocet productivity in North Norfolk is pretty poor.
This exceptional landscape is my routine walk ’round the block’, hence I’m afraid most of my attention was focused on what I was going to order for my early supper in the wonderful Platten’s fish and chip shop at Wells-next-the-Sea.
Once past Wells I was off my patch, the adventure proper had started. In particular I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to spend my first night. Wild camping isn’t officially encouraged in this neck of the woods, it would be necessary to do so discretely, pitching late in the day and keeping an eye peeled for His Lordship’s minions.
The need to sleep in marginal locations was the main reason I’d decided to bivy and micro-tarp, rather than pitch a tent. A bivy and tarp you can uproot and shift in short order and you leave even less trace of your passing. Because the tarp needs so much less tension than a tent, you can doss down in a sand dune with the guys just tied to clumps of grass; no one will ever know you’ve slept there.
I never, ever, light fires on anyone else’s land and on this lightweight hike I wasn’t even carrying a stove, so I had no fear of causing any damage. Nonetheless in this particular spot I had to be quite circumspect. As the hike went on and I became more wet, cold and disconsolate I started to take more risks, in hope of a night in a warm, dry police cell.
The next section of the Coast Path takes you through what most people consider to be the classic North Norfolk, the Burnhams (aka ‘Chelsea On Sea’), Brancaster and Titchwell, Thornham, Holme with its huge and beautiful beach and then Sunny Hunny.
One thing I spent a lot of time doing on this walk was visiting churches, and on Facebook I posted lots of pictures. This is all very well when you’re posting news on the hoof once a day but on a blog they’d pile up interminably. You’ll have to trust me, on this hike I saw lots of interesting things in lots of old churches.
It’s quite a hike round the northwest corner of Norfolk into Hunstanton but even so I was dismayed to find I had blisters already. I had to head up the high street to top up my first aid supplies in the useful shops, bearing in mind there’d be no more for several days. That was also a good excuse for some more excellent fish and chips.
The next morning a cool breeze had sprung up so at breakfast time I was grateful for the shelter of a hide at Snettisham bird reserve. Thank you RSPB, I am a fully paid-up member!
One of the biggest headaches in planning this walk was trying to work out whether I could walk along the coast from Snettisham to King’s Lynn. I spent ages enquiring of locals and official bodies and got only non-commital mumblings back. It turns out you can, but you can’t.
Physically you probably still can, and there are some who have done so in recent memory. Legally and in all likelihood practically you probably can’t, the land is allegedly owned by the Royal family and the sea wall unavailable to walkers for security reasons. You can try, people say, but you’ll probably get turned back, especially if any Royals are in residence at Sandringham. It seemed more sensible to follow the official route inland, not least because at Dersingham there’s a lovely big Co-Op for a proper breakfast.
You’d think walking through the Sandringham Estate would be straightforward but in fact it’s extremely confusing and for the first time I was glad of the GPS. You don’t get a view of the house either. Once you finally escape from the royal demesne and cross the main road at Babingley you do stumble across a strange and unexpected little orthodox church.
The pub at Castle Rising had recently re-opened after a refurbishment which has rather poshed the place up, but the beer was still delicious and refreshing. South Wooton church is also very interesting. A friendly lady gardening the graveyard encouraged me to contemplate the famous ‘Parish Bier’. Sadly this was neither delicious nor refreshing, being some sort of medieval stretcher for carrying corpses. Surely I can’t have looked in need of that already?
King’s Lynn is quite large and by Norfolk standards pretty urban; I had to pick my way through shopping estates and down narrow streets of terraced housing past young families – it was home-time from school. Hectic types were out in force in Wetherspoons even though it was only four o’clock but I nonethless very much enjoyed my first Mixed Grill of the hike.
It was then necessary to cross the accurately named Great Ouse by the quirky passenger ferry which has been operating since time immemorial. At low tide the ambience of this brief journey is rendered even more medieval. For most of the crossing the operators endearingly wade through the ooze pushing the boat by hand, presumably to save a teaspoon of petrol.
I then had to trek for absolutely miles around The Wash along the Peter Scott Walk, otherwise know as the top of the sea wall. This walk seems to go on for ever although on this occasion it was enlivened by my being attacked by five miniature Pinschers while I was trying peacefully to have a tinkle in a nettle patch. A disconcerting experience on multiple levels.
As I got further out of town the quantity of Hemlock increased; luckily the path had been cut or I’d have been pushing through a forest of the lethal stuff. I then, on passing through a gate, discovered that the sea wall was now inhabited by curious and feisty cattle that became strongly interested in me. For not the last time on this walk, I started to wonder whether my red jacket was a good idea.
As I’d been hoping to find a peaceful spot to sleep quite soon their unwanted company was disappointing. It got steadily darker and cooler. Still the cattle accompanied me and in a not altogether companionable way.
Finally as it was getting dark and I was getting exhausted I passed through another ramshackle gate that seemed to deter the cattle somewhat, although they then gathered to stare and bellow at me from across some feeble looking strands of wire. Undaunted, I rigged my tarp on what appeared to be an only slightly sloping section of sea wall.
As I lay down and compressed the tall vegetation it became clear that this was actually a quite steeply sloping section of sea wall.
It rained in the night; to stay vaguely dry I had to jam myself in a foetal position against a trekking pole. This was my last night in Norfolk and it was mythically awful, but much worse was to come.