On the Edge of the North Sea

The waves rolled onto the empty beach, depositing yet more soapy residue to add to the giant bubble party already in progress. I continued along the beach, gusting wind roaring in my ears. Nearby, an oversized seagull watched me impassively from its vantage point atop a rock, then took off to circle vulture-like overhead, waiting for me, its victim, to succumb to the desolation…

Last week saw the family, along with two others meet up on the Norfolk coast for our annual university friends reunion, an institution stretching right back the best part of twenty years now, and religiously celebrated at the start of April each year, that coinciding with the school Easter holidays. Except this year, Easter found me in Edinburgh working, so we had to reschedule for the next best date of half term. As a result this year we exchanged the last remnants of snow in an upland area for some vaguely tolerable conditions at the seaside.

The beach at Sea Palling

Being only a couple of hundred metres from the beach at Sea Palling, the obvious first step was to check the beach itself out, which we duly did on the Sunday. Much jolity was had in walks along the beach (dogs to the right, homo sapiens to the left), the burial of children to thigh level in the sand (later in the week topped by an audacious neck-deep planting of my daughter), and mainly just hanging out with nothing much else particular to do.

Humans and dogs chilling out

The next day a plan was hatched by Mrs Hillplodder to see if we could walk along the beach to the lighthouse at Happisburgh, an edifice that could be seen from our bedroom window. It was late afternoon and the tide was racing in, so the walk wasn’t without some element of uncertainty as we set off. Having reached the southern end of the artificial reefs that protect the low-lying coastline from the rapacious appetite of the North Sea on Sunday, this evening’s walk took us to the northern extent of the protective line. We picked our way along the beach, trying to stick to the firmer sand nearer the hide tide line, and as always marvelling at the things you can find discarded on a beach. Today’s haul included a perfectly rounded-off London house brick, a crab leg and a vacuum cleaner hose.

As close as we could get to the reef

By the last link in the chain of reefs, a sandy projection reached out to touch the rocky ramparts and we found our way blocked by a roped-off area forming an improvised bird sanctuary for the Little Terns (that’s what they’re actually called rather than a term of endearment, given our experiences with their aggressive Arctic cousins in Svalbard last year). Mrs H was concerned that the consequential seawards detour now involved could see us cut off by the approaching tide, so we contented ourselves with walking out to the tip of the remaining sand spit to get a closer look at the reef, and leaving the full lighthouse expedition for another day.

We retraced our steps along the sand, the hour now dawning when the families have all fled the beach, and the next wave of temporary tenants in the form of carousing youths took over.

The next couple of days were a bit grim weather-wise so we retreated to base-camp and did very little apart from making an impressive dent in our supply of teabags, and the two barrels of beer that Cath had helpfully secured from the nearby Adnams shop.

The weather cleared on Wednesday long enough for an attempt at the mighty peak that forms the summit of the world-renowned Norfolk Alps. Being close to the coast, it only seemed right that this epic undertaking be started from sea level, so that the full 103m of it’s towering magnificence could be enjoyed and the difficult climb be done in “good style”. The others scoffing at this dedication to do the job properly waited in the car park, while I toddled down on to the mist-wreathed shoreline to dip my toes.

A bit grim on West Runton beach #sh
A bit grim on West Runton beach

I rejoined the group and we set off up the lane to West Runton, climbing steadily up the road to the station and towards the girdle of trees ringing the hill. Veering right, we followed a muddy path along the bottom of the hill until we joined the Norfolk Coast Path (at this point being nowhere near the actual coast). We climbed up an even muddier sunken path through the trees, somewhat reminiscent of paths on the North Downs, and emerged on the crest of the ridge. A track took us unerringly across the highest point of the ridge, Little Miss Hillplodder deeming it necessary on grounds of the harsh terrain to acquire the assistance of a technical piece of walking equipment known as a STALAG (sticks that are lying about on the ground), a term introduced to me by the excellent blogger Martin Black (@martinxo). As is traditional on these auspicious occasions, this year’s stalag was christened Sergei, with last year’s Serge now but a distant memory.

Through the woods atop Beacon Hill #sh
Through the woods atop Beacon Hill with Little Miss Hillplodder and Sergei

Sadly Sergei’s tenure in the post of preferred stick was short, and he was later found discarded a short way along the track. Not much further we arrived at the site of the roman camp where the summit is, the flagpole denoting it (per the Database of British Hills), despite several nearby earthworks (man-made so don’t count) appearing higher. We took a break and sheltered from the harsh alpine conditions in the convenient summit shelter (two park benches).

Roman Camp #sh
The top of Norfolk

We made our way down via the road, and the expedition fragmented into two groups – the girls heading for the shire horse sanctuary and the boys for the beach. On the way I found a camping shop and spent a few minutes marvelling at the largest variety of tent pegs I’ve ever seen.

From the sea to to summit of Norfolk
From the sea to to summit of Norfolk

The next day also promised to be better conditions, but clearly the populace at large didn’t believe this as the beach was near deserted when I stepped onto it just before midday to walk to today’s objective – the windpump at Horsey. Cath had set off about half an hour before me, taking the same route and muttering something about “training for the 10 in 10”, largely on the strength of how much Mrs Hillplodder’s legs hurt after the walk along the sand earlier in the week.

A deserted beach

A look to my left made it clear why the beach wasn’t proving popular today. The sea boiled and seethed and just gave out the vibe of being really pissed off whilst a stiff headwind tried to compete in the “which of the elements is angrier stakes”. None of this bothered me though, and a walk along the empty strand without having to dodge people, dogs or balls was welcome. It was a proper bracing walk and just the ticket to blow the remaining Edinburgh-induced cobwebs from the mind

The angry sea

Once again I stuck to the line of firmer sand roughly corresponding to the high tide mark, but this was made difficult by the acres of dirty foam spread across the beach. Wading through this being a bit mucky but otherwise harmless until I came to where scattered boulders had replaced missing groynes and I found myself lurching suddenly in dips between the rocks and basically not able to see where I was walking. At this point common sense overcame the desire to maintain the elemental experience, and I detoured to the top of the beach where necessary.

Acres of foam

I got into my stride and settled into simply enjoying the walk, my mind empty of everything except the heightened awareness of nature taking place around me. Cath later reported having seen seals, but clearly she scared them off as I saw none. The waves rolled onto the empty beach, depositing yet more soapy residue to add to the giant bubble party already in progress. I continued along the beach, gusting wind roaring in my ears. Nearby, an oversized seagull watched me impassively from its vantage point atop a rock, then took off to circle vulture-like overhead, waiting for me, its victim, to succumb to the desolation. All good things have to come to an end though, and almost before I knew it I’d reached Horsey gap, and I headed inland for the road and the rendezvous at the windpump.

Horsey Windpump #sh
Horsey windpump

With the whole group reassembled, we mooched around the environs of the windpump before returning to the car park and home. Cath, however, wanted to repeat the experience of the walk to the pump and set off alone for the return journey. We passed her again at Horsey gap in another failed attempt to spot seals.

Along the Shore
Along the Shore

Having promised ourselves one really long training walk during the week, Friday came and it couldn’t be put off any longer. Pre-holiday the idea had been to do the Weaver’s Way, or at least a section of it, and as no better ideas had emerged, we fixed upon a simple plan of walking home from Acle, to the west of Great Yarmouth, using the Weaver’s Way for most of the route. Rough measuring with a highly complex instrument (my fingers) showed this to be a certain 15-miler, possibly a tad more, and therefore, fulfilled the key criterion of being long. Accordingly, Mrs Hillplodder deposited Cath and I in downtown Acle, and we began the lengthy process of the homeward trudge. But not without Cath struggling with getting Viewranger to work and actually send beacons to Social Hiking, something we never quite resolved satisfactorily. Mine, however, was working fine, and I had the backup of the track recording in minute detail on my Suunto.

Acle is prominent in memory as it was where we had the cess tank emptied on our first holiday in the Broads. with this foremost in the mind, we headed for the staithe and picked up the first waymarker for the Weaver’s Way.

On the Weaver's Way near Acle #sh
Picking up the Weaver’s Way near Acle

On such a glorious day, we skipped along the grassy banks of the River Bure until we came to the road bridge where we crossed and switched to the other bank – necessary if we were to head north rather than be trapped by the absence of crossing points into a westward excursion. The path, such as it was, remained largely of trampled grass and it became apparent that the Weaver’s Way isn’t that well used – indeed from several boating holidays in the Broads I remember it being unusual to see people walking the banks except to get from their boats to the pub and back. This did mean that the local wildlife had fairly free rein and all around us dragon flies, rabbits and butterflies went about their business.

On the other bank nearing the confluence with the River Thurne

With a bit less to see, heads went down and we began to eat up the miles, arriving at South Oby Dyke.

At South Oby Dyke #sh
At South Oby Dyke

Now we headed inland (from the river anyway, actually we were heading towards the coast!) and negotiated fields for a while to bring us to Thurne, where it was declared an official ice cream stop (Norfolk gooseberry). We rejoined the river, now the Thurne and the quieter waters and riverbanks of this less major waterway, and slogged it out for Potter Heigham. Pleased as we were to see the first signs of the start of Potter Heigham in the shape of the myriad of waterside huts and holiday homes, I knew from cruising these waters that these went on for ages. To make it worse, lunchtime was well nigh and hayfever was starting to come to the surface, medications having been missed before setting out. With relief I saw traffic crossing the river ahead, denoting the new bridge, which meant the old bridge was very soon indeed. We reached the bridge and had an illicit chip lunch.

At Potter Heigham #sh
Potter Heigham Old Bridge
Lunch on the staithe #sh
Lunch on the staithe

Now the painful part of the walk began as we continued up the Thurne, heading for Hickling. Paths became more encroached upon by weeds and nettles, and hayfever was getting worse, despite the realisation that relief was available in my first aid kit, as having been administered it seemed to have only minimal effect. Our progress was marked by much sneezing and streaming of eyes. We were also in the usual post-lunch energy dip, and this didn’t help as we ground out the miles. At some point I looked at the route gradient profile on my watch:

Today’s gradient profile #sh
Today’s gradient profile

In the distance I could just make out Horsey windpump at the end of Horsey Mere, and the realisation that we were almost within a comfortable walk of home didn’t seem to help much. But as the route turned away from Hickling Broad and dropped us unceremoniously on the road for the drag into Hickling, I found strength returning to my legs. This is unusual as normally hitting the tarmac is death to tired legs and feet. But on this occasion not having to wade through undergrowth and having firm footing below seemed to act as a spur, and pace crept back up to a more acceptable level. Even so we staggered into Hickling feeling tired and in desperate need of the ice cream stop we’d promised ourselves.

Hickling #sh
Hickling staithe

Typical then that no ice cream shops were to be found, although we could probably have wheedled one out of the two pubs we passed – but that was too big a temptation in other ways. We reached the centre of Hickling, spied a bus stop and went to “investigate”. We’d just missed a bus and had just over an hour until the next – a ten minute journey that would get us home for 7pm. I reckoned we could walk it in the time, and it felt wrong not to attempt, so we shouldered packs again and slogged it out through the country lanes to Sea Palling, arriving almost on the dot of 7pm, and the Suunto recording a total distance of 19 miles. Rather worringly we’ve got to do most of that plus a shed load of ascent on the 10 in 10. I can tell that’s not going to be easy.

Hickling church #sh
Hickling church
A chunk of the Weaver's Way
A chunk of the Weaver’s Way

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