Wednesday 31 March 2021

Feet of Clay

Here's the final part of my 2016 journey along the Wherry Lines.

I hope Norwich won't mind me saying this, but it's not a 24/7 city.  It's large and important but it's still, in many ways, a quiet country town.  It meant that while the route from my hotel to the station was littered with the detritus from a wild Saturday night - scattered chip boxes, empty glasses on pelican crossing boxes, the odd splash of vomit - the town itself was silent and quiet.  Nothing was open.  My breakfast options were limited.  

In the end I went for a sandwich and a bottle of Coke from the newsagents and ate it on the train out to Buckenham.  It's a request stop and one of the quietest stations in Britain.  Not only is it in the middle of nowhere, with its busiest neighbour an RSPB reserve, but it only receives a service at the weekends.  It's a combination that made me think I'd be the only person disembarking but no, there was a keen twitcher getting off the train with me, wearing khaki and carrying a backpack and a camera.  

My companion headed straight for the marshes while my mobile rang; he must've thought I was a terrible oik, coming out into the beautiful hinterlands and gassing on the phone.  It was the BF, who'd seen I was out and about and was calling to let me know that he was about to have a lazy Sunday of doing nothing.  I exchanged a few harsh words then took the sign picture and headed off on my way.

It had been another wild night of rain and thunder but it seemed to be holding off for now.  I walked north on puddle strewn tarmac, empty of all traffic.  The only sign of life was the occasional bit of horse dung deposited across the road.  It was all so cheering, so refreshing, so... boring.  I mean, yes, lovely countryside, but there was nothing to look at, no hills, no features, and high hedges either side of the road meant I felt hemmed in most of the time.  

It did mean I didn't dawdle.  I passed through Buckenham itself with barely a pause, then I was off towards the hamlet of Hassingham.  The church bells had started but they were hesitant, the occasional clang, perhaps a warm up for the ringers before they got fully into it.  Get their yanking muscles in gear.

I was on autopilot really, stomping along, so it came as a bit of a surprise to realise my path was blocked.

A long stretch of waterlogged road, no pavement, hedges blocking any way of going around.  No chance of me jumping it.  No option but to push through it.  I moved to the edge, hoping that would be the shallowest part, but after only a couple of steps I felt the squish of water flooding into my walking boots.  Not even an hour into my day and I had wet socks.  Angrily I stomped through the rest of it - in for a penny, etc - and came out the other side with brown mud splattered shins and a squelch in my walk.

What made it worse was I was so close to civilisation.  I was soon on a busy, straight road, walking towards Cantley, a lump of suburbia in the Broads.  Instead of large farmhouses set back from the road there were polite crescents with bungalows and two cars on the drive.  

I staggered to the station and took a seat to empty some of the liquid out of my shoes.  It was a station from a picture book.  Curved white wooden awnings over the buildings, level crossing gates across the track that were straight out of a Hornby layout, carefully tended embankments of flowers.

The level crossing provided the main route to Cantley's big claim to fame, its sugar beet factory.  This was one of the first places in Britain to successfully harvest sugar beet and it continues to do so today.  It was  a pleasingly old world factory.  Some of its shipments are still sent by boat down the River Yare, and I enjoyed the idea that it was cut off every once in a while when they opened the level crossing for trains.

Of course I was hopelessly early so I settled in to wait.  A few minutes before it was due the platform was flooded with villagers, clearly well-practised at arriving at leaving their homes at exactly the right moment for the train.  The signalman came down from his cabin and began to manually move the gates.  I wondered how long he had left; how long until this was all automated and a camera and a computer took over his duties.

At Somerleyton station a sign told me to Watch Your Bags.  I thought it was unlikely that this was a hotbed for petty robbery, and on a closer inspection, it became even more preposterous; passengers were being asked to stay alert for unattended bags that might be bombs.

The idea that there were Islamist militants hell bent on destroying Somerleyton was preposterous.  You could've exploded a nuclear bomb on the platform, wiping out everything within a mile, and you'd still only kill about four people and a cow.  I walked off the platform - obviously looking out for suicide bombers the whole time - and into the dark, tree lined bowl that surrounds the station.

When I'd sat at home, excitedly planning this trip with Ordnance Survey maps and train timetables, I'd taken for granted that it would be warm and pleasant.  It was June in Norfolk, it'd be lovely!  And yes, it was remarkably sunny for the most part - you can see how bronzed I'd turned in that picture up there.  But the overnight rain had put a stick in my spokes.  My plan from Somerleyton to Oulton Broad had been a walk along the Angles Way, a long-distance footpath that goes from Great Yarmouth to Thetford.  This section was a stretch of heavily wooded country paths, well away from the roads.  It was, in short, probably going to be a quagmire.

I might have considered going a different route on another day.  Find a clear, hard road to walk on.  With my still-damp socks though, I figured it couldn't get any worse.  Mud?  Mud was nothing.  I'd waded through a pond already that day.  I walked through the back of a farmyard and plunged into the dark forest.

For a while I avoided the worst.  It was a path-cum-track for vehicles, so I could leap about, dodging the puddles that had gathered in the ruts.  I was a fair old Nijinsky, vaulting from one side to the other, going on my toes to minimise my footfall as I went through another morass.  It wasn't going too bad.

Then the path narrowed. 

It was more difficult to avoid the puddles now, and I occasionally wobbled dangerously, at risk of tumbling in.  Worse, this stretch was popular with bikers of some sort - I guessed those annoying little dirt bikes they used to have on Kick Start that sound like an angry lawnmower - and they'd churned up what little earth wasn't covered in water.  Soon my feet were two large, moving lumps of clay, heavy and clunky, and I wasn't so much hiking as doing a great impression of Frankenstein's Monster.  

Of course, this was all almost marshland anyway, ready to be flooded by an inch of high water.  At some point the Council had finally realised that it might not be ideal walking conditions for roughly eleven months of the year and had laid a wooden bridge over the soggiest of the soil.

I stopped for a while to kick off the worst of the mud and to scrape some more on the edge of the wood, then tromped on, my footsteps sounding incredibly loud.  It eventually turfed me out at the edge of a field and I walked for a while with a breeze rustling the crops beside me.  I felt alone, the good alone, the happy with your own company alone, so it was surprise to come across a single cottage, tucked among the trees and the hedges.  A single track went from its front gate into the distance and I wondered who'd live out here in this isolation.  I bet their broadband is awful.

If my previous stroll had been a gentle woodland walk, I was about to be plunged into the dark forest.  I crossed a wooden footbridge and was submerged into a world of high trees and thick ferns.  The steady signposted path seemed to evaporate, replaced by twisted forks - turn that way to get back, cross over there and run parallel, all going the same direction but not perhaps efficiently.

I had no idea where I was, only the vague direction I needed to travel in, but it was cool and pleasant and I was in no hurry.  I took in the soft light and the shapes of the trees, the noise of birds, the dark ponds that followed me.  It was that simple English nature, gently managed by humans but more or less left to itself, never wild and dangerous but politely dark.  

There was another footbridge, and stood on it was a golden retriever, the world's cuddliest bridge troll.  He looked at me quizzically, and then I saw his owners behind him, a neat couple in their twenties.  I realised I must look a state, like a shipwrecked man staggering into civilisation, so I smiled and said "morning" and hurried past them.  At least now I knew I was near the end of the walk.

The path turfed me out to of the copse and onto the edge of some fields, and then it became the back of some garages and I was in town.  Or as "town" as it got round here; there were still trees and grass and a red phone box converted into a board for parish notices.  It was more people than nature, but there was equilibrium.

This was Camps Heath, right on the edge of Oulton, and still clinging to its village status in the face of encroaching development.  I paused to admire the parish church, another of those simple East Anglia buildings, just a tower with wings and stone walls.  No Gothic elaborations or fussy flourishes; a plain place of worship.

I followed a track behind a family of enthusiastic hikers - they had walking poles, even the kids, so you knew they were serious - and crossed the railway to reach Oulton proper.  Now it was moneyed middle-class, big semis that housed the Suffolk equivalent of Margot Leadbetter, all mock-tudor and grass verges.  Most of them boasted extensions to turn them from large three bedrooms into gargantuan four or five; the light glinted off the Velux windows of a dozen loft conversions.

Towards the railway, where it was a bit less desirable, the semis became bungalows for retirees, and I followed it for a while.  There was a subway under the tracks with a sign warning No Horse Riding which I would've taken as a challenge if I lived round here, sending my champion steed galloping through the underpass.  But then I was at Oulton Broad itself and everything seemed calm.

It's astonishing how an expanse of water uplifts and cheers you.  I remember reading some psychologist theorising that the reason humans enjoyed beach holidays was because our primeval instincts were drawing us back to the oceans we came from; absolute rubbish, of course, but when you stare out over a stretch of calm lake or sea it's hard not to feel happy.

Oulton Broad is a long wide expanse of water, the southern limit of the Broads and a popular place to moor.  I'd been here before, on the Holiday from Hell, mooring at the southern edge.  I remembered it mainly for a furious row between two of my fellow passengers, with one of them threatening to go to the station and get a train and never come back.  Frankly I'm surprised I'm not blacklisted my the county of Suffolk and turned away at the border for being part of that public show.  It's about twenty-four years since that holiday, and we've lost touch with the other travellers - one died, sadly, while the other two drifted away.  (One of those two, it turned out later, absolutely hated my guts and tried to poison the BF against me, so frankly that was no loss).  Still, it was fun to think back over the holiday, now that I knew it would never, ever happen again.

I'd have liked a pint to finish the day off, but it was a Sunday lunchtime in June.  Every pub around the Broad was heaving with punters and I realised that even if I did find a seat there, I'd have had to endure poisonous glances from families wanting a roast and being denied by one porky loser drinking a lager.  Instead I followed the path round the shore and found a bench to drink the remainder of my Coke and watch.

I felt at peace.  I remembered my stressed, despair-filled self from a couple of days ago outside Acle, crying by the side of a dual carriageway.  It had largely slipped away.  It had been replaced by a gentle calm, the wonderful side effect of country station collecting.  I realised the boredom I'd felt earlier had been a side effect of adjusting to a new pace; one I'd acclimatised the boredom had vanished.  The Wherry Lines had entertained me and soothed me (and in the case of Yarmouth, repulsed me) and I was glad to have seen the Broads from a different perspective.

I creakily raised myself out of the seat and walked the short distance to Oulton Broad North station.  (There's also an Oulton Broad South, but that will have to wait for when I decide to collect the East Suffolk Line).  It lay at the end of a strip of chip shops and takeaways, a single building and a couple of platforms and another level crossing.  I'd barely made it there before the sirens began to wail; no room to loiter.  It was time to head home.

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