My adopted home county of Norfolk was of minority interest as a potential hiking destination among walkers I met in the Pennines and Scotland. ‘Too flat’, they said. Locals will quite correctly protest that much of Norfolk is in fact not ‘flat’, not in the sense that the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are flat anyway, but, to be fair, nobody can deny that as a county it isn’t high.
Sitting here writing, I’m actually looking at a hill, a genuine hill of fascinating geomorphology and with views for many miles. It proudly bears, hidden among Blackthorn, the ninth highest Trig Point in Norfolk at a whopping 78 metres.
Norfolk’s highest Trig Point, Piggs Grave (it had to be called something like that), is at 101 metres and the summit of the whole county stretches on tiptoe to just 103 metres above the sea. Of the 48 ceremonial counties of England just nine have highest points under 200 metres. The four contiguous counties of East Anglia are four of the five lowest: Essex, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and at number 47, Norfolk. Only the City of London (highest point 22 metres) is lower.
I’m no summit bagger, hence I happily embrace my county’s topographical distinction. For one thing, it takes very little effort to find a view. From even the most meagre bump or hummock (or church tower, and they’re everywhere) there will often be an amazing panorama.
Much of this visual feast will comprise a vast cloudscape of constantly changing beauty. The sky’s the aesthetic limit here and one of the most vivid ways to experience this is to drive down from the east Pennines and South Yorkshire, through the rolling farmland and forest of North Nottinghamshire, to Newark. As you descend towards Lincolnshire the sky opens out in front of you like a gigantic book, always a moving experience for homecoming flatlanders.
Rolled over this landscape are further layers of oddness that render it quite otherworldly to anyone used to, say, the typical views from the Pennines. To those whose appreciation of landscape was forged on the anvils of ancient rocks and fired in the crucibles of our northern conurbations, Norfolk appears not only quaintly rural but strangely friable, a shifty, indistinct sort of a place, tricky to define and slippery to hold onto.
This is partly due to its surprising diversity – Norfolk has several large and quite distinct landscape compartments – but also its extraordinary history as the meeting point of England’s youngest and most dynamic geology and its oldest and most static economy. The original conjunction was no coincidence: a flat land of dry climate, good soil and tame, navigable rivers was an obvious choice for pre-industrial habitation.
Above all, flints are everywhere. Counter-intuitively rocks were of little day to day use to stone age people – how could they be worked? What they needed was stones. Flints were literally hard currency and the Neolithic mines of Norfolk are among the world’s oldest sites of organised mass production. Some of the wealthiest industrialists on the planet lived here five thousand years ago.
The rise of metals was the rise of the rocks: in the Bronze Age, hills gave us not only ores but sanctuaries from more deadly and efficient warfare. Rocklessness is one of the most striking aspects of the Norfolk landscape. Our sea cliffs are soft and collapsible, our homes, barns and churches were built from beach pebbles and roofed with plants. Nonetheless the flat land of East Anglia where crops and beasts could so efficiently be raised was still of pre-eminent value, as the Romans wisely recognised in locating their capital at Colchester.
In the 5th century the Angles craved and settled this uniquely productive land, bringing its name – England (Anglia in Latin). Then the Vikings did too and it was the breadbasket of the Danelaw between 869 and 918. In the late medieval and early modern periods Norfolk dominated four of England’s most important industries – coastal shipping, food production, textiles and religion. Hence Norwich became the second city of England and the Duke of Norfolk the premier earl of the Realm. He remains hereditary Earl Marshall, responsible for organising coronations.
Our ecclesiastical built heritage is second to nowhere in England. Even the tiniest hamlets in Norfolk (including several that have scarcely existed for centuries, obliterated by the Black Death) boast improbably vast and unimaginably costly medieval churches. Often these contain elaborate tombs of the Lord Mayors of London who had their weekend places here – a tradition that started early. One of my own present day neighbours has held that ancient office.
What made this land so much wealthier than other flat, productive places – the plains of York or Fife, say? It came down – literally- to another distinctive aspect of the landscape, the ubiquity and accessibility of the sea. For most of human history, roads have been nonexistent or at best useless for transporting heavy goods. Before canals and railways, every commodity of any bulk or weight went by sea or river, on barges or small coasters, dragged, punted, rowed or sailed.
Norfolk not only has the shallow and eminently navigable North Sea on three of its four sides (soft, low coasts too, for the most part, with numerous creeks and small havens), its landmass is deeply penetrated by the sea’s salty fingers, a debatable benefit in a winter storm surge but economically transformative. An often overlooked fact about Norfolk is that it’s a profoundly maritime place, as recently recognised by the County Council with its faintly laughable but in a wider historical sense informative slogan ‘Nelson’s County’.
Even our apparently most landlocked town, the border bastion of Thetford, owes its ancient history as an entrepôt and centre of faith (its castle mound is iron age, its ruined priory huge) to the confluence of the Icknield Way and two rivers that today appear trivially small but for thousands of years were vital navigable connections to the Wash and the Channel. A short cut, in other words, between the heart of England and the Continent, and one that enriched many merchants whose elaborate wooden and thatched manor houses, cruck barns and stockades have been entirely erased from history.
Simply put, before the discovery of America and the rise of Atlantic trade, the east coast was where England’s sophisticated international economy happened. Our most important exports were locally grown grain and wool, the latter from the western hills but processed in and shipped to Flanders from Norfolk – why lug it by barge or ox cart any further south?
The coastal trade with the northern coal ports and the Baltic was enormous too and the North Sea had a huge fishery. Norfolk’s dominance of both the fishing and the continental trade resulted in regular conflict with Channel ports further south. In 1297 an actual sea battle between the men of Norfolk and the Cinque Ports cost 25 ships and 200 lives! Edward I, who relied on both quarrelling factions for his intermittently conscripted navy, was furious. Until 1662 the jealous barons of the said ports still ceremonially exercised rights granted in their Charter of 1155 to supervise the annual Yarmouth herring fair and there to sound ‘the brasen horn of saylence’. I’m not making this stuff up.
Then came the industrial revolution, ocean-going ships and the empire, all of which almost entirely bypassed Norfolk. In the meantime, our once teeming ports had silted up, fishing at Yarmouth only kept viable by the repeated dredging of new havens. Hence the whole county now has the appearance and feeling of being strangely frozen in time.
We have virtually no factories, no extensive polycentric towns and only one city which remains largely medieval in layout and is virtually invisible from any distance, in the absence of hills. Surprisingly, given our history, we didn’t have a university until 1963. At a fateful meeting in 1350, the prelates of Norwich Cathedral (of the Holy Trinity) decided against using some of their huge wealth to found their own college. They went instead for synergy, endowing Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge which was only a day’s ride away and already up and running.
The agricultural sector remains innovative and remunerative (and depressingly intensive) but apart from tourism that’s about it for the economy here. Consequently our landscape is low-key in more ways than one. Rural Norfolk is pretty quiet and despite being nowhere wild and rugged, by the standards of crowded, busy England it remains almost uniquely bucolic in a watery sort of way.
It follows from all the above that Norfolk is a great place to go for a walk, but there’s one slight problem. Tourism has been highly developed in the county for decades and there’s all kinds of popular and well-established ways to enjoy a wonderful holiday here. Unfortunately until very recently lightweight backpacking hasn’t been one of them.
British backpackers like hills, so Norfolk has been low on their radar. Due to the historically intensive agriculture and persisting feudal patterns of land ownership rights of way for walkers are still noticeably scarcer than in other parts of England. Leisure development has concentrated on beaches, boats and heritage tourism by car – our roads are still just about quiet enough for the latter to be actually enjoyable.
Above all, because backpacking has never really been a thing in Norfolk there’s a dire shortage of simple campsites. This is caravan country. In a flat landscape that’s dotted with homes and farms, is almost entirely a managed workplace (not to mention a shooting range) and where a tent can be seen for miles, wild camping is not straightforward. A bivvybag is a better bet, to be honest, but who wants to do that for multiple nights?
The question arises because, perhaps surprisingly, Norfolk has some very nice long distance walking trails that could most enjoyably be backpacked if only there were places to kip down. They’re also now actively being promoted and developed as part of a new and welcome emphasis on non-motorised tourism. The Coast Path has been a National Trail for quite a few years now and the Western half of this does have a few backpackers’ campsites, at Burnham Deepdale, Wells, Stiffkey and Morston for example. There’s also camping out of town at Cromer, but east of here camping becomes once again problematic .
Around twenty years ago we walked most of the Peddars Way plus a section of the Coast Path, from Swaffham to Cley. Camping then was easy with pubs at Sedgeford and Great Massingham providing informal pitches and a simple backpackers’ site at Holme. Those sites, so far as I know, are all long gone and nothing has replaced them.
We live on the North Norfolk coast but, Norfolk being quite large and its landscape compartments so distinct, we know next to nothing about the Broads. To discover more about this mysterious boggart kingdom, the home of Cranes and cruisers, we’d long wanted to walk the Weavers’ Way.
This trail runs 61 miles from Cromer to Great Yarmouth, from our breezy seaside doorstep through the darkest, dampest heart of Broadland to the legendary Las Vegas of the East. It should only take four days, but the problem was always working out where to overnight. In the end we resolved to do it as day walks, coming home each night on the bus, but it turns out that buses are even rarer in Norfolk than campsites, rarer in fact than dragons some say.
Then somebody had an idea.
“Hey, remember D & S who live near North Walsham?”
“Of course, why?”
“Well, isn’t their house more or less bang on the Weavers’ Way?”
“Hm, well, yes, I suppose.”
“Why don’t we ask if we can camp in their garden?”
“I’m not sleeping anywhere near those homicidal chickens!”
And thus, after just a little more discussion, was a doorstep mini-adventure born…