Day One, Alby to Felmingham.
This trail officially starts from the compact, attractive seaside town of Cromer which, whatever you may read in the scary ‘news’ comics, is almost never ‘in lockdown’ due to unruly travellers. In fact, apart from a handful of friendly summer regulars, travelling people are scarce in Norfolk, for the simple reason that it’s not on the way to anywhere unless you want to swim to Sweden. Norfolk people are still more worried about Vikings.
Living nearby, Cromer is our familiar backyard so we hopped on the bus (a rarer and more exciting experience in Norfolk than a National Trail) and didn’t start actually walking until we reached what we as residents of the North Norfolk coast consider to be exotic foreign parts. At Alby.
If you don’t know North Norfolk it would be a shame to do that as the route around Felbrigg and Metton is beautiful and interesting. On this occasion however somebody (I’m not saying who) sensibly declared that to walk from Cromer to the only campsite, 3 km south of Aylsham, would be too far for a first day. Somebody else’s impractical squeaks of ‘but we really should do the whole official trail’ were overruled.
Alby has a crafts centre with a nice café that’s decorated inside with old vinyl records, many of them bent into weird shapes and all rather cruelly screwed to the walls and ceiling. If you’re a collector of vintage vinyl you’ll find this excruciatingly tragic.
Another feature of the quirky decor here is a small library of vintage books. Among them I was pleased to spot Highways and Byways in East Anglia by W.A.Dutt (1870 – 1939) who was born at Ditchingham and, after training as a journalist on the Eastern Daily Press, made something of a one man industry out of writing books about his native area. This copy had been a school prize for geography in 1923.
The pretty pen and ink illustrations leapt off the page with their charm and quality and I subsequently discovered the artist, USA-born Joseph Pennell (1857 – 1926), was both prolific and famous in his day. His wife Elizabeth Robbins Pennell was one of the first celebrity food writers, leaving a collection of 433 cookbooks to the Library of Congress. As the book was published in 1901 and hence is presumably out of copyright, I cheekily photographed a few of the pictures with my phone.
I hope you’re not expecting a spine-tingling tale of life-threatening adventures on the Weavers Way. The most exciting thing that happened at Alby was we spent ages in the potters materials and beekeeping shop chatting about, erm, potters materials and beekeeping. After a while we thought we’d better go for a walk, so off we trotted over Thwaite Common which is a riot of orchids in spring. Most had gone over, but there were a couple of stragglers. Orchids, I mean, not trail walkers already.
Until quite recently this interesting and biodiverse common was the hotbed of an acrimonious and long-running dispute that was both notorious and avidly followed throughout, erm, the northern half of Norfolk. Something to do with fences. It all seems to have been smoothed over now as the only unexpected structure was the first of many brand new Weavers Way signs, encouraging us on our way.
All Saints Church at Thwaite has a 12th century round flint tower and an atmospheric outlook over open farmland, it’s also interesting for its unusually large vestry/schoolroom (left). The Weavers Way heads out into the said open farmland and it soon becomes apparent that the main diversion along this section is adding to your tally of Interesting Crops of Norfolk.
It should take you no more than two days to collect all the one-pointers. Scoring five points for exotica like asparagus is harder and a ten pointer like carrots will require an expedition to the Brecks, but I digress.
The Weavers Way wends through the fields.
Well to be honest it doesn’t so much wend as plod in a straight line. Occasionally there’s a ninety degree turn at the end of a field, to add interest.
It’s amazing how much more of an intelligent interest in arable agronomy one develops along this section of the trail. Not least because there’s very few alternative topics of conversation.
South of Erpingham the trail crosses the River Bure. Here we suddenly felt as if we’d left the dry agricultural belt that lies south of the Holt-Cromer ridge behind us and perhaps for the first time just dipped a toe into wild and watery Broadland.
This is misleading as immediately afterwards the trail enters the aristocultural belt, passing through the beautiful park of Blickling Hall which, to be fair to the National Trust, is much less manicured than it used to be. The Trust is increasingly accepting responsibility for wildlife within its heritage remit, as well as on its wilder land, and is looking ahead impressively to climate change adaptation. We were pleased to see much of the parkland had been allowed to grow into wild meadows and quite a few large dead trees had been left for birds and bats. There’s a café in the hall, needless to say, and nearby stands the posh but pleasant Buckingham Arms which does posh but pleasant food (and BnB).
Needless to say, instead of patronising either of the above we sat on a posh but pleasant National Trust bench and ate random fridge leftovers. Locals, eh?
It’s now but a short skip through more fields to Aylsham, although the trail doesn’t actually go into the town centre. Nonetheless Aylsham is an obvious end to a first day on the Weavers Way if your budget extends to a BnB or pub room. There’s also excellent supplies here with several cafés, pubs and a Co-Op around the Market Square. Meals in the Black Boys are top notch, Bread Source (down the slope past the loos) does the best artisanal bread in Norfolk and a cherry frangipane bun that’s the best bun I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten buns in more than fifty countries).
G.F.White the butcher on Red Lion Street makes plump and crispy sausage rolls from random sausage machine leftovers so the flavours can change halfway through a roll – extraordinary! The smaller craft butcher a few doors away (Bonds -?) does home-pickled silverside, for amazing sandwiches. We like Aylsham, but on this walk we didn’t have time to call in. We had an appointment with some homicidal chickens.
North-east of Aylsham the Weavers Way crosses the busy (by Norfolk standards) A140 then settles onto the disused railway line (left) that it now follows for most of this west-to-east segment. Past Tuttington and into Felmingham this slowly and almost imperceptably descends into a surprisingly deep cutting that’s famous for its summer butterflies and wild flowers.
Discrete wild camping would be just about feasible in a few places along the tops of the banks here. Wonderful old bridges will have you despairing at the wasteful extravagance of discarding such carefully, expensively and beautifully built infrastructure, in favour of ugly tarmac strips and the stress of driving rather than riding.
It was time for us to stop and put our tent up in the back garden of our kind friends, but not until we’d waited until dusk when their homicidal chickens reluctantly go to bed. Seriously, these two fluffballs (below) are Norfolk’s most lethal fowls. They have one mission in life (apart from eating and bickering) which is to open and empty the important accessible arteries of any human foolish enough to trespass in their garden, then crow upon the bloodless corpse. This mission they pursue diligently from many angles, some most unexpected, and with both low cunning and surprising airworthiness.
These are tactical ballistic galliformes, indeed some suspect they may be dronecocks under the control of alien intelligence. When these boys start crowing, campers get going, they have the speed and stamina of bantam Farahs and can nutmeg you like feathery Beckhams. The homicidal chickens cackled and doodled in the henhouse, dreaming of their next day’s mayhem. We cowered fearfully in our tent on their lawn, hoping we’d survive to walk a second day on the Weavers Way.