Day Two – Felmingham to Stalham
Two market towns, Aylsham and North Walsham, vied for dominance of the productive and wealthy agricultural belt south of Cromer. When the railways to the former were closed North Walsham kept growing and now has a reputation in the rest of North Norfolk for being worryingly urban – in 2011 its population was a massive twelve thousand, compared to Aylsham’s four.
It also enjoys the distinction of the Weavers Way passing right through its middle, which is handy for walkers as there are excellent breakfast and resupply opportunities here including the good value Café Kitale tucked away behind the church. Any cafe where the menu includes ‘Something on Toast’ is just fine with me and the scones were large and fresh too. A little further, round the corner, there’s a Lidl directly on the trail.
The church here is enormous, in fact one of the largest medieval parish churches in England, but you wouldn’t think so as it’s unusually vertically challenged. St Nicholas’ church had the second tallest spire in Norfolk, until it fell down in 1724 and was never rebuilt.
To this day the vast nave with its beautiful light and airy windows squats crossly on its town centre mound truncated by a grumpy stump; symbolic, some say, of the town’s fortunes but latterly rebranded as a unique distinction in the manner of a small and more accidental Gedächtniskirche.
Fortified, we strode south, past the monumentally impressive houses of the formerly wealthy mercantile class then the bungalows of the presently wealthy pensioner class.
Before long we were back among the Interesting Crops of Norfolk but with only one of the five single-pointers remaining unticked and the watery realm of Broadland imminent, this game was going to get harder.
The phone box shown on OS Maps at White Horse Common is a little past its dial-by date, as you can see.
The intensive agriculture of the drylands peters out at Bengate where after briefly greeting the A149 the Weavers Way rejoins the route of the derelict Midland and Great Northern railway. At North Walsham this was formerly connected to the line between Norwich and Cromer which, now branded The Bittern Line and busy every day with college students, shoppers and commuters, was itself only saved from Beeching’s axe by vigorous campaigning and a council subsidy.
North Walsham’s other claim to transportation fame is that uniquely in Norfolk it had a canal. The North Walsham and Dilham was opened rather late in the day, in 1826. It was meant to carry coal and to link the town’s mills and grain stores to the Broads and hence Great Yarmouth via the River Ant, but it was never a commercial success and closed in 1934.
It’s worth nosing off the trail into the wet woodland to find the derelict lock, just to take in the unlikely fact that this was once a real, functional canal. There’s an Environment Agency water level monitor here and as we sat munching random Lidl snacks among clouds of dragonflies and damselflies while dandling our hot feet in the water one of their staff appeared to check it over.
This was a piece of luck as he was not only a local but a most engaging, enthusiastic and knowledgeable man who while fineagling brash from his intake and calibrating his dipstick kindly shared a lot of fascinating and wide-ranging information.
As you’d hope from a man tasked with overseeing and conserving waterways, his take on their role and future was holistic, balanced and refreshingly sane. A lifelong angler, he was also clearly passionate about the Otters whose return to Norfolk’s rivers he rightly considered a vindication of his life’s work. A lover of all watery heritage, he nonetheless explained that the canal would probably never operate again, despite the recent formation of a restoration trust, due to the chronic and now worsening shortage of fresh water, which had bedevilled its viability from inception. He taught us quite a lot of basic hydrology in a short time. The EA should give him a pay rise as he does more for their public image than any number of anodyne press releases or clunky, impenetrable websites.
At Honing the trail passes through one of several atmospheric derelict stations. Since we walked here in July 2017 much of this vegetation has been cleared by the enthusiastic Norfolk Trails crew.
Around Honing everything starts to feel a little damp, the woods are getting wet feet, the air is cooler, the fields marshy and slotted by increasingly adjacent dykes. This is because the Weavers Way is here imminently and unambigously about to enter Broadland, in fact another three miles or so brings walkers into its northern capital of Stalham, just south of which the map shows locations called Big Bog, Little Bog, and Middle Marsh, among innumerable other hydronymic appellations.
Despite dawdling as slowly as we reasonably could and taking care to stay thoroughly rested and refreshed in the July sunshine, we were in Stalham by early afternoon. My partner’s enlightened policy on an adventure is to travel light, randomly replenishing her apparel when necessary from charity shops. Hence it was necessary for her swiftly to canvass the pre-loved retail opportunities. Meanwhile I succumbed to the entirely justifiable thirst arising from our hot weather hike and went for a beer.
The Grebe at Stalham is what passes in Norfolk for a rough pub, which is to say it’s dark and strangely indeterminate inside, the regulars are troglodytes possibly challenged by rare genetic conditions who swear really quite a lot and in the gents your feet stick to the floor in what you hope is only wee. I like it – these are the pubs of my misspent youth and I treasure the precious few remaining examples.
Gleefully I bought a pint of stale musty ale and sat outside on a splintery bench savouring its Proustian unpleasantness in the weak sunshine. Behind me a young mother ranted unceasingly, a profanity in every clause. Her heterogeneous brood, translucently pale as whey in the countryside, in July, sat in cowed silence, occasionally ingesting fizzy pop through a plastic straw or thoughtfully sucking the chemicals off a crisp.
I fell to wondering what it might be like to be a child in a home where the single most frequently uttered word begins with ‘f’, and I don’t mean ‘fancy’. My sociolexicological rumination was interrupted by the return of my loved one from a high speed reconnaissance mission through six charity shops in succession, conducted with the ruthless focus and efficiency of a pillaging legion. ‘Why’, she enquired sotto voce, ‘are you drinking in this scary dump?’
Confessing lamely that I was enjoying myself and mollifying her with a beer (a decent one, as I could now make an informed choice), I also admitted my ulterior motive. The Grebe is a legendary live rock venue and I’d been hoping to hustle a gig for my band. ‘Booked a year in advance’ said the landlady, who was very friendly in an only slightly scary way.
Halfway down the High Street we were slightly surprised to be beckoned, in a friendly but these days rather unusual way, towards what looked like a cart shed full of antiques by an elderly but upright gentleman smartly attired in blazer and tie. Slightly embarrassed at smelling of beer in such obviously respectable company we cautiously inspected his premises from a safe distance until we were sure we weren’t being inveigled into the lair of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It turned out to be the Stalham Fire Museum and its dapper custodian to be Fireman (retired) Gordon Archer, a genuine local hero and another enormously knowledgeable man. Clearly pleased by our sincere interest in his pumps, buckets and branch pipes Mr Archer kindly gave us a copy of 150 Years of Service – Stalham Fire Brigade by Derek T. Farman, a wonderful piece of community historiography sobered by lost lives and laced with incidents of selfless courage, not least on the part of Fireman Gordon Archer himself, for the embarrassing inclusion of which in the book he endearingly apologised.
One thing I learnt from this book was that I needn’t have worried about smelling of beer; for much of their horse-drawn history rural fire brigades ran on the stuff. Stalham acquired its first motorised pump in the late 1920s, before which upon arriving at a fire a mission-critical task had always been to procure a large volume of ale for the volunteer pump operators.
Fired (ha ha) with new and worthwhile information, off we trotted to our first encounter with quintessential Broadland, at the imaginatively named Broadsedge Marina.
This harbours a huge number of boats but as so often in the Broads remains surprisingly peaceful. Tent camping is a recent innovation here and the facilities were new, clean and swish, with keycode access. The proprietor is kind and friendly, I hope he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew as there’s a tragic shortage of simple campsites along the trail.
In the office was an enormous iMac that must have cost him at least a grand and of which he was clearly not the master (‘I hope you don’t need a receipt, I can’t work this thing out’). I tactfully didn’t mention I’d recently spent four years managing a quite complex enterprise on a second-hand laptop running Windows XP.
Wisely abandoning technology he dispensed helpful advice instead, recommending The Swan Inn for supper and quite rightly too, our subsequent meal there was very nice.
‘Whatever you do’, he earnestly implored, ‘don’t go in The Grebe’. ‘OK’.