I had been planning my next walk for a while but bad weather and other commitments got in the way. On a sunny Sunday I finally stuffed a map and two bottles of water into my backpack for another trek into the great outdoors.
I’m currently reading Ben Fogle’s book about Mount Everest and have to admit that my own explorations pale in comparison to his. To start with, Norfolk is obviously pancake-flat. It is, most of the time, not freezing cold. The land does not requires specialist equipment other than hiking boots and a map. But I wasn’t looking to gain bragging rights, anyway.
The path I was about to negotiate is part of the Weaver’s way. It stretches from Acle to Great Yarmouth, from a village in the heart of the Broads to the seafront. I’ve crossed the area many times but always by non-stop bus. It was time to get up close and personal with the land.
Better writers than myself have written extensively about this neck of the woods – try Mark Cocker’s oeuvre as a starting point. Unlike most of them I’m not blessed with an expansive knowledge of the local flora and fauna, or the landscape’s history, or the precarious meteorological balance that shapes the enormous skies. No problem, I had my own fascination to contend with.
About halfway between Acle and Great Yarmouth lies Berney Arms. It’s hard to explain what Berney Arms is. It’s not a village. It used to be a pub, but the pub closed down in 2015. It has a windmill, but the mill is currently closed for maintenance. It has the most remote railway station in the UK, three miles from the nearest road, but the station is closed until further notice. In short, Berney Arms is nothing.
I was keen to find out what walking towards nothing would be like. The concept of a now-defunct windmill, pub and railway station in the middle of nowhere seemed alien to me. I’m from a tiny country where nothing is ever far from a major road. There simply isn’t enough country to allow for any kind of remoteness.
To make the experience more intriguing, part of the Weaver’s way hardly classifies as a path. It’s a barely visible track across soggy fields. The only other mammals I encountered along the way were confused-looking cows. Sure, cows always look a little bit confused, but these ones seemed to have a point. What was I doing here? Where was I going?
When I reached Berney Arms I found my suspicion confirmed. There was, in fact, no nothing and no nowhere. The tar-covered windmill towered over me as I climbed the dyke that protects the land from Breydon water. Piet Mondriaan painted windmills before turning to the abstract colour blocks that made him famous. Taking a break to enjoy the view I understood his thinking. The abandoned mill was an abstract shape, a work of art, rather than a functional structure.
Incidentally, I should admit that I’ve always had a fascination for windmills. When I was a toddler my parents took me to the Dutch village of Kinderdijk which is renowned for having dozens of them. I sadly don’t remember this trip. But the Broads are an excellent destination for windmill lovers. Though it is a shame that most of its windmills are now carcasses, shadows of their former selves, home to bats and birds but no longer working.
I barely met another human being but I’ve never seen more butterflies in my life. As I walked along the overgrown dyke dozens of them fled in front of my feet. Honking birds sailed by above my head. Two swans protecting their cygnets hissed at me. I wouldn’t call the setting idyllic, though. I also passed the corpse of a dead deer.
Early in the walk I stumbled upon the ruins of a church. Part of it had been rebuilt and was still in use, as was the cemetery. Some of the graves were recent and well-maintained with fresh flowers adorning the stones. It could have been scary but it was spiritual and beautiful. People either call me crazy for walking alone or they admire me for it. Some call me brave. I don’t really understand either response.
After all, it’s not like I’m trekking through the Iranian desert. Reading Ben Fogle, I smile at people who consider a lone walk across the Norfolk countryside an exercise in bravery. But finishing my walk – the path ends, rather prosaically, at an ASDA megastore – I realized that stepping away from civilization with its smart phones and constant chatter is a frightening prospect for many.
For me it’s a type of peace, perhaps even mindfulness, that I crave. As much as I like people, I’m an introvert at heart, and I need regular injections of silence and nature to flourish. Enjoying an ice cream at Great Yarmouth’s seafront I was glad to be back. The memory of skies, birds and butterflies, however, has been haunting me all week. I can’t wait to go back.
Image my own – view of the Broads