Following on from his previous blog In the steps of centurions and pilgrims, Aspire trustee Stephen Gardiner talks about the second stage of his walking challenge. 

Summer is over and we’re back on track with our regular companions, Ali and Tim. But what’s this? Rain! In our earlier marathon walk round the Devon and Cornwall coasts we wore rain gear for just 90 minutes and completed the first leg of this walk in dry weather. We’re not used to this wet stuff. Once again, no corners in the Peddars Way, so we put our heads down and trudged into the rain.

Just off the path was Houghton Hall, a neo-Palladian pile built by Robert Walpole, this country’s first prime minister. It boasts a five-acre kitchen garden and two ghosts. Then past Castle Rising, put up in 1140 and reputedly where Edward II, who was gay, was put to death in most uncomfortable way with a red-hot poker. There’s a ghost here too, a she-wolf with white fur who stalks the battlements at night. Then past Sandringham – I forget which family owns this one but it does not claim any grizzly deaths or ghosts.

Stephen walking with two companions

We stayed in the charming village of Snettisham and had to put the heating on to dry out our clothes and warm us up. The next day dawned dry and we kept walking along grassy tracks with a colourful array of wild flowers. And then, the sea appeared in front of us. Turn right at Holme-next-the Sea and follow the coast of wetlands and native reserves full of birds and some wild ponies. 

On the third and last day of this visit the path took quite a detour away from the coast but eventually we were back walking alongside muddy creek beds between rush banks that reminded us of the opening scenes in Great Expectations. Thankfully there were no wild convicts clanking around in chains. Herons and gulls pottered in the mud and we saw a flock of oyster-catchers swooping low along the shoreline. 

This three-day leg ended not far from Brancaster where a young Horatio Nelson mucked about in boats as a kid and honed his skills well enough to go and give it to the pesky French and Spanish navies later in life.

In a newspaper review of the quite wonderful food on offer at the Rose & Crown in Snettisham, the dyspeptic A. A. Gill said: “If Norfolk didn’t exist, we would have to make it up, and then regret it. Every nation has its Norfolk – a region for mockery, a space for low jokes and coarse assumptions, a backward place to allocate dark lusts, incest and idiocy”. He continued in this vein for some time before getting to the food, which he liked.

It is unlikely Gill endeared himself to the spin merchants of the Norfolk leisure industry, nor to a single denizen of the county. My long-suffering wife Bridget, who is graciously accompanying me on every step of this odyssey, has, ever since her university days, had to put up with rough humour and unwarranted jibes. If she could have a fiver for every bit of rudeness she’s been on the end of, she and I would be drinking much better wine than we do. And, full disclosure, I too am guilty, never missing an opportunity for the “give me six” hand-slap routine with her. Oh, how she didn’t laugh.

Bridget grew up just outside Norwich, or “Narrge” as the locals call it. She went to a grammar school and had the opportunity to take advantage of the culture the city offered. The agricultural area surrounding those parts, down to the Suffolk border and over to the dark and rather dreary fenlands on the Cambridgeshire side, is quite different from the area she was to come to know as a little girl as “posh Norfolk”, the north of the county where centuries of profitable farming created wealthy landowners and some of the finest stately homes in England. I don’t think Queen Victoria would have bought Sandringham if it was in the fens.

Stephen with two walking companions

We began part one of this walk on the southern border with Suffolk, from where we progressed from the other Norfolk (I am not sure it has a name) to posh Norfolk. Our first few days staying in Swaffham proved challenging in trying to eat out. A Russian restaurant (how many of those are there outside metropolitan England?) couldn’t take us – its tables were all empty but they had a booking for four expected to arrive within the hour. That was capacity, apparently. The story goes that this place has a very good collection of vodkas and if you get shown a table, you wait so long for your meal that by the time it comes you are comprehensively smashed and have no idea what the food is like. A pub turned us away because “eight people had just come in”. We had to negotiate at another pub to arrange a Saturday birthday meal the following night – yep, they had a couple booked in -  but they eventually accommodated us as long as we pre-ordered 24 in advance. We were reduced on the last evening to getting take-aways from a prominent and much-advertised High Street pizza chain, quite the most appalling example of this Italian cuisine we had ever had the misfortune to eat.

In and around Swaffham there are many remnants of restaurants and pubs that had long gone out of business, one apparently defeated by the smoking ban twenty-six years ago. Overweight kids rattle round the town square on bikes with no tyres. Young people with nothing to do huddle in shop doorways in the evening, smoking heaven knows what.

50 miles later on the north coast, the gastro pubs are numerous and well-used. The eaters and drinkers are better-dressed. The conversations are about foreign holidays, house prices and company deals. The carparks have a different range of vehicles. The restaurants are serving full tables. The houses and gardens are beautifully tended. The affluent north!

We have put our walking boots away for the winter now and will be back on the path in the spring. As I walked, I thought constantly of all my generous friends who have supported me and enabled me to enjoy a wonderful walk and to raise money for the essential work done by Aspire.

Sponsor Stephen

Fundraiser stories

How we help