New Wensum Way footpath will fill ‘missing link’ in Norfolk Trails network
© Archant Norfolk 2012
A new 12-mile footpath will complete a vital missing link in the Norfolk Trails network – and could bring a valuable potential boost to tourism and the county economy. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
The Wensum Way: A fascinating landscape
The Wensum valley has a wealth of protected wildlife and is also rich in archaeological sites. Heritage highlights along the new Wensum Way trail include:
- The 18th-century mill and world war two anti-tank blocks by the bridge at Lyng.
- The 14th-century church at Elsing, which was visited on a cycle tour in 1905 by celebrated British Army officer T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
- The site of a medieval moat at Morley Castle, Castle Farm, Swanton Morley.
- The listed red telephone box at Angel Farm, Hoe, designed by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who also designed Liverpool Cathedral.
In terms of the area’s natural significance, there are 26 County Wildlife Sites, four nationally-important Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and the River Wensum itself is protected at European level as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
According to the Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) database, the land 1km either side of the route contains more than 270 species of conservation interest, including a variety of plants, dragonflies, beetles, butterflies, bees, wasps and more than 50 species of moth. Among the 150 recorded bird species are swans, geese, bitterns, nightingales, honey-buzzards, kites and marsh harriers, as well as barn, little, tawny and long-eared owls. There are also eight species of bat and other mammals, including otters, water voles and brown hares.
The rolling mid-Norfolk landscape is also noteworthy for its glacial sand and gravel deposits. One site east of Lyng yielded ancient remains of reindeer and woolly mammoths.
At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine how a mere 12 miles of footpath in the middle of Norfolk could hold the key to a massive boost to the county’s tourism economy.
But while the new Wensum Way will unquestionably stride through a beautiful and fascinating swathe of countryside, its true value can only be appreciated by taking a step back, for a look at the wider landscape.
When it opens in spring, the path will join up the Norfolk Trails network, filling the “missing link” between the Nar Valley Way and the Marriott’s Way.
For the first time, it will become possible to walk across the width of Norfolk – from Great Yarmouth in the east, to King’s Lynn in the west – on pathways maintained to the same standard as the UK’s most prestigious National Trails.
It is hoped the completed network will provide a new long-distance challenge to attract hikers, while linking communities, enhancing tourism offerings and creating opportunities for businesses operating along the route.
The Wensum Way itself will stretch from the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum to Lenwade, and will include a link to the market town of Dereham.
Norfolk County Council is spending about £40,000 to upgrade the route’s surfacing, gates and signposting to the required standards – and estimates that the investment will be repaid with increased customer footfall worth £100,000 a year to local businesses.
And with the missing link filled, the combined Norfolk Trails are reckoned to be worth £10m a year to the county’s economy – which could grow if future ambitions to further extend the network are fulfilled.
Bill Borrett, the council’s cabinet member for environment and waste, said: “The reason we are spending money on completing the Norfolk Trails is because it creates jobs in rural areas. These paths become much more useable and valuable for Norfolk if part of a joined-up network.
“We estimate the Norfolk Trails could be worth £10m to our economy at the moment, but I don’t see any reason why we cannot double that.
“There is an objective to link Thetford to King’s Lynn next. The county council will go out to bid for more money from central government to see if we can complete the network.
“Our overall objective is a path all the way around the county, which all the others will join up with. That would bring tourism into Norfolk and we will be able to market it, and then my hope is that it will take on a life of its own. There will be literature building up as to where you can stay and where you can stop.
“We have something very special here that people will want to come and see. It would be great to have Norfolk recognised as a walking destination.”
Mr Borrett lives close to the new trail at Hoe.
“I know this part of Norfolk extremely well because this is my home territory,” he said. “I know how beautiful the valley is so when I saw the Norfolk Trails maps I though this would be a perfect place.”
Part of the Wensum Way will pass through Castle Farm and Park Farm in Swanton Morley, owned by John Carrick.
The farmer said he is already considering converting a former stable block into a tea room to cash in on the potential influx of customers.
“I am all for this kind of thing because it gives people an appreciation of the countryside and where their food comes from,” he said.
“The other day, we had 22 walkers from a Norwich walking group up here. They hit the pub afterwards in Swanton Morley and spent a couple of hundred quid. It is a real bonus.
“We are in a recession so trading in Mid Norfolk is very difficult, but there are definitely business opportunities here if you have got the facilities and you get the footfall – as long as it is not consistent with damaging people’s quality of life.
“I have always encouraged people onto the farm. I think that it is nice to be able to share what we have here.”
Under his higher level stewardship (HLS) scheme, Mr Carrick’s farm receives grants to maintain “semi-improved” grassland and specially-planted areas to attract insects, bees and songbirds.
Wensum Way walkers could also encounter the farmer’s grazing herd of 180 cattle, including rare breed white park and Lincoln red cows.
“My big worry is people baiting the cattle,” said Mr Carrick. “Walkers as a breed are brilliant – they are properly equipped and dressed correctly and act very sensibly. But every now and again you get people who leave gates open and have cattle wandering around.
“I am always a bit apprehensive, but I would not want to stand in the way of a very desirable thing, which is a footpath that people can walk on, and enjoy being outdoors.”
Norfolk County Council’s trails officer Andy Williams said the Wensum Way’s route was established after a series of discussions with about a dozen landowners.
“If you were to take a bird’s eye view of the trails network you would see that this was one of the missing links,” he said. “Once we had identified that, it meant assessing the network and looking at permissive paths and existing public rights of way (PROW) already in existence through HLS schemes and looking at the history and the contrasts in the landscape.
“We take a holistic approach at finding the most beneficial route for walkers, for local communities and businesses along the route.
“For me, it was remarkable that I was not aware of this route’s existence. The glacial activity here has created a fantastic landscape, and I already knew about how valuable the Wensum Valley is as a conservation area, so it all ties in very nicely.
“There is a particular section which I call ‘the horseshoe’ – there is something about the light in that particular section of the river. I stopped there for a long while because I was so amazed by it.
“But the thrust of this is not just about this route, it is the whole concept of the Norfolk Trails which, as a vision, is the best thing that could happen for public access in Norfolk. If you went back 10 years, the way the PROW network was managed... it worked, but it was not linked up. It was a fragmented set-up.
“Now we have these joined-up linear routes, as well as the 200 or so linked circular walks.
“There is a lot of benefit and a lot of capital to be had from bringing these market towns together and giving them a shared identity through the trails. And, not forgetting, the linking up of these trails can take people into Norwich too.”
Don Saunders is chairman of the Norfolk Local Access Forum, which brings together landowners and countryside user groups to discuss access issues. He said: “It is not just about businesses. With the linear routes, it can bring in communities as well, where in the past they were lost because the paths didn’t link up with anything. There would be a footpath but it would just stop.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the trails – I live in Swaffham and all of a sudden people were aware that they were near the Peddars Way and they started going out to have a look.
“Local businesses are now looking at opportunities, just like John (Carrick) has, about how they can benefit, and so it can have a knock-on effect. If walkers know there is a coffee shop there, they can plan their route around it.”
The Norfolk Trails cover 1,200 miles of countryside – including 400 miles of linear trails and 800 miles of linked circular and health walks.
The county council’s budget for maintaining the Norfolk Trails was £50,000 last year, excluding staff costs.
An extra £135,000 of external funding was secured from the RDPE (Rural Development Programme for England) to develop the Angles Way and Nar Valley Way, and an additional £40,000 was allocated for the new Wensum Way which is currently under development.
Another £350,000 has been secured from a European cross-channel programme and Natural England for development work during the coming year on the Paston Way, Weavers Way, Peddars Way and North Norfolk Coast Paths.
While investment is being focused on the Norfolk Trails, the county council faced criticism from ramblers and countryside access campaigners last year for a decision to change the maintenance regime for the remainder of the public rights of way network – another 1,300 miles of smaller paths.
The authority no longer pro-actively maintains paths for which it is not legally responsible, and has moved to a reactive approach which relies on swift enforcement action against landowners if they do not meet their obligations to keep paths clear.
Mr Borrett said the change of policy had enabled limited cash to be spent where there was greatest benefit.
“Landowners do have a responsibility for the paths on their land but, in the past, the county council has done the work, even if it has not had to,” he said.
“If the landowner does the work they are responsible for, then the council has more money for the Norfolk Trails, and the walker gets the benefit of it because all the paths are maintained.
“Change is always difficult. There has been a learning curve from some of the landowners but I am hoping that now we are through the original year that things will settle down.”
For more information about the Norfolk Trails visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/trails.