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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
As an antidote to the excesses of the festive season, Dereham community editor CHRIS HILL spent a day walking Norfolk’s newest major footpath – the Wensum Way.
The Wensum Way runs through a picturesque swathe of countryside between Gressenhall and Lenwade.
Although the route is comparatively short, it holds a significant position at the centre of the Norfolk Trails network, joining the Nar Valley Way and Marriott’s Way, and opening up the possibility of a 96-mile cross-county walk from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth.
The River Wensum is a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
More than 270 species have been recorded in the river valley, from plants and butterflies to otters, water voles, bats, dragonflies and 200 bird species including bitterns and marsh harriers.
Highlights along the trail include the 14th-century church at Swanton Morley, the 18th-century mill house at Lyng, the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum and Sparham Pools – flooded former gravel pits just north of the river which are now used for nature conservation
Refreshments en route can be found at the Mermaid Inn, dating back to the 16th century in Elsing, while the terrace at the Lenwade House Hotel offers an outstanding view of the river and its rural landscape.
Statistics suggest the average Brit consumed 7,000 calories on Christmas Day – and let’s not even think about what a New Year’s Eve hangover could add to that bloated festive feeling.
So for anyone struggling to overcome the excesses of the season, how about a bit of exercise, some bracing fresh air, and the chance to discover one of Norfolk’s most prized natural assets?
The Wensum Way, which opened in October, is the newest Norfolk Trail, spanning 12½ miles from Gressenhall to Lenwade and completing the “missing link” at the heart of the county’s footpath network.
Keen to explore this previously-inaccessible section of the Wensum Valley, and equipped with some leftover chocolates for sustenance, I set off just after dawn on Sunday – one of the few clear and frosty mornings of the winter so far.
This had two benefits: firstly, the low-slung sun bathed the scenery in a glorious golden hue and, secondly, the ground underfoot was satisfyingly frozen into a solid walking surface, unlike the stodgy quagmire which you might normally expect along a lowland flood plain.
The trail itself begins outside Dereham at Gressenhall, near the austere Georgian workhouse which now houses Norfolk’s rural life museum.
It seemed fitting to be heading off with the county’s agricultural heritage in mind, as the first couple of miles, along tracks and minor roads, were accompanied by the sound of distant shotguns and the contented snuffling of breakfasting pigs in the fields.
But it is the dramatic 14th-century hilltop church at Swanton Morley which acts as the gateway to the picturesque riverside section of the trail.
As well as its physical beauty, the Wensum itself is showered with national and European nature designations, highlighting its importance as a wildlife habitat.
During my trek there plenty of grazing cattle, geese and swans but, if you’re luckier than I was (or perhaps more nimble-footed) you may encounter otters, great crested newts or kingfishers.
The gently meandering water eventually guides you past the round tower church of St Mary at Bylaugh, before the trail diverts for a visit to the pretty villages of Elsing and Lyng.
Before reaching the end at Lenwade, birdwatchers are given one last chance to get their binoculars out at Sparham Pools, the flooded former gravel pits now managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and an excellent place to spot wading birds and waterfowl.
It may be a little more effort than your usual Sunday stroll, but walkers on the Wensum Way are helped by good signposting with distinctive pink arrows, well-established paths, and solid new “kissing gates” and boardwalks.
And it is a rewarding effort.
While Mid Norfolk may not have the distinctive tourism icons of the North Norfolk coast, the Broads or the Brecks, this trail certainly captures the quintessential charm of Norfolk’s central heartlands – its big skies, farming landscapes, medieval churches, and the world-renowned nature habitat of its celebrated river valley.
For more information and to download detailed maps of the route, visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/Leisure_and_culture/Norfolk_Trails/Wensum_Way