Stepping out on a Norfolk treasure
- Credit: IAN BURT
Ian Collins strolls along Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path.
Looming only slightly larger in my childhood memory than they do in reality, the striped cliffs at Hunstanton are nature's blueprint for a crazy seaside attraction. This original stick of Norfolk rock has a red chalk strip between a rust-brown carrstone base and a white-chalk topping. It resembles a fossilised cake of gingerbread, strawberry jam and whipped cream.
I used to fish in the rock pools below the cliffs just like the boy at the start of LP Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy, who fails to save a shrimp from a gorgeous, gorging anemone.
Unwittingly I also followed in the paddler's footsteps of comic novelist PG Wodehouse, whose pre-war holidays hereabouts inspired a stately home for Bertie Wooster's dreaded Aunt Agatha as well as names
for characters such as lords Hunstanton and Brancaster, Jack Snettisham and J Sheringham Adair. But
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the comic cliffs are also a starting point for a seriously wonderful walk: all 95 miles (154 kms) of the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path, which can be devoured over a summer or split into bite-sized chunks for nibbling throughout the year.
The two now-linked walkways, which strictly meet near Holme next the Sea, are virtually equal in length. They embrace some of the most dazzlingly diverse and uniformly beautiful scenery in Britain. Very flat Norfolk isn't.
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The scenery may be breath-taking but the physical challenge of this national trail is classified by ramblers as moderate (though an occasional road crossing – of the A47, for instance – can be hair-raising).
Pedantic pedestrians may insist that Peddars Way starts rather than ends at Knettishall Heath Country Park on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
Either way, the route cuts a path of such startling straightness through breck heaths, fields and forests to suggest a Roman relic.
But really the line stretches from pre-history, and through the Celtic kingdom of the Iceni, before being fitted into the network of legionnaire marching tracks following Boudica's revolt.
My favourite stretch is also the most remote, being laid out like a 14-mile arrow over stony tracks from Castle Acre – with a Cluniac priory dating from 1090 now the finest monastic ruins in East Anglia – to Sedgeford. At times the open setting seems to be four-fifths sky.
But all of this route is wonderful, and the coast path from Hunstanton to Cromer is sublime.
Close to Holme the dunes form grassy cliffs, before the walker's world drops into saltmarshes and sea-lavender beds, then rises again into shingle banks and actual cliffs.
Scattered small harbours and flint villages – Thornham, Brancaster, Stiffkey, Salthouse, Cley, Wiveton, Weybourne – make welcome ports of call for the hungry (feast on whelks, cockles and crabs washed down with beer) and footsore.
Happily, wildness and wilderness reign here.
But each spring and autumn twitchers flock to world-class bird reserves – Titchwell, Snettisham, Blakeney Point – to clock spring and autumn migrants.
The best bit of the coast walk for me is the day's stroll (preferably with long pauses for swimming) from
Burnham Overy Staithe to Wells. The majestic sweep of Holkham Bay, fringed by dune and forest, sends my spirits soaring.
I have yet to meet Gwyneth Paltrow striding over the sand in Shakespearean costume. But once, when snoozing without so much as a bathing costume, I was mobbed by a pack of royal corgis (the near-centenarian Queen Mum was having a birthday party in the woods).
On past Stiffkey, where, in 1932, the rector was defrocked over an obsession with fallen women. He became a seaside attraction crammed in a barrel before finally emerging to be fatally gored by a lion in Skegness. RIP Harold Davidson, the Prostitute's Padre and Norfolk's Daniel.
West of West Runton the coast path veers inland, which would be a pity were it not for the pending view over Sheringham, and then for the walk along the Cromer ridge with its final descent through woods into lovely, lively Cromer. Where I bags fish and chips...
Find out more on www.nationaltrail.co.uk/peddars-way-and-norfolk-coast-path