It’s said you should always follow the five P’s- Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. I thought I’d planned my latest trip out, at least vaguely- I’d take the train to Norwich, cycle up the Marriott’s Way to Aylsham, continue on the Weavers Way to Cromer, onwards to Wells-Next-the-Sea, south on the Peddars Way to Knettishall Heath and then the Icknield Way to Ivinghoe Beacon and Tring where I’d catch a train home again. Four to five days of spring sun, camping wild whenever and where ever I wanted.
But there’s a difference between looking up a route on the internet and travelling that route.
I made it to Norwich easily enough and found my way to the start of the Marriott’s Way, a 26-mile footpath, bridleway and cycle route, which follows the route of two disused railway lines and runs between the medieval city of Norwich and the historic market town of Aylsham.
Heading north out of Norwich on the Marriot’s Way, on clean and well maintained asphalt paths, the route follows the course of the River Wensum for the first few miles. There’s pretty parkland, slightly ruined by surrounding light industrial activity. It’s a relief to leave behind the traffic and noise of Norwich, even more so when the route turns into crushed gravel paths.
There are occasional stretches of dirt track but in the dry cool weather, there’s not much mud. My chubby wheels make light work of the flat, straight sections even carrying a full load of camping gear. It’s an interesting route with lots to see. The mile markers catch my eye. They are sections of railway rails, twisted into works of art, fanciful shapes like clockwork handles and zippers. They are not just art but also a reminder of the history of steam railways that used to run along these same cuttings.
I cross over rivers on quirky little bridges, and duck under bridges where the road passes overhead. The cuttings of the old railway and the overhanging trees create a sunken lane, very peaceful and quiet, just birdsong and the gravel crunching under the tyres. Some of the old stations still exist, some set up as cafes and as railway preservation societies. A few of the old stations are even private homes. There are plenty of quaint little villages, trying to tempt me to stop, offering coffee and cake shops but I’m more interested in putting miles behind me. The days wearing on and I want to be well on my way to Cromer before I stop to camp.
The Marriott’s Way is well sign posted, so I have to work hard to get lost. I manage to miss a turning as I pass through the village of Reepham and a slight panic ensues. After flailing around for a while, I found the Marriott’s Way again (weirdly, above me on an elevated section) and I’m back on track.
Twenty-six miles of trail pass by in a couple of hours and I find myself in Aylsham – or at least in a Tesco carpark in Aylsham, for a brief rest and a hunt for the beginning of the Weavers Way. This is a public footpath that runs from Aylsham to Cromer on the North Norfolk Coast. It follows an old traders route and it’s easy to imagine peddlers’ carts meandering through little villages and fields.
Strictly speaking, as this is a public footpath, I shouldn’t be cycling on it. There really isn’t an alternative off road bike track though and I’m not expecting much foot traffic either. The path heads of through bumpy ploughed farmers’ fields towards Blickling Hall, a lavishly decorated 17th-century stately home with painted ceilings and notable ornamental gardens, now a National Trust property.
The route loops around the hall, through some of the 950 acres of woodland and park. It’s really pretty and I wish I had more time for a longer visit, but the sun’s well on its way to setting and I’m still miles from a suitable campsite. I briefly consider camping on the National Trusts property – I think I could probably get away with it but I decide to push on. I think I’ve got maybe an hour or two of daylight and I was hoping to be a fair bit closer to Cromer by now.
So, I can pinpoint the moment this turned from Type 1 to Type 2 fun.
Picture it, if you will- not one, but two sets of giant bull’s bollocks. I should explain, perhaps?
Still following the Weavers Way, I hopped a stile into a farmer’s field. The path was obvious, stretching across the field and up the hill into the distance. The field was split by a stream but there was little wooden bridge to cross it. I could see a herd of cows further down the field. As I pushed the bike over the bridge, the cows started taking an interest in me. A slow stampede ensues; the herd seem really interested in me, now mooing loudly while staring at me.
The herd splits, half have crossed to the other side of the stream. Then I notice that the herd has not one, but two massive bulls, lowing loudly and eyeing me up, as if measuring me up and finding me wanting. Words like “goring” and “trample” insert themselves into my internal monologue. The bulls turn their backs to me and my eyes are drawn to their enormous testicles, like two avocados in a leather pouch. It’s a willy waving contest and I’m seriously outgunned.
I’m effectively surrounded, the herd blocking me on all sides, only a small fence and stile separating me on one side and the little wooden bridge on the other. The cows still lowing, seemingly in expectation. I feel under a lot of pressure to perform but I’m not really sure what they want me to do.
My relatively happy mood rapidly evaporates. I’m tired, saddle-sore, hungry and not in the mood to be cow-trapped. I’m also all on my own, no-one really knows where I am. My phone has no signal. If something were to happen to me -and I’m vividly imagining the bulls playing hopscotch on my lifeless corpse– no would find me or even know to look for me.
Luckily, cows have short attention spans and soon start making their way back across the field. I keep a sharp eye on them but happily, they’ve lost interest. I hop the stile and I’m back on the bike, heading uphill. There’s some steep pathways leading through farm land. No more cows but I have to dodge a few sheep. I bump my way along the edge of a few more fields and through the village of Erpingham. I’m pretty desperate to find a place to camp by now.
I luck out – the Weavers Way takes me through a bit of woodland on the edge of a small stream. It’s secluded and quiet, the nearest house is a half mile away. I find a flat, grassy spot on the bank of the stream, a fallen tree providing a handy windbreak and a bit of privacy if someone were to walk by. It’s not quite as far as I would have liked to have gone today but I’m knackered and done with this. All I want to do is eat and curl up in my sleeping bag. I’m beginning to doubt I can make it to the end of the route I’ve planned. I’m worried I can’t get a mobile signal- I can’t let my partner Sarah know I’m okay and I know she’ll be worried.
The tent goes up, sleeping mat and pillow inflated. Sleeping bag unpacked and shaken out. It’s getting dark by now and I have to set up the last of my camp by headlamp. I set up my stove to start on dinner, rehydrating some chicken for a meal of pasta with a carbonara sauce followed by a dessert of angel food cake, strawberries and chocolate sauce- I like to treat myself!
In the dark, I clumsily knock over my boiling pasta, spilling the lot on the forest floor. I’ve lost a meal and used up a lot of gas in the process. I’ll have to try and replace both when I can. I’m only carrying four dinners and two gas cylinders. I manage to bodge together a passable meal but it’s hassle I could do without. Lesson learnt, camp early with plenty of time and light.
I crawl into my sleeping bag but sleep is hard to come by. Despite being physically exhausted, I find it hard to rest. The sounds of the forest at night are supposed to be soothing but my exhausted brain interprets every fox bark and owl hoot as zombies attacking. I finally manage to drift off, only to be woken at 5am by a murder of crows apparently celebrating their victory in the bird wars directly above my tent. Lesson learnt, ear plugs and eye mask for better sleep.
I’m up and out of the tent at 7am, coffee and porridge on the go. Camp packed up and bags packed onto my bike. Back onto the Weavers Way, the trail now passing through small villages. At this point, the route joins Sustrans Route 33 for some stretches.
I ride along narrow country lanes which wind up steep hills through rich farmland and forests. The views open up as I reach the top of the hills but I’m focused on making good time. I manage to miss a few turnings and have to parallel the Weavers Way on road. I reach Fellbrigg Hall, another National Trust property. It’s an the unaltered 17th-century house, noted for its Jacobean architecture and fine Georgian interior. Outside the house are a walled garden, an orangery and orchards.
The route circles around a large lake, through some gorgeous woodlands. I manage to lose the Weavers Way when a confusing sign post points me one way but there’s no obvious pathway to follow. I decide to follow the more clearly marked road which tells me I’m only a few miles from Cromer.
I’m motivating myself with fantasies of big lattes and chocolate muffins but the doubts of last night are creeping in. A few more detours and I’ve arrived at the coast.
The town of Cromer bills itself as the ‘Jewel of the North Norfolk Coast’. It looks like a grubby seaside town. The wind is whipping in off the sea, it’s cold and drab. There’s little sign of life as it’s still early on a Sunday morning. I still can’t get a mobile phone signal. Failing that, I look for a café for that all important coffee, preferably with free wifi. I’m not having much luck with either. Cromer prides itself on having no chain coffee shops but frankly I’d kill for a Starbucks or Costa right now.
I’m having a massive sense of humour failure.
I get lucky as the local tourist information booth has public computers with an hour’s free internet. I manage to get hold of Sarah on Facebook, reassuring her that I’m fine. A very brief discussion about the viability of continuing this trip ensues, but I’ve already made up my mind really. It was silly and irresponsible of me to have tried to do a trip like this without planning, maps, GPS, a working phone and some adult supervision. I decide to throw the towel in and return home.
Now it’s just a choice between jumping on a train or riding back to Norwich. The easy option is the train of course. I can be home in a few hours. But I’ll feel less of a failure riding back and I know the route now. So about turn it is and back to Norwich. The return trip is a lot faster as I’m not hunting route markers. The weather improves a little, brief bursts of sunshine lighten the mood. I stop off at both Fellbrig Hall and at Blickling Hall for some truly awful coffee. At Aylsham, I’m back on the Marriott’s Way, the mile markers now counting down to Norwich. The reverse of the route seems much faster- probably because I feel well motivated (there’s a Starbucks at Norwich station). Brief stops for a lunch of peanut butter & honey wraps and a steady stream of Sour Patch Kids fuel me.
I’m back in Norwich by 5pm, there’s a long wait for the next train, made easier by that highly anticipated coffee. And then home – and (properly) planning my next trip…
Until next time,