And this enthusiasm for the open road comes largely from my father, a keen walker, even at 76. So I leapt at his suggestion to roadtest a 30 mile stretch of the Boudicca Way, a mostly rural signposted route from Norwich back to Pulham Market, the picturesque Norfolk village where my parents live.
It takes a while to find the path out of the East Anglian capital, where we leave the train onto a pleasant waterside stretch, passing Friday afternoon drinkers blinking in the sun and impressive converted warehouses with balconies overlooking the water. We wind through Trowse, a village suburb with deli and green. But still can’t see any sign of the Boudicca Way.
Boudicca was Queen of the Iceni, the British tribe who rebelled against the Romans, and pugnacious overtones are present in the many ancient monuments, Roman Towns and forts along the way – all testament to the deep-rooted history of South Norfolk.
This initial stretch is a surprise: gentle hills, fields of barley and wheat or wildflower. Hares race across meadows populated by just a single bony white horse , whilst all the while the sun peeps from between huge, pillowy clouds and the wind blows across vast fields.
We walk six miles the first afternoon and stay at Caistor Hall Hotel, a once-grand Georgian pile with twenty bedrooms – and, today, a wedding on. We’re the only residents dining in the garden-facing room, and surprised that service is so slow, but the food – asparagus with parma ham and poached egg, hake with samphire and pea veloute – is delicious. Yet the dinner is somewhat overshadowed by the wedding party’s increasing volume, as women in tiny dresses shriek over vodka tonics. So we retire early, and leave the party to it.
The longest leg of the hike – fifteen miles – begins next morning, after a rubbery cooked breakfast and bill mix-up. There’s something of the Fawlty Towers about the place, we conclude, as we pass the old Roman site of Venta Icenorum (now an atmospheric mound, left). We pass through rape fields in seed rather than flower, the continuing path lined with buttercups, honeysuckle. We see no-one; it feels remote.
Shotesham is our first destination, six miles in. There were once four churches here in the Middle Ages, of which only two survive. All Saints has a long aisle-less nave with wall paintings and a stone vulture on the bell tower, looking for the second coming. It’s an attractive spot, raised on a mound with a common descending down to the stream, wild sorrel and red campion everywhere.
My father – an amateur botanist – can spot every type of flora or fauna. So when we pass through a wonderful meadow he duly notes vipers buglos, yellow rattle, white daisies and common spotted orchids. It’s alive, rejoicing in colour, but the clock is ticking and soon we leave it behind to weave around Great Wood, only to find ourselves lost. The only solution? A wade across a nettle-strewn boggy ditch between fields. This, says the guide, was once the Great Forest of South Norfolk.
We hope there is a lunch stop, ten miles in, at the pretty village of Saxlingham Nethergate, but a pub is nowhere to be seen and we have no choice but to tread the last four miles on empty stomachs. As we plod past a ruined chapel, overgrown with leaves, and gaze up at the huge skies, I realize the an ascetic appeal of a light hunger. Does the memory become sharper? I’m sure there were lambs suckling their mothers, rabbits’ ears erect in long grass, elderflower bushes heavy with scent, partridges exploding into the air, kestrels hovering. But then again, maybe they were all a mirage.
We spend the second night in a sweet and simple B ‘n’ B in Tasburgh, dinner a tasty whole seabass and chips down the local. And on our final morning we’re back treading through fields of barley until we reach the ancient Wood Green, another remote spot, probably little changed over hundreds of years: it’s simply a common with some adjoining houses and grazing animals.
Tyrell’s Wood is a highlight of day three: an ancient woodland mentioned in a survey of Pulham Market for the Bishop of Ely in 1257, it was rescued from planned felling in the 1980’s and now belongs to the Woodland Trust. The path is lined with wild roses, with beautiful foxgloves towering in its sun-dappled centre.
‘The road, the open road,’ says my dad as we’re back blinking in the sunshine. We cut across a sugar beet field, and a muntjac leaps up and scarpers. Pulham Market looms into sight towards midday and he explains that ancient parishes stretched north-south because of the way cattle grazed in marshes historically. It’s the perfect English village to end our journey at, with a green at its centre, two pubs, a Medieval church, and cute signpost. But still we don’t pause; a hearty Sunday lunch is being prepared at home.
Words & Pics: Stephen Emms/ Richard Emms