LIKE an ancient path that runs through the fenlands of eastern England, joined by tributaries that Hereward the Wake once trod with his band of men, this is a story that might end in the warming glow of a cottage fire or the mud of a benighted tidal estuary. I don’t know yet because it’s an adventure. All I know is it starts at Norwich station.
Norwich? But there aren’t any mountains near Norwich, are there? No, is the short and only answer. But there is adventure. Let me tell you about Father Fred . . .
Father Fred was my wife’s grandfather. He lived in the village of Blofield, about five miles east of Norwich. Fred joined the Norfolk Regiment in 1914 and was wounded on the Somme the following year. After they patched him up he was transferred to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers because his battalion had been wiped out. He got off the boat in Dublin to join his regiment the morning the Easter Rising broke out. He saw action in Dublin and Cork – and more in Greece, Egypt and France before being wounded a second time. Patched up again, he finished the war in France in the Machine Gun Corps. So he’d seen a bit.
Father Fred would sit at his fireside smoking roll-your-owns, telling us tales and chuckling at the world. He’d spent the rest of his life working as a coachpainter and tending his garden. He had the easy though reflective air of a man who has seen the horrors of war and managed to come to terms with the worst bits. He lived to the age of 93, leaving nothing much in this world but fond memories and a garden full of leeks.
Father Fred once told me about a pub called the Berney Arms, which is reputed to be the most remote and inaccessible pub in the country. No roads lead to the Berney Arms. It can be reached only by boat along the River Yare, from a railway halt in the middle of nowhere, or by long paths winding through the marshes. Naturally, it’s a place anyone who owns a pair of boots must visit.
So on our next sojourn at Father Fred’s – which would have been the autumn of 1982 or 83 – I hitched my backpacking gear on my shoulder and set off from his backdoor, intending to walk the 16 miles along the river to the Berney Arms, camp the night, then wander on to Great Yarmouth and continue up the coast. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was late October and decidedly chilly – but good walking weather. Unfortunately, it ended in disaster.
All these years later I have yet to sample a pint in the Berney Arms. I actually got there on that cold and blustery evening in the early 1980s, only to discover the pub had closed for the winter a week earlier. This remote and inaccessible riverside inn was as dark as the land and the sky around it. I pitched my tent on the riverbank as storm clouds rolled in from the North Sea and endured what was one of the wettest and windiest nights Norfolk had suffered for many years. Not only that, it was the night the clocks went back – so it was an hour longer than your normal night.
Early next morning I packed the tent and headed downstream for Great Yarmouth. I’d had nothing to drink for 20 hours except brackish water from ditches and was experiencing wild hallucinations of ice-cold pints of lager and lime (that’s what saltwater does to you). I never reached Yarmouth. On the outskirts, my wife’s uncle – who had been despatched to search for me – spotted a forlorn figure struggling through banks of brambles near the A47 and hailed me from his car. He’s not stopped laughing about it since.
So it’s a Saturday morning nearly thirty years later. An August sun beats down on the flat lands of East Anglia as I sit in my brother-in-law’s car heading for Norwich station. I’m a man with a mission. That mission is to catch a train to a place called Reedham, walk five miles through the marshes to the Berney Arms, have as many pints as I deem is safe, continue another five miles down the river to Great Yarmouth and catch a train back.
My brother-in-law George (who would have made the rank of major in the Royal Artillery had it not been for an unfortunate incident in Germany) is quite happy to drop me at the station. George is also a man with a mission. Today he plans to build a replica of Odessa’s Potemkin Stairs in his back garden, which is situated in a posh area of Norwich. “I’ve got some spare slabs and cement, Al,” he says as we pull up in the station car park. “I can’t see it being a big job.”
With a £5 ticket and two exotic baguettes from a stall on the station concourse, I’m rattling through the Norfolk broads on a neat little train listening to a young couple having an argument at the other end of the carriage. The villages of Postwick, Brundell and Blofield flash by, then Cantley with its sugar refinery. And all about are flat reed beds, flat pastures, and marshy woodlands as far as the eye can see. It’s a two-dimensional landscape unfolding beneath a wide blue sky – the same wide blue sky old Father Fred toiled beneath as a farm labourer before marching off to war in 1914, expecting everything to be over by Christmas.
At Reedham, having watched the train disappear into the vanishing point, I encounter the Wherryman’s Way. This is a waymarked trail that follows the River Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. The indistinct tracks I tramped from Blofield all those years ago are now marked at strategic points with little wherry emblems. Wherries were single-masted cargo boats that plied the broads in days gone by, the type of vessel that might loom ponderously through the brushstrokes of a Constable or Turner. Like all working boats, they possessed an elegance and a . . . .
. . . Sorry. I’ll have to stop there because I can feel a John Masefield “Cargoes” moment coming on. Back to the walk.
On the riverfront at Reedham I spy a wooden seat upon which is inscribed: “Tide in, tide out – water on a ceaseless journey.” Little things like this impress me no end. With the tide and wind behind me, the sun in my face and a path underfoot, I leave the inhabited world and enter a land of broad acres and wide skies, where the only sounds are the wind in the reeds and the cries of distant birds.
The sails of yachts glide surreally through the reeds on an unseen river. Ruined windmills stand at intervals along the bank. My path meanders on, following the crest of a dyke that prevents the tidal Yare from flooding the pastures and returning this mysterious though haunting country to its natural state. This is good walking. This is the type of walking where a man can stretch his legs and put some miles behind him. With nothing to bar my way except the occasional gate, and beneath a glorious sky where a Spitfire would not be out of place among the cirrus, I rattle onwards to the legendary sign of the Berney Arms.
Speaking of Spitfires – well, not actually Spitfires, but certainly wartime East Anglia – I once cycled from Blofield to Southwold, in Suffolk, and spent an evening sitting outside a pub with some old lads who remembered American bombers departing from the many airfields in the vicinity. Apparently, Southwold – or the sky above it – was one of the rallying points where the various squadrons would group before heading across the channel. The old lads would watch Flying Fortresses embark on their daytime missions and return in the evening – the ones that were fortunate enough to return, that is. The next day, on my way back to Blofield, I chanced upon an old Second World War airfield. The runways were still there and many of the buildings. But it had been turned into a Bernard Matthews turkey farm. Just thought I’d mention that.
Today the Berney Arms is open for business. I buy a pint of the Green Jack Brewery’s Excelsior bitter and sit by the river, watching boats sailing past. This is the life, I’ll tell you. It’s not often I get chance to have a pint while I’m out walking. And walking makes you thirsty. Especially round here where all the ditches are filled with saltwater.
And I’ll tell you what else I do – I drink a silent toast my achievement. Nearly thirty years after first setting out to sample a pint in this celebrated pub, I am finally sitting here in magnificent sunshine supping a quality ale brewed in nearby Lowestoft. Never mind the holidaymakers who have chugged up the river in their caravan-coloured pleasure craft, I have negotiated vast and treacherous reed beds following little wherry signs. Hereward the Wake would have been proud of me.
Ten minutes later I saunter back inside and buy a pint of the Humpty Dumpty Brewery’s Nord Atlantic bitter then saunter back to the river. I toast Father Fred and watch more boats sailing past. A short time later I buy another pint of Nord Atlantic. Then I toast Bernard Matthews because he died recently and the silly old bugger did nothing wrong except find a gap in a burgeoning market and make lots of money. Then I think, perhaps, I’ve had enough to drink and wander on my way.
My path now skirts the banks of Breydon Water, a tidal estuary about a mile wide which narrows again to river-width near the sea at Yarmouth. The tar-black towers of windmills – some restored, some in ruins – dot the horizon. The impressive walls of the Roman fort of Burgh Castle – Gariannonvm – guard the southern shore. My wide sky is now cloudy and grey, the slaty estuary whipped by a wind from the west. This is a wild place that hasn’t changed since the last war, since the First World War, perhaps since the Napoleonic wars. And the path continues along its meandering dyke between sea and land, to its destination on the coast.
It would have been appropriate, poetic even, to have ended this walk in a harbour-side inn where lobster pots are stacked against a sun-warmed wall and a ship’s bell hangs in the bar. But on its final meander my path dives beneath the A12 road bridge into an Asda car park. A sad grey railway station lies beyond the farthest trolley collection point. In the space of a hundred yards I have stepped from a timeless world into a land of banality. Was it all worth it, I ask myself?
An hour later I’m sitting in a garden admiring the completed first phase of George’s mission to recreate the Potemkin Stairs. It’s two B&Q slabs with some bricks and cement under them. “Everyone’s got to start somewhere, Al,” he says with enthusiasm. “Shall we get the beer out?”