By Alanna Baker (project trainee)
I hadn’t done a long-distance walk before. I’ve tackled the odd stretch here and there along the Norfolk coastal path and Hadrian’s Wall, but have never really managed to exceed eleven miles on foot. Still very much of a walking novice, Marriott’s Way seemed ideal. The route is of reasonable length and paths are wide and smooth; any elevations are a gentle inconvenience, rather than a strain. Furthermore, you are never too far from civilisation, so toilet and refreshment stops are plentiful.
Taking on the walk in October meant autumn was fully underway; by far my most favourite time of year. I took a walking companion, for as much as I enjoy my own company there is a joy to sharing the experience of walking with another person. Ideally, I would have had a dog too, for Marriott’s Way is fine dog walking territory. Sadly, none were available.
Having decided to complete the walk over two days and planned a rough schedule for the route there was very little left to do. Even an Ordinance Survey map wasn’t needed as the trail is so well signposted by Norfolk Trails finger markers. (As a bit of a cartophile I took one anyway, just for the joy of having one as much as anything else)
The path starts at the bottom of Barn Road in Norwich. It’s an unassuming location wedged between the river Wensum and a Halfords. Norwich City Station once stood here. It was opened in 1882 and transported passengers and industrial freight from a vast goods yard and elaborate brick-built station. Sadly, the station was bombed during World War Two and along with much of the surrounding area the station suffered extensive destruction. Temporary buildings were erected, but the railway boom was over. The station closed in 1969.
Making our way along the first stretch of Marriott’s Way the path is wide and tarmacked making for an easy if uninspiring walking surface. You can opt to walk along the river-side track which extends as far as the first bridge across the Wensum. It is a good place to spot a variety of bird species and the occasional rat given your proximity to urban streets. Along this first stretch you can see evidence of excavations led by FONCS volunteers to uncover the original platform, coal crane platform and engine shed foundations.
We soon found ourselves heading out of the city. Although the path remains busy with cyclists it was easy to spot wren, great tit, goldfinch, jay and thrush along this stretch. To the left, the water meadows of the Wensum valley provide grazing for ponies. Crossing the Wensum at one the original iron girder A-frame bridges, we paused to look for heron and kingfisher. We soon arrived at Hellesdon Road. A tricky road crossing on a blind corner, but our patience was rewarded with a pretty walk through young deciduous woodland and glimpses of Hellesdon railway heritage; a sizeable platform, ramps and railings that once formed extensive cattle pens.
We returned to a wider track, passed two World War 2 tank traps. Beyond the wooded verges many of the nearby fields had been recently harvested and awaited tillage. The area has long been used for agriculture and a variety of crops grow around Costessey. At other times of year, you might spot: corn, wheat, maize, oil seed rape, potatoes and sugar beet.
Miles 3 and 4 passed at a pleasant pace and we arrived at Costessey Lane and headed right, following the road side path to the busy commuter route of Drayton High Road. Despite heavy traffic flow through this little town, Drayton provides a great choice of places to sit and refuel. There's two pubs serving a decent carvery menu and range of beverages, a bakery too and E.Pratt & Co butchers offers a delicious choice of pies and breakfast baps. We opted to visit The Willows Café Bistro. A popular place, there was plenty of choice of cake, savoury pastries and an extensive brunch menu. While the regulars tucked into plates of full English and poached eggs with hollandaise, we opted for cappuccino and toasted tea cakes. Once refuelled we purchased a weighty pair of pasties and returned to the route. The path deviates off the rail line here and passes a fuel station and couple of industrial units. Thanks to clear finger post signs we soon returned to the historic route, accessed by a steep sand track.
Passing through a green corridor of oak trees we saw a forest-full of squirrels gathering acorns as we passed mile marker 5, toward Taverham. The section has recently been up-heaved during the construction of the Norwich Northern Distributor Road (‘NDR’, A1270). Built to aid congestion in Norwich suburbs the road was heavily contested with concerns that it would cause 'large adverse' impacts on several protected species, including barn owls and bats. Efforts have been made to re-establish some of the natural habitats along the highway and the cycle bridge we used to cross the dual carriage is lined with grasses and hedging. Plenty of the saplings and conifers are establishing themselves and hopefully this will go some of the way to reconnect the severed green corridor.
From the noise of the NDR we return to the rural setting of fields and hedgerows. Crossing Fir Covert Road, we were plunged into a damp dark plantation of mature deciduous trees. We collected large handfuls of sweet chestnuts that had fallen encased in their prickly jackets. The cases were falling at quite a rate and we had numerous near misses as cacti-like cannon balls pelted us from above.
We arrived at Attlebridge station and were impressed to find so much work having been put into the building and it’s surrounds. Privately owned as a B&B, the garden is charmingly fitted out with replica track, signals and crossing gates. Taking a right along the roadside we skirted around the property, through carpets of cyclamen and fallen conkers to re-join Marriott’s Way (a mere 200m diversion). The path narrows a little and the woodland becomes thick with pine, conifer and broom.
Once out of Drayton we had started to spot many different species of fungi; among them were birch polypore, parasol mushrooms as large as dinner plates and orange mycena. Now as we passed the damp woodland which runs abreast of Lenwade’s industrial works the path sides were peppered with the vibrant red of Fly Agaric toadstools.
Approaching Lenwade we once more crossed the Wensum; a much narrower, winding course swathed in high reeds than that we first met 9 miles previous.
At mile marker 10 we paused for our pasties, which were extremely delicious and made for a hearty late lunch as a light mist of rain began to descend.
In this location you are aware of the fugitive nature of industry in landscape as the wild reclaims the abandoned rails, slabs and huts along the route. Once supressed by train smoke, weed killer and strimming, the tenacious vegetation is reclaiming the site. In some ways it is sad to see so much industrial and social heritage being dismantled by exposure to the natural elements. The heritage enthusiasts certainly do a wonderful job of prolonging the life and legacy of station remnants at Norwich, Hellesdon and Whitwell. However, I recall reading Hugh Warwick’s Linescapes where Warwick draws our attention to the way that ‘linescapes’ like railways cause ‘human connection at the cost of fragmentation of the landscape.’ With so much of nature being sacrificed to urban and agricultural sprawl, it is somewhat reassuring to see evidence that given time nature can return and heal the fractures left by our industry.
Along the next two miles of path we met many dog walkers ambling from Whitwell and making the most of the many circular routes that bisect the main trail. They greeted us warmly as their four-legged companions snuffled in fallen leaves or made inquiries as to our snack supplies.
As we approached Whitwell & Reepham station flanked by the two brick platforms, a fine mizzle of rain began to settle on us and the station’s collection of locomotives. We were grateful for the cup of tea at the Sidings Bar. Run by a troop of dedicated volunteers in homage to the original M&GN line, this busy and welcoming station had plenty to distract us from our tired feet. As the rain set in for the evening we surrendered ourselves entirely for an hour or so; tucking into pizza and fries. I sampled the local ale on tap while my companion made themself familiar with the extensive gin and tonic menu.
With dusk setting in, we returned to the trail to complete the last mile and a half of our walk. Still raining and considerably darker than before we stumbled along in hi-vis with flashlights, hoping that no badgers or ghouls would make a meal of us. Thankfully only frogs and mice seemed to be out, and we were soon making our way along a farm track and the short distance to Wood Farm B&B run by Tim and Helen Sheldrake. Despite our late arrival causing much disturbance for their farm dogs we were greeted warmly and shown to our cosy twin room.
Having made sufficient use of the hot water and complimentary shortbread the night before we descended the following morning refreshed, if a little stiff calved. Over a fried breakfast book-ended by yogurt, berries and marmalade we discussed with Helen the sheep farming, fauna and flora of the area. She pointed out the favourite trees of the nuthatch, the spot recently turned over to wild flower meadow and the outbuildings where barn owls successfully reared two broods this year. After a brief play with their sheep dog Chip we were back out onto Marriott’s Way giddy with anticipation for the remaining 11 miles.
The track now took us along the ‘Themelthorpe Curve’. It was constructed in 1960, to link two lines together; halving the journey time for industrial freight. It was the sharpest bend on the UK network; so tight that trains were limited to 10mph to avoid derailment! The area is the quietest part of Marriott’s Way and during the four miles we travelled we only met a high-spirited dachshund and a runner seemingly intent on sharing her playlist with the whole parish.
Bizarrely, the Themelthorpe Curve feels inexplicably straight to walk, and I was quite disorientated to find myself arriving at the ramp of Reepham Station in no time at all.
In the 1880s Reepham went from having no stations to having two! For a while, daily train loads of passengers as well as coal, livestock and grain traveled from here across Norfolk. The station and its goods yard are now home to Kerri’s Farmhouse Pine; selling gifts, pine furniture and a wide selection of refreshments.
On leaving Kerri’s Tea Room we happened to meet Professor James Brown, Head of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre, walking his wire whiskered hound. An enlightening man he discussed how he had been investigation trees along the Themelthorpe Curve which seem to have strong resistance to Ash dieback. He has identified and tagged them; naming each tree discovered after a Winnie the Pooh character. James explained how he has monitored a couple of places where a lot of ash seedlings have germinated, particularly by Rabbit. Their future pollen and seed will hopefully form the next generation, leading to natural selection for resistance to ash dieback. It was fascinating stuff and we left him to complete his walk with many thoughts on the incredible ecology of the area.
The walk from Reepham to Cawston proved fast and pleasant with long-tailed tits causing a cacophony in the alder and elder trees as we pointed out the iconic churches of St Michael the Archangel's Church, Booton and St Agnes of Cawston. Certainly, worth a visit another day.
We turned off Marriott’s Way to visit The Bell Inn at Cawston in time for lunch. A modest, but friendly village pub; the massive jacket potatoes hit the spot.
Returning to the route, the path then skirts alongside a large beech hedge which obscures the original station building of Cawston (now a private home and caravan park).
One of the unexpected thrills of this waking trail had to be the mile markers. The mile markers were installed by artist John Behm with Nigel Barnett in 2009. As unseasoned walkers the site of the coiled iron structures brought a reeling buzz as we counted out the miles conquered thus far. Shouts of “Look! Mile marker 12!” “Is that mile 23 already?” brought a leap of joy and injection of energy to our tired soles. The breaking of the trail down into its individual miles makes the whole walk feel like a game and pays tribute to the original line markers which would signify the distance between yourself and an approaching terminus.
Along the last stretch we reveled in finding summer flowers still holding on to their blooms in the more sheltered spots. The frilly scabious, hawksbeard, and starry campion and cranes-bill added little flourishes to the grassy verges. Feeling the giddy with fatigue by Mile 24 I yelped with excitement to discover the unusual fungi growths of collared earthstar and the purple Ascocoryne sarcoides.
The sight of the Saturday leagues playing football announced our arrival on the outskirts of Aylsham. With tired legs we were somewhat grateful that the last mile of Marriott’s Way had a firm aggregate surface. Celebratory hugs and cheers were essential as we arrived at the final mile marker, number 26. We were inspired to see that the finger posts offered directions to join long distance trails of the Bure Valley path (9 miles) and Weavers Way (61 miles). We agreed to save those walks for another day! Instead we opted to visit the Bure Valley Railway (another heritage station dedicated to the M&GN line) to make the most of their facilities, before the return journey home.