The Beginning of the End

Stage 241, 30th November: Newhaven to Worthing

Over forty-one weeks I had tried to think barely more than one step ahead of myself. Yes, I had planned things thoroughly from well before I started and yes, I had to consider back-up and support sometimes months ahead. However, my walking mindset had been firmly fixed on no more than two or three days ahead and only now again affording myself the luxury of considering maybe a week ahead. Now I was thinking beyond a week and thinking of what I had to do when I got home. The end had begun.

Today was my first and only day without a support driver and was also all a bit of a blur. It started with a taxi ride from Worthing back to my start point at Newhaven and the expensive fare was lightened when the driver generously returned his tip as a donation. I had an hour or two of peaceful cliff top walking before social interaction picked up somewhat. Firstly, I met up with Murray, an MS sufferer, who had followed my blog since he came across it in an SIA publication back in June. He joined me on the under-cliff path into Brighton where a small group were loitering at the end of the pier waving in my direction. Ray and Suze, who I had last seen in the wilds of West Scotland, turned up with his family and friends including Paul and his wife who knocked me into a double take, “you what?” of delight as he announced a huge pledge for my efforts. I was genuinely humbled by his generosity and enthusiasm and I couldn’t refuse the opportunity of a sit down lunch courtesy of Ray.

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Paul, Ray, Suze and party kept me a little longer than planned, but it was time I surely owed them and a few miles in the dark along Worthing seafront were a price worth paying.  Remarkably, a late November seafront in Brighton was still busy. The self-styled London-by-the-Sea was certainly bustling as crowds milled about the promenade, some even stopping for an alfresco sit down and a drink. I did however note that most were sensibly wearing a winter woolly and supping a hot cuppa.

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By Hove, Murray too had left me but within minutes a tall John strode into view and insisted I had, what I suspected would be, my last ice cream from Martello’s. I’d last seen John back in Lancashire with his underarm girlfriend, Cardboard Karen. He had kindly stepped in at very short notice to drive Snickers for a few days this week and with James due to arrive on Thursday the duo had collectively saved my skin when the last hurdle looked as if it had become Becher’s Brook.

John left me to enjoy the less picturesque parts of Portslade and Shoreham before I made my way into Worthing for my last meeting of the day with another cousin Gareth. I apologised for my late arrival but he seemed nonplussed and took me straight down to his sailing club for a couple of pints and a quick lasagne. Today? A bit of a blur? Yes – but with no complaints whatsoever.

Stage 242, 1st December: Worthing to Aldwick Bay nr Bognor

It was back to normality as John joined me to take Snickers’ keys from my hands. I set off down the promenade and hugged the shingle beach tops all the way to Littlehampton. A brief beach walk at Climping was the first for a while and was only spoilt by the rumble of more huge tipper trucks moving shingle for sea defences, this time from East to West. A couple of days ago back in Seaford they were moving shingle from West to East. I did wonder whether there were dozens of trucks all along the South coast moving shingle in opposite directions just for the hell of it or whether they were actually swapping it somewhere in the middle, just for fun.

Middleton-on-Sea tried to block access to the seafront with a row of pretentious mansions proclaiming private beach ownership and exclusivity. Not below the high water line it isn’t and I enjoyed skipping over the groynes and not having to divert inland for the sake of more of the ‘English Private’ disease.

I was soon in Felpham and it anonymously merged into Bognor as neither town thrilled me with anything other than an enormous and all dominating holiday park. To me the central South coast towns had all been very pleasant, but none had knocked me sideways with anything really special. If it wasn’t for Beachy Head and The Seven Sisters, this whole strip along the English coast would have just been “rather nice”if more than a little overrated. However, I suppose it should be noted that I did just pass through in Winter. DSCF6165

 

I ended the day waiting for John at the gates of the rather “exclusive” Aldwick Bay Estate. As I stood there, a little dishevelled from a long day, residents drove by in their 4x4s and BMWs or walked by wearing Hunter wellies with their well-groomed hounds in tow. Without exception, all looked at me with mistrust and suspicion in their eyes. Clearly they feared that I was about to steal their car, rob their Rolex from their wrist and burgle their palatial pile. The estate was, to my eyes, vile. It was everything I dislike about Southeast England all neatly tied up in a square mile or two of greed, arrogance and vulgar displays of wealth. I’m sure there were lovely people living there, certainly Jill was very friendly and generous to my cause, but I was glad to get back to normality and park Snickers up on the driveway of John’s friends house for an evening of grand company and use of a decent shower.

Stage 243, 2nd December: Aldwick Bay nr Bognor to West Wittering

I didn’t give the Aldwick Bay Estate a chance to redeem itself by walking through it. Instead I headed straight back to the shingle beach to wade through a sea of pebbles along the shore toward Pagham and an inland muddy trudge around the marshes of Pagham Harbour. Drizzle accompanied me for a while, but as the rain died away a North wind picked up and my nose volunteered a few dew drops to warn me of a rapidly falling temperature. By the time I was back alongside the sea, today had become decidedly chilly.

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It wasn’t long before I turned another notable corner at Selsey Bill and came across a rather significant sight. I could see the Isle of Wight again. I’d not seen her since February. I sat out of the wind in the shelter of the sea-wall and ate my lunch looking across the water and watching a ferry coming out of Portsmouth. It was beginning to really dawn on me that the end was nigh and that I was going to complete the whole thing. Emotions were mixed. I couldn’t say what those emotions were as I don’t think I knew myself, but they were all over the place. It was only my freezing numb hands which kicked me into action by digging into my rucksack for a thick pair of gloves and I needed to get moving again to stay warm.

Another inland diversion flew by and it felt as if I was back at the coast in East Wittering within minutes and not the ninety or so it had taken me. Thoughts, whatever they were, had eaten time and the light was fading as I met John sat in West Wittering car park with the engine running and the heaters full on.

 

 

 

Mirk, Moods and Mods

Stage 238, 26th November: Lydd to Fairlight Cove

With light drizzle, a dense sea mist and no wind or chance of a warming sun to burn it away, I knew I wouldn’t see much today. In the morning that was probably fortuitous because what I could see of Lydd was fairly bland and complimented the weather rather well.

I made my way back to the sea at Camber Sands, not that I saw any sea. Then it was inland again to Rye. Now I knew that Rye wasn’t nearly as grim as Lydd, but the fog hadn’t lifted and I couldn’t see to form an opinion either way. So it was back down river and a brief meeting with Cousin Mike, Jane and their friends Rob and Mary. It was easily the highlight of my day as I spent half an hour walking and chatting with Jane and Mary as Mike and Rob cycled off to see some boats. I was beginning to wonder whether Cousin Mike might actually be stalking me. Not only had he supported me and driven snickers for six weeks but I’d also stayed at his house in Exmouth, stopped for a bacon butty at his holiday place in Wales and now bumped into him in Sussex.

I disappeared back into the mist and along the sea wall and shingle of Winchelsea Beach before a vague cliff like shadow loomed out of the mirk. Cliff End was a village of big houses with big gardens and I climbed the hillside via a steep muddy path fenced in between landscaped gardens drooping, dripping and well past their immaculately well-trimmed summer best. I stayed in the undergrowth over the cliff top and emerged from the bushes at Fairlight Cove to find Ann waiting in the lane to take me back to Birchington again, now some distance away.

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Stage 239, 27th November: Fairlight Cove to Eastbourne

It was nearly a two-hour drive back to Fairlight Cove and heavy drizzle…. no, mizzle, stayed with me for the first couple of slippery hours up, over and down four steep hills. It was exceptionally muddy again, but I was also getting wet and it was highly likely that I would unceremoniously slip and slide backside first at some point. It really was all I could do to stay on my feet, but somehow I did even when I came across a landslip which had left a greasy, gloopy steep bank to somehow get around.

The rain melted away as I dropped down into Hastings and I was treated to another seaside town still trying to keep up its dignity. Like so many, it was a little past its best but it wasn’t tacky and it wasn’t cheap. I felt it just needed a few pounds of investment where time had taken its toll. From what I could see Bexhill was similar, the only exception was the rather spectacular art deco De La Warr Pavilion which swept across the seafront advertising Frank Skinner’s presence in town.

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From Bexhill it was shingle and road to Pevensey and more road to Eastbourne with its massive Sovereign Harbour development of flats, houses and a huge marina trying to bring an old-fashioned seaside town very much into the 21st century. It had been a long day and the long drive back to base wasn’t something I looked forward to. I knew my legs would seize completely by the time we got there and though I had tried to cheer myself with a Mint Magnum in Hastings, my thoughts had been dark ones for most of the day and though I had a few things niggling at me, I couldn’t really find a specific reason why.

Stage 240, 28th November: Eastbourne to Newhaven

Today was to be my last serious day of climbs and the heaviest one since North Yorkshire. We left Birchington at 7am, but I didn’t start walking till after 9:30 and I was keen to get cracking on a bright, exceptionally warm day.

The walking started with the promenade of Eastbourne sporting its own very elegant Victorian pier. The pier, like almost every other pier I had seen, had been damaged by fire. Fortunately, the very recent fire hadn’t destroyed the entire structure and repairs looked well under way. This pier, unlike many others I’d seen, wasn’t going to be left to rot.

I then made my climb up well trodden but firm grass paths to Beachy Head, the maudlin suicide capital of Britain where there are apparently an estimated twenty suicides per year. I didn’t linger to absorb any of the sadness but picked some pertinent music by The Who to listen to on my iPod instead. It was then quickly down and up, down and up, seven times as the rolling chalk cliff switchbacks of The Seven Sisters took their turn. I thought I climbed twelve hills out from Eastbourne, so by the time I’d climbed the last sister I was a bit lost as to what and how many I had just done. It was only when I looked back from the other side of Cuckmere Haven that the seven showed themselves properly.

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The small climbs had all felt relatively easy and I had marched up the last few almost insisting that they challenge me by making me at least puff a bit. I supposed that fitness shouldn’t be an issue after 4,900 miles of walking, but it was pleasing to have it confirmed.

With one more climb out of Cuckmere Haven I was soon dropping into Seaford for more shingle banked beach, this time filled with heavy machinery mooching about and lazily carrying huge truck loads of stones from West to East and spreading them out again as a sea defence. I was sure the sea wouldn’t take long to move them all back West again and the apparent futility of such work puzzled me. I’d had a great day and reckoned that today would be in my top ten walking days when the approaching final ball of the innings finalised the score.  The weather had undoubtedly helped and as Mike B and his colleague Eric drove the three hours back to base for the last time, I tried to drop the good weather factor from my determinations.

Rest Day: 29th November: Birchington / Worthing

Back to base for the last time? Did I mention that I had completed my last driver changeover? Well things change and unfortunately the logistics for my last week had changed rather drastically as Mike B had a business commitment which had cropped up and I had urgently and thankfully found a couple of substitutes to split the last week in two and support me in to Southampton. Hence, I drove Snickers down to Worthing to park her up for two nights as I ventured for a couple of days without any support and the use of a taxi to get me to my start point back in Newhaven. Not ideal, but if it worked I’d take anything at this juncture and a roasting hot hotel room, courtesy of Mike B, had all of its windows opened wide to make it feel more like a night in Snickers.

 

White Cliffs and All That.

Rest Day, 22nd November: Birchington

It was a rather relaxing day at my new base tucked up at Mike B’s house back in Birchington. A late brunch at a local cafe and an easy afternoon were sorely welcome. I’d got used to running around like a lunatic every Saturday. Dropping off, shopping, washing, blogging, photo processing, tidying Snickers and picking up someone new had all become a rather hectic routine. Saturdays had become more tiring than walking 25 miles. So to have some relaxation, good food, a comfy chair to sit in and conversation about something other than logistics and walking was indeed refreshing.

Stage 235, 23rd November: Kingsgate to Deal

The forecast for the day didn’t add great cheer to the start of my penultimate week. It began dry, but the sky was a heavy lead grey and I knew I was going to get very wet at some point. I managed to see Broadstairs whilst the rain held off. The North Foreland Estate was clearly the realm of millionaires. Predominantly German built cars with extravagant boasting his and hers personalised number plates were lined up in mansion driveways. The display of wealth was more than a little distasteful and I’d forgotten how brash and showy the Southeast had become. Humility seemed to be lost on many and that was a shame.

More Charles Dickens heritage passed by quickly as I rounded Bleak House, which was originally Fort House and only given its current name in the 20th century. Whether it was the house that Dickens referred to in his novel is disputed, but in any event it attracted visitors even on a cold, dank Sunday in November.

As I made my way towards Ramsgate the first rain flicked lightly on my hands and face. I imagined that a summer view across the chimney pots towards the marina and a now largely redundant harbour could be spectacular, but with the light as flat as a pancake it was difficult to capture the compact architecture of town.

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By the time I ducked inland at Cliffs End and Pegwell Bay the rain had become persistent. I returned to the coast via Sandwich and strode straight across the fairways of Royal St George’s where only a few hardy bedraggled souls were still playing in the now heavy rain, rain that could only be described as something that sounds very much like persistent, but a little cruder. I tried to change my now sodden gloves to a dry pair from the depths of my rucksack. However, my hands were too wet and cold. My fingers on my right hand refused to straighten without help and I couldn’t get the gloves on. A small tantrum followed before I gave up and returned to the soaking pair and traipsed down the edge of the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club atop a shingle beach to thankfully meet up with Mike and his heated car seats in Deal. I think it was fair to say that I was soaked to the skin for a fifth time.

Stage 236, 24th November: Deal to Sandgate

Things were looking up. The sun was out. It was a beautifully crisp morning as Deal soon became Walmer and, as I rounded the corner at Kingsdown, the tall chalk walls of the White Cliffs of Dover magically made their entrance. Their appearance greatly pleased my eyes and gave them something to look at other than the flat featureless landscape they had become accustomed to. With the added bonus of a sun, even if it was a low sun, my spirit was quickly lifted at the prospect of being able to use my camera without having to search hard for subject matter.  The downside was that the path marked beneath the cliffs was impassable and I had to backtrack to go over them and to get around to Dover itself.

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I stopped for lunch on the cliff top above the ferry port at Dover and sat watching the bee hive of activity below me. Ferries were coming and going almost by the minute as they greedily regurgitated one load of trucks and cars and eagerly swallowed another before hurrying off to repeat the deed in Calais. I could even clearly hear the tannoy announcements and I sat there feeling a bit like Big Brother watching over every move.

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I dropped into Dover town and climbed out again for a brief spell on the North Downs Way. A few steep switchbacks were still very gooey from yesterdays rain, but the mud was nothing compared to the marshes and ploughed fields of recent weeks. As I dropped steeply into Folkestone I found myself jogging down the hill trying to keep pace with my feet eager to descend and enjoy what I suspected would be a rather stunning spectacle. Folkestone was about to  deliver a cracking sunset and I knew it. I hurried along to get to the promenade and to get a decent view. I got there just in time as the sun dropped quickly and disappeared at 3:58 pm exactly. But that was only the start of it as the sky above told me that the best colours would come over the next twenty minutes or so. Sure enough the now absent sun began to shine underneath the wispy clouds from somewhere just beneath my horizon and the sky lit up with oranges and reds with a rich back drop of royal blue. It was a fitting way to end a pretty fine day.

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Stage 237, 25th November: Sandgate to Lydd

The drama of yesterday was unlikely to be matched today and that was something I had become very used to. I had been spoilt by Northwest Scotland and had now got used to walking, sometimes for days on end, without a spectacle of real note. So when they came, they were now more valuable than ever and with a flat sea-wall start down to Hythe I wasn’t expecting too much today.

What I did get was a very chilly northwesterly wind on my back and I gave myself a brief respite from it as I headed inland to avoid the crackling gun-fire over on Hythe Ranges. It was then back on to a now new and heavily engineered curving concrete sea-wall edging Dymchurch and St Mary’s Bay and all the way to Littlestone-on-Sea some five miles or so South. It was iPod time again and it stayed on as the sea-wall gave way to shingle banks and the bleak outposts edging Romney Marsh. The desolate Southeast tip of Dungeness was soon upon me with its ramshackle chalets, some permanently inhabited, almost randomly dotted about the vast swathes of gravel beach now extending deeper inland than I had ever seen before.

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Dungeness Nuclear Power Station domineered all around it to such a degree that even the old lighthouse had been replaced so that it could now be seen by shipping. I then crunched across the huge and deep shingle of Denge Beach and Dungeness Nature Reserve, which seemed to be home to plenty of lichen, moss and pebbles but little else. Mike B’s ex-wife Ann picked me up near Lydd, waving out of the gloom. I admit to nodding off in the warmth of the car as we headed back to the civilisation of base.

 

 

 

A Naked Nutter and an Election

Stage 232, 19th November: Hoo St Werburgh to Kemsley

It was a cold, misty but thankfully dry start back on the Saxon Shore Way. For a change I found myself following a shoreline, even if was only the shore of the River Medway. Nonetheless it was better than a sea-wall with no sea in sight or unkempt sticky fields with pylons for a view.  DSCF5903This short stretch of narrow sandy shingle took me through the quaint villages of Lower and Upper Upnor and on towards Strood and Rochester with the peculiar sight of a dilapidated former Soviet Navy submarine moored and gently rotting away in the foreground to the misty cathedral and castle framed background of an ancient town and former city.

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Rochester was purportedly one of Charles Dickens’ favourite haunts and a place where he based some of his novels. Having seen the grim and bleak reality of much of the marshland recently I could certainly vouch for the Dickensian heritage. But today Rochester was famous for something much more pressing. By-election fever was in town and there were clusters of heavy lens clad photographers hanging about trying to get a snap of some political heavyweights due in town to fight their corner. I noted equally numerous clusters of eastern european immigrants hanging about on street corners too and had a passing suspicion that maybe they had been planted there by the UKIP candidate. UKIP were favourites to win and in this neck of the woods the lot sitting in the blue corner would only be fighting an opponent from another blue corner.

Rochester, Chatham, Brompton and Gillingham all merged into one another and though the Saxon Shore Way insisted that I take the tourist route to pass by a castle, a cathedral and the odd museum or two,  I saw through their cynicism and wandered straight into the high streets to try to get a feel for the real Medway towns…. and maybe sneak in a quick pie from Greggs.

As I left the Gillingham suburbs the Saxon Shore Way lost its way a bit and headed inland for me to enjoy the pleasures of a few more muddy fields and paths through to the bleak backwaters of Iwade and Kemsley hiding in the mainland shadows of the huge industrial plants over on the Isle of Sheppey. Ian had somehow found an open campsite with hardstanding, we were the only residents and we kept the doors locked.

Stage 233, 20th November: Kemsley to Whitstable

I barely skirted Sittingbourne and the huge paper mill at Kemsley. Now it was the turn of a grass topped sea-wall alongside the River Swale and a view out to the Isle of Sheppey. It was nearly ten miles of a dreary dull backdrop on a dreary dull day with only the boating haven of Teynham and the Swale Marina to break the monotony and give some respite to my numbing brain. But even the most picturesque villages can look dull on a grey late autumn day and Teynham was no exception.

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The sea-wall ended as I dipped sharply inland at Faversham where Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewery in Britain, lay temptingly in waiting.  I resisted the urge to nip in and opted for the joys of thick brown slippery wet fields back out towards the coast at Seasalter. Yes, it was coast. Not river bank, not marsh, not farmland but coast, proper coast with waves – admittedly small ones –  breaking against the shore. However, Ian had texted to forewarn me of a bizarre and disturbing sight to steer well clear of. In searching for a campsite (so he claimed) he had come across a rather large, greasy man sitting naked in his car in a public car park and watching pornography.  By the time I got there the man in the blue Proton had fortunately dressed himself but was still sitting there idly leering into the distance towards a nearby block of public toilets. I resisted the call of nature and pressed on quickly giving him my hardest “pervert” scowl as I strode passed. It was a subject of much mirth between Ian and I, as we likened his appearance to someone we both knew, but in truth it was a little disturbing and if he had still been naked when I passed by I think a call to the local constabulary would have been required.

Whitstable was my next town and last stop for the day. This small seaside town is renowned for its oysters but had recently become the predominant haunt of trendy Londonites. As a result, house prices had soared and though the quaint old pubs still existed they looked a little expensive for a quick pie and a pint.

Stage 234, 21st November: Whitstable to Kingsgate

Today I had the rare pleasure of keeping my feet dry and giving my boots an opportunity to fully dry out for the first time in, what felt like, weeks – if not months. Not only was the weather dry but so were the esplanades, promenades, paths and concrete topped sea-walls that I kept to all day. It was now more of a gentrified North Kent coast. The cleansed and modernised Herne Bay sea front set the tone and this continued unabated as I dropped out of sight from the town below the low cliffs of Bishopstone.  Cliffs! Yes, Cliffs at last!

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From St Mary’s Church and the roman fort at Reculver I was now on the Thanet Coastal Path and a concrete sea-wall took me along for an hour into Birchington. I now had my first proper sighting of chalk on the Kent coast and though they might not be the spectacular white cliffs of Dover they were still white cliffs and the path stuck firmly to their feet, meandering around the small headlands and hiding the town from view. I briefly emerged at Westgate Bay and Margate only to hide again as Cliftonville sat somewhere above me. The buildings now at the foot of the cliff told me a different story to the comparative wealth I had seen over the day. Cliftonville was rundown, decrepit and in dire need of regeneration. It certainly had an elegant if not grandiose past but it had lost that guilt edge and now sat at the bottom end of Kent’s towns of desire list.

An early start to allow Ian to head back to Berkshire for some rare time at home meant that I finished early and made my last formal crew change of the entire walk. I could have happily spent much more time in Ian’s company. We spent the evenings having devil’s advocate discussions about the world’s problems and by talking complete nonsense about any other trivia that might come to mind. We were always good at talking rubbish together and things hadn’t changed, other than a large reduction in alcohol intake. I was grateful to him for giving up his week to support me and though he managed to remain connected and get some work done, I don’t think it was as much as he had intended. Former work contact and long-standing friend, Mike, now took over and he picked me up and ensconced me back at his house in Birchington for some R&R and a new base camp.

 

Miles to Date:  4,807.2    Ascent to Date: 523,724 ft

 

 

 

Wrestling mud to the Thames

Stage 229, 16th November: Hullbridge to Shoeburyness

Ian and I arrived in Hullbridge to be greeted by an old friend of Cousin Mike, Graham, who strangely wanted to meet up with me, the nutter who had completed nearly 4,700 miles but still wanted to do 350 more. It was a quick but much appreciated greeting and as he wished me well I made my way back to the sea-wall.

The sea-wall walk wasn’t as long-lived as expected. The Environment Agency had closed it half a mile further along due to a collapse. It wasn’t a good start to the day. I doubled back to find a route through to the road so that I could continue my journey East and back down the River Crouch. It was also a huge frustration that the EA couldn’t be bothered to warn me about the closure at Hullbridge. It was by no means the first time I’d come across closed paths with no forewarning or diversion in place and I put it down to laziness.

The road walk wasn’t much fun either. It was another one of those narrow winding Essex lanes which had become overrun with fast-moving traffic and more of it than was ever intended. Thus I tried to cut back to the sea-wall a few times, but to no avail. A plethora of ‘Keep Out’ signs kept me well back and the English land privacy disease was on full show.

I stayed on the road to Canewdon where I stopped to check if I could find another way back towards my planned route. I met up with a speedy woman who had been walking behind me for a while. She introduced herself as Jacquie and pointed me a mile further up the road.  We took the option to walk together for 15 minutes and as two keen hikers we compared notes with a degree of mutually agreed nerdiness. Conversation was easy and welcome as I hadn’t walked with anyone for a while and sometimes, not always, it’s a real treat.

I cut off and down the Roach Valley Way as Jackie continued towards the marina at a noticeably quicker pace than me. Via deep trouser spattering mud I made my way to pretty Paglesham and after some more deep mud I met up for a quick chat with Leah, Simon and Merlin their golden retriever, who clearly enjoyed the gooey mess and whose bottom half was black with the stuff. Rather than having to bath a dog the rest of the afternoon was, for me, a series of wet muddy lanes and, yes, muddy paths and exceptionally muddy fields to Little Wakering. The rain which had started as drizzle gradually bulked itself up to become steady and heavy for the last two hours of a grim afternoon. A dark pavement walk straight into the warmth of Paul’s house in Shoeburyness to find dinner waiting and a hot shower was a big hit. Ian pointed out how this part of Essex was apparently the driest part of Britain and almost formally qualified as a desert. Alas, this fact was lost on me.

Stage 230, 17th November: Shoeburyness to Stanford-Le-Hope

I left Paul’s front door and made for the sea-front. With the recent number of estuaries and marshes a sea-front walk was almost a welcome novelty. The front at Southend-on-Sea wasn’t quite the usual tacky seaside town I was expecting. Yes it had the usual array of amusement arcades, cafes and trinket shops but in this instance they all seemed to sparkle and gleam with brightly coloured signs, fully functional lights and a pavement devoid of chip wrappers, empty coffee cups and fag ends. “Sowfend” seemed wealthier than most of the seaside towns I had seen and the surrounding housing seemed to attract prices only suited to a town within easy commuting distance of London.

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At Leigh-on-Sea I met up with Woody again who had driven Snickers back into England just over six weeks ago. He pounded a few miles out with me, giving me a fully guided tour of Hadleigh Country Park, his work place. It was a brief but lovely meeting and grand to have some company again if only for a short distance. We shook hands at Benfleet and he returned home to construct a potting shed.

I quickly suspected that the potting shed was an excuse and that Woody knew something I didn’t as I joined the Thames Estuary Way and rediscovered the statutory thick and very wet mud edging the marshes on my side with heavy industry edging it on the other.  The pathway wasn’t fully marked on my map but it was waymarked on the ground so I took a gamble and followed the finger-posts across muddy fields, along mucky tracks, down soaked paths and flooded lanes. I finally emerged at Fobbing to cross a brand new road into the new London Gateway Port and make my way to meet Ian waiting nervously in a less than salubrious car park, which looked as if it doubled as the local drug dealers hang out. We left the car park with the haste of a US Vietnam War helicopter pilot evacuating troops from a landing zone and made our way to the safety of Paul’s place back in Shoeburyness.

Stage 231, 18th November:  Stanford-Le-Hope to Hoo St Werburgh

We returned to Stanford and I was hastily dropped at the landing zone to disappear into the drenched wilderness of Essex once again. The pylons crackled and fizzed loudly above my head in the misty morning air as the former Coryton oil refinery and the new London Gateway port disappeared into the murk over my left shoulder.

Over the entire walk I had passed so many former industrial complexes. It was ex this, closed that and decommissioned others seemingly telling a sad British industrial tale. The port of London Gateway was a refreshing development on a very grand scale and one that was seemingly moving apace as opposed to the empty promises of a new energy park (wind-farm construction site) I’d seen at many barren and dormant former industrial yards.

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I made it to a treacherous lane into East Tilbury and found the sea-wall to follow-up river via the fittingly closed Tilbury power station. I made my last few Essex steps passing Tilbury Fort, supposedly the best preserved 17th century fortification in the country. A sparsely populated passenger ferry took me over to Gravesend and Kent took a bow.

Though another significant milestone had been passed, my entrance into Kent soon became all too familiar. Once out of the Dickensian back alleys Gravesend, I was soon on very familiar, very muddy ground of a sopping sea-wall.

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If it wasn’t for a brief meeting and affable moving chat with Chris and Anthony, walking the Kent county coastline, I probably would have sulked away the entire afternoon as I slipped and slid my way around to Cliffe Fort.  I then kept to my brief and stuck to the formal mainland by skirting the Isle of Grain and crossed more exceptionally muddy fields as I zipped from one village to the next.  The muddy clay soil cloyed to my boots until they were heavy with freshly thrown dinner plates stuck to their soles. They were washed clean in the flooded sections and recoated several times before I met up with Ian at Hoo St Werburgh sporting a thick layer of brown goo from the knees down.

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Another Sanity Test

Stage 226, 12th November: Heybridge Basin to Bradwell Waterside

It was a brief mile or so up the River Blackwater to Maldon and then a sharp turn to head back down it again, giving me a whole day in the company of a wide and muddy tidal river. I spent the next couple of hours dodging showers as I managed to walk East across the front of the first big black cloud approaching from the Southwest, which dropped its contents on Maldon now some distance behind me. The next two smaller ones hit me, but not enough to dampen my spirit and barely enough to really need the waterproofs I had put on in readiness.

It was very much an iPod day and any thoughts of a river being soothing company were lost as the monotony of the flat landscape became a soporific reality. A brief rainbow across St Lawrence Bay and Maylandsea woke me and an adder was the most sociable of creatures I saw all day, though I wouldn’t say that the hiss it gave me was a friendly greeting. I was amused by the sight of a riverside pool with a dozen plastic duck decoys bobbing around like corks. As I approached these were supplemented by two flapping and equally plastic ducks mounted on poles at the water’s edge. Finally I came across some camouflage netting and the barrel of a gun as a duck shooter scowled a begrudged greeting my way. I think I’d just ruined his day. He even had one of those plastic whistles that sound like a mumbling Donald Duck. I thought I looked ridiculous.

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Maylandsea, Mayland and The Stone were places which offered little of interest other than the odd boatyard and a few nondescript houses for me to throw a passing glance towards.  However, the light of the now rapidly setting sun cast a shallow winter warmth across the water to the nuclear power station a few miles away at Bradwell. The marina near Bradwell Waterside looked as if it might have given me some smart or antique boats to look at but sadly the sun had long gone by the time I got there and all I wanted to do was have a shower and get something to eat.

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Stage 227, 13th November: Bradwell Waterside to Creeksea

I was immediately back on the sea-bank again and started the day listening to the Anglo-Saxon shouts of the workers decommissioning the nuclear power station. Their words were soon silenced as distance grew and a cold wind blew in making me pull my woolly hat down low. The sea-bank and occasional stretches of concrete topped sea-wall continued in long straight sections interspersed with gentle curving ones and occasional sharp detours around a small inlet or sluice.

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To break the tedium a lovely golden retriever bounded up to me from distance with two terriers trailing behind. After a barked greeting we were best of pals in seconds as Lennon stood on my foot and leant against my thigh slobbering as I compared ailments and doggy traits with his owner, Pam.

A few miles of real seaside didn’t last as I took a turn up the River Crouch. It brought little change to the terrain or the scenery and only a few huge thudding explosions from the range over the estuary at Foulness gave me any interest. I had a passing thought that I might have just seen a large chemical incident and briefly worried as a heavy rusty coloured smoke cloud skimmed across the bay in my direction. The cordite smell reassured me as the rest of the day sunk into obscurity.

By the time I arrived in Burnham-on-Crouch the cold wind had brought in some rain and I counted four sailing / yacht clubs along a clearly prosperous but short waterfront. The large marina half a mile further on was full of brash displays of wealth but with summer long gone I barely noticed any activity. The only noise was a strangely comforting one and I liken the sound of the wind drumming the rigging against the yacht masts to that of alpine cow-bells.

Stage 228, 14th November: Creeksea to Hullbridge

Heavy rain had been forecast from home and it arrived early morning to wake me and drip into Snickers bathroom a little too easily. Paul and I checked the skylight for leaks. What skylight? Was this another case of “It just fell off”?

With Snickers now an open-topped vehicle, Paul had a job on his hands looking for an urgent replacement and I headed out into the rain hoping his plastic bag patch wasn’t a long-term fix.

I continued up the River Crouch following yet more sea-bank and wall. The rain on my back wasn’t too much of a problem but the thick gooey mud underfoot was and every step seemed to make my feet slip away in random directions. Progression was slow.  By late morning the rain had eased, but I knew the mud would stay with me till Southampton now that the sun was weak and grass growth had slowed. It was the first time that I had really thought of the end. My family and friends had been mentioning it for a while, but I saw that as a minor irritation and had been in denial, trying to concentrate on one day or, at the outside, one week at a time. With over 90% of the walk complete I had entered the nervous nineties and the slow muddy progression would probably be mirrored in the clock ticking away in my head. I was preparing myself for a few mentally testing weeks. It really didn’t help that the whole walk up river via South Woodham Ferrers and back down again via the antique traders kingdom of Battlebridge was a featureless walk.

I ended the week with the sun going down over the pylons and yet more sea-wall to Hullbridge. Paul cheered my mood considerably with a newly fitted second-hand skylight. By the sound of his day it was entirely possible that his blood pressure had been tested a smidge. In my eyes he was a star for getting it fixed so quickly.

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Rest Day, 15th November: Shoeburyness

With the salubrious nature of our campsite, the slug populated showers and cold damp toilets by torchlight encouraged an early start. I dropped Paul off at Wickford station and I said my heart-felt thanks as he boarded a train for London with, I suspect, some relief to escape my slightly surreal, cold and muddy world. It had been a tough week for finding stopovers open to receive a motorhome and for driving the lanes of Essex with impatient drivers pushing their way through. The behaviour of drivers had changed hugely over the last few weeks and with every step closer to London the driving was undoubtedly getting faster, more aggressive and less courteous. It’s not a trait I like of the Southeast but it is a comment on how busy this part of Britain is and how overcrowding breeds an uncaring selfishness.

I picked up old uni pal Ian a couple of hours later and we headed over to stay with his brother Paul in Shoeburyness. An afternoon watching England lose to South Africa at Twickenham was a rare treat and looking at a large television screen was an alien experience with the colours and camera work almost hypnotising me into a restful doze on the sofa.

Miles to date: 4,678.2   Ascent to date: 519,282 ft

 

The Only Way is….

Rest Day, 8th November: Harwich

A week of hot baths and comfort was over and it was back into Snickers in an attempt to re-establish the routine I had lost from being pampered by my family. Not that the comfort was unwelcome, far from it, but the increasingly long distance shuttling to and from my start / finish points had added dead-time into my day. With time a precious commodity I had begun to feel like I was hurrying to finish my walking in order to get back to base at a reasonable hour and then rushing to get everything else done before bed. But it was my choice and on reflection I wouldn’t have done anything different.

I said my goodbyes and deepest thanks to Steve, Anita and my mum, who undoubtedly still viewed me as her youngest little boy doing something a little bit silly but who also liked to follow my every step with worry. It was then on for a very big and beautifully presented breakfast at a seaside cafe in Lowestoft before heading down for the long drive to Harwich to meet up with Amanda from the SIA and her boyfriend Moz. Together we picked up my next driver, Paul, from Harwich and we all headed back to Snickers for a cuppa and a natter before Amanda and Moz made their way home and Paul settled into my rather strange little world.

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Stage 223, 9th November: Harwich to Clacton-on-Sea

It had rained heavily all night and the morning still had some more to give. Thankfully it was gradually easing. Once I was out of Harwich it was sea-bank again until I reached Irlam’s Beach where I darted inland to navigate around the marshes of Hamford Water Nature Reserve. The trail took me across fields and almost as far inland as Little and Great Oakley. Five miles later, I was back walking the tops of sea-bank again, which gradually grew in height as the coast closed in.

At Kirby-le-Soken I took the road down towards Walton-on-the-Naze and regained, what I had started to recently consider, as a rare sea view and I positively revelled in the ease of a promenade walk. This continued down to Frinton-on-Sea. Not that I could see anything of Frinton. My view inland was endless rows, sometimes four deep, of beach huts. I’m told Frinton is a lovely little town. For me it looked more like a rather cutely painted shanty town perched on the sea’s edge.

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The promenade became sea-wall before the wall gave way to more promenade as Holland-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea approached. I was beginning to wonder why they had to name all the towns around here as being ‘on something or other’. I thought it might be overstating the obvious.

Stage 224, 10th November: Clacton-on-Sea to Colchester

It was a lovely crisp morning and nearly twenty-four hours of dry weather had certainly helped ease the squelching sogginess under foot. Clacton promenade continued for a good couple of miles before more sea-wall took me to Jaywick. As I approached Jaywick three women overtook me at pace. I was miffed that my statistics for being overtaken had been trashed in one group hit, but as they stopped a few hundred metres further up the path I wasn’t sure whether I should count them as a legitimate overtake (I have). I stopped for a quick chat and their jaws dropped noticeably jaws when Vanessa, Jane and Naomi heard of my little venture. I did wonder how long this trip would have taken me if I had kept up their pace and as they returned for their egg and bacon sandwich, I continued on at my steady 3.2 mph pace.

The sea-wall became sea-bank again as signs warned me of an upcoming Naturist Beach. Considering the chill breeze the beach was understandably and, to my utter relief, empty. Even the thought of letting everything hang loose in this weather was enough to shrink-wrap a polar bear and my bear was very cosy thank you very much.

Sea-bank gave way to muddy farmland for a few miles before I returned to the waterside at Brightlingsea, now a mottled brown colour from the thighs down. I was progressing at speed and was hoping to complete my planned 23 miles before dark. Alas an OS error in marking a ford crossing of Alresford Creek spoilt my plans. The tide was well in and I had a strong doubt  that anything other than a mudskipper would even try to ford here when the tide was out. So three more miles via a little bit of unplanned and unavoidable trespassing meant that Wivenhoe could only be seen in the dark. It was a shame as the ancient port looked like it had a very pretty quayside without being overly quaint or contrived. At least the path out of Wivenhoe was fast and even under foot. The only thing to worry about was approaching cyclists making their way home with overly bright 10,000 watt lights shining their way but blinding me and anyone else going towards Colchester.

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Stage 225, 11th November: Colchester to Heybridge Basin

Another dry day and my boots could relax in the knowledge that they might get to dry out properly. The first mile out of Colchester was very promising but the next few miles weren’t so great as a heavy dew gave them a hefty drenching as I walked across a few fields to start my inland trek around another military range near Fingringhoe. This inland detour unfortunately gave me few route options other than to stay inland and do some serious road walking for the first time in ages.

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The first few lanes were pleasantly empty and easy walking as I strolled through Peldon, Little Wigborough and Great Wigborough. Then I joined the B1026 and I could feel the tension rise in my bones as I walked along a fast and reasonably busy country road with a tiny verge often edged with overhanging bushes and trees pushing me into the oncoming traffic. To make matters worse Essex let itself down as (yes this is true) two Mercedes driven by bleached blonde women, both on their mobile phones, cut things a little finer than I would have liked. I’m sure that booking their next orange skin spray, boob job or tattoo could have waited till they parked, but then again they were probably already late for their manicure. Sorry Essex, but I was angry and ranted to myself that someone should do something to locally to help curb air-headed fakery, it’s a horrible disease that is spreading across the country and I think it might have originated here.

I was mightily relieved to eventually leave the road for a quieter lane at Tolleshunt D’Arcy. It had felt like twenty exhausting miles, even though it was probably only about five or six. I was also almost overjoyed to see the water again as I closed in on the sea-wall at the top of the River Blackwater and Heybridge Basin. The river would be my company for the next day and I was happy at the prospect of soothing companionship.

 

 

Up River, Down River

Stage 220, 5th November: Hollesley Bay to Felixstowe

An overnight thunderstorm and thrashing rain wasn’t conducive to a good nights sleep and I knew that today would be a long one. An hour-long drive back to Hollesley Bay from our continued stop at Southwold meant an early start, but by the time I set off walking it was already 08:30. It was also still raining, heavily.

My first big estuary walk of three in three days began with a trip up the River Deben to Woodbridge. With every step I became increasingly bedraggled as the rain seeped in. There are very few things one can wear that truly keep out persistent British rain and my boots failed first again. Fortunately my waterproofs have performed comparatively well, so my core remained dry even if my extremities were soggy, but nevertheless the walk up river was not a pleasant experience. The inclement weather also kept people inside and with the exception of a shooting party knocking pheasants out of the sky at will, I didn’t meet a soul.

As I reached Melton and Woodbridge the rain eased. The Dutch influence in the architecture at the Woodbridge Tide Mill tempted my camera briefly out of its damp case, but not much else did all day. The rain followed me, if lightly, down river but it was now on my back and certainly wasn’t making me any wetter.  That was a bonus.

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On a better day the village of Waldringfield would probably have been very picturesque and from here I was soon back on top of a flood-bank threading its way through the maze of gullies and ditches of Spinny Marsh. Further into the marsh the path became less well-trodden and increasingly muddy. A mile in and the flood-bank melted into a muddy slurry, it had been washed away. I swore, turned back and in the increasing gloom of late afternoon found another inland route down to Old Felixstowe where Steve and mum met me out of the darkness sitting in the empty car park of an isolated pub. If ever there was one, it was a very strange place to meet my mother, especially with more than twenty-seven miles of mud on my boots and trousers.

Stage 221, 6th November: Felixstowe to Shotley Gate

A very brief meeting with James, an old cricket club pal, in the same car park saw me off around the town of Felixstowe to begin the trudge up estuary two, this time the River Orwell. Felixstowe has the biggest container port in Britain and the huge 24/7  logistical operation was very much in my face as I waited for a huge freight train carrying thirty or more containers to cross my path.

Once out of the docks, I was worried that the ground would still be saturated from the rain of yesterday. However, the weather was on my side as bright sunshine and a gentle breeze did its best to dry the surface under foot. I stayed river side with only brief inland forays to change the scene. As I closed in on my river crossing at the Orwell Bridge near Ipswich, I interrupted two women for a brief chat as they reminisced and strolled their way along the waterfront with a can of beer in hand. It was the only chat I would have all day and their company, even for five minutes, was a blessing in this surprisingly remote part of the Suffolk coast.

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The river downstream of Chelmondiston village held an equally bleak but fascinating sight as dozens of old barges and boats, once trendy houseboat conversions, now stood in various states of decay. The odd one or two were still in use and well looked after, but the majority were now looking ready for reclamation by the river, their wooden stages and hulls tilting and rotting in the mud.

DSCF5686The light was fading fast again and time was running thin as I rejoined the flood-bank for another floodlit view of Felixstowe docks from the opposite side of the river. Even at distance, the noise was just as deafening as it was this morning. Every klaxon, every bell and every reversing alarm echoed across the water and the neon lights of the port were bright enough to throw a glowing light across my path as I turned into another peculiar outpost at Shotley, sandwiched neatly between Felixstowe and Harwich, my next destination.

Stage 222, 7th November: Shotley Gate to Harwich

My third estuary in three days was that of the River Stour and the rain was back, this time with a very sharp and blustery wind. Luckily the rain didn’t stay long and by 11:00 the sun had made an appearance. The sun and breeze of yesterday hadn’t been particularly effective at drying the ground or the grass and the rain of last night and this morning had now made things extremely slippery and muddy under foot. With the added wind factor buffeting me around, progress up river was slow and after a brief dip inland to the roads and tracks showing off the enormous houses of Stutton with their private tennis courts, I eventually made it to The White Bridge and my crossing into Essex. Suffolk had been a soft and gentle county, a pretty county, a county maybe worth further exploration. It had also been another flat one and Essex promised little different.

Manningtree and Mistley brought me simple roadside path walking, but as the light faded the paths vanished and I resorted to following the Essex Way inland and not risk a fast, winding and busy road verge. I was rewarded with a fire-ball sunset, which faded all too quickly as the weakening late autumn sun hastily dropped over the horizon. With darkness the route into Harwich seemed to go on for ever. I had underestimated my time out for the day and I arrived well after dark and much too late to effectively see the ground under my feet. From now on, earlier starts were needed for any day over twenty miles long. My last three had all been over twenty-five and walking in the dark, either roadside or along remote sea-walls or cliffs isn’t clever.

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The Far East, a Bikini and a Sat Nav Dog

Rest Day, 1st November: Corton, Lowestoft & Southwold

MILES TO DATE:   4,444.4         ASCENT TO DATE: 511, 328ft

With no facilities at the campsite, the planned long lie-in wasn’t as long my ageing body would allow, but a big supermarket breakfast was always going to go down well. Sharpie headed off via Lowestoft railway station with yet more thanks for our second series of Max and Paddy’s ‘Road to Nowhere’ and I began my next week of less beer but more comfort and luxury. I parked Snickers up at Southwold and waited for my brother Steve, his wife Anita and my mum to turn up for their week supporting me from a holiday flat in Southwold. Snickers would get a few days rest as I took advantage of my family and their hospitality. The first night was a welcome pub meal and a few pints of Adnams. So much for the beer consumption.

Stage 217, 2nd November: Corton to Southwold

As I was now in Suffolk, it wasn’t long before I was at my last major compass point, which came and went without much fanfare as I passed a plaque buried in the sea wall at Ness Point, Lowestoft.

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From there it was a short distance into town and out again to walk along the promenade of the South Beach. It was here, as I was snacking my morning twix, that an attractive young lady briskly jogged her way from the surf and up to a public shower by the beach huts. Considering it was a chilly November morning, she was dressed in nothing more than a bikini and a “You’re brave” comment from my lips was greeted with a cheeky grin as I passed by. I walked along another twenty paces to see three old men sitting on a bench. One of them muttered at me “She’s here every day y’know”. I had a strong suspicion that they were too.

My chuckles stayed with me for a while as I made my way down the sea front and the sandy shingle beach, hiding Pontins holiday camp from my view. It was then down to Benacre where very soft sands and another National Nature Reserve pushed me inland to follow the Suffolk Coast Path. The path was hardly coastal and I ventured much further inland than I would have liked. It had an aversion for roads of any kind and skirted Pottersbridge Marshes through woodland and the village of Reydon, but eventually I arrived on the outskirts of Southwold as the light was fading with no time or tidal opportunity to search for locally renowned amber on the beach. With the nights closing in rapidly, light chasing was going to be an issue again, something I hadn’t really done since my first few weeks back in February. February felt a lifetime away now.

Stage 218, 3rd November: Southwold to Aldeburgh

September and October had been fairly kind to me weather wise but with a chill damp start I knew things were due to change. The middle class enclave of Southwold with its boutiques, delicatessens and expensive eateries didn’t look quite so inviting in the drizzle and the muddy track through Southwold harbour had lost some of its twee visitor appeal in the grey late autumn chill. Nonetheless, the place felt at ease as if relaxing after a long season of busily sucking up income from visitors platinum credit cards.

From here I kept seaward of the equally wealthy Walberswich and after a brief shingle beach walk it was inland via a reed bed boardwalk and woodland tracks heading for Dunwich. All along an unmade track “Surrey by the Sea” continued as exclusive attractive and sometimes huge houses tucked themselves into the trees. I imagined that property prices around here might be out of my league.

At Dunwich I was back on the beach and I stepped down the steep shingle bank to find easier firm sand at the waterline. I stayed here as the beach edged passed Sizewell nuclear power station taking me all the way to Aldeburgh. My first visit to Aldeburgh was a quick seafront one and a chat with a lovely woman, taking photo upon photo as she walked, reaped a very welcome donation. Within seconds of tucking the donation into my pocket and after threatening with drizzle all day, the heavens truly opened. It caught me off guard and I had no time to don my waterproof trousers, so it was head down for the last ninety minutes as I walked the sea bank looping up the River Alde to meet up with Steve waiting back on the other side of Aldeburgh. The skies cleared as I approached the car waiting to take me back for a very welcome hot bath in Southwold and the sunset warmed my soul if not my rather wet and very chilled hands, legs and feet.

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Stage 219, 4th November: Aldeburgh to Hollesley Bay

I continued up the River Alde, now via a soft woodland walk towards Snape. This would be one of many river estuaries and marshes for me to get around over the next couple of weeks and progress across the map would be slow. My progress was slowed a little more as I came across a quivering and whimpering scruffy little dog trotting along the path in front of me. After inspecting his collar I came to the conclusion that Tom Tom the dog was lost. I picked him up and backtracked to a nearby car park. There I met a woman just arriving to walk her dog. Together we knocked on a local door and called the phone number on Tom Tom’s collar, but to no avail. We put him in her car and walked off down the path together to see if we could meet up with his owner. Sure enough, we did. She seemed utterly unconcerned as apparently Tom Tom frequently lingers to sniff his way slowly through the woods. Her other two dogs bounded passed and I left feeling both relieved and a little deflated that he probably wasn’t lost at all. I should’ve guessed that a dog named Tom Tom was unlikely to ever be lost, even if he might have found himself down a dead-end path.

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Soon I was heading back down the River Alde and, in places, a badly flooded path tempted me to cut inland for the villages of Sudbourne and Chillesford via Tunstall Forest. The fields were full of pigs. Pigs, pigs everywhere and if wasn’t pigs it was turf growing country. The Suffolk farming landscape was very different to the huge industrial arable land in Lincolnshire.

From Butley I returned to the waterside. Now it was the River Ore and I only managed a distant glimpse of the sea as I followed the sea-bank along the river running a strange parallel course to the coastline beyond. I met Steve with my mum parked up at the eventual river mouth. The sea had returned but was still a good distance out beyond high and wide shingle banks. This was a remote, bleak coast, another Dickensian coast, but not an unattractive one.

 

 

California Dreamin’

Stage 214, 29th October: Sheringham to Happisburg

Until today nobody had quite completed a full day of walking with me. JH was to break that record and it made for a very welcome unplanned change to have his easy conversation and company for every step.

Indeed, all was very pleasant today. The weather was more suited to mid August than end October with warming sunny spells and only a brief very light shower to barely dampen our boots. The walking was undulating if not steep, with easy low cliffs and a brand new way-marked section of Norfolk Coast Path to follow.

Cromer came and went quickly with its short but rather grand pier reaching out beyond the groynes and shallow surf. It was then on to Overstrand and Sidestrand with paragliders cruising the rising air along the cliff edge with ease and precision only dropping for soft, pin-point landings when they really needed a break.

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The cliffs were eroding badly in places and the sea defences were becoming quite poor, seemingly getting worse with every step East. It looked as if the authorities had just given up on this section of coastline and having seen the expense and effort made in other areas it felt more than a little unfair.

We met up with Sharpie at Mundesley and settled for a couple of minutes of group ice cream eating. Mine was a Magnum of course. Together the three of us then dropped onto the sand for a beach walk around the large gas terminal at Bacton (who had notably made an effort to install their own sea defences) and down towards Walcott and Happisburgh which, for no accountable reason, is pronounced “Hazeborough”. It’s not just the Scots and the Welsh with complicated place names.

Stage 215, 30th October: Happisburg to California

It was back down to an eroding coast now devoid of sea defences. Roads disappeared into thin air and pipes hung like useless rags along the cliff edge. Happisburg seemed to have been forgotten and it’s fate left to the mercy of the elements. Like East Yorkshire coastal erosion is a big issue and understandably so.

I was back on my own and a short length of path gave way to sand. With a reappearance of defensive groynes and a sea-wall it was a high tide obstacle course around Eccles on Sea. The offshore granite reefs now offered a new and different kind of sea defence and with them came a brief inland diversion at Sea Palling, if only to have a look at what I was missing on the other side of the wall. I wasn’t missing a great deal.  The wealth and quaint gentility of North Norfolk had long since gone and was now replaced by a bleak, bland, end-of-the-road sort of place. So it was probably wise to head back to the beach and walk the seaward steps of the sea-wall. I was rewarded richly with a large grey seal colony huddled in groups for two miles along the edge of the surf. One group had chosen a spot too close to a car park and human laziness and ignorance was brashly on display. People were getting too close and one stupid woman hiding beyond panda-eyed sunglasses and in a world of her own almost tripped over a tiny pup. The pup was chased off and she laughed as I growled at her ignorance in not knowing how much energy the pup needs to conserve in its early days as it builds weight. I also wondered if that pup would survive and whether it’s mother would desert it. And as one woman bent to touch another pup I equally feared for the pup’s desertion due to the scent of some foolish human on its offspring. I also quietly hoped that one of the big adults might actually offer up their very sharp teeth. It was a saddening scene and one that made me move on quickly.

At a distance further down the beach and far enough to discourage most humans I came across another group of seals happily undisturbed. I kept my distance but a newborn pup mistook my black attire for his mum and started following me along the beach. I backed off and sat on the rocks a good distance away watching them as I ate my lunch. The pup dozed off and the adults settled back to their general bickering and gentle wailing. The last few miles of beach were clearly as popular with breeding and birthing seals as Donna Nook back in Lincolnshire and I questioned why this one wasn’t closed off to the public or patrolled by a warden. That’s a job I could fancy if anyone wants to make an offer.

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The rest of the day comprised more beach, more dunes and more run-down seaside towns and villages as I turned in for the day at the lesser known and much less glamorous California. But the pub did do a cracking carvery.

Stage 216, 31st October: California to Corton

An easy beach walk passing Caister-on-Sea started the day but I soon ducked inland at Caister Point for the roads into Great Yarmouth. As the town closed in, the promenade began and much though I thought that the holiday season was over,  it was apparently back with throngs rather than hoards out enjoying a warmth more typical of August. Donkey rides were still popular on the beach alongside Britannia Pier. The big theatre sat heavily on the old structure with large posters advertising many big name acts due to show up sometime over the next year. Great Yarmouth was brash but clearly thriving. The seafront felt almost as long as Blackpool’s with the southern Wellington Pier home to a huge bowling alley and the pleasure beach still entertaining a few hardy souls on the log flume.

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I attempted to get all the way down to South Denes via the seafront, but as I approached a razor wire topped fence closed in on the sand and the port authorities barred access. I back-tracked and cut across to the quay-side on the West side of the promontory for a walk North to the town centre and a brief foray through the bustling market square. My hesitation in the shopping centre was a brief one to top up on cheap CDs to add to my growing iPod library and I was soon over Haven Bridge and heading South along the West Quay outpacing a slow-moving traffic jam making its way out of Great Yarmouth.

At Gorleston the beach even had swimming trunk clad children playing on the immaculate soft sand. It was warm, but I didn’t think it was that warm. The promenade was less chips and candy floss and more about coffee and cakes. It slowly gave way to a path and the path became beach. The beach then became a closed beach thanks to sea-defence works but without any warning I had to scramble up the cliff, cross a golf course and make my way through a huge holiday park in Hopton to find Sharpie and his company for the last mile of another county in another week as I made my entrance into Suffolk.