Striking across a broad sweep of Norfolk’s old heathland, the trail was also largely flat. The open agricultural landscapes were calm brown oceans, soothing on the eye. Huge fields undulated in gentle waves of similarity against a backdrop of pastel-dappled Constable skies. Every now and again, heavy brown grouse erupted from bare soil and brittle fronded undergrowth. Nimble brown hares raced towards the horizon over brown fields. Brown is certainly the new black in these parts.
Being February, we saw very few people out in the open – an old man walking a bouncing dog, a handsome father waiting for his children on their quad bike, a young family on a half-term stroll. So we revelled in the peaceful hush and absorbed the restful open vistas. Occasionally we dropped into a village. Great Missingham was quintessentially English, down to the finely trimmed green and placid duck pond. It was also home to the Dappled Duck pub, where we slurped up mushroom and sherry soup and rested our aching legs after the morning’s 12 miles. We weren’t always lucky enough to find such a chi-chi pub with tasteful duck egg blue walls. The Blue Lion in North Pickenham, for instance, was sorely lacking in both décor and sustenance. We sat by the window, its sill decked in horse brasses, and lunched on half a lager and a packet of crisps as we listened to the clunk of teenagers playing pool and the trills of Lady Gaga on the juke box.
Castle Acre was a great stopover. We scrambled around the fat-walled construction squatting impassively on the hill at the edge of the village, taking in the bird’s eye view of the bare fields splayed out around it in every direction. Church Gate Tea Rooms and B&B was a comfortable, country-twee option. The place is much recommended – indeed, the friendly landlords were attending a dinner for a small business award for which they’d been shortlisted – though I challenge anyone to explain the decision behind the showers … But as hungry hikers, Castle Acre’s pièce de resistance has to be the Ostrich gastro pub, where we dined in fine style under an enormous iron candelabra in a high-ceilinged stone room with shades of Henry VIII.
And the foodie treats were not over: right at the end of our walk, we lost our way slightly in the rain and hitched a lift with a kindly racehorse breeder from the vast Shadwell estate. We told him we were looking for somewhere to have a decent coffee in Thetford and he dropped us at an authentic Portuguese café just behind the main square. There we stocked up on caffeine and ate the best pasties de nata I’ve had outside of Lisbon (see my previous blog post covering the cakes of Belem https://goosterontheloose.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/moorish-castles-and-wheelie-bags/). By this time our legs were aching and my blistered feet they’d stayed in London but our heads were cleared of city cobwebs and it had been an invigorating walk. Andy, I’m afraid I have to disagree: it wasn’t boring.