Why do you want a change of scene, asked a puzzled neighbour for whom the hills hold total and everlasting fascination? Why not pop over to Langdale?
I wanted to go away, somewhere different, in order to come back and appreciate my Lakeland home all the more. Borrowdale, then, he suggested. Or the Duddon?
Instead I went to Norfolk, where the sand dunes are the only gradients but you get a lot of sky in return. Different birds, giant hollyhocks in front gardens, a strange but lovely architecture, Saharan-scale beaches backed by pine woods, walking on sand through the forest. And different buses.
It’s just about as far as you can go in a day from the Lakes, the journey each way taking almost 12 hours by public transport – four trains, three buses, a constantly-changing landscape of fascination (how gorgeously green is England), only one minor delay. There were regrets: the waiting time in Ely was insufficient to get to the cathedral and back, alluringly out of reach and looking, from the train, as if it belonged in Barcelona. Another: was it really necessary to travel via Birmingham? And I bitterly regretted the meal-deal salad bought from a Tesco in Kings Lynn, insubstantial and revolting.
(Dining well while travelling is not easy. Dining healthily is almost impossible. That rant will be saved for another time. Suffice to say that nothing from a station, a buffet car or a supermarket could match the standard of the crab sandwich from a harbour-front stall at Wells.)
But there were bonuses. Missing an early morning connection in Fakenham allowed time to explore the tiny town centre, to see a flower market being set up, to sit on a bench in the square with a decent cuppa and watch the precision of demolition men protecting an old church while pulling down a fire-damaged shop.
The value of travelling with a rucksac means that detours, spur of the moment decisions, and changes of plan, are all possible; not so with a case on wheels. So I got off the bus at Holkham – and got back on the next one having seen the prices of pub meals in the Victoria. No wonder that crab sandwich tasted so good.
This was a budget trip and I used youth hostels where, to be honest, I feel more at home than in hotels. I’m uncomfortable around deferential staff in fancy places with bars and dining rooms, and claustrophobic in Travelodges with no public space. I like communal kitchens and TV lounges. You can have some really interesting conversations with strangers during the Channel 4 news. You can admire travelling babies. And you’re not the only solo journeyer. In fact, it’s almost normal to be on your own.
At Hunstanton, the hostel is a former YHA now independent, run by a delightful young family whose 10 year old son brightened up the breakfast room with his plans to scooter to school. “Today’s advice,” said otherwise easy-going mother “is to not ride your scooter down the slide in the park”. Alison and Neal are gradually modernising the place, but it’s a true home from home, with plenty of board games in the lounge and a splendid English breakfast.
At Wells next the Sea, the hostel is a YHA flagship, a modernised Dutch-gable building with terrific showers and bunk beds that don’t squeak. It’s at the quiet end of town opposite the church, a stroll past tiny streets with names like Boatman’s Row, Clipper Lane, Jolly Sailor’s Yard, and Honeymoon Row. Wells is a technicolour harbour town, the gaiety of primary colours around the quayside, where the fishing boats waiting for high tide to head back out along the estuary, gently toned down by the pastel shades of the famous beach huts nestling against the pine woods. The sea is a long way out but comes in quickly, covering rolling and almost empty sands.
It was the end of my walk along the Nofolk coast path, a fascinating (and largely flat) ramble through dunes, across nature reserves, beside golf courses, with pretty villages with squat stone churches a short distance inland along the way. Lots of oystercatchers, one seal.
The saltmarshes were fascinating, as bleak and beautiful as described by one of my favourite crime writers Elly Griffiths whose heroine, Ruth Galloway, (forensic archaeologist) lives in a remote cottage out here somewhere. Ruth’s detective pal and erstwhile lover, DI Harry Nelson, is ambivalent about the environment, and on a trip to West Sussex ( to interview a suspect, but nevertheless doing what I was doing, experiencing a contrasting landscape,) notes approvingly: “There is no threatening expanse of sky, none of the windswept desolation, that he so dislikes about his adopted county.” The sky was indeed expansive but not threatening, not desolate, I thought. But then, there’s nothing about MY adopted county that I dislike. In fact, next time I fancy a bus ride, a change of scene, maybe I will head to Borrowdale…
The Janus Stone, and other stories by Elly Griffiths, published by
The brilliant and reliable Coasthopper bus service runs along the route from Kings Lynn to Cromer http://www.coasthopper.co.uk/
Hunstanton Youth hostel: http://www.independenthostelguide.co.uk/selected-accommodation.php?area=933
Wells next the Sea hostel: http://www.yha.org.uk/hostel/wells-next-sea
Finish off – bus trip to Keswick?