Let’s face it, the most boring way to travel anywhere is by car, particularly the A11 between Thetford and Norwich; a traffic-choked, multi-lane monstrosity bisecting the heart of Norfolk in one fell concrete swoop, and not exactly what I’d call an adventure. Instead, armed with a Brompton folding bicycle, packraft and camping gear, I planned to ‘bikeraft’ across East Anglia, using the loneliest lanes and remotest rivers as my only form of transport. Cycling through Suffolk with the boat on the bike, I’d raft the rivers Waveney and Wensum in a crazy amphibious zigzag, before sailing into Norwich with the Brompton balanced triumphantly on the bows.
Like a soggy weekend in Lowestoft, this was an experience for the truest Norfolk aficionado; only Admiral Nelson, Alan Partridge or an eccentric like me could possibly entertain such a ludicrous idea; especially as the highlight was to be a night alone on a battered caravan park near Bungay. And for extra thrills, I’d be visiting all sorts of wet and watery places on the way.
Riding east towards Weybread, my whistle-stop tour of West Norfolk’s watery delights began by a frisky little pool on the River Thet at Brettenham, where I stopped to stretch my legs before joining the Peddars Way; a long-forgotten Roman road running almost 50-miles to the crumbling cliffs of Hunstanton. Unwilling to come a cropper on some Neolithic warrior’s littered arrowhead, I jumped down to push, skittering rabbits and picking up new admirers of my jaunty little wheels and their bag-carrying abilities.
Popular with ramblers and cyclists, the trail lollops south to Knettishall Heath and a broad, sandy pool in Thetford’s other river: the Little Ouse. Deep in the forest by a classic brick and flint bridge, it positively sopped with families paddling, swimming and cooling off in the soaring heat.
Back on the bike I headed for the hills of Thelnetham, where the flat calm of Breckland rises to a gentle swell, and clear streams rinse the threaded vales, revelling in the palette-green pastures, woods and trees. While the silky young wheat grew ever golden under the June sun, I freewheeled along Mellis Common, where wild flowers mingle with the cattle and horses.
Saddle-sore, stiff but satisfied, I finally made camp at Orchard Cottage; looking forward to a night of peace, tranquillity and uninterrupted rest. Pitching the tent in a glade of silver birch, I lay back to watch the sky. Sleeping in a wood didn’t feel at all strange, even though the last, and only time, I’ve ever camped was on a horrifyingly authentic ‘prisoner of war’ experience with the Boy Scouts just four miles from my own bed, where they forced us to dress as Native Americans and contest ‘Murderball’ which really is rougher than you’d think. But tonight I was free, and as it grew dark stars appeared in the clearing above my head, like a spaceship opening its doors on the universe. The copse was almost silent in the early night, the only sound a gentle breeze like torrential rain in the trees, the odd speeding drunk on a distant road, and the occasional barking dog. I’d been expecting a spirited cacophony; nature in its innocence doing its best to scare me witless, and, gone midnight, I wasn’t disappointed.
First a faint rustling, then the most peculiar clucking and squealing quavered through my ears. I froze in my sleeping bag, convinced a wild boar was making light work of the half-finished pizza I’d saved for morning; and had I been braver, I’d have ignored it and gone to sleep. Instead I flashed my torch around, illuminating shadows and silhouettes, searching for fiery eyes feasting on me in the blackness. Nothing. At All. I lay down and scrunched my eyes shut. I wasn’t playing Murderball with any ghosts-at least not on my own, deep in the wildlands of Suffolk.
Next post: Day 2 of my Trans-Norfolk expedition, with the bike on the raft on the River Waveney. Will I sink, swim or make it to Bungay?