Three bells echoed easily over the marshes, and the drizzle that clattered on the Goretex above my face grew discordant and patchy. Enough, I decided, was enough. Unzipping the bivouac bag, I peered out on a sodden field, imagining fallen raindrops mingling with rising dew, as although early June, there was barely any light in the Bungay sky. Under the sleeping sun I loaded up the Brompton bike, ready for the 25-mile journey north-west to Ringland and the River Wensum, the last port of call on my amphibious voyage across East Anglia.
Zipping along lanes that shone in the dawn light, and hanging in the slipstreams of juggernauts and lorries, I rode into the rolling eastern countryside. Whoever said Norfolk is flat obviously never cycled here. Maybe they drove a high-powered Audi, like the business brains that blew by to their breakfast meetings. It’s a shame most of us only get up this early to be somewhere – completely missing not only the most peaceful hours of daylight, but the view of a world ruled by the rabbits that stutter into the road, and the deer shambling from the woods.
A low mist quilted the sleepy fields, the Brompton fizzing through puddles left by the night’s rain. Norfolk may be England’s driest county, yet it harbours the Broads – our largest wetland – and every village has a stream and ford. One of the finest is at Shotesham, where the River Tas spills over a forgotten lane in a hidden valley, and a worn rope swings from a huge horse-chestnut tree. There are many of these little mill pools all over the area, most easily accessible and all with a special charm.
After breakfast on the bridge at 6am, I pedalled onwards to Swardeston, the long ride allowing me time to consider just why I keep returning to Norfolk, again and again. There is always an air of quiet mystery, in a brooding landscape that stands suspended and expectant, as if waiting for action that never quite comes. The houses all wear austere expressions, glaring in frozen menace like a flint and thatch parody of Edvard Munch’s, ‘The Scream’. In its barren emptiness, Norfolk compels us to fill the gaps with our imagination; growing as abundant as the acres of farmland swallowing the wide horizon.
At Cringleford on the very edge of town, I saw my first humans. Perhaps the only thing Norwich has in common with Las Vegas (thank God!) is the stark boundary between country and city, the speed at which rabbits are replaced by rascals, rattling tractors by rattling buses; and soon I was caught in a web of A-roads before escaping onto the ‘pedalways’. Norwich is definitely ‘a fine city’ for cycling, and I traversed the urban sprawl almost entirely on the mini-highways scooting behind the back fences of suburbia.
Rubber-necking the rivers Tud and Yare, I freewheeled to Ringland Common – Norfolk’s Bolton Abbey – inflated the packraft in record time, strapped on the Brompton and paddled off down the Wensum towards its confluence with the Yare – and the 6pm train to Leeds – on the far side of Norwich.
While the Waveney actively welcomes canoeists, the Wensum is less hospitable, though its tranquillity certainly helps bathe the acrimony said to exist between river users. The internet has been a theatre of debate over the right to canoe and fish, and whether ecological intervention is really for the good of the environment. So I kept my head below the greenery, paddling without a splash, and hoped no-one saw. Within moments I was barred by a fallen willow, supine across the stream like a deliberate, impenetrable wall. Searching in vain for a way round – the reedy bank patrolled by a hoard of highly aggressive cattle – it seemed likely I’d have to turn back until an explosion of screeching geese burst into the sky and chased the cows away. Looking anxiously behind, I hauled everything over the log and threw myself back into the raft, a little muddier than before.
There is a real excitement in navigating ‘forbidden’ rivers that makes you feel like a fugitive, or an escaped convict. Scuttling secretively across mill sites and ducking stealthily under trees – a great way to see wildlife – to enter the river in one place and appear in another, like a watery teleportation, is quite thrilling. And there’s the satisfaction of the free ride, as an epiphyte in nature’s saddle, harnessing the forces of our planet in the greenest way.
I paddled through Taverham and rural Costessey – where swimming ladders step from the limpid water – winding on like a kinked rope with the river to Hellesdon, New Mills and Norwich itself. I slipped under bridge after bridge, squeezed tighter in the python-girdle of roads around the city, and still the Wensum ran green and clear, with barely a scrap of litter in sight. I battled heavy downpours, assailed by the sounds of traffic, students, construction workers and bank-side hecklers, onto the Yare and the Broads; paddling against a flooding tide yet propelled on by the homely aroma of Colman’s mint sauce. Exhausted and elated, I landed at a staithe in fashionable Thorpe, rolling away the raft and joining a river of cars to the railway station, and home.
Together with boat, bike and tent, I could easily have explored all summer, along new roads and down silky streams, but for the bowed desk waiting for me in the morning. So after 100 miles, four rivers, one town and one city, I boarded the train with little to do but rest my aching legs, soothe my blistered palms, stare out of the window on the fens and wonder, wistfully; where next?