At Castle Acre I squeezed into a striped arable field, searching for a phone signal to message my girlfriend, who’d said “you’re losing it” and was at home watching Coronation Street. While she replied, something ant-sized crept out of the woods. It grew towards me in slow stuttering zigzags, until it was taller than the highest trees and I could see its eyes, like aged copper coins. Sensing my city scent, it jerked up its chin like a ruffian taunting a rival, and the two straight pins on its head scratched more zigzags in the sky. I felt for my camera, slowly, like a hunter reaching for a rifle. Uneasy, the shape tiptoed to the curve of the hill, leaning on the grey clouds like a cardboard silhouette, or a moving target. I aimed my lens. Then I pressed the shutter. In a flash, the young stag gangled off on silenced hooves to a distant copse, where a sign was nailed to a post:
Deer Culling Area
From the trees, came the flat thump of shotgun fire.
Sunday: the morning after the night before in the Cambridgeshire Fens. A “lads’ night out” returning from an evening of debauched revelry on the flattened Peterborough streets; young girls boasting about tipping vodka down their throats; and sober old me, breathless in my seat after racing up the stairs with my rucksack and over the bridge to catch the train to Ely.
By the cathedral I boarded another train and then a bus, screeching through layers of thickening isolation and thinning population to Narborough, in Norfolk’s northern Brecklands. I planned to walk the Nar Valley Way – a long distance footpath – wild camp in a wood, then trek north-east to the River Wensum, before launching my packraft and paddling back to civilisation.
Although clearly signed, the path seemed barely trodden, my feet riding on two wheels through the angular ruts and long grass. Above the road bridge floated the smell of Chinese food and exhaust fumes, and beneath dribbled the chalky River Nar, shallow and diffusing in waves over the water crowfoot, filled with playful trout side-swiping the current and slapping and snatching at errant mayflies. I stooped under the low concrete beams, last graffitied in April 2014 when “Daddy + Millie + Declan” came for a spot of family-themed tagging. Overhead swept the garrulous tide of the A47, from which a wide cone of noise, stretched and sharpened by the gusty south-west wind, extended for miles into the ancient woodlands. I walked on through glades of girthy oaks, polished holly, beech, birch and bright yellow gorse. I heard the ruler-twang of a woodpecker, counted forty-seven rings on a felled pine, and sniffed sap in the carbonic air. There were no other humans in the Bradmoor Plantation. Even the Nar was leaving, flowing away to the Great Ouse, so lucid it appeared dry like a gravel path. I imagined myself in the boreal forests of Canada – only without the beavers.
Flints rang beneath my soles on the old droving road into West Acre, where a bald man leaned territorially from an upper window of the village pub, The Stag. I was gazing over the field to the medieval priory – destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538 – looking for any excuse to rest my strap-bitten collarbones and bruised hips.
“Scuse me mate, you looking for the Nar Valley Way? You can’t get through there.”
Head throwing reflections like a watch face, he nodded me down a hay-strewn track across a watery ford to the common, where I dropped on my back among the furze and the rabbit holes, watching the puffy sky drifting eastwards and swallows flying, folding, falling and flying again. My skin was crawling with flies and greenfly. The traffic noise had gone, drowned by great rivers of wind in the trees and the detached bass notes of a human voice, yet still nobody appeared.
The guns continued to thud well into the evening, from no certain direction and offering no promise of safety for the deer. Heartened to hear from home, I scurried back into the woods to find somewhere to camp, and spotted the young stag nosing innocently through reeds on the common, unafraid of a fluttering pheasant bouncing skywards on helicopter wings. I hoped it would lie low, as I meant to.
My preferred camping place on the riverbank was thick with tall nettles and overlooked by a house, so I chose a compact triangle of earth between three trees, brushed away twigs and flints and lit my stove. The last sparks of day were sucked into the flames, leaving the path a narrow seam of light weaving through the undergrowth. Shortly before ten o’clock, I crawled inside the bivouac and watched the darkness complete. The night was stuffy with cloud, yet fist-sized patches of sky glowed between the black trees like star clusters. Tremendous splashes came from the river, as if deer were bathing, the clap of goose wings and their screaming flight. And on midnight, the probing bark of a lonely fox, at first tentative then insistent, becoming anguished, imploring, desperate, lost, and closer. My fingers brailled for my walking stick, and then the cries faded into the night.
But the vixen’s scream didn’t really scare me. In fact, the night had been far less terrifying than I’d expected. Although the countryside and its animals are intrinsically wild, we can anticipate and predict their nature, unlike a bar full of people on a night out in Leeds or Peterborough. On a TV show I’d have been bashed between the ears before the opening credits, but even when the Midsomer Murders theme swirled inevitably through my mind, it only struck home as a lot of hyper-imaginative nonsense. There are no ghosts or drunken revellers among the trees – just galloping deer and the dramatic rustle of hedgehogs in the dry leaves behind your head.
At four o’clock, the first trickles of birdsong began to drip from the branches and at six, the rain. Monday: the morning after my night in the woods. Packed up and hood up, I crunched back to the path, heading over the low watershed to the River Wensum, and the next step on my watery travels in Norfolk.