The next eight hours were tougher than they should have been. The rain fell solidly but slowly, as if pacing itself to pour misery over the whole day. I walked from West Acre through Castle Acre, cowering in a timber shelter at East Lexham and even crawling under a pine tree to escape from the water, the very element I had come to experience. My bag and packraft felt heavy as a body too, and by Litcham I’d had enough. I limped inside the bus shelter and slumped against the bare brick wall. There were no seats, and I felt sleepy. My hips and shoulders had seized up, and the rain blew and spat at me from the leaky gutter. It was the worst day of weather I’d ever known in Norfolk. If the Jaguar lady in white knitted bobble hat and scarf out walking her boxer dog had offered me a bath, I would have accepted. But she dripped over the threshold and clanged her door shut, and the blooming wisteria shook like a saturated sheepdog. Passing locals offered me nothing but odd looks – or their usual faces. I checked the bus timetable. In just fifteen minutes I could be on my way to King’s Lynn and then home. Instead, I did what I truly believed was the wrong thing. I dragged my rucksack back on, and trudged once more into the puddled streets.
Rivulets swelled along every kerb, little bonsai versions of the world’s greatest rivers: the Amazon, the Danube, the Mississippi, the Thames. The deluge flowed through my shoes leaving inch-long blisters on my ankles, while the lashing rain crept into my waterproofs, wicking along my waistline and licking my skin. I wondered how quickly the Wensum would rise. Would it even be safe to paddle? I knew the river passed through a tunnel and didn’t want to be stuck there in high water. That’s if the weight on my back didn’t drag me down like a whirlpool first. My eyes followed the asphalt and I felt sorry for myself and everyone I’d ever wronged – not that anybody would hear. When the nearest town is five miles away but you feel every step tenfold, you may as well be fifty miles from civilisation – with only your pack and your determined stride for company. So I willed myself forwards through the white descended sky.
At last I reached Norman’s Burrow Wood – the highest entry on the Wensum – inflated my packraft in the mud and set off down the river, which was barely deep enough to float, despite the rain which fell in less frequent but hungrier showers. Large pines had also fallen across the stream, chopped down by the loggers who work the Raynham Estate. Completed in 1637, Raynham Hall is home to the Townshend family, and the current marquess is a direct descendant of the 18th century agricultural pioneer, 2nd Viscount “Turnip” Townshend. To improve the view from the grand house, the Viscount banished the river into a bricked culvert, a neoclassical relic from an age when natural features were just sickening symptoms of entropy and straight lines ruled the green gardens of England. I drifted on in apt style over the undulating river bed, at first riding the packraft side-saddle so I could easily dismount and lead it like a horse through the shallows, flailing at the end of the painter. It was a relief to rest my feet and let the river take the strain, enjoying brief flashes of sunshine between the dark squalls.
I had planned to camp overnight on the riverbank, but I was so wet, tired and injured that all I really wanted was a hot meal, an even hotter bath and a comfortable bed in a place I know well, Sculthorpe Mill near Fakenham. The landlord, Steve, always seems to remember me: the enigmatic young Yorkshireman who arrives late with an oversized bag, and often leaves early with no breakfast, and even less of a clue to his plans…
The Wensum flows directly beneath the Mill, and the brochure says you can see the river from every window. To the front is a frothy pool where drinkers swim on warmer days. At 7:30pm I dragged my drybags into the bar, my face spattered in mud. No doubt my hair was accessorised with twigs and leaves and my pungent clothing was starting to attract flies. But this was a Norfolk pub, not a London hotel.
“Do you have a room for tonight?”
Sinking deeply into a steaming bath, I phoned my girlfriend and thought of all the side orders I could have with my burger. Then I thought of all the reasons why the day had been so unexpectedly difficult. Like carrying too much drinking water, wearing no socks and walking too many miles with a full rucksack. Later, I slid between the laundered sheets and slept all night, surrounded by the contents of my bag, drying over the radiators and dripping on the bathroom floor. I had enjoyed the simple welcome of the hotel and the interaction with people after twenty-four hours in the Norfolk wilderness. Perhaps I’m not the peerless misanthrope I thought I was. And I was glad I hadn’t given up on my adventure, but merely pressed pause until tomorrow.
In the morning the clouds were flung apart and ragged holes of blue shone from north to south. I stayed for breakfast, then hobbled up the lane and caught the bus to Wells-next-the-Sea, and the wild desert sands of the Norfolk coast.