Growing up as a child of immigrants, the stories you hear of ‘home’ are usually tinged with nostalgia, seen through the rose-coloured glasses of memory. I can’t say this was true of all my parents’ stories – they had lived through the depression and World War II in Engand- but the ones that stayed with me the most were their stories of long childhood walks through the countryside, roaming footpaths and hedgerows, free and unsupervised.
My own childhood in Canada was as free as most childhoods fifty years ago were, and living at the edge of a village there was freedom to roam the farm lanes close to us, the farmers turning a tolerant eye to our activities, and we certainly bicycled the quiet roads around us. But at the back of my mind, it just wasn’t the same. I had grown up on Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, and I wanted footpaths and moorland, quiet hedged lanes, little villages hidden in folds of the hills…and as I grew older, a welcoming pub to stop at.
So here I am, nearly fifty-eight, writing in the sitting room of our holiday cottage that we’ve taken for January and February, back from a walk that ticked just about every box on that list. We set out just after nine this morning, turning right up the lane at our front door. A few hundred meters up the hill a gate opens onto a field and footpath, climbing further up the hill, skirting field margins to bring us out onto a quiet lane. A barn owl is hunting in the field to our west. At the top of the lane, the wide Norfolk views open out; to our west is the broad expanse of the Wash, its flocks of waders and waterfowl visible even from here, the coast of Lincolnshire shimmering in the distance. To our east, fields: field peas and sugar beet, wheat stubble, autumn-ploughed fallow, cut with hedgerows and lanes.
We walk in a northerly direction, following paths and bridleways, along field margins and old drove roads through farms, coming out into villages. The sky is changeable, clouds scudding in the strong westerly winds, patches of blue winking in and out. Hedges, green with ivy, keep the worst of the wind off us except when we the route takes us due west. Grey partridge scatter in front of us, calling their distinctive rasping cry.
After about six kilometers the drove we’re on swings west, past a substantial farm, and then south again for a few kilometers, coming out by a magnificent medieval church perched high on the greensand ridge that runs up the coast here. On a bench outside the church wall we sit for a snack, looking down over the village. It doesn’t do to sit too long, though: we’ve another three or four k to go, and tired muscles ‘set’ all too easily. We walk through the village streets, past the old watermill, and on to the footpath that is the last leg home. In a field to the west about a hundred curlew are feeding, beside jackdaws and wood pigeons, and where the footpath enters a woodland long-tailed tits chatter their high-pitched greeting.
We’re home in time for lunch, just after one o’clock. All this walk was missing was the pub, and that’s just up the road: the well-deserved pint can wait until a bit later this afternoon. I have soup to make for dinner and bread to bake. In all my months of recovery from major surgery and post-surgery treatments in 2014 and 2015, it was the thought of walking under this quiet corner of Norfolk’s skies, along these footpaths and lanes, that kept me going. It was the first place we came when my doctors gave me the green light to travel last spring: in the month here then, I went from being able to walk for less than an hour to managing a couple of hours with sufficient breaks. Now I can walk for four, with a five minute break, and it’s only the arthritis in my hip and foot that keeps me from going further, not a lack of energy.
Spread out on the sitting room floor at my feet is the Ordnance Survey map for this area. In a couple of minutes I’ll sit down with it and start planning another walk. Out to the castle ruins towards the Wash? Due east, to the village with the working windmill? Across the fen to look for short-eared owls and woodlark?
This is not Blyton’s or Ransome’s England, if those ever really existed. It’s not the England of my parents’ childhoods, nearly a hundred years ago. It’s not even the England we started to return to thirty years ago, when my family’s pub still stood where the village’s grocery store does now. But it still offers me footpaths and heathland, quiet hedged lanes, little villages hidden in folds of the hills, skies and birdlife and wind and space, and long walks from my front door. My experiences and memories build on and continue from my childhood stories, the ones my grandparents told, and my father (this was his childhood village), and those of his one surviving cousin, who lives a dozen miles from us here, and whose ninety-fifth birthday we are celebrating later this month. I study and explore these villages and fields as part of my landscape archaeology courses, I write about it in my non-fiction work-in-progress, Reverse Migration, and there is a certain place in the fictional land from Empire’s Daughter that is, simply, here. I belong to this land, this little piece of west Norfolk, and it to me, unlike any other place I know or have lived.