Honey, TrannyVan and I are on our travels thanks to the 60th birthday party of my old mucker Les, who lives in far eastern parts. Since JJ’s funeral is on Friday in Ashburton, and Les’s party on Saturday lunchtime near Neatishead, we set off on Friday evening and finish the long journey on Saturday morning, punctuated by a few hours attempting to sleep in a layby on the A14 being buffeted by speeding traffic, and awash with the scent of stale wee.
The party is a lovely, chatty, scoffy, alcoholic affair, as I catch up with my old RAF friends of over 20 years ago. Honey and I spend the night in the local bowling club’s field. Wild flowers scent the air, and there’s no traffic other than the resident pigeons dancing tangos on TrannyVan’s roof. We spend Sunday engaged in more talking, the eating of leftovers and recovery from the hangover. Finally, we set off for the North Norfolk coast in the sultry late afternoon.
I have a gallery of beautiful pictures of Holkham in my head, left over from my days based at RAF West Raynham in the mid-1980s. I’m shattered and in need of peace, isolation and wild water after two weeks of emotional upset and too much alcohol. The current reality is so far from my memories that I think I must have dreamed it. There are several hundred cars and a constant stream of sun-burned people heading back from the beach. The final decision not to stop here is made by the most extortionate parking charges I’ve ever seen. Of course the place is stunning, but we execute a hasty departure and head along the coast road in search of somewhere more peaceful and affordable.
We turn down to the harbour of Burnham Overy Staithe, a place I don’t remember at all. There are a few people wandering along a creek littered with small boats, and a clinking like alpine cow bells as lanyards rattle against masts. The parking is free, and a sign points to Burnham Overy Beach (1 1/2 miles) and Holkham (3 1/2 miles) via the coast path, a raised walkway of red chalk atop banks of waving grasses and wild flowers weaving across the salt marshes and estuarine mud flats like a giant rag worm. It’s close to low tide, and the sun is beginning to drop as Honey and I set off.
The plants that bedizen the path include hemlock, poppies of red and mauve, wild thyme, barley and several succulents I don’t recognise. Oyster Catchers, my favourite comedy birds, wander around and fly overhead which excites Honey owing to the resemblance of their calls to squeaky dog toys, one of her obsessions. I hear a skylark over the marshes. A gaggle of Shelducks gobble their evening meal from the mud, leaving a series of dashed meandering lines like Aboriginal art. A Redshank flies off as we approach and a very vocal pair of Curlews shoots past. There is a smell of estuary mud and salty water and a tang of fish.
I remove my sandals as we climb the dunes, super-fine, pale golden sand crunches and sifts between my toes and the North Sea glints in the distance as we crest between clumps of marram grass. It’s cooler here, and the wind blows strong and steady along the beach which stretches for miles. Honey and I run down and trot across the high tide mark that’s littered with razor shells like a self-harmer’s convention. There are shallow pools and strips of water. We walk across wrinkled damp sand.
Finally we reach the sea. The only sounds are sea birds and the whistling gale and the constant white noise of roughened water. There is no swell, and no swell in the sound, which contributes to a sense of eternal suspense. Everything is infinite.
I strip off, and run naked into brownish-grey water that I’m expecting will be cold, only it’s the warmest I’ve swum in this year. The touch of the sea and the wind that blows straight and constant and the widescreen view leave me floating in a perfect suspension of time and place. The closest landscape to this I can think of is the Atlantic coast of North Devon, but this place is emptier, wilder, more exposed. There are no protruding headlands to divert the gale or the sea, no snuggled coves. I feel excoriated, sloughed.
We dry off in the wind as the sun drops lower, gleaming from sand exposed by the ebbed tide.
Returning to our creek, we sit on the floor in the back of the van with the doors open and eat, before retiring for a peaceful night of whistling wind, lapping water and dinghy mast tinkling.