Brambles, Brittanys and a Plague of Toads

Tramping the North Norfolk Coast with four little girls was a crazy idea that slowly turned into a pleasant surprise.

It was the fourth day of our five-day, 50-mile family trek along the coast of northern England. As we walked along a salt-marsh dyke between the villages of Burnham Overy and Burnham Deepdale, the North Sea—until now our placid horizon—unleashed the fury that has made lifesaving an industry on this coast.

The quick-forming storm struck us with a malevolent mix of wind, lightning and pea-size hail. Staggering forward, I held 5-year-old Nora to my chest with both arms. Beneath a hurriedly donned poncho, she clutched a stuffed bear. During one Viking gust, the three of us almost hit the ground to avoid being swept off the 12-foot-high dyke.

Perhaps my idea for a family vacation had been a tad ambitious? This thought had haunted me ever since my wife, Jessica, had hastily embraced my suggestion that we take advantage of a wedding in East Anglia to try an inn-to-inn walk with the flower girls—our four daughters, ages 5 to 11.

On practice journeys, we’d discovered that Hazel, our eldest, was slow but steady. Grace, 9, would often cruise ahead only to crash like the hare. Seven-year-old Willa was the inveterate butterfly chaser, and Nora the wild card. When properly motivated, Nora walked as enthusiastically as any of her sisters. When not, her foot-stomping refusals to budge were unshaken by promises or threats. Still, the chance to introduce them to one of our favorite pastimes—the gentle art of tramping in England—was too much to resist.

The North Norfolk Coast Trail offered an ideal primer, a well-marked, breezy seaside jaunt with no real elevation and easy access to village inns, pubs and bail-out spots. It passed through a birders’ paradise along the coast that produced Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero. Wanting company (not to mention a navigator), we lined up our trusty English walking companion, Rob Mocatta, along with his son Edward, age 10, and daughter Eleanor, 8, to join us. (Rob’s wife and 6-year-old son, James, would join us later in the week.) We also convinced our friend Greg Jones, a wisecracking author-priest, who had flown over to help preside at the Anglo-American wedding in Ely Cathedral, to come along.

The first day of our east-to-west journey—eight miles from the village of Cromer to Weybourne—got off to a rocky start when Grace shut her finger in the heavy door of our hotel room, chalking up the trek’s first casualty. Then, after we skirted several large seaside caravan parks on a wooded path, Nora dragged Jessica into one of them to go to the bathroom, complaining, “I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I want to watch The Aristocats.” While the men waited outside, discipline broke down: Padre Jones pulled out travel Scrabble, and we played the first of three games that day, passing the miniature board back and forth as we walked.

As the adults struggled to adjust to the larval pace of the younger girls, the older kids charged ahead, Hazel dueling with Edward in Harry Potter trivia and kindly foregoing the eldest daughter’s prerogative to grouse. Grace, Eleanor and Willa skipped along like the fast friends that they were becoming, counting and whenever possible apprehending and petting the dogs we passed. All day, we walked in fits and starts—through poppy fields, over observation mounds and, after fish and chips at the Beach Café in the village of Shearingham, by the sea.

By the time we stumbled into the Maltings, a rambling flint pub in Weybourne, 19 dogs later, my pockets bulged with shiny sea stones. Daypacks crisscrossed my chest like bandoleers, and Nora bounced on my shoulders. I was prepared in every way to quaff a few pints of the local ale.

Once a malt house and then the studio of a well-known photographer, the charmingly seedy, family-owned Maltings was in some ways the perfect ramblers’ inn. The smoky pub, sagging beds and rudimentary baths in no way diminished the joy of our leisure time but also made it easy to hit the trail again.

In the morning, Rob and I took the padre to the train station—having experienced the first day’s glacial pace, he’d suddenly decided he’d better get an early start for Heathrow—and shuttled a car loaded with gear to our next destination. Although Jessica had packed lightly enough that the family could carry everything, it was clear that this was impractical for the little ones.

Leaving one picturesque village of medieval flint-and-brick churches, we headed to the next. The area once bustled with commerce, fishing and smuggling until the channels to the sea silted up, forming an intricate network of saltwater and freshwater marshes among the sand-and-shingle spits.

The second morning’s walk, on a four-mile stretch of embankment separating the fields and marshes from the sea and peppered with World War II bunkers and pillboxes, proved one of the toughest. At first, the girls gathered cat’s eye flints, starfish and shells, but a withering sun and loose footing made the going tedious. When Willa sagged, I hoisted her onto my shoulders. Half-a-mile later, Jessica and Nora had faded from sight. Rob waited with the others while I backtracked. Finding them farther behind than I thought possible, I put Nora on my shoulders and jogged, acting the eager camel. Nora and I reached the others only to find that they had passed the time by running into the waves in their shoes and socks.

Our planned lunch stop—in the village of Cley (pronounced “Kly”)—was still an hour-and-a-half away. Sweating profusely in the heat, I was beginning to feel like we would never make it.

Relief came in the unlikely form of a rundown lifeguard station in the Cley Beach car park. Converted into a snack bar, called somewhat grandiosely Arkwright’s Café, the station was both dusty and moldy inside (in fine English fashion, it also sells secondhand books). A dour woman behind the counter indicated that she was closing. When I told her I had a gang of ravenous kids outside, however, she agreed to rustle up some cheese sandwiches.

With the addition of chips (“crisps,” in English parlance) and scones, this humble meal revived our spirits, kids’ and adults’ alike. A marsh path carried us through one of Europe’s most notable bird sanctuaries to Cley’s signature windmill, now a bed-and-breakfast, and kindly disgorged us at a gourmet deli’s takeout ice cream window. Outside, plats of jumbo red strawberries and fat scarlet raspberries attested to the region’s reputation as one of the gardens of England. In ancient times, before Britain split off from the Continent, this low-lying section of East Anglia was a part of the Rhine River delta. Rich farmland stretches right up to the dunes.

Licking ice cream against the sun, we crossed over a wide channel on a bridge, which was the real reason for entering Cley, and walked along the shore parallel to Blakeney Point, a wildlife refuge for breeding seals and terns. Clever Eleanor rewarded Nora with Smarties every hundred yards. Grace and I played a word game in which one of us named the first letters of each word of a sentence, and the other guessed the sentence a word at a time. My favorite was her sentence “I.L.T.W.W.M.D.: I love to walk with my dad.”

I wish I could say that we had reached a watershed moment. But subsequent days showed similar patterns, times of hard work and struggle interspersed with blissful ones and the occasional exquisite moment, as when Willa, puzzling out the place where she had eaten lunch, finally asked, “Why does everyone call it a pug? A pug is a dog.”

On day three after a night spent at the King’s Arms in Blakeney, Jessica and Nora got a 20-minute head start on the trail, which was not a stone’s throw from the inn, only for Nora to insist upon returning to the village to use the bathroom—confirming the old adage that haste makes waste. To buy time this day, we had carried a picnic lunch, and we stopped to eat it on a shaded hillside. Afterwards, we walked through fields of freshly cut hay, where Nora and I made sport by kicking each of the towering round bales we passed, leaving impressions of our boot tips imperceptible to all but ourselves.

Eventually, she refused to walk on. Frustrated, I left her, knowing that Jessica and Grace would catch her as they passed by. Willa and I came to an irresistible bench brass-plaqued “Syd and Twigg’s favorite spot for observing the marsh.” Bees hummed in the nearby brambles. Sunshine warmed our backs. A late-afternoon sea breeze riffled beds of sea aster and sea lavender and cooled our faces. Amen, Syd and Twigg.

When Jessica, who dutifully acted as sweeper almost the entire trip, arrived, she had only Grace. “Nora says she doesn’t want to walk with us,” she said wearily, without breaking step, “and the feeling is mutual.” I waited behind for Nora, purposely shuffling along 50 yards back. I chuckled and fell in step.

The following morning, in Wells-next-the-Sea, we reluctantly left the comfort and exceptional kitchen of The Crown, passing a sign on the way to the coast warning of unexploded bombs, which apparently turn up occasionally. We spent much of the morning gratefully in the shade of Wells Dell, a scrubby woodland of pines, birch, oak and willow securing the dunes that protect the farms from the tides. The forest is famous to birdwatchers (“twitchers,” as they are affectionately known here), who come to see migrating Asian and Arctic species that fly up to 2,800 miles non-stop to reach the coast—a figure that dwarfed the mere 20 or so we had ahead of us, but then they did not have children with them.

All morning I walked with Nora on soft pine-needle paths while we spun a yarn together, with me taking the high-pitched speaking role of her pet monkey Amanda-Cinderella-Bananas. We had quite a dialogue going. The walk had forced me to engage with my 5-year-old in ways that I never would have otherwise, at least not on such an extended basis. While sharing the story, Nora did not complain about being tired. Where coaxing and discipline had failed, we found a new way. It struck me that I had come a long way myself since playing Scrabble on the trail on Monday.

In the afternoon after leaving a pub called The Hero, in honor of Nelson, where we ate more ice cream outside on benches, we were caught in the sudden fury of the trip’s lone storm, a seeming payback for a week’s worth of un-English sunshine. In the hush after the storm, we dried ourselves in the sun as a plague of toads suddenly leaped from the grass and brambles, along with swarms of horseflies. Ducks emerged from the venous creeks around us, taking flight in spasms of wings and water. The long arcing dyke seemed a yellow brick road to our destination.

The final day’s distance was the longest, about 14 miles. I had hoped the week’s walk would prepare us, but I was still unsure. In the morning, the kids mugged with dogs No. 158 and No. 159, a pair of Brittanys, as we rambled along the edge of a salt marsh inland of Royal West Norfolk, a posh golf club Prince Andrew recently captained. On a path made up of running pairs of railroad ties bound in chicken wire, Willa tripped and fell, scraping elbows and knees and landing in a bed of nettles. Painful red pinpricks welted her face, arms, and legs. As I had gone on ahead with Nora, Jessica gamely piggy-backed howling Willa out of the marsh.

Near Brancaster—and thanks to the ancient civilized English notion of public rights of way through private property (something Madonna and her hubby have notoriously fought to remove from their Wiltshire estate)—the trail led inland through a farm of vast wheat fields and down a road into Thornham, where the adults refreshed on salad nicoise with fresh tuna and anchovies, pints of ale and cappuccinos, and the kids found a sudden burst of energy when they discovered a playground.

At Holme Dunes, we hit the beach, a broad, empty, wind-rippled expanse lapped at low tide by small waves. Here, not long ago, a Bronze Age ring of 54 oak trunks surrounding an upended stump with a Medusa head of fossilized roots pointing skyward had appeared suddenly in the surf. We saw no signs of Seahenge, as it was dubbed. (Despite the protest of the Druids who flocked here, the ring has been excavated.) A topless, silver-haired sunbather scowled as our children bounded by.

The final three hours passed with nary a note of weariness, as we combed the beach for shells and strolled leisurely toward the Hunstanton lighthouse. Imagine that, taking your kids on a three-hour walk and not having them complain of being bored or tired? From that perspective we had accomplished something.

In the end, Jessica and I were impressed not just by the girls’ resilience and their ability to forget and bounce back from their little but real ordeals on the trail, but by their enthusiasm for what was at times certainly dull, hard work to them.

One morning on the trail, Eleanor had exclaimed, “This is fun. We should do this more often!” And Hazel had responded, “Yes, let’s do it every year.”

By George, they got it, I thought, and began to imagine where we might go next. Then, not to be upstaged in displays of enthusiasm, Willa piped in, “Next year, let’s walk to England.”

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