diamond geezer

 Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Wherryman's Way: Berney Arms → Great Yarmouth

Disembark from one of the occasional trains at Berney Arms station, and your options are limited. But your next destination is obvious, it's that giant windmill quarter of a mile across the fields. Mind the cowpats on the way. Berney Arms Mill is the one of the tallest in Norfolk, topping 21 metres (and that's without including the sails) [photo]. It's a Victorian model, first used for grinding clinker and later for pumping water to drain the surrounding marshland. English Heritage liked it so much they bought it up and renovated it, but your chances of taking a look inside are very limited. The mill's only open during the summer months (and only on Mondays, which sounded promising), although it seems not early enough in the day to match either of the two trains from Norwich. Instead access is optimised for a paddle steamer which chugs up from Great Yarmouth bringing curious daytrippers, and it appears that casual walkers don't get a look-in.

If the mill's closed, at least there's the pub [photo]. The Berney Arms has been around for years, originally serving millers and wherrymen, now welcoming boaters and ramblers who brave the journey to this remote spot. It's located on the water's edge alongside the River Yare, with a rather pleasant beer garden alongside a lengthy mooring. They've scribbled an advert in blue felt pen back at the station, promoting "home cooked food" and "local real ales" (the latter from the Humpty Dumpty brewery in Reedham). Breakfast is served in the tea shop up until the 11am train arrives, then personnel switch across to the pub nextdoor with food served from noon. The pub was allegedly open, according to a toppled-over blackboard on the quayside, although we saw no obvious signs of life apart from a bloke revving up a car engine round the back. The presence of a vehicle surprised me, given that there's not supposed to be a road within two miles of this spot, but closer investigation revealed a rough private track disappearing off across the marshes.

Beyond the pub, even this slight vestige of civilisation disappears. The Yare joins up with the Waveney a few yards down, and here the two rivers combine to create a sweeping tidal estuary. It's fairly narrow to start with, then opens out to form Breydon Water - an important sanctuary which is home to countless birds and wildfowl. Maybe not quite so many in midsummer, although we spotted oystercatchers and herons swooping over the empty flatness. No coots, alas, because Breydon Water was the setting for Arthur Ransome's seminal Coot Club (which readers of a certain age will remember reading). Dick and Dorothea came unstuck in the estuary's shallow waters, which revert to acres of mudflats at anything below high tide, so modern yachts have to be guided through via a special deep channel lined by bullet-headed markers.

As for the footpath, this hugs the water's edge for the full five miles or so all the way to Great Yarmouth. The route follows a low sea wall which protects the marshes inland from flooding. There are an awful lot of marshes, one after another into the distance, on which cattle and the occasional sheep can be seen grazing. If global warming ever assaults the coast of England, the Halvergate Marshes will be one of its first victims, creating a new inland sea across to Acle and beyond. The current barrier between land and sea is fairly featureless, marked only by a single pumping station and an abandoned sail-less windmill. Pleasant enough in summer, this remote shoreline is nowhere you'd want to be stuck during a storm or in driving rain. [photo]

The view could be better, to be honest. Walking in the opposite direction you'd see an atmospheric panorama of marsh, sky and distant pinprick sails. Walking northeast, however, the approaching horizon consists of inland Great Yarmouth, which isn't the loveliest sight. One ugly office block, one swirling windfarm and the rooftops of Norfolk's easternmost town. Great Yarmouth takes a while to creep up, slowly enlarging beyond the extensive estuary, but eventually the walk's destination draws near. The footpath draws back close to the railway for one final mile, before swinging round beneath the cantilever bridge which marks the northernmost tip of the A12. This is the final opportunity to look back towards Berney Arms Mill, still visible on the horizon as a brief hump across the water/mud.

And then civilisation returns with a vengeance, in the car park of a giant Asda superstore, just round the back of the recycling bins. Great Yarmouth's unsightly railway station is nearby, where holidaymakers wait patiently to escape on the next hourly train. Pick your time carefully and the service might head back inland across the southwestern marshes towards Berney Arms station. No need to stop this time, but raise a smile in the knowledge that you're one of the few adventurers to have alighted at this remarkably desolate halt.

Berney Arms - the website
Berney Arms - the walk
Berney Arms - the walk on a map
Berney Arms - the alternative walk south to Reedham

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