diamond geezer

 Friday, November 19, 2021

Climbing County Tops: Norfolk
Beacon Hill

Norfolk is famously flat, except in the north of the county where it very much isn't. The upward intrusion is the Cromer Ridge, a nine mile hilly feature running approximately parallel to the coast and rising to a low peak near Sheringham. The ridge is a glacial landform dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, specifically a moraine created by debris pushed forward by (or deposited at) the snout of a glacier. This long heap remained after the ice sheet receded 15,000 years ago, along with other lesser piles of boulder clay, hence the landscape of north Norfolk looks nothing like the rest of the county.

The summit's not particularly high, indeed Norfolk has the lowest "county top" in England at a mere 103m. But that's still higher than 19 of London's boroughs can manage, so a relative challenge, and one I've now successfully completed. What's more because Beacon Hill's only a mile from the coast I was able to start my walk at sea level so can claim to have made the full ascent, and a delightful walk it was too. [11 photos]

I could have started closer but chose to kick off on the lower promenade at Sheringham, one of Norfolk's most pleasant seaside towns, where the beach is a defensive sequence of sandy slices. Eschewing the delights of the town centre I strode east past some beach huts to the point where the cliffs begin, or at least haven't been replaced by concrete bulwarks, and commenced my climb up a lengthy flight of steps. That was a quarter of the ascent completed already. Ahead lay a grassy clifftop cut by a footpath of bright orange sand, and in the near distance a large incongruous lump.

This is Beeston Bump, an isolated mound of glacial deposits known by geographers as a kame. In the 18th century it still had a neighbour, another round symmetrical hill, but coastal erosion removed that and has already made a good start on removing this. It's a proper little up and down of a hill, easily conquered via a wiggle of sandy steps, and with excellent views from the summit across town and country. Codebreakers at Bletchley Park used it as a secret listening station during the war, siting a small hexagonal hut on top for triangulating enemy craft. But although the Bump is 63m high, already, a goodly proportion of that height has to be sacrificed in order to continue.

The cliffs at West Runton are low, sandy and not especially stable. They remain fenced off where the coastal path passes by a caravan park and broadly accessible inbetween, not that standing right by the edge is wise. A cliff fall took out the steps beneath Beeston Regis Holiday Park in the spring, and in 1990 a stormy tumble revealed the largest nearly-complete mammoth skeleton ever found. The good folk of West Runton are inordinately proud of their world-beating mammoth and its image appears all over, including on the front gable of the social club and in the top-left quadrant on the village sign.

A more practical place to start an ascent on Beacon Hill is West Runton station, the penultimate stop on the Sheringham line. This is 30m above sea level, and by the time you've crossed the village past the puppet shop and the golf club you'll be halfway up already. There are a multiplicity of ways to continue once the full-on slope hits so pick your footpath well. I picked the narrow alley round the back of Renwick Park West, a climb with back garden fences on one side and thick squirrely forest on the other, and tried to work out when best to a make break and aim for the top.

I think I picked wrong because my scrunchy beech carpet eventually steepened and dissolved into a screen of tree trunks. It was at this point that I unintentionally startled a deer which sped off into the undergrowth with some alarm. Soon afterwards I cleared the rim of the escarpment and emerged onto a driveway beside a caravan park, because these are squeezed in everywhere around here, then proceeded a short distance along the ridgetop to the car park. It turns out by far the easiest way to reach the top of Beacon Hill is to drive, turning off Sandy Lane by the TV mast, and currently there's no need to pay 50p for the privilege because the machine's not in use.

You might never guess precisely where the highest point is if the National Trust hadn't plonked a flagpole on it. The surrounding earthworks probably aren't Roman - that's just a tale invented by Victorian horse-drawn cab drivers to try to tempt resort-goers to cadge a ride out of town. Two benches look out across the view, one dedicated to a woodsman who served up here for 42 years, the other to a Major General who didn't. The chief downside is that there isn't much of a view, just a brief gap between (and above) the trees where a sliver of North Sea is visible. It might be a bit clearer in winter, but I'm glad I saw November's golden glow.

I then spent a happy hour exploring the ridge, mostly along it but also hiking down to the lane at the bottom and back up again. The autumn colour was glorious, the steep sandy paths a meandering treat and the pine forest up top a bit of a boggy letdown. In the midst of all this a single private house hides away, its notched estate dividing the National Trust land awkwardly in two, but that just encouraged me to explore a few more charming contoured diversions. And eventually at the western end, on Beeston Regis Heath, I found a bench with the unobscured panorama I'd been seeking. It was only 90m up, so even Waltham Forest beats it, but this is why I love to reach for the top.

Other English County Tops I've ticked off
Cumbria: Scafell Pike (978m)
Somerset: Dunkery Beacon (519m)
Worcestershire: Worcestershire Beacon (425m)
Surrey: Leith Hill (295m)
East Sussex: Ditchling Beacon (248m)
London: Westerham Heights (246m)
Bedfordshire: Dunstable Downs (243m)

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