Photographer Jon Clifton went to the beach to skim a few stones whilst on furlough and happened to spot the Norfolk Coast Path sign on the way home. It was to be the beginning of a fundraising adventure
It was about week 19 of being furloughed from my day job that I ran out of things to do at home. I’d done a few jobs around the house and my voluntary position as an NHS responder was as quiet now as it had been throughout.
Along with those jobs that I’d previously kept putting off, throughout lockdown I’d been trying to keep active through either running, cycling or walking close to my home in Snettisham.
One day in late July I decided to go for a stroll a bit further around the coast on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea. As I usually do at the beach, I headed for the shoreline, stared out to sea for a while and tried to skim a few stones (I’ll forever be envious of those folk who can skim more than twice). It was a bright day and it was nice to be out and about somewhere different. There were a few families on the beach enjoying the sunshine and it felt a nice place to be. An escape.
After an hour or so, I picked up some shells as souvenirs and headed back to the car. On the way, I passed a sign which said ‘Norfolk Coast Path – Cromer 44 miles’. Rather than thinking ‘that’s a long way’, for whatever reason I thought to myself ‘that would be an adventure.’ I got in the car and drove home, thinking no more about it.
A few more days passed and boredom set in again. The Channel 5 afternoon movies just weren’t cutting it. I needed something to do. It felt important to have something positive to remember from the time of horrible news, hand sanitizer and face masks.
After looking at my phone images from the walk at Holme, I decided to Google search the Norfolk coast path and did some research. Now, I wouldn’t consider myself fit in any sense of the word so what happened next came as a bit of a surprise, certainly to me and I’m sure my family as well.
I decided to challenge myself by walking the coast path from Cromer to Hunstanton (a total of 47 miles) and then for good measure, I’d walk a further six miles around the coast to my home in Snettisham. The plan was to try and walk as fast as I could and the hope was to make it over two or perhaps three days.
As I knew local charities were also struggling from a season of cancelled events, I also decided to ask for donations. My chosen charities were The Purfleet Trust, The Norfolk Hospice, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Charitable Fund, Norfolk and Waveney Mind and Norfolk Wildlife Trust. All chosen to cover a broad spectrum of life in Norfolk.
I called my challenge ‘The Long Walk Home’, set my start date as August 17 and began to walk a lot further, as training.
From the town of Cromer, onto pebble beaches at Kelling and Cley, then the creeks of Blakeney, Stiffkey and into Wells, day one was a little bit of a step into the unknown. I’ve lived in Norfolk for 11 years and been running photography walks around the coast for around two of those but up until now, this area of coast was largely unexplored.
Day one felt like an adventure. On arrival at Cromer, it felt overly warm, I checked my weather app to be told that humidity was at 100 per cent and thunder storms were forecast at various points across the day. Not ideal for walking over open ground but I was here and this was it. Time to go.
Highlights from day one included the incredible view from Beeston Hill (bump) both back towards Cromer and onwards towards Sheringham. Breaking for lunch at Cley (after walking three miles on pebbles) and experiencing an electrical storm pass across the sea between Morston and Blakeney, the charge in the air made the hairs on my arms stand on end.
My favourite section of coast, however, was located between Weybourne and Kelling. At this point the sun was shining, the sea was crystal clear and clouds were reflecting off the surface. Looking out, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t on one of those fantasy islands you see in magazines, situated somewhere in the middle of the Bahamas. The North Norfolk coast at its finest.
Towards the end of the day, the path passed between Morston and Stiffkey beside Freshes Creek. The water here was so still and the variety of moored boats looked amazing as the sunlight dipped below the low clouds.
On arrival into Wells, day one was complete – I’d walked from Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea, 23 miles in just over nine hours. I was shattered but happy and looking forward to carrying on the next day.
I took a selfie when I started my walk on day two and have honestly never looked or felt so tired. If day one was an adventure, day two would be a day for persistence. Being closer to home, the area of coast between Wells and Hunstanton is one I know well, a couple of sections here, however, caught me a little off guard.
Holkham Bay has long been one of my favourite locations in Norfolk. Standing on top of the dunes here is something I’d recommend everyone do at least once. For me it gives me a real sense of place and space, somewhere to escape and ground oneself, if that makes sense. The path here heads west through the centre of the dunes until all of a sudden you look around and there is literally nobody but you. I thought to myself ‘this is the kind of social distancing I like, social distancing with a view’.
Holkham Bay leads on to the beach of Burnham Overy which is simply stunning, a little too far from the car park at Holkham and quite a stroll from Burnham Overy Staithe. It’s well worth the effort though. You’ll find those big Norfolk skies here and most likely, you’ll have this beautiful place all to yourself.
The path from Burnham Overy Staithe to Burnham Deepdale is beautiful, no question. On day two, however, aside from me, it was empty. I walked for an hour and a half alongside Trowland Creek without seeing anybody and (I realise this sounds like heaven to some) with no mobile signal. I’ll put it down to tiredness, I think, but ‘social distancing with a view’ wasn’t as much fun here. For the first time over the two days I felt a little vulnerable and lonely. I sped up a bit towards the end of this section and was pleased to see life again.
The remote theme continued between Brancaster and Thornham, where the coast path takes a turn inland through a tiny village called Choseley. As I headed inland and uphill, my view of the sea disappeared, my legs felt heavier and tiredness really did set in. If this was the wall, I’d hit it. I felt like giving up. I’m glad I didn’t.
Across the brow of a hill at Choseley, the sea appeared across the horizon. I’d never felt so pleased or relieved to see it. It was pulling me onwards. Being on very familiar ground really put a spring in my step. I’d walked the coast between Thornham and Hunstanton many times and it’s an area I really love.
The storm that had been threatening for a while finally delivered, just as I got to the dunes at Holme. I took shelter for a while and decided to make a rain-catcher out of an old water bottle and crisp packet. It worked well but it turns out that flame grilled steak flavoured water isn’t very nice. Thankfully the rain passed quickly but as I started walking again I felt a pain in my knee. It made me stop, only to turn around and see an incredible rainbow across the dunes behind me.
I soon forgot about my knee when up ahead in the distance I saw Hunstanton Lighthouse perched on the cliff-top. My goal for the day was in sight. On day two I walked from Wells-next-the-Sea to Hunstanton, 24 miles in eight hours and five minutes.
Day three took place a couple of days later, after some bad weather, allowing my knees/feet some time to heal. I set off from Hunstanton on what was perhaps the windiest sunny day I can remember. The long walk home almost became the short flight home.
On one side, The Wash was crashing against the prom wall, on the other, the sun was making incredible shadows through the funfair rides of Rainbow Amusement Park. A properly strange weather day. In parts it felt as if I was being sandblasted. So much so I had to turn and walk backwards for some of it.
When I got to the dunes at Heacham South, the wind died down a little and I thought to myself ‘of all the places I’ve walked over the three days, this is one of my favourites’.
There were incredible views along the path, back towards Hunstanton and onwards towards Snettisham beach.
As I turned inland, just before Heacham dam, a real sense of pride and achievement hit me. I’d walked home from Cromer and in the process raised more than £1300 for local good causes. Something positive to remember from a weird time, for a lifetime. On day three I walked from Hunstanton to Snettisham, six miles in two hours and 30 minutes.
A few days after I finished the long walk home, I saw that the 40th London Marathon would be a virtual race in which people can walk or run the marathon distance wherever they are in the country. I’m yet to decide my route but have signed up as one of the 45,000 people taking part on October 4. For anyone who’d like to donate to my chosen charities, my sponsorship page is open until the beginning of November https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/JonClifton
A new book, titled ‘somewhere in between’ and featuring images from my adventure on the Norfolk Coast Path will be available soon and Norfolk Photography Walks will return on Sunday September 20. For full details, please see my website www.joncliftonphotography.com