First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The wolfman of Great Bircham stared down from his vantage point high above the chancel arch in St Mary’s Church. With his pointed ears, blank eyes and thick-lipped oval mouth he looked altogether too malevolent to be the resident spirit of such a gloriously light and airy building. Not for the first time I found myself wondering what was in the minds of the medieval masons who carved such vivid and disturbing creatures in the parish churches of these islands.
I wandered through the churchyard where ranks of Second World War airmen, Allied and German alike, lie buried. Then I set out into the cold, bright light of a North Norfolk morning, following an old green lane through the sugar beet fields. Partridges skimmed away with hoarse squeaks over the leathery green leaves, and a golden-brown hare went lolloping along the rows of a stubble field at a slow canter.
Soon the lane met the ancient trackway of Peddar’s Way, arrowing north-west across the low-rolling landscape. I stepped out along the wide grassy trackway, with a view eastward to Bircham’s tall windmill on its ridge. The iconic East Anglian hell-hound known as Black Shuck haunts Peddar’s Way, and I wondered whether the mason of St Mary’s had had that demon dog in mind when he did his chancel arch carving.
I was strolling along, singing The Darkness’s tender ballad about Black Shuck to myself (‘Black Shuck! That dog don’t give a … tinker’s cuss!’) when a tremendous commotion in a stubble field beside the track made me jump. A couple of hundred pinkfooted geese, gobbling the grain left behind after harvest, had been panicked by my hollering. With a tremendous honking and complaining, and a roar of wings, they took off and wheeled away with flashing white rumps to find less disturbed feeding a few fields away.
I left Peddar’s Way and came down into the hamlet of Fring, all brick and flint under red pantiled roofs. Along the lane the beet harvesters were roaring in the fields, stacking giant mounds of roots for the lorries. Bircham Windmill stood proud, its fantail revolving to keep the ladder-shaped sails to the wind.
There was no sign of Black Shuck on the way back to Bircham, but I did meet a dog at the entrance to the village – a soppy old Labrador, who was only too pleased to be chucked under the chin.
Start: Great Bircham Social Club car park, Church Lane, Great Bircham, Norfolk, PE31 6QW (OS ref TF 769325)
Getting there: Great Bircham is signed from Snettisham, off A149 between King’s Lynn and Hunstanton.
Walk (8¾ miles, easy, OS Explorer 250. NB: online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Right along Church Lane to St Mary’s Church. Return past car park to B1153; left along pavement past Bircham Country Stores and King’s Head Hotel. Opposite village sign, right (767321) along lane. In 1¼ miles, right along Peddar’s Way (748309, signposted). In 2½ miles, at 3rd road crossing (733345), right into Fring. Ahead across bridge (‘Docking’). In 350m, right up track (739350, ‘Ringstead Rides’). In 1¼ miles, right (756342) on footpath to road (754337). Left; in ⅔ of a mile, turn right (760330) past Bircham Windmill. Cross road beyond (761324); green lane to junction (765320); left to King’s Head on B1153; left to return to car park.
Refreshments: Bircham Country Stores; King’s Head, Bircham (01485-578265; the-kings-head-bircham.co.uk)
Dinner/Accommodation: Rose & Crown, Snettisham, postcode (01485-541382, roseandcrownsnettisham.co.uk) – wholly delightful, friendly village inn.