Daniel Scott gets a sinking feeling on a Norfolk walk but finds some sustenance on the way.
At the end of the movie Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow walks across a vast empty beach, apparently shipwrecked on the shores of ancient Illyria, as Viola in Twelfth Night.
The scene was filmed not on some exotic coastline but, improbably, in England, at Holkham Beach, and those open generous sands are ahead of me on my first day walking the 67-kilometre Norfolk Coastal Path.
But now, having attempted a shortcut across the coastal marshes to the village of Burnham Overy Staithe, the Shakespeare references continue as I start to resemble The Tempest's half-man, half-beast Caliban. And, surrounded by half-drained waterways and sinking thigh-deep into the bog, I'm equally reminded of Macbeth and his famous speech:
"I am in mud (sic)
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go'er."
■ Preliminary night accommodation: Rose and Crown pub, Snettisham
Seeking not only to walk but eat my way along the North Norfolk coast, I begin at one of Britain's top 10 inns acclaimed by the 2014 Good Pub Guide. Set in a friendly hinterland village, the pub dates to the 14th century and serves modern, innovative grub including local samphire (sea asparagus) and lobster, created by Norfolk chef Jamie Clark.
My dinner of Thai seafood broth with creamy scallops, and local Gressingham duck in hoisin sauce, is delectable.
Dinner, B&B: £150 double ($270). See roseandcrownsnettisham.co.uk
Holme-Next-the-Sea to Wells-Next-the Sea, 27 kilometres
Armed with a coasthopper pass I take a bus to Holme-next-the-Sea, where I'm starting my three-day walk. A local cleaner directs me to the coast path via the Rodwell Marsh Nature Reserve. So I begin my trek by crossing fields to the chirpy accompaniment of snipes, marsh harriers and American Wigeon ducks. This coastline is among Britain's top birdwatching spots.
Reaching the coast I walk along the 130-year-old Holme dune, splashed with purple heather, then through the first of many salt marshes I encounter on this walk, its waterways trapped like islands in a sea of green reeds. After a few kilometres I cut inland to Brancaster village and not far beyond it happen upon a field full of 1800-year-old Roman ruins.
They're the remains of Branodunum fort, unearthed in 2012 by TV's Tony Robinson and the Time Team and revealing "unparalleled insights" into Roman Britain, according to the program's archaeologist. It is after 3 kilometres on mounded paths through the marshes that I take that fateful short cut near Burnham Overy Staithe (staithe meaning quay in Middle English).
Skidding and plunging in the mud for two hours, I reach the harbour, only to be met by a "PRIVATE PATH" notice. Like Macbeth, I cannot go back. So I climb into a harbourside garden and enlist the sympathy of locals supping wine on the lawn.
"My God," asks one, "where have you emerged from?" before helping me back to the coast road.
For the next 5 kilometres I squelch across Gwyneth's beach, fronting the grand country house, Holkham Hall, and end the day by walking through woods and along a causeway into Wells-Next-the-Sea. With families munching fish and chips and breaking their teeth on sticks of rock by the quayside, Wells is like a 1960s postcard of an English seaside town.
■ Accommodation: The Ship Inn, Brancaster
One of three "Flying Kiwi Inns" owned by NZ TV chef Chris Coubrough, the Ship is a homely country pub with more good nosh. I recover from the day's walk with a Railway Sleeper Ale and a hunk of haddock and chips.
Dinner, B&B from £140 ($250) a room a night.
Wells-Next-The-Sea to Cley-Next-The-Sea, 16 kilometres
I begin my second day by entering the extensive Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey) salt marshes and walking under huge blue skies that wouldn't look out of place in the outback. The colours in the landscape are sharp too, wheatfields defined by green gorse bushes and the orange trail winding away across the marshes.
I'm struck by how neat the marshes appear, like a Capability Brown landscaped garden encompassing serpentine lakes. The salty coastal waterways don't just look good, they're an aquatic pantry for locals, who forage for mussels and samphire here.
Stiffkey is also known for the story of its vicar, Harold Davidson, who, during the 1930s, "helped" the poor, including, some alleged, prostitutes. Loved by the working class but loathed by the rich, the Vicar of Stiffkey was defrocked by the Church and ended up starring in "entertainments", including entering a lion's cage to protest his innocence. Sadly, Davidson was soon mauled to death. His funeral was attended by 3000 people.
I stop for lunch at Morston crab stall, one of several seafood shacks along the path, before continuing to Cley-Next-The-Sea.
From far across the reeds, Cley's early 18th-century windmill, my home for the night, beckons.
The windmill reflects Norfolk's historic connections with continental Europe, and particularly with Dutch Huguenots. Geographically and politically isolated from the rest of England, the region traditionally looked across the North Sea for trade and welcomed the mainland's people and culture.
In the evening I take a boat tour from nearby Blakeney harbour. At the end of a 6-kilometre shingle spit about 80 grey and common seals are lounging at the water's edge, unmoved by the acclaim from several tourist boats.
Dinner tonight is at another Norfolk gastro pub, the Wiveton Bell, and seafood is again the star. I have local whitebait with saffron aioli and Blakeney-caught crab salad with a pint of Woodforde's Wherry ale.
■ Accommodation: Cley Windmill
This is one of Britain's most sought-after guesthouses and my en suite accommodation in its boathouse, with four-poster bed, is characterful and fresh.
B&B from £159 ($286) a room a night. See cleywindmill.co.uk.
Cley to Cromer, 22 kilometres
On my final day I set off early for Cromer and am soon on a long pebbly beach with only an old man swimming for company. Eventually, near Weybourne, the flat coastal plains begin to rise into cliffs and the path follows their contours. Dog walkers and joggers announce a more populous area and I walk through the cliff-top town of Sheringham.
I drop down to the beach again and follow it behind battered wooden sea defences, Cromer Pier visible far beyond some cliffs. I walk for two hours but the pier stays in the distance.
Finally, I climb onto an esplanade and amble the last kilometre past beach huts and food outlets with names such as "Starvin' Marvins" and "Sarah's Sweets and Treats".
I end my walk along this ravishing coastline in a 1960s timewarp, on Cromer pier. Here, children dangle lines to snare Cromer crabs and the Royal Pavilion Theatre's Roy Orbison tribute seems thoroughly appropriate to a Norfolk coast belonging to a different era.
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Norfolk and Visit Britain.
Qantas and Emirates operate four flights a day from Sydney and Melbourne to London. Phone 131313 or see qantas.com.au. Trains run from London to Kings Lynn, journey time around two hours, with Coasthopper buses connecting to Hunstanton, where the Norfolk coastal path begins. From the endpoint Cromer, trains run to Norwich and on to London (three hours). Trainline.co.uk Coasthopper buses run regularly in summer, allowing you to stop and start anywhere along the path. coasthopper.co.uk.
Carry light waterproofs and also footwear for the evenings. Wear comfortable walking boots. Village shops and pubs are nearby and the 67-kilometre walk can be done carrying the essentials in a medium-sized backpack. The terrain is mostly undemanding. Macs Adventure offers an eight-day accommodated walk with luggage transfer, starting on Peddars Way and taking in the Norfolk Coastal Path from £540 ($980). See macsadventure.com.
STAYING + DINING THERE
Rose and Crown pub, Snettisham: dinner, bed and breakfast from £150 ($270) a double. See roseandcrownsnettisham.co.uk.
The Ship Inn, Brancaster: dinner, B&B from £140 ($255) a room a night. See shiphotelnorfolk.co.uk.
The Cley Windmill: B&B from £159 ($290) a room a night, cleywindmill.co.uk.