Signs and wonders
Whether you want to name the wildlife all around or unearth hidden layers of history, a few facts make Norfolk’s footpaths even lovelier
“It seems that the sheep which sometimes graze the field also have an appetite for information about the function and layout of Roman forts and had nibbled the sign to destruction”
I JUST love a sign.
If there is information to be gleaned, I am keen to glean. I will cross the road to read a tattered poster on a telegraph pole mourning a lost cat or purse. In art galleries I’ve caught myself shuffling from information board to information board, barely glancing at the priceless picture alongside; and if someone has taken the trouble to put a sign along a footpath, then I will do them the courtesy of finding it, and finding it fascinating.
Which is how I learned that the biggest malthouse in Britain stood on Brancaster Staithe 200 years ago. Prior to reading the sign I was probably not entirely sure what a malthouse was. I feel a richer, better, more fact-filled and fulfilled person now that I know about this vast, longvanished factory, where malt was once extracted from barley for the brewing industry. Barely a trace remains of the 100-metrelong building, described in 1829 as “one of the most remarkable curiosities in the county,” (source, an information board on Brancaster Staithe.) And yet that immense malthouse is still here, in ghost form, on the edge of the twisting tidal channels and mudflats. Conjured from lines sketched on a map and a detail of an oil painting, the National Trust information board summons the malthouse and surrounds it with the long-silenced clamour of men loading and unloading grain, coal and fish from fleets of cargo ships.
We continued our walk along the coastal path and, at the edge of Brancaster village, wandered into the remains of the Roman fort of Branodunum. Historical sites bristle with wonderful signs and I was amazed to read that soldiers from modern-day Croatia ate mussels and oysters on the beach here 1,700 years ago. Across the field from the first sign, I spied another, and set off in pursuit of more fascinating facts. As I reached it I realised I am not the only Norfolk resident to find signs irresistible. The disappointment of seeing the information itself gone, leaving just a wooden board, was assuaged by a message written on the bare wood. It seems that the sheep which sometimes graze the field also have an appetite for information about the function and layout of Roman forts and had nibbled the sign to destruction.
We are part-way through walking the long-distance paths of Norfolk. My husband and I have followed in the regal footsteps of Boudicca and traced the rivers Wensum and Waveney to the sea. Now we are walking the coastline, linking the beaches, towns, villages and beauty spots we have visited over decades into a continuous line of loveliness.
Alongside, the sea seeps into creeks, salt marshes and the faraway horizon; birds wheel and wade and wail; the path arcs out along the flood bank, holds tight to the shoreline across sand and shingle, twists inland to cross a river or saunter along a village street, and there is something new to me, and older than human history, at every turn. And just occasionally, as we follow the acorn signs of the long distance path, an information board helps me appreciate even more of the wonders as we wander.