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

EDP Norfolk - - County Crossword - Rowan Mantell CON­TACT [email protected]

“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.

Above: Rowan at Bran­caster Staithe

Be­low: Sign­ing the way

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