Running the Coast of My Youth

Hunstanton and Heacham are the coastal towns of my youth. Would I recommend them as a holiday destination to some strapping young couple, looking for adventure and sensual excitement? No, absolutely not. But both towns, like so many British coastal towns, serve up a very specific kind of laid back leisure. My family had rented a seafront cottage in Heacham for the weekend, and I headed out to meet them early on Saturday morning. First I met my Dad and took part in the Hunstanton Parkrun before joining up with the rest of the family for the remainder of the weekend. The Parkrun had one of the smaller fields that I had run in, but let’s be fair – we’re talking about a seaside resort and it was December. The course is two laps, up and down the promenade. I imagine that with the wind potential on the front it can be quite challenging, and certainly a brisk, chilly wind was cutting through us as we pressed up the coast, but it wasn’t so strong as to slow us down. 

After the Parkrun, which is pretty much the best way to start any Saturday, I met up with the rest of the family in Heacham, a quiet coastal village stuffed with caravan parks and holiday homes. It is also the birthplace of John Rolfe. Now, who the hell is that? I hear you ask. Rolfe was an early settler of North America, setting up shop in Jamestown in 1610. He went on to be the producer of Virginia’s first profitable export: tobacco. Even more notably, he married the daughter of the local Native American Chieftain. This indigenous woman was Pocahontas. Now, there’s a lot of fiction around the story of Pocahontas, but here’s a quick, grim history: she was held captive, “encouraged” to convert to Christianity during this captivity, married off to Rolfe, gave birth to his son, was paraded in London as a “civilised savage”, and was then dead by 21. 

The more you know!

Anyway, Heacham is a very mild place. It’s also a good access point for a lot of pleasant trail running. From Heacham you aren’t far from the Peddars Way, or the Norfolk Coastal Path. For me though, on Sunday morning as the rest of the family lazily rose from slumber, I decided to head out and follow my nose. 

I started on a grass track, which set me on the way to Snettisham – another sleepy little village, pretty much only notable for the RSPB bird sanctuary there. It had rained the night before, and the grass track was a little muddy, but not to the detriment of my running. I fancied checking out the pretty sounding Snettisham Woods, but as I reached the diverging point away from the grass track I noticed that the field I was supposed to move across to reach the woods was completely, utterly wet. No, not wet – wet is an understatement. It was flooded. The field was a pond, and where there wasn’t water, there were cows.

I continued on the grass track. In the end this was no bad thing. I still reached Snettisham, and cut up onto the promenade to move along the seafront. The path here was a sort of hard packed sand, shingle, trail. It was lovely to run on. The sea was out, leaving a strange, alien landscaped beach in its wake. Rivers of water ran across the cratered landscape of the seabed, and a huge moody sky stretched out overhead. I kept the sea on my right all the way down to the RSPB bird sanctuary, looped this, and headed back on myself, checking out an inland trail alongside a small lake.

It had been a smooth, relatively clean journey so far, so I figured oh fuck it let’s try and get to Snettisham Woods a different way. A crushed stone path ran alongside the road which carried me towards the entrance to the woods. The sun peaked it’s golden head out from behind a cloud to illuminate the reddish bark of the tall, striking trees of the wood as I approached. There were also chickens in the road. Not crossing the road, but dominating it, owning it. Ringleader chickens had taken up position above their subordinate cluckers, on buckets and tree stumps and whatever they could find, cock-a-doo-a-dooing my tentative approach. 

The woods themselves were glorious. A fine mist was being generated by the streaming mulch of the trail, creating a thick, warm atmosphere amongst the trees, giving the wood the dense feel of a deep, dark forest. There was even some climbing! This was a very flat run otherwise, there are no cliffs by the sea there. I mean, Snettisham is almost in bloody Lincolnshire. No offense. To find some climbing you’d have to head further up the coast, to Sheringham, where I am hopefully bound to spend some more time soon.  

But the climbing wasn’t the most surprising thing about the woods. That would be the pigs. Great big golden, snuffling, snorting, actually a little bit terrifying, pigs. Hogs, if you will. As I rounded a corner and saw this humongous porker burrowing it’s snooter in the undergrowth, my heart skipped a beat. I gently rounded him, and moved on, followed the trail down a speedy little descent and oh, crap, there are three more pigs. One of them was right on the path. Perhaps I’m overselling the terror here, these pigs were actually very pretty creatures and had absolutely no problem with me scurrying on by, but they were big. And noisy. How big are pigs normally? Are they always this big? Why don’t I know how big pigs are? 

Anyway, I’m glad I went into the woods and saw the pigs. In fact, this might be my first pig-running-encounter ever. I hope there are more. 

Out of the woods, down a bridle path, into the shit. I found myself on the other side of the flooded field I had avoided earlier but now, reluctant to turn around, I pushed forwards. I passed a couple of walkers on the way to the field, who looked me up and down as if I was out of my goddamn mind, but I somehow convinced myself that there just must be a runnable path somewhere through there. There were signs! There was even a sign which said: ‘please keep to the footpaths.’ Okay, I will, thank you! Once I was in the field however, it was not clear where those footpaths were supposed to be. In fact, I found another footpath sign, on its back, washed completely out of the ground by the water. I slopped my way through mud and much and water and between the cows and just barely didn’t fall over as I pulled my feet out of a puddle which went down a lot further than I expected. 

But I made it. I was drenched and cold, but less muddy than I imagined. I supposed I was so wet that the mud just dripped right off me. Completing the loop without backtracking gave me a weird sense of satisfaction. If you find yourself thinking about your Strava file during your run, and find yourself altering your run so it looks better, stop that, that’s no good. But that was kind of where my satisfaction came from: now my map would have a nice, satisfying looped section on it. I guess that’s how I get my kicks these days. Although I wouldn’t go so far to say I was cool once, I was at the very least, mildly wild – for a few years. Now look at me. Bizarrely satiated, and with my shoes squeaking with water, I followed the grass track back to Heacham. I almost fell down a set of slippery wooden steps, and then decided to cut down a sand track for the sake of a bit of variety and to get away from any more bloody mud and the increasing slip hazard it presented for my tired legs. And then that was it. A classic trail adventure. Sand and grass and mud and water. Pigs and chickens. 

Certainly this run didn’t change my mind on the general grey haired vibe you get from these sleepy shore villages but it did reinforce my idea that actually, as long as you’re there to spend time outside – they can be quite wonderful. If you’re looking for a couple of drinks and a decent buzz then, you know, maybe try elsewhere? But if you’re looking for a walk, a run, a stroll, a gander, if you’re looking to look out over a great flat plain of water and feel small and peaceful, if you’re looking to get the wind in your face and look forward to a hot drink nestled in your gloved hands, then, actually, you could do far worse.

Plus you’d get to take a gander at those pigs. Look at the size of them!

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