Written by John and Margaret Cooper: Pentney to King’s Lynn walk 13 – 15 July 2020.

A report on our walk – and the natural history that we saw – for the FFON Armchair Naturalist website:   https://thefrightenedfaceofnature.com/

John and Margaret Cooper.

In Part 1 of this saga of our Nar Valley adventure, published in FFON on 1st September 2020, we recounted how last July we followed the River Nar on part of its route from our home in Pentney to our office in the coastal town of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, UK.  We explained that this adventure was intended to be a break from our fifteen-week Covid-19 “lockdown”. We made the trip, both there and back, on foot as we did not own a car and we did not want to use public transport because (being in our mid-70s) we were still self-isolating to protect ourselves and the National Health Service (NHS).

We resume our account of the first day, still alarmingly close to the village of Pentney (under an hour’s brisk walk by road) whence we had started our journey three hours earlier.

After a lunch delighting in the small fish in the river below our feet and greeting a few other walkers, we crossed the river and proceeded further west, along the north bank. The narrow riverside path and an adjacent sandy track took us past a series of large lakes, formerly sand and gravel pits, surrounded by trees, where fishermen were sitting, solitary and silent, with their rods and gear. We saw reed buntings, greylag and Canada geese and a cormorant. We heard a song thrush singing, repeating its “song twice over”, as Wordsworth penned. We see few song thrushes nowadays, although occasional clusters of broken snail-shells suggest that they are still around. We had one of our frequent stops at 14.35 next to the fishing lakes and John in particular benefited from being able to rest his painful knee by sitting against a grassy bank on the edge of the gravel track.  This stretch is rather monotonous, the artificial lakes and their new woodland are slightly eerie (a potential setting for a “who dunnit” novel?), the river is dull and the bank is largely long grass, although it provided some surprises on the way back.

It would seem from a survey and plan for restoration of the River Nar that a varied and “untidy” irregular river edge is better for conservation. https://www.therrc.co.uk/DesignatedRivers/Nar_Restoration_Plan_FINAL_APPROVED.pdf The paper also points out that the most of the river is a protected area (SSSI) and the surrounding area is important for drainage and flood management.

An hour later (15.30) and we were again taking a break on the river bank next to the Wormegay-Blackborough End Road. John’s rather brief and hastily-scrawled notes in his Diary (see Part 1)record thatthis was the first “proper” (tarmac) road that we had encountered since leaving our home and that the previous stretch of the journey had been “rather dull”.

We continued west from the bridge in the direction of Setchey. We noted the impoverished wild flora on the first leg and, as the weather was getting overcast, we saw only a few insects – mainly sheltering in long grass. Neither were there many birds to be seen or heard along the river. Is this due to large-scale arable farming alongside much of the river, or the cutting and straightening of the river course?

This does not always apply and with indications that we might be approaching Setchey and the A10, Margaret delighted in coming upon a part of the track where patches of colourful flowers of mixed species and colours – scabious, knapweed, “eggs and bacon” (bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus), red and white clovers. Could there be a change of soil with more chalk in it?  The plant variety seems similar to that of the Wiltshire Downs.

We stopped by a narrow metal bridge and small power station where we were greeted by two friendly ladies who, with some jollity, were just concluding a fishing trip because the rain was starting.

The next, straight, stretch was pleasant but wild flowers and birdlife seemed sparseWe fixed our eyes, and hopes, on a landmark on the horizon (a shiny “tin shed” with lorries passing on behind it) for our next target, the crossing of the A10 at Setchey.  After what already seemed to be taking an eternity to reach the “tin shed” and just as it began to gradually grow in size and heralded a well-earned rest, the river bank jinked to the left and our hope of a quick walk to landmark were scuppered.  Then, rather like the dove in Noah’s Ark, we began to encounter dog walkers – surely dry land (Setchey) and the A10 could not be too far away.

John’s Diary, written later because of the rain, confirms that it was 17.30 when got to the main road and he notes how traumatic it was to emerge there from our tiny river track; he said: “Crossing was awful…so much traffic, going so fast. We have been sheltered during lockdown”.

At this point (for the first time, surrounded by a veritable forest of sign posts) {see Figure above}, we had to decide whether to proceed along the last stretch of our walk or opt for a quick, sensible, bus ride down the A10 into King’s Lynn and a late tea (echoes of John’s original estimate: “we shall be in by teatime, and then set off back next day”).  Our experience from Africa is that a safari starts going downhill from about 16.30 and one needs to find a safe haven for the night – not that we often found ourselves in this sensible situation and we often broke all the rules by travelling at night.  We weighed up our options in the deteriorating weather and low light and balanced it against July’s long evenings and the prospect of failure to achieve our aim and decided, come what may, we were not giving up at this stage. So off we trudged down a road and climbed up on to the steep river bank and walked through long grass as the weather rapidly lapsed into low clouds, a strong wind and rain, but we pressed on despite being 2-3 hours’ later in our programme than the senior organiser had estimated.

Beyond the river, on either side, stretch large arable fields and we were aware that we were rather far from help in the case of a fall or losing the route (gates across the path in the distance are unnerving and there was no turning back now).  None of this compares with the hazards of travel in Africa but an arthritic knee, anxious calls from a family member in California (with a rather conservative (negative) view of our distances) and the general UK risk-aversion attitudes meant that we did get flashbacks to our overseas experiences of being lost in the middle of the unknown with the light fading fast.

There was not much enthusiasm for photography at this stage…

The weather and our spirits, lightened as we rested under a railway bridge on the edge of the river and then had to edge along a raised, sloping (away from the water, luckily) boardwalk into a field and on to solid land.

At 19.15 John wrote that we were “sheltering under the railway bridge…….It has been raining continuously for the past hour or so”

The last part of the river turns fairly abruptly to the north. This channel is not the original course; the Nar was diverted northwards when the Great Ouse was re-routed to a new outfall (mouth) at King’s Lynn after the thirteenth century.

At 20.38 John wrote “still slogging on through wet grass. We can see King’s Lynn ahead, paper mill to our left. Dry. Tired!”

Margaret remarked at this stage how glad she was of a landmark, even if it had to be the rather unsightly paper mill. For miles we had seen no sign of King’s Lynn (or even of a footpath sign saying that the town was ahead).

This long straight stretch was pleasant, with good views of the flat, once fenland, countryside but surprisingly devoid of wildlife, even mallard or moorhens on the river. We passed no-one. Our main companions became molluscs – snails of at least four species and large splendid black slugs, all revelling in the wet grass. It was good to see them but we had to watch our step. An occasional crunching sound underfoot told us that we had been unsuccessful in avoiding a snail. We felt guilty and silently apologised.

At about 21.30 we noted that the light was going. A phone call from our son in Sussex to check that we were ok. We crossed a strange old iron bridge, passed under a major road (a creepy area) and recognised one of the industrial estates on the edge of King’s Lynn but still no there was no view of the town for orientation once the landmark paper factory had veered off piste.  At this point the fairly wide route seemed to come to an abrupt end leaving only a rough path diving to the left down a tunnel of trees. It did not make sense but John said “follow the river” and within a few minutes we were astonished (but rather relieved) to emerge on to a concreted public path to a park that we recognised from exploration with our grandchildren in 2019. Benches look so welcoming but Covid-19 precautions left us propping up a metal barrier for a much-needed rest.  At that point the Nar navigates the outer parts of Kings Lynn, not all of which is walkable.

It was nearly dark but we could make out, amongst the lights ahead, the unmistakeable outline of the South Gate. This is one of the best-known landmarks in King’s Lynn; it has guarded the southern approaches to the town for nearly 600 years and, from what we see in old prints (for numerous pictures of the South Gate both historical and modern, see: SouthgatesKing’sLynnNorfolk_HistoricAreaAssessment.pdf, the River Nar was originally in close proximity to it, which matches what we discovered with our grandchildren (see above).

In 2019 our grandchildren and we located the original route of the Nar near the South Gate – see Figures below.

We walked on and soon entered Southgates, an historically interesting area of King’s Lynn around the South Gate.: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/in-your-area/east-of-england/kings-lynn-research/southgates/

At the South Gate we turned left along a track (over the original lie of the Nar, as shown in early prints) that took us to re-join the present-day banks of River Nar.  Then, a few minutes later, tired but happy, we staggered into our little townhouse/office, which is only about 100 metres from the last stretch of the Nar before its waters join the Great Ouse and, eventually, The Wash. It was with a touch of sadness that we had our last glimpse of the river and bade it farewell – until our return trip!

We entered the house at 22.14, nearly 13 hours after we had left home.

We both had sore feet and aching limbs but John felt able to record in his Diary “both pretty shattered (exhausted) but proud we did it!”

We had forgotten that some renovation work was in progress in the house so our sitting room had to be rearranged before we fell into the chairs we had dreamt of on the walk.  Then some Covid-19 precautions had to be taken before we could eat and recover.  Eventually, we slept like logs!

That early plan of returning next day was displaced by an acute inertia and need to recuperate. John commented in his Diary “Recovering. It is sunny but may not persist” and further expanded on our health “both feeling stiff and my arthritic knee needs to warm up”. He added: “Swifts are still wheeling and screaming overhead here. A lovely sight”.

We sent messages to our offspring: “Thank you both for checking on us yesterday. Sorry about our madcap Norfolk safari!”

We set off on the return journey the next morning, Wednesday 15th, at 08.44, again on foot, but we decided to take a slight shortcut back by initially walking down the A10 road to Setchey. An hour later, 09.46, we were again on the outskirts of King’s Lynn, sitting on the edge of a big roundabout. It had been noisy, of course, on account of the traffic, but the edges of the roads and roundabouts on this route were remarkably rich in wild flowers {see Figures above}. John wrote “Roundabouts – edges clearly not cut (hooray!), brambles with green berries and flowers – teasels, common mallow, plantains”.

As we toiled down the busy, noisy A10 John wrote “some welcome gardens, wild flowers – teasel, willowherbs”.

We stopped frequently. At 11.00 John recorded how pleased he in particular was (on account of his knee) to take advantage of a place to sit, rest and write his Diary on a convenient green patch in West Winch “A seat! It commemorates the Queen’s Silver Jubilee”.

Further down the A10 John recorded “Traffic, especially lorries, so noisy, but we pass fields as well as ribbon development.” He pointed out winged black ants (preparing for their courtship flight) and yellow ants tending blackfly on a stem.

We heard the “yaffle” call of green woodpeckers and when we looked up saw two in tandem passing overhead in characteristic undulating flight. We noted live elm trees with lots of green leaves and dead ones (afflicted with Dutch elm disease) in close proximity. Flowers seen included tansy.

At 12.20 we reached Setchey bridge and the junction with the Nar Valley Way. One place on the route that is really well-signed

 John wrote “Hooray.  Respite from traffic. Greeted by yellowhammer singing”.

A little later “Enjoyed resting opposite a lovely old garden …..” on the edge of the river just after turning left off the A10.

We reversed our journey along the Nar in the direction of Wormegay. We delighted in this area with its various bright flowers and we watched a pair of specially-adapted boats clear the river of surplus vegetation.

13.30 “having picnic lunch by a narrow metal bridge crossing river. Yellowhammer, reed bunting, song of a warbler”.

15.20 Crossing Wormegay-Blackborough End road again. “It has been raining so we are once more in our anoraks”, John recounted, followed by “Song of a warbler from a clump of trees….My feet are wet (no problem): M[argaret] is wearing boots”.

We returned East past the large fishing lakes, disturbing grass moths, geometrids and ringlets as we tramped slowly through wet grass. Margaret spotted, and we caught for examination, a baby toad!

At one point we came across an abundance of damsel flies in beautiful colours [Figures].

We were cheered on the last part of this tiring trudge back by the sight of scores of mayflies bobbing up and down in the air along the bank.

Three mute swans escorted us up the river {see Figure below}, until, at 17.35, we were once more in sight of the remains of Pentney Abbey [Figure below].

We treated ourselves to our iron rations – chocolate bars saved for the final push. From here, taking separate routes, we walked home, tired but satisfied. John wrote: “17.55 Margaret has gone ahead – along the road…home at 19.08”. John took a cross-country route – a footpath across farmland – adding another spontaneous, mystery detour to the safari.  It was hard-going but he was given directions by a lady on a farm and declined a lift; he saw several hares and was home at 20.15.

It had only taken us ten/eleven hours respectively to get back. We reckon the round trip was only about 25 miles (40km) but it seemed a lot more!


The official Nar website {https://griffmonster-walks.blogspot.com/2013/09/nar-valley-way-kings-lynn-to-narborough.html?m=1 }  describes the route we took as “easy” and with “footpaths throughout” but the person who wrote that was clearly not in his/her mid-70s nor had an arthritic knee like John’s [Figure} nor kept stopping for photographs, like Margaret.].

S/he also didn’t do the walk on long grass while it was raining (as it was on part of our safari) and s/he probably knew the route – signposts are few and not always definitive. But we’re not grumbling. It was a wonderful trip and we listed in John’s Diary as “notables” (sightings and hearings, not people!) the frequent calls of yellowhammers and of skylarks, the two families of tufted ducks, the abundance of attractive butterflies, damsel and dragonflies, and the enchanting swarms of mayflies. 

We have long had the romantic notion of walking from our home to our office along the Nar even before we knew that there was a passable route – at last, we have done it.

The Nar Valley is designated a biological Site of Special Scientific interest and it was indeed encouraging to see so much unspoilt countryside, remarkably free of litter, and a wide range of plants, insects and birdlife. The Norfolk Rivers Trust helps draw people’s attention to the importance of the county’s rare chalk streams and includes amongst “iconic” species found in them the endangered white-clawed crayfish, brown trout, eels and water voles. We saw none of these (but note earlier comment about plopping sounds, possibly voles); however, it must be remembered that we were walking away from the chalk towards the more brackish water where the Nar joins the Great Ouse and The Wash.

The three days away were a nice change for us after weeks of isolation. During March, April, May and June we had enjoyed being “Armchair Naturalists” in our village and restricting ourselves to watching wildlife locally but our pleasure had been (literally) cut short by the sudden and apparently unnecessary trimming of the  verges in our local lane, as reported on this FFON blog: https://thefrightenedfaceofnature.com/2020/06/06/podcast-episode-5-where-have-all-the-flowers-gone/

We therefore felt in need of new stimulation (and exercise) and our Nar Valley/King’s Lynn safari certainly provided this. As we reported to family and friends, the trip was fun – it had some of the hallmarks of one of our East African adventures.  For a while (until the aches and blisters subsided) we were content to return to “normal” self-isolation – Margaret trimming the roses while John continued to try to identify the many insects seen on the trip. [Figures].

Then we started dreaming of exploring further up the Nar Valley Way or possibly trying the Fen Rivers Way next time!  Little did we know then that after autumn the coronavirus situation would deteriorate and become dire over Christmas and New Year. It was clearly time to finish writing this report and submit it to Simon King for FFON!


More pictures of animals and plants seen on our walk follow:

Creatures we met on our walk:   


Some more of the beautiful wild plants we saw:

Berries and seeds already – but it was still summer!