Start All Saints Church, Helhoughton
Distance 5¾ miles
Time 2½ hours
Total ascent 60 metres
Above the A148, that’s north Norfolk proper – Blakeney, Cley, Wells,” says Siobhan Peyton. “And that gets mobbed.” South of that road is a lesser-known, watery corner of Norfolk, placid and empty-looking under big East Anglian skies. We turn off the A148 on to a narrow lane between hedgerows. It comes to a dead end after half a mile, but what an end. Here the great river of Norwich, the Wensum, is in its infancy, flowing clear and shallow under weeping willows, then under a 260-year-old watermill, which has been a pub since the early 19th century.
Google map of the route
Sculthorpe Mill’s wide east-facing frontage would be a grand spot for an early pint, but its crowning glory is the enormous beer garden behind, with tables in bowers and alcoves between two arms of the river.
Before moving to the area a couple of years ago, Siobhan and sister Caitriona (siblings of Oliver Peyton, restaurateur and judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu) had become fans of Sculthorpe Mill on visits from London. So when they heard its lease was up for grabs, they swooped, and spent months renovating the pub, restaurant, six rooms and garden, before reopening it last summer.
The Wensum rises amid lovely walking country on the nearby Raynham estate. We could start our hike from behind the pub, crossing a footbridge (the river is fordable in dry summers) and walking on quiet lanes, but instead drive a couple of miles to Helhoughton village to start our almost completely off-road route around “the Raynhams”, suggested by Norfolk Ramblers.
When a character in Graham Swift’s classic novel Waterland asks why East Anglia is so flat, he’s told it’s “so God has a clear view”. One thing the Almighty would spot in this patch of Norfolk is all the buildings erected in his honour. Starting at Helhoughton’s medieval flint-and-stone specimen with its stumpy tower, our 5¾-mile walk passes four churches, one of them ruined.
The churches were built by the family who have owned this land since the 12th century – the Townshends, who probably regarded the nostrum about God’s clear view as relevant only to their tenants’ behaviour. Misdeeds over the years include the alleged walling up in Raynham Hall of an adulterous wife by one choleric marquess. Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer from 1766-67, pledged to raise revenue in America by taxing exports of paint, paper and … tea. Look where that led. (Australia’s largest city was named after his son, Thomas, Viscount Sydney.)
None of this distracts from the pastoral loveliness of their lands and estate villages, where flint-and-brick homes with names such as Parsley Cottage overlook lush fields grazed by cows so deep black they seem chosen to improve the painterly scene. We head south, the line of the Wensum marked by woods to our left. Small birds are singing from laden hawthorn bushes – staying out of sight of circling sparrowhawks – and we soon reach the first of several footbridges, close to where the Wensum was dammed to create a lake for Raynham Hall.
The lake is invisible from here but we can hear the racket of its waterfowl, against the loud “whispering” of tall aspens. Turning south, we follow the lakeside to Stableyard Farm’s pretty Dutch-style barns, with their crow-step gables. To our left is the 17th-century hall – impressive in “artisan classical” brick and stone. John Julius Norwich wrote that Raynham is “not palatial, there is a comfortable, homely feeling about it” – but then an Eton-educated viscount’s idea of homely is going to be different from ours.
We also spy something of how the Townshends turn a penny these days: outside the hall customers are piling into covered trailers ready for a day of shooting feathered creatures out of the sky (£856 a gun). There are also classical recitals in the Marble Hall, glamping and, this summer, the first Wide Skies and Butterflies festival, with acts including Natalie Imbruglia.
We’re paying nothing, though, to tread paths across their lands, and smile at a sign just past Saint Mary’s church saying, “Landowners welcome caring walkers”. Having seen too many public rights of way fenced or ploughed up, it’s tempting to add, “Walkers welcome landowners who respect their rights.”
East of the A1065, we plunge again into meadows and sweet chestnut woods, scaring many poor pheasants as we wind through Corn Bill Coppice and Constable’s Pit. In Norman’s Burrow Wood we cross the baby Wensum again. Its source is in fields a short way east, but in this flat land the water is placid and barely moving. We hit tarmac for a short while near South Raynham – but who could quibble at a road called Pollywiggle Lane?
To capture on a (phone) camera this wide-open land, all horizontal shapes beneath a dome of sky, feels impossible. There’s vertical relief when the 12th-century tower of Saint Martin’s church rears over fields, its clock chiming the hour. It is the most happily situated of the walk’s churches, on an unmade lane and flanked by a pink-washed Georgian rectory (now behind electric gates).
North along water meadows is West Raynham: the grass around its ruined church is being nibbled by sheep as black as the cattle. At its entrance a sign commemorates the four-field crop rotation idea promoted by second viscount Charles “Turnip” Townshend, one of the fathers of England’s agricultural revolution.
The lane back to Helhoughton is littered with fresh corpses – pheasants bred to face shotguns that perished under car wheels instead. We could gather some for a pot roast – but under this big sky we don’t know who might be watching.
Bored of the mismatched furniture look in pub refurbs, Siobhan worked with designer Shaun Clarkson on decor that “celebrates the history but looks modern”. On a stone floor that looks as if it has been there since the mill’s mention in Domesday Book sit splay-legged wooden stools and tables, and matching red banquettes for a very “pubby” look. The Mill prides itself on “beers that belong”, and happy punters sup pints of West Acre microbrewery’s flowery Duration, DewHopper (from Wells-next-the Sea) and Barsham Brewery’s Pilgrim’s Pale. The snug is particularly appealing, with grilles in the floor for peering down at the river (and odd kayaker) below, and piles of board games.
My husband is very taken with the bar menu – gamekeeper’s pie with cabbage (£12.50), welsh rarebit on sourdough (£8.50) – but we’re booked into the first-floor restaurant, where ceilings are low and the taller waiting staff move with a noticeable stoop.
After working in London and San Francisco, chef Elliot Ketley relishes being near great local produce, particularly Dexter beef (those black cows) for burgers and steaks. However, two intriguing veggie choices – spaghetti of autumn squash with pumpkin seeds, and cep and borlotti pie – top the list of mains. And hooray – there’s hot pudding with custard.
Who needs an over-water villa? We look from the open casement of our second-floor bedroom straight into the river as it gurgles into a tunnel under the pub. The six rooms are mostly compact and cosy, with tongue-and-groove panelling, bright rugs and deep windowsills for staring out at the view of river, weeping willows and nature reserve. Bathrooms are stylish, there’s a coffee machine and Bluetooth speaker – and no TV.
Doubles from £89 B&B, sculthorpemill.uk