Fen Rivers Way Walk, Part 3

by Sunita

We left Downham Market in good time after a traditional and filling Full English breakfast. Well, I had the Full English; TheHusband was more restrained. We walked back out of town, pausing only to pick up a Cornish pasty and sweet roll at the bakery we’d seen on the way in. Our lunches had been a bit sketchy the previous two days because the pubs were either too early in the walk, closed, or too far off the road when we passed by them (and there weren’t many to begin with). The bakery smelled wonderful and was doing a brisk business at 8:45 on a Monday morning.

This was our last day and the walk to King’s Lynn was a straight 13-mile shot up the Great Ouse. For the first couple of miles we walked on a high bank that lies between the river and the channel, and the weather was cool and cloudy.

The river had turned tidal by this point, and there were fewer swans and birdlife overall, but the cormorants we saw looked like sleek fighter jets. Speaking of which, the quiet was regularly broken by very loud fighters which we couldn’t see but could definitely hear. Looking at our maps on a break, we discovered that we were quite near RAF Marham, a major base.

It was an uneventful walk through the morning, with bridges spanning the river every two to three miles. After a couple of hours we closed in on the Wiggenhall villages: St. Germans, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Mary the Virgin, and St. Peter. Wiggenhall St. Peter features a beautiful church that is now in ruins:

Wiggenhall St. Germans had what looked like a very good free house pub that was sadly closed on Monday. It also had a lovely church and churchyard, and we could see an impressive organ through one of the windows. Definitely still a going concern, unlike the church in St. Peter.

After the Wiggenhalls we went through a gate and encountered our first sheep of the trip. The gate sign cautioned us to “beware of bull in field,” but the cattle were nowhere to be seen, somewhat to my relief. Cows, yes. Protective and aggressive bull? No thank you. The sheep, true to form, were curious but skittish, and they had left sheep dung all over the trail.

After making our way through the majority of them we found a spot next to the river and climbed down the bank to have lunch. We were shielded from the wind (which was ever-present up on the path) and our backpack rain covers worked well as picnic blankets. The chance to sit down was nice, too. There weren’t many opportunities on this walk except for the occasional wall built by landowners, and on the first day I don’t think we sat down at all. No wonder we were tired that night!

Lunch over, we returned to the path for the last few miles. We could see the bridge of the A47 in the distance, as well as an industrial area which turned out to have a huge printing plant as its major occupant. We were well and truly in the outskirts of King’s Lynn by this point.

As we walked the path into King’s Lynn we encountered several walkers, many with dogs. The rain continued to hold off although it was getting grayer and darker. We walked along the quay until we reached our hotel, which was in a beautifully restored old building. We’d splurged a bit for this last night (by King’s Lynn standards, not London or even Cambridge), and it was well worth it. The hotel is part of an old square and began life as a bank and private house. The bar and reception area were the original bank (which eventually went on to become Barclays), and there are still marks on the floor where people stood in line to transact business.

We settled into the bar with a drink while we waited for our room to be ready and read up on the history of the hotel. To our amazement, we discovered that one of the inhabitants was Captain Samuel Gurney Cresswell, a Royal Navy officer on the ill-fated HMS Investigator, which was famously stuck in the Arctic ice while looking for the Northwest Passage. Cresswell drew sketches of the journey which have become famous in their own right. Our amazement stemmed from a coincidence: we inherited my in-laws’ lithograph of a painting of the Investigator that was done by a different RN officer, styling them after Cresswell’s watercolors. It now hangs over the fireplace in our house in California. This is a lithograph from the same source, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Royal Museums Greenwich:

The hotel has reproductions of Cresswell’s sketches, and it was easy to pick out the one which had inspired our painting. Apologies for the glare, the room wasn’t lit for photographs, but you can see features of what was originally the old kitchen in the reflection:

I’d spent quite a while trying to trace its provenance of when I was cataloguing my father-in-law’s books and artwork, and here we were standing in the house of the original artist and looking at his sketches in situ.

I wish we’d had more time to spend in King’s Lynn. It’s a fascinating town and was an important member of the Hanseatic League in the medieval era. There are still a couple of buildings left from that era as well as many from the subsequent centuries, and the central town is bracketed by two market squares and the cobbled streets that connect them. After getting settled and cleaned up, we walked around as dusk turned into darkness, but then the rain which had been threatening all day finally arrived and drove us indoors. We had a lovely dinner in the hotel bar and then returned to our very comfortable and cozy room.

Three days is barely enough to get into the rhythm of walking, but it was better than nothing, by a lot, and we felt much better for it. We woke up to another gray and mizzly day, had yet another excellent breakfast, and caught the 11:44 to King’s Cross. Which turned out to require a change at Cambridge and a switch to St. Pancras as our destination, but that’s the privatized British railway system for you.