Wells Bells: On the Benefits of a Microbreak

The situation: a few unexpected days off work. The desire: a holiday. The challenge: make it cheap and cheerful. The solution: a micro break.

I considered all my options. Grab a bargain plane ticket and silence my protesting conscience by paying extra to have someone plant some trees for me. Stay at home and hope for the best. Go on a city trip somewhere in the UK and shell out half my weekly wage for a train ticket. None of this sounded appealing.

Then the solution presented itself to me. I live in Norfolk, a notoriously rural county, and being car-less I have never explored its more remote parts. As a lover of the seaside, I’d often seen the Coasthopper buses drive around Cromer village, displaying their destinations on their side. Wells-next-the-Sea, the end of the line, had a mythical ring to it. But the long trip required to get there always used to put me off.

Enter the discovery of the town’s YHA hostel, the booking of a bed in a dorm, and the realization that the few things I would need for an overnight stay would fit neatly into my backpack, and the idea for the micro break was born. Sure, Wells-next-the-Sea doesn’t sound quite as sexy as Dubai or Bali, but I was genuinely looking forward to my two-day trip. And if things would turn out a tad disappointing, well, there was always the bus home.

Disappointed I was not. The weather conspired to assist and treated me to a wonderful sunny day, the kind that makes Norfolk skies look their best. Standing in the packed Coasthopper bus – I wasn’t the only person in need of fresh air – I looked out of the window as cliff tops gave way to shingle beaches, then salt marches, as we passed Blakeney. This was as far as I’d ever gotten, on a blustery winter day, and now I was boldly going where I had never gone before.

Wells, it should be said, is as small as it is remote. I immediately left the village – this required a walk of about five minutes – and made my way towards the Holkham estate. Set in what more practised travel writers might call “acres of rolling parkland”, this Palladian mansion offers a mirage of wealth, luxury, and style. But I found I just wasn’t interested. I had made non-committal plans to visit the walled garden, but when I found myself evading golf carts and coachloads of pensioners I realized that nature, not nurture, was what I was craving. I’m sure the house is beautiful inside, and I might go back at some point to have a proper look, but its radiation of Disneyland vibes just didn’t do it for me that day.

No problem. Holkham is conveniently located close to a beach. And what beach. I made my way past the narrow car park, through a pine forest and across the dunes to a view unlike any other I’ve ever seen. The tide was low, the beach appropriately large, but with an otherworldly atmosphere that made me want to run down the dunes and explore. I proceeded with caution, however, as should anyone else. Signs near Wells warn of riptides and dangerous currents, and the sea deserves to be taken seriously. Smarter people than me have been surprised by the water, sometimes with lethal consequences.

For a self-proclaimed sociopath like me an enormous empty beach is the closest thing to heaven. Fighting against the wind I walked across the sand, spotting pine cones bobbing on the waves and trembling trees in the distance. It was perfect. I have rarely been so alone and I have rarely enjoyed it so much.

Of course the aloneness the beach offers is an illusion. Wells and the sea wall leading towards it are just around the corner. I climbed on the wall and joined a crowd of strollers on their way to the fish and chip shop. When I received my order I thought a mistake had been made. My fish was positively whale-sized, and as we all know whales are not fish. But with other customers cheerfully eating their equally massive dinners, who was I to complain. The whale was served by French’s, incidentally. I’m not the only one who liked them.

With the sail boats bobbing on the incoming tide it was time to find my accommodation for the night. Wells YHA is located in an old church hall and manned by volunteers. It is basic. It is cheap. But gosh, it is nice. Due to my unusual choice of departure date I had a four bed dorm all to myself. A few other guests were waltzing around the kitchen but with Wells not being known for its exciting night life, they were all of the subdued sort. This suited me just fine.

My joy was complete when I discovered a door with a sign that told me it hid a “quiet room”. Inside I found two soft red couches, a side table to put my cup of tea on, and an eclectic collection of books. I felt right at home. Putting my feet up, I perused a book on the history of the YHA movement, then proceeded to a 1970s volume on prehistoric animals and an equally old-fashioned AA guide to British landmarks. Lovers of hot tubs and infinity pools would have been disappointed but it was just what I needed on that particular day.

Lying in bed under the beams of the slanted roof, I listened to the rain and imagined sleeping in an unusually warm and dry tent. My legs were recovering well, and they’d better, for I was planning to go on an even longer walk on day two. Having walked sections of the Norfolk Coast Path before, I was looking to fill in some gaps and see how far I would get. Famous last words.

After  a quiet breakfast – more than a year of early shifts at work have conditioned me into waking up at six AM – I checked out and got out of town. The sky was overcast, the air chilly, the streets empty. More than the day before I felt like I was embarking on an adventure. Never mind that I would be following a well-marked and well-travelled path. I was being sensible, I told myself, rather than taking the easy way out.

The first section of my walk, towards Morston, challenged my mind more than it challenged my body. I won’t say the landscape was boring, but it was monotonous, and I felt as if I was walking on a treadmill without making any real progress. On one side all I could see were gargantuan stretches of arable land, on the other side the salt marshes loomed. The sea was nowhere to be seen.

My mood improved when I reached Morston, where I’d been before to embark on a seal-viewing trip. The quay was empty save for a few other walkers and there were many benches suitable for an early lunch break. Refreshed, I continued my walk towards Blakeney and Cley, along a section of the path I knew and loved.

In Cley I stopped at the Artemis coffee shop for tea and a scone. The place was in a barely concealed state of panic, its staff anxiously discussing whether the salt beef sandwich was still on the menu, whether they had any salt beef in the first place, and who would make the sandwich the customer who had ordered it was waiting for. I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders and made my way back to the beach.

I’ve never been any good at meditation but the five mile walk along the shingle beach brought me close to a state of trance. Having grown up in a country where beaches are civilized stretches of sand dotted with ice cream vans, it was a bit of a shock to discover that Norfolk beaches can be… nothing. Just miles upon miles of tiny stones, difficult to walk on, with nothing but the occasional parking lot to track one’s progress. I was alone apart from another lone walker I tried to escape from, not because he was threatening me in any way, but because I didn’t want anyone to witness my stumbling progress.

Why am I doing this, I thought as I was approaching the Muckleburgh collection. By that time turning back was not an option anymore. It would only mean more miles across the wretched shingles, more emptiness, more silent cursing. At least I knew what reportedly lay ahead: the car park of Weybourne and the cliff top path towards Sheringham. When I reached the car park and had managed the last few metres of shingle, promising myself that I would never set foot on a shingle beach again, I collapsed on the ruins of a pill box.

I noticed that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Sipping from my water bottle I felt a faint drizzle on my face. No wonder I had barely met anyone along the way. This was not a day for walking in the first place and things weren’t getting any better. My feet hurt but I got back onto them for the last stretch of my journey.

I barely noticed my surroundings at that point. Even when confronted with four large dogs – I’m not fond of dogs, let alone four of them, let alone large ones – I hardly acknowledged them. Then jumped around me as I staggered down the cliff to Sheringham village, down the high street, towards the bus stop. I got on the bus. I think I might have nodded off, for I don’t remember much about the journey home. The five minute walk from the bus stop to my house was agony.

Yet somehow I woke up the next day thinking a two hour karate session would be just the ticket. What can I say. I made it through on willpower alone. Went home. Collapsed on my bed. The next day the only walking I did was around Amazona Zoo, between the puma and the jaguar enclosure. So much for holidays being relaxing.

Would I recommend a microbreak? Absolutely. It was cheap, stress free, did not damage the environment the way a low cost flight would, and it was fun. Coming home I felt like I’d been away for two weeks, and looking at the pictures I took I feel like I’ve been to a different planet. It was also strangely satisfying to travel alone. Of course it pays to consider safety, to tell a loved one where you’re going, and inform then when you’ve arrived safely. But nothing beats the feeling that I’ve managed a trip on my own, seen things no one else has seen, and have made it through to write about it.

Image my own – View of Holkham beach

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