Walking: Norfolk, cold in the extreme: Michael Leapman follows Parson Woodforde's frozen footsteps in Weston

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS diary entry for 12 December 1798, Parson James Woodforde of Weston Longville wrote: 'Bitter cold indeed today with rough NEE wind which pinches me in the extreme.' In another December, 195 years later, the conditions were similar as we walked along routes described by Woodforde in The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802. Although the wind was coming from the west, gaining pace over the flat plains of Norfolk, it was cold enough to pinch and nip any extremities left exposed.

Woodforde spent a lot of time walking or riding to see his friends and parishioners, so the weather played an understandably critical role in his life, and he kept a daily record of it. For the same reason, I suppose, he laid stress on his food: the prospect of a hearty meal would keep his spirits up in the worst conditions.

While the walk would certainly have been pleasanter in the warmth of summer, the bleak chill helped us appreciate some of the hardship that went with Woodforde's position. At least we got the worst over first. The route, from Christopher Somerville's Twelve Literary Walks, begins by heading almost due west for two miles, which meant the wind was blowing right in our faces.

Weston Longville is about eight miles north-west of Norwich, south of the River Wensum. We parked outside the pub opposite the church. Now called the Parson Woodforde, it is on the site of the inn that he wrote about as the Hart, and has between times been called the Five Ringers. The exterior today is uncompromisingly modern.

From there we walked through the village past the wartime airfield, now an ugly and smelly turkey farm. Just beyond it is the site of the vicarage where the bachelor parson lived. It was pulled down in 1840 and replaced by the present 'Old Rectory'.

In the 18th century, when Weston had a larger population, there were houses along both sides of this road, but today the north side is open fields, planted with sugar beet and winter wheat. After about a quarter of a mile we turned into the fields and walked slightly uphill along boggy paths to join another road. Although the incline was slight, this was the highest ground for many miles and the wind was consequently at its strongest.

Somerville writes of the fine views down to the village of Lyng with its prominent white parsonage and the pinnacled tower of the church, where we were heading. We enjoyed them only briefly, for if we raised our heads to look our eyes stung and watered. Outside a farm gate we saw trays of gladioli corms being dried off for the winter.

Just above Lyng the route mercifully turns north and descends, providing shelter from the worst of the weather. We decided not to take the footpath to the village across more muddy fields but instead walked on the sunken road that runs almost parallel to it.

St Margaret's Church in Lyng is entered through an unusually elaborate 15th-century porch. Among its features are a 13th-century octagonal font, on pillars of Purbeck marble, and its seemingly lop-sided chancel, built on a different centre line from the nave.

Now heading east, with the wind at our backs, we passed the gates to the moated vicarage where Woodforde would call on the vicar, Mr Baldwin. On the other side of the road is the house of the old paper mill, said to resemble Woodforde's parsonage. It is a lovely red brick building, with intriguing patterned brickwork on the gable end.

Outside the village we turned off the road again to a path through Sparham Pools Nature Reserve, skirting sand and gravel workings. Beyond the farm the route instructions became a little muddled: possibly the lie of the land has altered in the eight years since Somerville's book was published. We tramped around for a while in the grounds of the mock-Tudor Lenwade House Hotel before being directed to the road to Lenwade and the Bridge Inn, where we were to meet a third member of our party for lunch.

Woodforde used to visit the Bridge Inn by the Wensum, when he went fishing from the adjacent bridge. (In 1778 he caught 'a prodigious fine pike' there, with a smaller pike in her belly.) The old bridge was replaced in 1927 but the pub has pictures of it as the parson would have known it. The inn was also an important transport centre, the departure point for the chaise to Norwich, with its connections to London and other cities.

Crossing the bridge we saw black swans on the river, then turned south back towards Weston. On the left of the road are the imposing iron gates to Weston House. Woodforde records how Squire Custance had the house built, and moved in on 2 August 1781. Within four days the parson was taking tea there and he and his niece Nancy (he never married) went to dinner with the Custances at their new home on 21 August.

Clearly the kitchens were already fully operational. 'We had for dinner ham and two fowls boiled, some young beans, veal collops and hash mutton for the first course; a rost duck, baked puddings, apple tart etc second.' The house was pulled down in the 1920s, with only the stable and gates surviving. It is today a dinosaur theme park.

Weston is about two miles from Lenwade, a walk of some six miles. Back in the village, we visited Woodforde's All Saints Church, a 14th-century flint and stone building with a 13th-century tower. Inside is a well-preserved 14th-century wall painting of the Tree of Jesse and a 15th-century rood screen with 12 painted panels depicting the apostles. The Custances' box pew is still there, as is their family tomb in the churchyard.

In the chancel is a memorial to Woodforde erected by his nephew and niece: 'His parishioners held him in the highest esteem and veneration and as a tribute to his memory followed him to his grave. The poor feel a severe loss as they were the constant objects of his bounty.' Who could hope for a more pleasing obituary?

(Photograph omitted)

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