Words and pictures by Luke Turner.
I suspect I’m about to be ambushed the moment a Range Rover pulls into a layby just ahead. The door opens and a man in paramilitary black emerges in a cloud of radio fuzz, bristling with utility belt, cuffs, holstered gun and a white beard. “Heading somewhere, are you?” asks a Scottish accent far warmer than his garb has led me to expect. I explain that I thought the coastal path had been closed due to cliff erosion, and that the yellow security fencing, each panel featuring the Shell logo, had sent me inland along this road. He asks to see my map and points out that the public right of way doesn’t go above the thick ends of the axehead dashes that depict the clifftop at all, but along the beach. Given my relative inferiority in armament, I don’t quibble.
Bacton Gas Terminal, protected so efficiently by the MOD policeman, has long loomed large in my imagination. The road I’m walking passes between two parts of the vast site and is lined on by protective earthworks planted with firs. Behind that are two high fences creating a dead zone watched over by cameras, before the gas terminal itself. Twin communication masts tower over the local area and the whole complex – pipes, huts, outlets, valves – hums eerily. But this part of North Norfolk has always had its own electricity. I’ve been coming to stay here for most of my three-and-a-half decades thanks to my dad’s friend, a man generous to impecunious types who preach the doctrines of John Wesley and outré contemporary music alike. The wall around Chapel Cottage Knapton now rises only to my thigh, but it once marked the boundary of a deep canyon down which I could sail ships or, on summer days, martial and annihilate armies of ants on the hot red tiles.
That wall and the cocoon of the family car then marked the boundaries of a world outside which the rest of Norfolk glowed. The county was always abroad, after all, reached until 1987 from home in West Yorkshire via the stuck cog of the Kings Lynn Roundabout and subsequently the perplexingly single-tracked A11 from London. You only go to Norfolk if you want to go there. It’s not a place to pass through. Arrival in Knapton was always signified by the white-painted and thin-legged water tower at the top of the village, a recently-landed alien being ready to stride forth to Great Yarmouth. Over towards Cromer lurked a radar that would warn of impending Soviet doom. Perhaps it was the echoes picked up there that’d send Jaguar fighters from RAF Coltishall screaming so low over the crenellations of Knapton parish church that I’d imagine the jet blast might send the cockerel wind vane spinning. Nights were spent hiding under the sheets trying not to think of how just across the lane old gravestones floated in white moonlight above dark grass.
As we grow older the places we revisit barely change except in scale, yet the ghosts of our younger selves bite our living ankles. I’d felt the familiarity of Norfolk calling me all this spring as I moved around a fast-changing London. It’s a city whose dirty soul seems to be being lost just as it quickly became worryingly evident to me that a decent place to rent after a relationship break-up is, in the new utopian dictatorship of Boris Johnson, Rita Ora and the Evening Standard, neither easy to find nor affordable. The result has been months in a dusty building site, temporary measures, possessions scattered across post codes, 5am awakenings with a stressed mind cartwheeling down hard stairs.
Norfolk isn’t as flat as its reputation would have us believe. It undulates like a morning-smoothed duvet and the tops of flint church towers, memorials of the area’s wealth in the medieval wool trade, break the lines of near horizons. Sometimes there are two or three visible at once, well-maintained despite the empty fields and sunken lanes that surround them. Witton, Edingthorpe, Ridlington; built of rough flint as if the saints from which they take their names had mysteriously summoned them out of the surrounding fields. I feel observed by these peering towers, ever-visible gas terminal masts and an escort of avian life. Partridge helicopter up from under my feet, pheasants give the comedy car horn honk. The black blue of a crow flashes darkly behind the fresh white blossom of a hawthorn. With an irritated croak it joins dueling skylarks and the mutely hovering form of a pigeon-scarer kite, tethered to a post on a rise in a ploughed field that suddenly gives way to the North Sea. No matter how reassuringly inland the terrain I’ve just walked might seem, this part of the coastline is losing to wind and water, nature’s teeth. Regimented lines of static caravans are beating a retreat, pipes that used to serve plots now abandoned poke out of the sandy cliff face. A rabbit disappears into a burrow. I imagine it digging too far and suddenly emerging, cartoon-style with legs spinning in thin air, over Happisburgh beach. Down there a long-since toppled pillbox sits half submerged in sand behind wooden sea defenses that crackle under the fusillade of pebbles carried by every blow from the blue brown waters.
I walk north into the sea haze towards Walcott Gap, where bungalows with UKIP election placards on the landward side have freshly painted sea-facing rears. I was last here just after the storms of December 2013, when many of these houses still had ripped backsides, with sofas, beds, insulation foam and ravaged plumbing visible and open to the elements. Now it’s all being done up, in its own way, this neglected part of the buttock of Eastern England, though logistics for bolstering the cliffs around the gas terminal seem more eager than those beneath the Castaway Caravan Park. Here, a freshly run-over rabbit is stretched out in the car park and a sign promises ‘Special Offers – Elvis’. I abandon the coast and head back inland, a lone figure whose presence with phone and map seemingly constitutes a threat to the national infrastructure.
As our limbs grow our minds are conversely worn by the tragedies, small pleasures and indifferent realities of adulthood. Dark groynes appear against the tides of imagination and life’s hardest shocks make us believe we’ve changed more than we have. These days, inside Chapel Cottage Knapton, I’m forever cracking my skull on the ceiling.
Luke Turner is co-founder and editor of online music and arts magazine The Quietus. He has also contributed to Q, The Guardian, NME, MOJO and the BBC and is currently researching a book on London’s Epping Forest