The day dawned wet but without the skin-splitting winds of recent times which had seeded in the high Arctic. This was a kinder wind, prevailing in more senses than one. It was a south westerly, strong enough to chill fingers and noses out in the open but hardly noticeable in shelter. The world felt a kinder, softer place and all around the signs of a new more benevolent season were bursting from the ground and exploding in slow motion on the trees.
As I began my journey dust devils swirled past me. Perhaps they were the migrating spirits of those who had not survived this violent and cruel last few weeks.
I crossed the ford at Glandford. Normally benign and shallow, today the ford was full and the waters of the River Glaven were in a hurry to complete their journey to the sea at Blakeney. Last week’s grief of snow melted to tears and percolated from the higher ground to cry into the river, swelling its volume. The Glaven is a seventeen mile long snake which slithers along a bed of chalk in the way that a freight train rolls through embankments and cuttings as it bisects landscapes.
I entered the path that mirrored the river’s course and looked along the narrow floodplain. The dead vegetation of the adjacent fen was all yellows and browns but that will soon be changing. The clarion call of Spring blows loud and clear. A chorus of birdsong grows louder every day. Nearby, a Chiffchaff loudly staked its territorial claim, newly arrived from West Africa and the Mediterranean, or maybe one of the increasing numbers that overwinter here.
To my left the land rose in a bow wave with a wood on its crest, like skeletal foam. As I walked on I could see that the wave continued rising and falling, a long roller, and the wood mirrored its changes of contour.
Ahead, a cloud of smoke rose from a small copse, swirling like a distant murmuration. A pool on my right, camouflaged in part by drowned vegetation, held Common Frogs. Their soft croaks, rather like Coots calling with the volume turned down, were the soundtrack and rhythm of the time.
As I passed the oblique end of the wood, the rusty scrap iron of last years’ leaves framed a clump of Primroses, whose flowers glowed like early morning sun seen through mist. The modest river became a lake, an example of mans’ vanity, created in the 19th century, as it passed the foursquare red brick pile of Bayfield Hall, planted firmly near the water’s edge, and the aloof ruin of a church which has stood nearby for a millennium.
It is a favoured flyway of migrating Ospreys who fish its waters, but today there was no sign of these large ghostlike raptors. The hand of Humphrey Repton defines the vista bounded by the estate wall, which I followed.
In its shade, the burgeoning proof that Alexanders will soon be erect and flowering is breaking the surface and unfurling. This common plant of the English springtime has only held tenure for two thousand years. It originated in the Mediterranean countries and was brought here, like so many familiar things, by the Romans, who ate its leaves and stems in the same way that we eat Celery.
I passed through a gap in the estate wall and crossed the road to a rapidly rising path. I entered an area of bulging hillocks, giant barnacles dressed in ancient trees. Quivering gently among them in the breeze that swirled through the gaps, the green spikes of nascent Bluebells, those wild Hyacinths, quintessentially English, soon to throw up their shepherd’s crook stems festooned with bells of vivid blue, almost purple, but all too soon fading to Wedgewood blue. Their scent is the definitive distillation of what it means to be in a broadleaved wood in April.
The wooded knolls of gravel continued for some time as I followed my path up and down, twisting around the great rafts of glacial till, deposited in the distant past by a long-forgotten Ice Age. The hillocks are believed to have been depressions in the one kilometre thick ice cap smothering the land which had filled with gravel. As the ice melted and retreated, like a conjuror it dumped the gravel onto the surface of the land.
I heard a familiar call and soon spotted a Nuthatch flitting between trees and hurriedly searching the crevices for insects or seeds, whatever came first to this little omnivore.
The path rose for a last time, with the horizon beginning to open out. To my left was a stand of Pines, dark and forbidding and in front of them, lining the path, was a row of mature Hazels, coppices that had not seen attention in many a year, standing like sentries to contain the foreign trees behind them.
Subjacent, in the empty spaces between, the ground was peppered with small, vivid green plants with the merest of inflorescences. These were Dog’s Mercury, a highly poisonous messenger of the Gods. The foetid little plants send their message of vitality through ancient woodlands by way of their rhizomes. In their lust for life they shade out other more sensitive woodland flora.
I burst from the relative gloom of the woodland onto a plateau populated by enormous fields, green monocultures, the killing fields of much of our insect and wild plant life. The chemicals used in the name of the industrialisation of food production are like a lit fuse, that explodes the food pyramid and steadily reduces biodiversity, like a whittler reducing a stick with the sharp blade in his calloused hand.
I continued my direction, losing height, with the linear hulk of Wiveton Downs, like an upturned supertanker, beginning to dominate the horizon before me. I reached a lane and it was if the shock wave of a nuclear blast had paused for thought in front of me. The ground was literally punched upward in a steep escarpment, quite alien to the surrounding more gently rolling landscape.
As I followed the lane to a crossroad to climb to the high point, a commotion of chestnut and grey flashed before my eyes as a tiercel Kestrel tore the air apart in its haste to flee my presence.
The views opened up as if by magic. To my left, the village of Cley looked like an exquisitely detailed model and beyond it was the brooding shingle spit of Blakeney Point.
In the opposite direction, I could see the route I had walked to arrive at this point and the wooded knolls sprung from the sea of rolling fields, like so many prehistoric earthworks hiding under their woodland camouflage.
This is a landscape beyond prehistoric. It is a primeval landscape, the echoes of a time when this part of the world was beset by the repeated onslaughts of glaciation, which wreaked their wild elemental fury across the land.
Wiveton Downs is the tail of the twelve mile long Blakeney Esker. 450,000 years ago the Anglian Glaciation was in full swing and beneath the great ice cap flowed a meltwater river beneath the ice. It’s flow carried huge quantities of sands and gravel and as the river lost impetus it deposited its sediment to create the ridge which forms the ghostly remains of the long forgotten and innominate spate.
The ridge has been much changed by the activities of man and specifically quarrying but enough remains of this feature, albeit cloaked in vegetation, to inspire awe at the power of nature.
I wound my way between the yellow explosions of Gorse in full flower, with open wounds in the soil revealing the sand and gravel flesh beneath.
Bees buzzed around me, hasting to find nectar, and a solitary Small Tortoiseshell, albeit faded, had enough colour remaining to dazzle the senses.
I continued my elevated walk and turned to face into the wind. To my left, at eye level, a falcon Kestrel, perhaps the mate of the earlier tierce, beat her wings frantically to maintain her position over the Downs, her head stretched forward to look for prey.
Eventually, in a blur of chestnut, she gave up and was swept up and away to gain some respite from the effort expended and try her luck further along the ridge. I came to the end of the ancient riverbed and descended through almost half a million years of geology to rejoin the modern world.