A Shout In The Dark

 

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Standing in the half light, torn between day and night and drawn into the sleepy eye of the setting sun, I found myself at the edge of the seemingly endless fastness of grazing marsh that contains the River Yare by the tiny railway station of Buckenham. This is a wild yet unremarkable area of wetland, a small tessera in a vast mosaic of reed, water and grass that stretches further than the eye can see. However, unremarkable is the last thing it is. It is a place of ritual celebrated at certain times of the year by a multitude of birds; this is the place of the corvid roost.

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I watched the sun burning yolk yellow as it slipped lower in the sky, hovering above the trees lining the horizon, and its rays were forced to blaze through a thicker layer of atmosphere and the dust it held. The sky was washed with all manner of reds, pinks, greys, browns. The small stand of trees, Alders I think, were attracting a growing group of Jackdaws and Rooks in the way that a magnet attracts iron filings. Their calls a thin pall of smoke across the wide grazing marsh to my left. Backlit by the falling sun they shimmered like dark diamonds.

The darkening grass, sprinkled with the cadaverous remnants of last year’s thistles, held large numbers of Lapwings, their white breasts glowing like small lamps, giving their positions away in the gloaming. The hidden dykes were filled with Wigeon, unseen, but their presence felt as their high pitched “whe-oo” calls drifted like an audible mist over the flatness.

Every so often a Marsh Harrier drifted lazily and low across the ground, three wingbeats and a glide repeated, sending Lapwings in a commotion into the air. Their “Peewit” calls strident. Unconcerned, two Chinese Water Deer grazed close by. Their soft teddy bear ears pricked up straight and caught the glow of the setting sun.

I walked uphill, climbing further out of the valley until I reached the old Holm Oak. I slid down the bank and let its branches mantle me in the bower they created, breaking up my threatening silhouette. A Brown Hare loped into view, quite close, and sat watching me, ears erect and on full alert. It decided that I posed no threat and continued to move right, gradually dissolving into the far dark reaches of the field.

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I was aware of the growing number of birds in the field. Their calls appeared to indicate the manifestation of another bird, apparently out of thin air. It was as if the low light itself was coalescing and collapsing into ever more black solid shapes. A line of telegraph poles supporting sagging wires stretched diagonally into the outer reaches of vision and those lines had thickened and become bootlaces of liquorice so packed were they with Rooks and Jackdaws, calling loudly. “Chak, chak”, said the Jackdaws. “Kaah”, called the Rooks.

The ground beneath the wires, which was folded into a dip covered with the green baize of winter wheat, now had the appearance of a large churning pool of jet-black crude oil, so large and dense was the mass of birds on the ground. The individual birds, Rooks so far as I could tell by size alone as seen through a lens, sifted the ground with their sharp beaks like scavengers moving over some medieval battlefield. Birds continually dropped down or rose up to take their places on the wires and the atmosphere grew dense and the mood febrile.

crow detail

The calls began to grow less as the light continued to fade and then, not quite as one but almost simultaneously, they rose up, to be backlit by the cobalt blue sky, peppering it like black stars of pure carbon. A shout erupted across the ground, the horn of the marshes, so loud it sucked all sound from the passing train. A snippet of lyric flashed through my mind: “and now we rise, and we are everywhere”.

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The Rooks and Jackdaws formed intricate patterns across the sky’s canvas as they swirled back and forth, spiralling up like the double helical structure of DNA then quickly dispersing like fallen leaves on a breeze.

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As if they had grown bored with the aerobatics and with great purpose, they blew like the wind, in the way it is driven by high and low pressure systems, across another field to the dark woodland of Buckenham Carrs. Their calls reached a crescendo as they were subsumed and rendered invisible by the trees. The heavens were suddenly empty, as if all the stars had winked out and fallen, but still the trees resonated to the ceaseless chatter as the birds found their roosting perch and settled down to sleep the hours of darkness.

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Like flicking a switch the sound ceased and the world grew silent, save for the occasional carrot beaked shouts from distant Greylag Geese. It was as if they were never there. A great chill wave of darkness and silence then swept over the marshes and Buckenham Station stood quietly, its lit windows the only sign of life.

 

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January

January is a fickle month. A month of rapidly changing weather, short days and shorter temper. One moment all is calm, mild and benign and then, as quick as snapping your fingers, black clouds roll in on ferocious winds from the north and east, or a combination of both. This January’s phoney winter ended a few days ago in the time it takes a ringmaster to crack his whip.

As I headed east the sky was split into three. On the horizon was a dark crenellation of cloud, above a narrow strip of aquamarine and a furrowed layer of red and yellow stretching from behind me towards the blue. As the hidden sun began its launch to the horizon the layer shimmered like a fine silk curtain, its colours changing in depth and hue. I reached the road called the dam just as the edge of the crenellation on the horizon began to glow molten gold, like the edge of a new forged sword.

The egg yolk of the rising sun spread its fingers of light over the frozen countryside and the hoar frost on the roadside hedges sparkled and shone like so many pink tiaras. I reached my destination beneath the bridge and marvelled at the light show before me. For a short while the dawn gloaming was transformed into a pink wonderland. The pylons glimmered through the merest of mist and the concrete road, slicked with golden ice, tantalised.

the road

I set off to explore this breathless world, glad of a respite from the brutal winds of the last few days.

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The Island is transformed in winter. Gone is the green verdancy of softer seasons. This is a place made granite hard by temperature and exposure to blasts from a savage quarter. A place populated now by the avian detritus of those winds. Ahead of me a stalactite of cloud burned pink and yellow, hung between sky and earth over distant Reedham. Tendrils of sleet and rain hung from it, as it drifted across the horizon. Beyond it a diffuse curtain of dark matter draped the rest of the sky

stonechat

A lone female Stonechat blazed golden brown, its colours made more intense by the frost laden vegetation around it and the fence it perched upon. A Mute Swan sat regally in the midst of the hoar covered field, a Snow Queen indeed.

mute swan

Overhead a small skein of Mutes passed overhead, that familiar sound as they flew sounded like the muted bugle of a fanfare ushering in the day.

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As I approached the slender pylons that reached vertiginously to the sky a Peregrine Falcon launched silently into space, dark and purposeful as it disappeared over the reedbed on quick, stiff wingbeats.

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Out of nowhere came a bird flying low on wide upward curved wings along the line of a dyke. Suddenly it flipped over and then righted itself to continue the endless quest for food. A Short-Eared Owl, its yellow cat-like eyes blazing like headlamps as it quartered the marshland. In summer these are birds of high moorland and hill country but in winter they return to the flatlands where food is more plentiful. As quickly as it appeared it was gone. I lost sight as it sculled quickly into the milky, misty distance.

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I saw a bump on a gatepost in the middle distance and through my binoculars I could see a glorious Common Buzzard at the outer reaches of visibility. Its chest, a pale, polished breastplate, reflected the frosty grass beneath its perch and appeared to be streaked with peat brown stains. Its curved, merciless bill looked iron hard. The sky had grown mistier and the distant Polkeys Mill was diffuse behind the bird.

stoat 2

As I continued along the track the reeds on the side of the dyke parted and a mercurial fast-moving shape burst out and stopped in front of me. It turned side on and regarded me with an inquisitive stare for less than a second. It was a Stoat. Its white and reddish-brown coat blazed in the dim light and the black tip of its tail was held ready to balance its imminent retreat. Its black eyes bored into me for a moment and then it launched itself forward back to cover and was gone, leaving its shape burned on my retina.

hen harrier

A white blaze caught my attention and from the camouflaged sanctuary of the dead reeds lining a dyke, standing as still as soldiers on parade, a female Hen Harrier, a Ringtail, flew low and fast over the frozen marsh. These stunning birds are a rare winter sight in these parts and all too soon they will return to the Northern moors to breed and hopefully avoid persecution by gamekeepers, protecting Red Grouse for  rich ignoramuses to blast from the sky in the name of sport.

mill

The cold was intense and the changing weather front conjured a biting wind from nothing. An occasional distant roar which sounded like “Concrete Bob”, the Class 37/4 diesel locomotive which prowls these parts, turned out to be a vast flock of Pink Footed Geese disturbed from its feeding on the far grazing marsh.

pink foot

A small group of Bearded Reedlings passed through the rond like particles through a bubble chamber. Not showing themselves but leaving signs of their vector in the small trembling of reed stems and the high sonar pings of their calls, they departed as quickly as January had passed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The RhythmOf The Time

To us, experienced as a slow moving freight train, the world has moved full circle at unperceived high speed, or should I say full ellipse. We are where we were a year ago, in the same spot in space, although not in the same time. Time and space are inextricably linked, as they dance their waltz together. Spacetime, that abstract ying and yang, whose effects we can sense but not the process. Time can be slowed by the vagaries of gravity but can be fast forwarded or turned back by human artifice. So time has abruptly shifted an hour back, this blink of an eye arrythmia ushering out the last dusty remnants of summer. Fruit withers with leaves as the metaphorical handbrake kicks into gear the dark time of winter and all its mysteries.

This is the time that foxes shriek unseen, that Tawny Owls shout their signs and countersigns, denoting gender and imminent fecundity. This is the time for the corvids to gather in this place and I am drawn by their primeval magnetism, the glint in their eyes, the fathomless black of the Rook and the grey pearls, as if plucked from the depths of the sea, of the Jackdaw, those two good companions.

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As I hastened to the gathering place the sun blazed low in the west, spontaneously combusting autumnal trees, immolating their browning leaves as their colours flashed bright against the deep grey clouds, advancing and bringing rain. Before I felt the first strikes of the heavy drops a rainbow seared and burned its arc, curving the air under its weight. It was so bright it cast a rainbow shadow, arching over it like some vast multi-coloured umbrella. A cloud briefly shaded the sun and the bow switched off to return seconds later.

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As the sun sank lower its rays mellowed to a deep yellow as they fought through the thick lens of the atmosphere at the horizon. The clouds above glowed like mother of pearl and like the workings of the machine driving the orbit the interior of clouds were revealed. Thermals drove spindrift wisps of yellow cloud filaments up from the pinkness below. Dark filaments of rainfall dropped from the bottom of the clouds.

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So began the gathering. For years innumerable they have been driven to gravitate to this singularity of place, the field that attracts them like a magnet, drawn like moths to a flame, as I am drawn to the spectacle. This is the wilding of a usually benign stretch of countryside. For a short time every late autumn and winter evening something primeval, from beyond time occurs.

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I sit, as always, hidden in the hedge, Jack-in-the-Green, my threatening profile deconstructed by the vegetation that surrounds me and gives succour against the growing wind. I watch the birds, the corvids that come to this place, Rooks and Jackdaws in the main, with a small smattering of Carrion Crows perhaps, more reticent and solitary. They accrete noisily, drifting in from all compass points but the bulk from across the unseen Yare. Distant at first, they appear small and are so numerous they resemble nothing less than the black shadows of the stars that spatter the fast darkening sky.  Beside the platform of the railway station are one or two trees and the corvids decorate  them like some strange black fruit.  The telephone lines that bisect the field sag beneath the mass of birds, as they jostle for space and drip like beads of jet to the field below, to be replaced instantly.

crow roost 3

The bright magma stripe of the sunset at the edge of the visible world sparks up the myriad of sabre bills and plants catchlights in otherwise fathomless black eyes. Still they arrive and spill the air to quickly descend. The commotion of their wings and their shouts fill the air like a substance, growing exponentially. The voices of the Rooks, harsh and guttural but with a wild beauty, like the sound of branches of trees rubbing together in a gale. The Jackdaws voices are almost anthropomorphic as they continuously shout their names, “Jack!!” There is no diversity in Jackdaw names, male or female. Just “Jack”.

crow roost1

The dark brown stubble of the fallow field is almost subsumed in the flowing darkness that now overwhelm. The light is almost stripped bare of photons and my eyes strain to make decipher the encoded shapes, when, as one these most companionable of birds explode into the air, a Big Bang. From this point of singularity they soar and swirl, they are now blurs, a persistence of vision. The cacophony drifts like a fast ebbing tide toward Buckenham Carrs, their ancient roost.

roost

 

 

They reach the trees and, as if a vacuum had been created at the heart of the wood, they are sucked out of the air to disappear as they reach an event horizon. Their calls are muffled by the baffling foliage and they soon fall silent as  the gibbous moon rises high and silhouettes a Woodcock, rehearsing for next Spring’s roding.

The Big Heat

 

I left home in the early morning, before sunrise. The relatively cool breeze was as a gentle slap on my face. Illuminated in my headlight, mist swirled in the road in the manner of ink dropped into a gently stirred jar of water. Beyond the hedge, in the half light, a bank of mist rose over the pasture like some giant frozen wave of cotton wool.

As I rode up the hill the sky turned pale blue but modestly hid behind a thin scum of cloud which was beginning to glow with pink luminosity as the sun began its inexorable rise. The temperature had already begun to elevate the mercury by a few millimetres. As I passed the entrance to a parched field I was reminded of the apocalyptic stories and films that I enjoyed as a child. The Day The Earth Caught Fire seemed particularly appropriate today. The parched ground which supported stunted golden wheat was covered by a network of cracks and fissures resembling arteries, veins and their associated capillaries. The exhaled heat and the wind caused a fine veil of dust to hover.

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A hare sat on a patch of earth with hardly growing vegetation at the edge of a field . It looked bewildered and regarded me with zombie eyes, making no attempt to run for cover as I cycled past it. The rising sun was veiled by the low-lying mist and resembled a photograph of a retina, a transparent deep red, which changed to gold as it climbed higher, lighting the fallen stalks of  recently mown wheat in the next field I passed like a lion’s mane.

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The verges were washed out by the lack of rainfall and the constant sunshine had stolen the green of a few weeks ago. Even a cock pheasant appeared to have dressed down his plumage. The rich burnished bronze layered with gold leaf had had their tones sucked out by the bleaching intensity of the sunlight of the great heat. Many fields of cereals had ripened earlier than usual this summer and the short even stumps of their harvest amputation burned an intense yellow.  Scattered around one field, like the playthings of a giant who had grown bored with his game, were piles of oblong hay bales. There was also something almost archaeological about their regular placing. I was reminded of the fields of menhirs, the Carnac stones of Brittany, although the bales lacked the hand-hewn irregularity and the more neutral colours.

haybales

At the top of the hill something small, dark and almost ovoid flew across the lane, low and direct, from the nearest tree to a short avenue of Sycamore, disappearing completely in the density of the waving sea of foliage. I rounded the corner and at the highest point of a dead branch, emerging like a skeletal arm from an Oak, was the Yang of the earlier Ying. It was a Little Owl. The early morning blaze picked out its white flecked brown plumage and inflamed its golden yellow eyes, which simmered beneath white beetling brows. I reached for my camera, and in that instant, it disappeared, without a sound, as if it had never been there.

cow parsley

The growing heat further dessicated the tall roadside vegetation. Cow Parsley, so recently all bobbing white flower heads on vivid green stems, now stood parched and brown, black seeds tumbling onto the barren earth.

yorkshire fog

Yorkshire Fog, almost purple in May and early June, was like weather beaten Tibetan prayer flags, swaying in the breeze.

goosefoot

Dull red, Goosefoots had prematurely matured and gone over. Their diffuse humps like rusty clumps of scrap metal. Somewhere nearby the insistent squeaky call of a Yellowhammer was the perfect soundtrack . “A little bit of bread and no cheese” say some but to me it sounded like the grating of a rusting wind pump as it turned slowly. It triggered thoughts of western films  where desperadoes waited by lines that stretched to the horizon in both directions for a train.

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Around the verges butterflies abounded. They were mostly Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers. Their slow, measured flight from plant to plant was on wings so coloured that they were nothing more than mirrors of their surroundings, albeit with the odd marking, as piercing as a small black watchful eye.

gatekeeper

Just occasionally  a flash of colour appeared as a Peacock, Red Admiral or Painted Lady materialised briefly before moving on. Their wingbeats and flight were more direct and powerful.

I picked up the quietest sound, which reminded me of a sail slapped by a gust of wind in the far distance, as the wings of dragonflies rubbed dryly upon each other as they hurtled past my head, to and fro. They were Hawkers, but I could not identify the species as they flew, backlit by the sun.

four spotted chaser

There was a sense of defeat in this Savannah-like countryside, as if this usually vibrant green world was dying little by little. Recently harvested pea fields were congregated with small flocks of Wood Pigeons. They preserved their lilac, grey and white plumage but their pin like eyes were haunted by the crush of the intense heat so close to the ground. Needs must, they endured it as they sought out sustenance.

Salvation lies ahead. There is talk of storms and rain to come in the next few days. This land is gasping breathlessly for a return to order, to the ordinary consensual weather we have come to expect. Later in the day, in the west, distant on the late afternoon horizon, I see thunderheads forming, translucent, hanging like formless jellyfish. They drink greedily of the water vapour in the atmosphere and as hot and cold air rub together like sticks the small electric charges begin to flicker. The big to do is on its way. This small part of the wider world holds its breath and waits impatiently for a night of shock and awe to begin.

 

 

 

These Last days

The sun glowed a bleary-eyed orange, filtered by the merest early morning haze, as it opened a baleful eye and lit the landscape with a Martian glow. The air felt thick enough to touch and even at this early hour there was a pleasant warmth lapping over my face like wavelets on a pond.

Spring, so long anticipated during the iron hard cruelty of winter, was exhaling its final breaths. These last days of May were slipping away, borne on the easterly wind which was anxious to usher in June, that month of cricket matches on village greens and ripening crops in the field. A wind that had already blown out the burned down stubs of the Horse Chestnut candles that had hung in splendid brevity. Their passing was yet another sign of the constantly changing canvas of the natural world. The pre-ordained calendar of our spinning planet is immutable despite our best efforts to master and dominate it.

horse chestnut candle

Already exotic new candles are being lit in the greened countryside. The enigmas that are orchids are beginning to be noticed. The exotic purple cascades of the flowers of Common Spotted Orchids will soon capture our attention with their winsome delicate beauty. If we are lucky we will find exotica such as Pyramidal Orchids and Bee Orchids.

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The familiar fields that I walk so often had, today, thin streamers of migrating dust, curling around themselves like fawn DNA helixes as they were carried off on the persistence of the wind, building microscopic dunes in the process. In the far corner of one field four young Brown Hares sat in close company like ships at anchor, weathering a storm.

hares in field

Much closer to me, a solitary older animal, like a craggy glacial erratic, hunched in the lee of a hedge bank, and regarded me with those golden eyes that so resembled this morning’s rising sun. Its long ovoid head exuded contentment but behind that passive demeanour was the eternal watchfulness that is the curse of prey species.

hare in edge

I passed the brewery and the air was full of House Martins, buoyed up on the dense atmosphere, which allowed them to soar then dive like darts, only to rise up again as if fired from a gun. The now yellowing sun lit their white chins and made their dark blue cloaks and hats glossy.

house martin

Every so often they would swoop down to a patch of drying mud and waddle on their stubby legs to fill their bills with dried grass and globules of mud and fly back up to the eaves where they were building their exquisite mud closed cup nests.

house martin gathering nest material

Higher in the glowing skies were the familiar black scythe wing silhouettes of summer: Swifts. It looked as if someone had cut bird shapes holes in the sky and created a bizarre animation. They careened across the blue backdrop, now and again swooping low, screaming like banshees.

swift

Their true colours became apparent at close quarters. Gone was the inky blackness of deep space, replaced by a sooty brown, the colour of a dusty old academic’s suit. Beneath their tiny chins was a flash of beige beneath that tiniest point of a bill. Their eyes glowed black from that brown head, barely revealed.

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They roared from ground level to become black dots again, as if they could disregard the laws of gravity at will, and then they levelled out and their wings flickered quickly as they hoovered up insects as if they were some kind of aerial plankton.

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The endless toil that befalls parent birds sent House Sparrows from beneath the ancient eaves of the brewery shop into the green bower overhanging the pond on an endless quest for insects to feed the hungry mouths waiting in the unseen haystacks that serve as their nests. I wondered how many generations of those little birds, plain and austere in their brown, black and grey clothing yet as beautiful as Bee Eaters in their understated way, had been using that site. Once ubiquitous, as common as Cockneys in London, their numbers have tumbled catastrophically in the last forty years, by as much as seventy percent, yet here they have bucked the trend and announce their presence with their joyful little songs.

hpuse sparrow

Goldfinches, in a reversal of fortune compared to the Sparrows, upwardly mobile in the population stakes, shared the same bushes, in the same endless quest, and their liquid song tumbled and bubbled through the air. I remember a time when I rarely saw these exquisite little birds and now they are frequent garden visitors.

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The pond, littered with the unravelling seed heads of Reedmace, had come back to life after the fallow winter. As I passed it back then it looked nothing less than the shell sodden, tree shattered landscape of the Somme one hundred years ago. All thing must pass and now a tiny green mosaic of Duckweed carpeted the obscured water teeming with hidden life. These tiny, simple plants, have no leaves or stems and their fronds are as thin as cigarette papers yet contain miniscule air pockets to keep them afloat. They are a superfood for wildfowl and in some countries for humans too. Mostly unregarded, they contain more protein than soya beans. One genus of these remarkable plants, a New Zealander no less, is also the smallest flowering plant on the planet. Its flowers are like specks of dust.

I turned to retrace my steps. My journey was over for today and reluctantly I left May behind me for another year, without a backward glance as I looked forward to the dog days of summer to come and the time of the Dragonflies.

 

A Small Oasis

Suffolk south of Stowmarket is wonderfully rolling country with lots of quiet lanes threading their way through a patchwork of fields. This is not the intimate countryside of the very south of the county where it joins Essex, the Suffolk of steep hills and half hidden lanes lined with steep banks crowned with bejewelled hedges that always remind me of Devon. This is the Suffolk of open space and expansive views.

I started my journey from the village of Great Finborough, its church sporting an unfeasibly tall steeple, a landmark for miles around. I have had a soft spot for this village since my first visit many years ago. I was walking on a very hot summer’s day and called into the small village shop to buy a cold drink. While I was waiting to pay I heard a distinctive voice and turned to see one of my great heroes, John Peel, the legendary disc jockey, radio presenter and much more besides. The man who championed unknown musicians and gave them airplay.

We had a chat outside the shop about walking in the countryside he clearly loved and he left in his old Mercedes telling me he would have loved to have had a walk too rather than sitting in a sweaty studio in London. Sadly, he died in 2004, at the same age I am now, and the village shop is no longer there too.

view from buxhall toward great finborougha

I cycled through villages stacked with beautiful old houses, painted in all manner of pastel colours, in a way that my own county is not. Depressingly similar however was the bowling green monotony of fields of winter wheat, with nary a variation in that colour to be seen. The monotony was broken only by fields of yellow, so intense as to burn the retinas: Oil Seed Rape.

rape field spinks hill

I could smell its pungent, nostril burning scent well before it came into view. The other noticeable smell was the equally pungent odour coming from the field opposite where a tractor was launching a chemical attack on any wildlife or plant that deigned to make a home there. The stink was noxious and the resulting  boring monoculture it created depressing to see. I remember the smaller fields of my childhood, worked by teams of men with primitive equipment in comparisons to the Transformer like machinery of today, each bordered with a hedge of many species, and each glowing with a multitude of colourful wildflowers.

It was the roadside verges that captured my attention.

cow parsley

Cow Parsley grew tall and waved in the breeze as I passed, as if sending a greeting. Bursting through the multitude of juvenile grasses, seizing its moment before being overwhelmed and shaded out, a clump of Greater Stitchwort, Adder’s meat, dazzling white in the sun, a member of the carnation family.

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On closer examination, the petals have thin green veins striping them and the stamens glow yellow.

cowslip

On the tops of banks where the vegetation was shorter were Cowslips, that iconic plant of early springtime. Most were past their best and the beautiful flower tubes were burnished brown as they had served their reproductive purpose, but a few persisted in all their golden glory. Once common across traditional hay meadows in particular, these beautiful, nodding yolk yellow flowers growing in great profusion are a rare sight, as their traditional habitat has been swept away in the name of agricultural efficiency, but they survive on the field margins where they are not persecuted out of existence.

I passed a tall copse of trees surrounded by a hedge, an island in a field of wheat, and saw the roof of a church peeking above it, like the gingerbread house which lured Hansel and Gretel into the clutches of the witch. I followed the track leading to it for a hundred yards to find myself at the gate of St Mary’s, Little Finborough, pressed close by tall Yews. I entered and found myself in what can only be described as an oasis in the arable desert.

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The little church, towerless in all its long history, and its exquisite collection of eighteenth century gravestones, thin and finely carved but softly clad with cushions of lichen, looked as if they had grown from seeds, like the profusion of wild flowers which clustered around it.

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Towering flower spikes of Bugle, like frozen fountains of Lapis Lazuli, reached upward in small colonies. Scattered around were the delicate pink inflorescences of Lady’s Smock, their petals veined a darker pink, looking like fine cracks in bone china. This plant of damper soil is also known as the Cuckoo Flower as it flowers at the time as those indolent migrants arrive from South Africa. Their call is the heartbeat of early summer but there were none to hear today.

lady's smock

The soundtrack of small summer migrants was as loud as their presence was invisible in the Hawthorn, now in full leaf and bearing a rich brocade of creamy flowers.

may

Not for nothing is this tree also known as May as it never flowers before that month. Somewhere close by I heard the soft, sibilant purr of a Turtle Dove. Absolute jewels of the Columbidae, and becoming rarer by the year, they are often heard but seldom seen, preferring to sit tight in the densest vegetation.

buttercup

Scattered among the graves the golden flowers of the Common Buttercup, with their shiny, waxed petals, radiated light like small torches.

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A few Common Daisies studded the grass, waiting for children who no longer come to weave the starbursts that are their flowers into long chains. As we move forward in time many of the old ways slip into the shadow of lost memories.

germander speedwell

Speedwells are among my preferred wild species and my favourite, Germander Speedwell, was present among the grassy carpet. Long considered a lucky charm for travellers, to speed them on their way, it seemed appropriate for me to find it this morning. Its tiny blue flowers remind me of little enamelled brooches, the colour of a blue sky in high summer.

ribwort plantaina

Close by the slaked bricks of the old church the tall stems of Ribwort Plantain rose triumphantly from the green rosettes of leaves at their bases. Balanced precariously on their tops the stretched eggs of their flower heads, each with a delicate garland of tiny white flowers flickering gently in the merest breeze.

yew

An immortal Yew, dark green and casting deep shadow, formed an arch into the more recent annex to the churchyard. Beneath its shade, like green Starfish, a dense group of Sow Thistles choked out any plant that dared to germinate in their midst. Soon, their turn to push out their yellow flowers will come. An Elder with fresh, pungent smelling greenery was staking claim to a patch of ground by the Yew and just beyond I found myself entangled in the low trailing stems of Cleavers, their hooked hair stems and leaved grasping me like the arms of an Octopus.

cleavers

I tore myself free and removed the debris from my trouser legs. The time had come to leave this special place and continue my journey through the cultivated Empty Quarter which dominated the remainder of my route.

 

 

Boxing Day In May

 

So spring has finally sprung. Even at this early hour the slight mist hanging in the air like gossamer is thick with bird song, multi-layered as they all try to shout loudest and gain supremacy. Size does not matter in this competition. The diminutive wren punches well above its weight as it sits high on a hedge and shouts its staccato, piercing call exclaiming its territory. Heaven help any other that tries to encroach. The recently arrived make their presence felt too. A Common Whitethroat, flits to the top of a clump of brambles and reels out its scratchy little song for an instant before submerging into the thick greenery of a newly clothed Hawthorn at my presence. Further along the lane a Blackcap, invisible in the hedge although it is only a few feet from where I stand, pours its fluid song, as rounded as a fine red wine.

The insistent high-pitched calls of Swallows echo around the brewery buildings as they sit on the telephone wires. Their unfeasibly long journey from the wetlands of Southern Africa, where they waited out the British winter, refuelling their arrow sharp bodies, is now over and their work here begins afresh. Hormone fuelled genetic messages drive them to build those delicate mud and grass cups which will cradle those fragile speckled cases, more precious than Faberge eggs, from where their progeny will emerge to continue the line. They will be primed and ready to begin preparing for their own odyssey as soon as they can fly.

the swallows

I looked and listened for the stealthy screaming presence of Swifts, superficially like the Hirundines but more closely related to Hummingbirds. Their dark forms, ever restless, feeding and even sleeping on the wing, hardly pause. It is as if they would rust if they were to allow themselves a rest. Their time here is as brief as English summers but the sight of a swarm of them, flock doesn’t seem to be at all appropriate, chasing through on scythe wings with their sirens wailing sends chills down the spine. To see one close up is to see perfection for the task they follow: the tiny bill, to force through the atmosphere, guards a gape which hoovers up flying insects, and those tiny feet, so small that if these birds make landfall they cannot rise up again. Sooty grey stealth fighters, these birds are truly remarkable. I mourn their unseen departure every August. One minute they are tearing high across the sky in their relentless pursuit of insects and in an instant the air is empty as they dematerialise and carve tunnels through the ether on their journey south. The sky is empty of their presence this morning but they are not far away.

early morning mist

A wave of golden amber had broken over the sky and the distant fields, beyond the line of trees was indistinct as the many colours of dawn began to distil through the haze. The sun was climbing above the horizon and would soon obliterate the subtle colours but for now the land was painted with a deep yellow wash. I carefully crawled up the bank, the tip of each blade of grass glistening like a grain of wheat bulb, until my body dulled their light. As I reached the top I peered carefully through the fringe of vegetation and kept close to the ivy clad hard shell of an Oak, trying to disguise my profile from those who would easily find me out.

The field was recently harrowed and faint green lines of monocotyledons punched through the pale brown, dry, barren soil. A Brown Hare loped stiffly around. It was around one hundred yards from me and appeared to have a limp, as though a night in the damp chill of night had stiffened old joints. Its head cantilevered out and after a few cursory sniffs, it began to eat, picking shoots carefully. Every so often it would rise and those antenna ears would turn this way and that, listening for any threat. Its eyes, their amber light reflecting the dawn, were unmoving but I knew it would not miss the slightest movement. Then it would amble further away. I had no doubt that if I showed myself it would hit warp drive before I could blink.

hare 19

 

Further into the field two more hares appeared to rise from the soil as if from seeds and began gambolling around in line, as if an unseen thread connected them. Every so often one of them would stop, sit up on its back legs and blur its forelegs in a quick spar. This was the preamble for a boxing contest, males vying with each other for supremacy, and females driving off unwanted attention.  They began to move more quickly, snakelike as they coiled around before straightening the line and as the contest was about to begin they plunged through a small gap in the hedge and into the next field.

almost boxing

I slithered down the bank and moved further along the lane. Through a gap in the hedge I saw a hare sitting close in to the field edge, lit like a lion in the low but steadily climbing sun. It was quite close and appeared torpid in the soporific light shining on the old worn rug of its coat. I retraced my steps and passed through a large opening in the hedge and sheltered by the line of Hawthorn and Cow Parsley that separated the two fields moved quietly and slowly forward. The hedge did not seal the field completely and I looked carefully around and along to see the hare.

hare 24

 

It was moving around as little as possible to eat choice morsels and groomed in between these feeding episodes. Then it settled down, facing outwards, sheltered above by a large Alexanders, like any sunbather on a beach. I stood up and started moving slowly forwards, trying to keep my body still save for my shuffling feet. Every few yards I stopped and slowly raised my camera to take a few shots before creeping forward.

hare 3

The hare was aware of my presence but totally unconcerned. I posed no immediate threat and it continued to watch me, confident in its ability to leave if necessary. I edged forward until I was about twenty five yards away. I took a few more shots and began to retreat. The hare, as if realising its requirement to pose for me was over, cantilevered up onto its four legs, leaning forward like a hunchback as its rear legs unfolded and began to lollop into the middle of the field.

lolloping

It stopped and turned as if to tell me I was dismissed.

beauty

In that hour I had spent along the lane, which passed as a minute, I counted eighteen hares over five fields and felt heartened that here was an oasis for a creature which so encapsulates the English countryside, yet whose existence is threatened by the insidiousness of the change in agricultural practice and the ever reaching fingers of urbanisation.

hare 6

The Boys Are Back In Town

Three days of mist had been left behind by the spinning planet travelling from day to night and the new morning’s terminator ushered in a fourth. I stood breathing in the wet cloud which surrounding me like damp blotting paper. The rapier thrusts of wind which had dogged me since the beginning of the week had been thrown into exile and there was a small modicum of mildness, if not warmth.

I was stepping out to survey the gloom for the creatures which arrive unheralded and signal the approach of summer and the great awakening after the dark days and long nights of winter. The vast numbers of wildfowl, in particular, who swept in last autumn to find solace from the frigid northern wastes, sustenance and brightened the barren land with their wilding cries, had become invisible. They had slipped away to their thawing homelands with nary a sign of their departure. I remembered another misty morning a few weeks ago and standing on a cliff watching the sea. A skein of Pink-Footed Geese had flown low and fast, calling to each other in encouragement, rallying themselves for the long and dangerous crossing ahead, without regret or backward glance.

Now it was the turn of those birds, large and small, that globe trot each spring on a return ticket from warmer climes, where they had overwintered, singing their songs of derring-do to charm and impress the girls. I was looking for the small ones, the ones that often go unnoticed as they pass through Norfolk and Suffolk, on their way to more northern parts and the ones that stay awhile. The ones that make their presence known by striking knightly poses at the top of a bush and open their hearts, as the arias to the operas of their great journeys pour forth, spilling like sonic smoke across the landscape of the burgeoning season, coaxing leaves from buds.

Already white starlight shines from Blackthorn and Hawthorn. All too soon those blinding petals will soil the ground like discarded confetti from a forgotten wedding, their brief purpose fulfilled. The brown withered hedge banks of a few weeks ago, so recently covered with snow, dazzled with the vivid green of the new growth of innumerable plants.

I strode out as the thin net curtains of mist slowly began to disperse. On a telephone wire, resplendent in his evening dress, a steely blue suit with crisp, sharp tails and fresh white starched shirt, set off with a cravat the dark colour of drying blood, a Swallow, newly arrived, balanced like a tight rope walker. He was singing a quiet song of triumph, celebrating his vanquishing of the vast drought blighted sands of the great North African deserts which blocked his return from Botswana, and avoiding being thrown down from skies over the Mediterranean countries by those hard-hearted men with rifles, men whose hearts do not beat that bit faster at the sight of such an exquisite bird.

the swallows

To see my first Swallow is one of the great landmarks of the year and I had a spring in my step as I climbed onto the river bank and began to flow with it to the coast. The water was calm and seemingly unmoving. It lay dulled by the grey clouds. The river was blind and unseeing. It exuded no sparkle or catch light. Small rafts of dead reed, torn away from the edge by the rise in levels induced by now forgotten heavy rainfall, drifted past like Millais’ Ophelia.

I passed the Roman fort standing sentinel on its ancient cliff, looking imperiously over the vastness of the reed bed lining the base of the scarp. A commotion of brown and grey rose up from the reeds and like a ship, the sails of its wings carried it effortlessly forward on the breeze. The male marsh Harrier, all shock and awe, was clutching dead plant matter in its talons, as if it had converted to vegetarianism. Its purpose was simple and hormone driven – the urge to build a nest and send its genes soaring into the future.

male marsh

Further back in the rond, like a whale breaking the ocean’s surface, the female rose up. She was bigger and chocolate brown with a head reminiscent of a giant bee powdered with bright yellow pollen. She flew toward her mate, passing over him with golden eyes flashing and yellow legs outstretched. In an instant, they were both gone as they sank down to the unseen nursery site.

male marsh harrier

As I began the long walk along the south side of Breydon Water the mist eased its grip on the grey hulled sky, allowing a flicker of brightness to dry the saturated air. Detail emerged as the curtain lifted and I saw the white and gold of a Barn Owl in the middle distance. It glided low and languidly along reed fringed dykes as it made stately progress, quartering the grazing marsh, senses on high alert for the merest movement and the slightest rustle in the undergrowth.

barn owl copya

A troublesome Carrion Crow slipped through the air sideways to torment the owl. The owl jinked this way and that but stuck to its flyway along the dyke margins. With two or three strong wingbeats which caused the owl’s body to lift and drop, like a small boat on a strong well, it dismissed the crow from its presence and continued unhindered.

Out over the wide expanse of Breydon on my left, as if they were rushing to a celebration out of sight somewhere over the horizon, wave after wave of Dunlin tore upstream, low over the water. Scythe like wings shattered the air as their bodies almost kissed their reflections on the water. A few Redshank were in their midst as they vanished into the haze that signalled the extent of my vision.

A short distance ahead of me a black bird rose up from the piling and began to cross the estuary. It looked like a total eclipse of a Jay, so black was it. Its primaries curled up in the manner of that most colourful of corvid’s flight but unlike the garrulous crow it was silent. My field glasses revealed it wore a gleaming white torc around its throat: a male Ring Ouzel, a Thrush and a passage migrant on the long journey from its winter quarters in the distant mountains of Morocco and Tunisia to its breeding grounds on the high moors and hills of the North of England.

The end of my journey approached as the town ahead loomed ever clearer through the diminishing haze. My attention was caught by a flash of white rump as a bird passed me, swift and low. It perched, upright and alert, on the piling. It was a male Wheatear. He was crowned with slate grey and wore a cloak of grey and jet black. His chest was the colour of the deserts of North Africa from whence he had come on a long journey to the same breeding grounds as the Ring Ouzel. Its bright eye regarded me from within the black mask it wore and as quickly as it had appeared it had gone.

 

 

 

Wired To The Moon

My internal compass drew me back to the vastness of the grazing marshes along the Yare valley. Whenever I come here I am reminded of Edwin A. Abbott’s remarkable book, “Flatlands: A Romance of Many Dimensions”. Written in 1884, it deals with a two-dimensional world, with people being represented by lines, squares and various polygons.

Of course, the marshes are not truly two dimensional but in terms of elevation they are almost the lowest common denominator. That title rests on the shoulders of the river on a flat calm day. As I walked the familiar concrete road, a creamy anachronism in the sea of green and linear stripes of brown, dead vegetation lining the unseen liquid dark glass of the dykes, I was three dimensional and at a disadvantage. I was visible for miles in this flat landscape despite my best efforts to keep a low profile.

flatlands 2

The sky was still grey but there was some hope in the south-west. The clouds had some definition and there was the hint of a sickly yellow blush behind some of them. For days the vivid colour of spring’s new growth had been sucked away and the sunlight which lights up the world like a struck match had proved elusive.

flatlands

As I rounded a bend I saw a flash of dull brown disappear through a complex of gates and livestock holding pens. They stood, grey and black with a hint of green lichen, like some giant metal puzzle. Their bent railings bore witness to the fury and frustration of some long-forgotten bull flexing his muscle.

hare 10

I moved forward slowly, slightly crouched, using the adjacent tall dead reeds to break up my outline. I was downwind of the Brown Hare I knew from that glimpse was nearby and, senses on high alert, I scanned the vegetation and the jumble of steel poles and wooden gates for signs of movement. I had another fleeting glimpse of long brown legs disappearing into the next field. I crept forward until I had a clear view of the edge of the field, collapsing into a reed fringe, that concealed the stripe of water.

Anticipation was high as the animal returned through the gate, more slowly this time and began to move through the bankside vegetation. To my astonishment the hare seemed to divide spontaneously and become three. The other hares lifted from their temporary forms along the edge of the dyke and began to chase each other through the long but relatively sparse vegetation, which allowed glimpses. They jumped over each other and moved quickly away from me, never revealing themselves fully.

hare 20

Just when I thought that they had moved on, a hare moved clear of the vegetation, as if the three had conflated to one, and began lolloping slowly in my direction. The creature stopped and raised a rear foot, which it began to clean assiduously. Every so often it stopped to read the sensory cornucopia floating past that ever-twitching nose for danger.

hare 15

I stayed still and a frisson of excitement and endorphins coursed through me as the animal started to move more swiftly in my direction. Hunched forward on shorter front legs in the way of hot rods with raised rear suspension, its long rear legs flicked up drops of water as he moved over the saturated field. I say “he” but I had no idea if it was a Jack or Jill.

The hare moved ever closer and suddenly stopped, as if he had reached a boundary that I could not see. I marvelled at the majesty and grace of this rangy creature. Rabbits are always tubby and cuddly but there was something totally other worldly about the hare before me. I understood in an instant why legends and superstitions about these enigmatic creatures arose.

hare 4

I studied the angular lines of the upright hare. He looked upwards as a Mute Swan flew over. Moon gazer indeed! I could see the pose captured in countless prints and paintings, of hares gazing at their reflections in the mirror of the full moon.

His black tipped ears stood erect (“What big ears you have! All the better to hear you!”) and his long, tapered almost wedge shaped face was facing me, with his nose like a velvet full stop. That light brown head was dominated by lustrous tawny eyes, each with a monocle of white fur around it. Emphasised by small puffy cheeks beneath, those eyes had an ancient intelligence and wisdom about them. They were hypnotic, holding me in their gaze, transfixed, as if he were reading my intentions.

hare 3

I drank in the other details of this animal. His chest fur was soft and gingery, a counter point to the coarser mottled fur on his back and flanks, a mix of black, light and dark brown and blond. His underside was carpeted with a short, delicate and whiter shade of pale pile.

Every so often the hare raised himself to rest on those long, folded hindlegs and appeared to be hitting an invisible speedball with front legs which moved so fast that they were rendered to a blur. Perfecting his moves for pugilism to come.

hare 16

I have no idea how long I marvelled at the animal, in whose presence I stood. Time stood still. Then the spell he had cast over me was broken.  As suddenly as he had arrived to watch me, he turned and cantered slowly across the grazing marsh, those long legs kicking up water droplets from the shallow hidden pools, disappearing into and reappearing from depressions in the grass.

hare

He reached the edge of field and after slowly passing through a gap between dykes in to the next field he mutated into a creature of pure energy, crossing the ground at warp speed to disappear, lost in a singularity of perspective and distance.

running away

A great feeling of satisfaction yet also of loss washed over me. Hares, like so much of our wildlife, are declining. They are pushed to the margins of the countryside by the rolling machine of industrialised agriculture and habitat loss. Where they were once a frequent sight they are not so often seen.

13th century hare wickhampton copy

I will always be drawn to this place, watched over by the church of the running hare, to seek out these pastoral spirits of the countryside. I will never cease to marvel at their other worldliness.

 

 

 

Cry Me A River

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.

glandford ford

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.

glaven

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.

wooded slopes

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.

glaven pond

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.

primrose

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.

bayfield hall

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.

alexanders

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.

gravel knoll

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.

bluebells

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.

bluebells 2

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.

nuthatch 2

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.

old coppice

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.

dogs mercury

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.

wiveton downs profile panorama

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.

wiveton down and sheep

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.

kestrel tiercel

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.

DSC_5026

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.

wiveton downs view

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.

view along wiveton downs

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.

soil profile

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.

falcon kestrel

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.