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.

greater stitchwort 2

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.

finborough gravestones1

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.

bugle 2

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.

buttercups 2

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

Winter’s Last Hurrah

Meteorological March and Spring are just three weeks old but Winter still has some spite left to inflict on an unsuspecting world. Just when I thought that it was time to shed a layer or two and welcome the boys of Summer back from their long odyssey in a different hemisphere, something iron hard and cruel is still clinging to the edge of the turning world’s abyss.

The mercury said -1 but the mocking gale told me that -7 was where it was at. Four days ago, I heard my first Chiff-Chaff and Willow Warbler of this Spring but today they are mute, struck dumb by the deep chill that freezes the hopeful notes as they leave their throats. Those rough voiced emissaries of Winter, the Fieldfares, move emboldened through the rough grassed meadow with a swagger that says they are going nowhere just yet.

fieldfare sculthorpe

The snow came silently and quickly in the dark fastness of the night, somnambulant and cunning as we dreamed of warmer days. The white icy crystals stacked up quickly on the wind. The boardwalk I was on became a timber canal through this wetland and covered in this frozen precipitation. I had not expected to see snow again until we had passed the Autumn Equinox.

Hidden behind a wall of small, sliding observation holes, like a peepshow, small birds were omnipresent, flickering back and forth, frantically attacking the feeders. This is more than just a feeding frenzy, this is a renewed fight to survive this plunge in temperature. Hard winters are the killing fields for songbirds. In the winter of 1963, when a mosaic of snow and ice covered the ground from Boxing Day until early March, it is believed that around 50% of birds in Britain perished. Watercourses and even the see were armour plated with ice and 90% of Kingfishers died, deprived of their ability to fish.

The snow lying on the ground threw light and heat back into the dark womb of interplanetary space and uplit the birds. It was as if they had been freshly painted. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in to slap silently against a tree trunk and flitted from feeder and back to its perch. It moved crab-like and jerky, back and forth and around the Ash in a slightly ascending spiral. Black and white with a deep scarlet on its head, and the base of its tail, it looked for all the world like a giant Zebra Spider with stigmata.

great spotted woodpecker

Female Chaffinches in their dark beige garb, shone a little more than usual but the arrival of a male Bullfinch dazzled me. His breast was the glowing pink of Cherry Blossom and contrasted with the matt black mask that was his head. His bill shone the way newly cleaved coal does in sunlight and his underparts looked as if they had been scattered with fine ash.

bullfinch 3

I saw a male Pheasant, a humble and oft overlooked bird in its ubiquity. He was transformed by the blank white screen and glowed as if he were lit from within, all golden brown, green and red, enamelled like a cloisonné Faberge egg.

I walked on and the wind cracked and roared as it filled the clouds like sails, pushing the sky ever onward and taking with it all it contained. Two Buzzards, mere silhouettes against the neutral backdrop, surrendered and drifted obediently with it.

I retreated to the shelter of another hide, elevated to give views over the fen and into the canopy of the woodland. The view was dominated by a feeding tray on top of a tall pole. A cloud of small birds were gathered in the surrounding branches and dived down to excarnate the pile of seed.

The small Winter visitors shone like small lanterns in a way that many of our Summer visitors don’t. A male Brambling was furtively hopping among the stale wood chip for fallen grain, too shy to visit the platform. I was mesmerised by his orange glow, like a sunset on his breast and sides.

brambling 2

His wings were soot black with flashes of orange blush and his head was mottled black and brown with a Zorro mask over his eyes. His bill was as yellow as a grain of wheat save for the gunmetal tip.

male reed bunting

An exquisite male Reed Bunting appeared. His black/brown mottled head and long beard were punctuated with a white handlebar moustache, His grey streaked flanks contrasted with his chestnut and black back and wings. He hopped fearlessly among two docile Muntjac. They were rooting in the ground under the feeding tray with snow bedecked noses.

muntjac

My attention was drawn to the drainage channel ahead of me by the persistent and loud trilling call of two Little Grebes. They floated among the waterside vegetation like two dark doughnuts. A Kingfisher flashed along the watercourse, betrayed by its shape. Dark without sunshine it was as if someone had switched its lights off.

little grebe

My fingers grew numb and I decided to visit the Volunteer Hide where two feeders hung like silent wind chimes and usually attracted three of my favourite winter species. I was not to be disappointed.

My attention was caught immediately by a male Lesser Redpoll, a Knickerbocker Glory of a bird, with its glace cherry cap, rouged cheeks and raspberry ice cream patches on his breast.

lesser redpoll 5

The rest of his plumage was a flecked mixture of caramel ice cream brown, beige and black with strongly barred wings. Although resident in Britain, their strongholds are the west and north where they breed, coming to this region in the winter in search of easier pickings.

mealy redpoll 6

A more modestly attired bird was in close proximity. A Mealy Redpoll, the Common Redpoll, is also a winter visitor, but paradoxically a much rarer sight, with around 300 visiting our shores each year. These birds are resident in mainland Northern Europe, venturing here in small numbers in search of more clement climes. While sporting the jaunty red cap of its cousin, this bigger bird has pale plumage, as if its colour had been desaturated by the sun and wind.

male siskin 3

I searched the bare trees, their branches painted bright green by lichen and found the third bird I was seeking. Even brighter than the lichen, a male Siskin was vivid, resplendent in its khaki green plumage with a Dayglo yellow back, like a tessera bordered by black wings and tail. I had heard and seen distantly a large flock of these social little birds in the tops of tall Alders on the way to the hide. Their calls, shrill and piercing, swirled through the trees like smoke but it was only at close quarters that their beauty could be appreciated.

siskins

I left the hide and was blown back by an increasingly cruel wind to the visitor centre and the lure of hot chocolate.

 

 

 

Enraptured By Raptors

My walk took me between meagre hedges, still mourning the loss of their green plumage and anticipating the new clothes of the changing season. It was a slow turning this year. Shark toothed winds still wandered the land and the bilious sky above was ailing. To the south-east, a vaguely circular haze, the colour of old Cheddar rind, indicated the sun’s position in the sky. Its’ pathetic attempts to raise the temperature were thwarted by the claustrophobia of the all-enveloping Stratus.

The overcast sky was beginning to leak a little, with the merest droplets floating by in a light mist. I passed a cloud of Brambles whose stems placed their feet carefully between the untidy holes of a warren, which vomited streams of the pale sand which underlays the thin soil. A Rabbit grazed nearby, and was oblivious of my presence at first, until the natural instinct for survival overtook the animal’s hunger. Its white scut winked out as it entered the darkness of a burrow.

rabbit

 

Over the field stood a wood, its trees bare and uniformly black, resolute against the best efforts of the wind to rip away the fresh folded bud bearing twigs. An oasis of the unstoppable coming Spring was conspicuous on the edge of the wood. A Blackthorn bejewelled with a crown of white blossom. Its head, shaken by the gusts, caused the tiny flowers to flicker like a twinkling constellation.

Something caught my eye on a branch. A falcon Kestrel hunkered down but watching, always watching. You can always tell the direction of the wind by looking at birds sitting facing into it. It flows over their feathers, preserving warmth and lifts them in an instant should they feel the need to fly.

kestrel falcon 30

 

Her head, worn like a slicked back hood, was the colour of that most English of autumn fruits, the Chestnut, with contrasting darker streaks, and a sooty moustache under each yellow rimmed impenetrable dark eye gave it detail. The tiny cere glowed like the sun around the base of the bill, mother of pearl graduating to black, as exquisite as a rose thorn. Her wings, breast and back were that same rusty brown and peppered with small black lozenges. The flight primaries were the sooty brown of Swifts.

kestrel falcon

 

I raised my camera and, as if some extra-sensory perception were passing between us, she became aware of my intentions, lifted off into the fast moving wind and after a long circular glide on the wind she rose up and hung on the air, wings outstretched and head down, like Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross. Her cream and black barred tail splayed like a fan, anchoring her as her wings flickered and then remained still, with her body pitching and rolling slightly, like a ship in a slight swell, in her efforts to hold position.

Her head moved constantly as she look for prey. Her eyes are so large that a circle of bone holds each in place and obviates movement of the eyeball. Of course, she was not really hovering. It was negative motion. The little falcon was flying into the wind at exactly the same speed as the wind approached her. After a short while, when time appeared to stand still, she sheared off and embarked on another fast, downward glide with the tailwind before circling quickly and returning to her former position, like some kind of geostationary satellite.

Suddenly the small hawk closed her wings, like snapping a book shut, and dived the short distance into the undergrowth at the edge of the field. She rose seconds later with the limp corpse of a small rodent gripped and hanging from a yellow glowing foot and headed for the nearby wood at speed, her sharp wings cutting through the air as a rower’s macon cleaves the water. Her prey swung like a silent bell, sounding an unheard death knell.

female kestrel

I continued alone with my thoughts, and heard a familiar plaintive mewing call, vaguely like that of a cat but more shrill and strident. A hundred feet above the wood were two Buzzards, separated by a further ten feet, as they slowly circled and rose on a thermal.

buzzard pair

Their wings are rounded with a jagged edge of flight primaries and their wings appear to move in slow motion if they need to make forward progress. They are the antithesis of the Kestrel, which is all jerky and nervous, like a coiled spring. Buzzards are more relaxed, but ever wary of the human shape that can spell death.

buzzard sculthorpe

I watched transfixed as these large birds floated like gossamer as they rose on the warmer air rising from the wood. In today’s neutral light their plumage was a mixture of dull brown, a colour like the furry hue of oxidised chocolate, with cream stirred into it. Like all raptors they are aloof and mysterious, their hooked beaks give them a Wellingtonian air of haughtiness. I find birds of prey wild and elemental, in a way that other birds are not. They are apart. There are no anthropomorphic characteristics which give many other birds a kind of familiar, humorous charm. Birds of prey stand aloof, like great thespians. The other birds, small mammals and insects, their prey, are merely the supporting players, the extras, the walk-on parts.

The two birds disappeared beyond the wood, morphing into shadows flickering between the trees. The sky grew empty save for the occasional wind-blown black rag that was a Carrion Crow, keeping its own counsel, unlike the copse I later came upon, studded with the untidy raucous shambles of a convivial rookery.

rookery

On the adjoining marsh stood a field gate and it bore a strange fruit. A Buzzard sat lethargic, yet regal and erect, defying the wind. It looked regal and powerful, lacking all the featherlight grace of a Buzzard soaring, as it sat watchful, awaiting the hunger urge which would send it rising again on the almost solid air.

buzzard 20

 

 

 

Uncomfortably Numb

The onslaught began gently on Monday. A few heavy flurries combined to lay down a coating of soft hail. Transient, it decayed quickly, condemned to a short life by a conspiracy of temperature and damp ground. The wind began to increase in confidence for the task ahead. Tuesday saw a mottling of snow overnight which disappeared in the face of a bright sky and triumphant sun, sweeping this rash intruder away imperiously.

Wednesday’s child was full of woe as something mighty and dangerous swept through the hours of darkness. Like a charging cavalry, a relentless blast of freezing air, armed with thick sabres of snow, poured its scorn on a sleeping world.

The daylight came, dulled by a sky which was contaminated by its heavy burden of blizzard. Small flakes, but dense, as they conspired to cloud vision. They were like a rash which blocked the sun and sent the temperature plunging downwards like a waterfall.

The sun broke through occasionally, raising hope of an end to this onslaught but the snow clouds quickly closed the curtains and the leaden sky triumphed once more, firing its icy bullets down onto a silent world.

field of snow

I looked for the Brown Hare I had seen in the last few days in the field opposite my house, basking in sunlight, so still I thought it was a molehill. I found it eventually. A black shadow in the snow was revealed as the head of the hare, with ears lying flat along its back, ensconced in the in a small drift. Occasionally, the ears lifted like a furry umbrella to flick the settled snow away.

farm

I stepped out on Thursday into a monochrome world and a treacherous wind all the way from the other end of the world. The thermometer said -4 but the invisible bear tearing at my face with claws of frozen glass said -11. The nearby farm was periodically obscured by  white wind blown chiffon.

fieldfare 2

Fieldfares, usually at home in the hedgerows and fields, shy of humans, were dashing between the tame hedges of gardens, prepared to tolerate a closer acquaintance with the deadly enemy in their quest for food. Their calls, harsh and guttural, echoed above the blanketing silence of the snow.

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The snow creaked and groaned under my footsteps as I left the village and headed into the hinterland. Icicles hung like Damoclean swords from the gutter of a barn, as if a Dionysius was threatening the world with death.

mallards on pond

I left the shelter of the last habitation, pitying the Mallards as they huddled on dull yet slippery ice surrounding the last small lead of clear water on their pond, and took on the ferocity of the gale. It tore across the large field and its ferocity was visible, like a Ringwraith, as it stripped snow from the ground and hurled it skywards like a petulant child.

carrion crow and spindrift

A Carrion Crow huddled down, standing up to the blast, snow whipping past it like a speeding train, until it lifted off and went with the air flow, seeking shelter.

I persevered for a while, my layer of down blocking the worst of the cold but my boots struggling to find purchase in the icy treachery coating the ground. A Jay, its colours vivid against the dazzling whiteness, scrabbled desperately in the snow, trying to locate half remembered acorns from a time of plenty.

jay

I retreated and decided to try my luck at Salhouse Broad.

The wind had increased to gusts of 30 mph and I was glad to find some respite on the path which was sunk below the level of the field to its left. Its giant, ancient oaks stood firm. Their gnarled and riven bark looked like the crevasses of an ice fall on some Himalayan giant.

ice fall tree

A Snipe zig-zagged into the sky and disappeared without a word and a hundred yards further on I saw the barred chest of a Sparrowhawk, gleaming like slightly tarnished silver, as it hurtled out of the trees and barrelled across the fen, disappearing stage left. Bouquets of Blackbirds and Robins were scattered by its passage.

blackbird

Robins bloodstained the snow and ice, appearing in ever increasing numbers, as if they were multiplying by binary fission. I had never known them to be as trusting and accepting of my close presence.

robin

I reached the broad and half of it was coated by a layer of ice.

coots and tufties

A raft of Coots, Tufted Duck and a few Pochard braved the choppy conditions.

pochards

 

A Pied Wagtail scurried around on the ice near the quay, a small ball of ice had formed on its leg but didn’t hinder its progress as it continued a never-ending quest for food.

pied wagtail

Icicles hung into the open water near the bank, like the crystal pendants of a chandelier and I climbed through the frozen woods.

icicles

The scene was Bruegelian, white, bleak, with some trees covered with friezes of snow.

salhouse snowy trees2bw a

I retreated and wandered through deep drifts where the wind was driving the snow through gaps in the hedges to a crossroads.

snow drift

Across the fields the stark skeleton of the beached whale that is Spinks Hill glowered black, thrusting its skeleton above the white torpor of the surrounding countryside. The spoor of a rabbit that had passed through earlier were pristine, unfilled by the spindrift that was pricking my face with its glassy needles.

a rabbit passed this way spinks hill near salhouse

I beat a retreat to the shelter of a hedge and returned to the village. More emboldened Fieldfares flew low along the street, cursing softly under their breath, before disappearing into hedges. Blackbirds, ever wary of their aggressive Viking relatives, followed in their slipstreams. There were no signs of Redwings, the gentler, smaller fellow journeymen of the Fieldfares. It was as if they had been erased by the snow.

green woodpecker 2

A bird, which looked at first like yet another winter thrush, crossed a paddock before splatting against a fence rail. Its red and green plumage, like a ship’s navigation lights, revealed its identity. A Green Woodpecker. Usually they cling to tree trunks and look nothing more than a large patch of moss. Its head was held erect and the bright staring eye surrounded by black moustaches gave its face a gaunt, tortured expression. It flew on, dipping and rising, with its wings beating quickly, closing, then beating quickly. The cackling laugh-like call, which gives it its nickname of “Yaffle”, quickly absorbed by the white baffle all around.

A Siskin, all luminous green and yellow against the dull sky reflecting snow, watched me from a nearby tree. I usually see them in large flocks, high in the canopies of Alder, rushing around like boys out on the town.

siskin

I wondered how many creatures, both small and not so small, had had the life squeezed out of them by the icy talons of the swirling dance of competing weather systems which had conspired to send this armour-plated blast of raptor wind over half the hemisphere.

Of course, in a few days this freezing ice maiden in her icy lace gown would become just another memory, just like those that didn’t survive her terrible excesses.

 

No Country For Old Men

West Somerton church, the resting place of the Norfolk giant Robert Hales, all seven feet eight inches of him, crouches like a Griffin on the escarpment. It looks out over land, caught between stony fields of countryside, peppered with church towers, like randomly thrown darts, and the North Sea . It is a land stretching in a wide north-easterly bucolic arc into the haze that distance frequently cloaks itself with.

view along the coast

I walked downhill and along zigzagging tracks which would bring me to the very shore itself. A lush green pocket of grazing marsh, bounded by barbed wire and the Soft Rush littering the field, became a pareidolic maze before my deceived eyes. A pair of brown Hares fled between the porcupine spine dark green needle leaves of the Rush and vanished from sight. They are a part of the fabric of an older, more tolerant pre-industrial English countryside, when man and the natural world lived in closer harmony. It always lifts the spirits to see those wondrous brown eyes, which hold two thousand years of memories passed down the Hare generation. Memories that inform the behaviour of these gentle, enigmatic creatures.

hares

The path and I ambled through an area of tangled trees , some standing firmly planted in shallow water, black, peaty and impenetrable to my sight, in the manner of a Mangrove swamp where incessant winds stunted growth.

wet wood

A Wren flitted busily among the pale brown parchment of last summer’s reeds. They disappeared from sight, only to reappear almost simultaneously several yards away. It was as if they were dematerialising and then rematerializing in some quantum experiment.

robin

Robins had been ubiquitous along the entire way so far, always confiding, their laconic song, with a slightly sad overtone, or their scolding “tic-tic”, ever present. Their numbers are always swelled by the arrival of cousins from mainland Europe.

mole

I left the cover of the trees and changed direction, to feel the wind on my face like a hard slap. Ahead of me, spread-eagled in death in the middle of the path, was the little man in the black velvet suit: a Mole. I marvelled at the delicacy of those enormous front hands. I refuse to call them paws for they look like pink pudgy hands to me, their finger nails scrupulously clean despite a lifetime of mining. He, for I always consider them males after reading The Wind in the Willows, showed no sign of injury.  Perhaps his ferociously beating little heart had simply worn out. I laid him gently on a soft cushion of vegetation.

fieldfare and lapwing

I passed flooded arable fields, alive with the contrasting calls and flight of Lapwings and Fieldfares. Their light underparts reflected the bright but frigid sunlight like mirrors. Their relative demeanours couldn’t have been more different. Lapwings, with their delicate crests and glossy greens and blues, miniature Peacocks, were promenading like Victorian ladies, whereas the Fieldfares were stiff and upright, their colours more sombre and subtle, giving them the appearance of military men.

bramblings

I began to lose feeling in my fingers as I became more exposed to the wind and I could smell the sea as the path I walked was now carpeted with fine sand. To my left was a rectangular stand of waist high yellow vegetation, dry and impotent, its life, long drained from it. Lonely Teasel stems stood like periscopes among the swaying golden sea. As if a depth charge had exploded beneath them, a large flock of small birds hurled themselves into the air. I saw forked tails and breasts the colour of burnished copper: Bramblings. The distant flock moved like a cloud of particles, to and fro above the Savannah-like ground cover. I spotted the dark Dog Rose pink of Chaffinches, flitting like molecules with their northern relatives before the entire mass of birds dropped back down to continue feeding.

behind the dunes

I left the comfort of the familiar and entered the alien realm of sand and dunes, but not the soft golden calcareous dune systems of North Norfolk. The dunes, acidic at Winterton, are closer to similar systems on the Baltic coast, 1200 kilometres away. This is a darker place, where the sand is a grubby putty colour and the endless tsunamis of towering drift, that obscure the sea, are hirsute with Marram Grass, Lyme Grass and Sea Couch.

I headed for the gap in the towering dunes, which was canalised with concrete and steel. As I climbed the slope, the wind began to drive into my face. The sand at my feet was rippled as if a high tide had reached this place. These were dynamic ripples and I could see that the wind was adding and subtracting material constantly. They were embryonic dunes themselves.

cornice

Finally, I topped the crest of the path and slipped into the lee off the concrete cornice of the sea defences which were holding up the potential slump of the dunes. This was not the day for a shore line walk. The sky was blue and painted with thin high cloud, like part of some Michaelango ceiling, but the sea did not reflect the colour. It was grey and inlaid with foam, in the manner of fat marbling  cold raw meat. The wind was roaring off the sea, driving lines of waves to crash onto the shore. The booming as they curled and hit was like an artillery barrage. The sibilant Cobra hiss as they retreated sounded like the bones of drowned sailors being dragged across the sea bed.

sea2

This dreadful wind was the harbinger of worse to come. Beyond the horizon something unspeakable and alien was approaching, a howling that spoke of tundra and taiga and unimaginable cold. This was a weather front that was coming from a blue sky, death wearing a smile. A weather front that seems to be chasing down those birds that had the temerity to leave its deep freeze winter for our more temperate shores: Bewick Swans, Bean Geese, Redwings, and so the list goes on.

It will kill the weak and old. It will tear life from bodies just as efficiently as the thorn of a Kestrel’s beak does. Birds of prey are nothing more than a metaphor for the cruelty of winter. It too can be an impassionate killer with no malice or intent.

herring gull

I watched the wind driving writhing, insubstantial snakes of sand before it,  and a Herring Gull perched on a post with waves crashing around it. The bird leaned into the wind in contempt at the weather’s best efforts to dislodge it.

dune slack

I retreated to the relative shelter to be found in the lee of the dunes. I walked past slacks where slumber Natterjack Toads, encased in sediment. They were encircled by skeletal clumps of Heather and pockets of dazzlingly green lichen.  Copses of stunted Birch and Oak scrub bristled in the spaces between.

wind blown tree

Many trees had their crowns planed off, sloping and straight, by tonsorial wind. I left this alien place behind, left it to face what was approaching from beyond the horizon.

scrub woodland

This really was no country for old men.

 

The River And The Hills

I made my way to the lovely village of Ringland nestling in the valley of the River Wensum and hard up against the upthrust of the hills which take their name from it. I parked at the church which is situated on a small prominence in the centre of the village. The nave and chancel stretch prone along the contour of the ground and look nothing less than a great beast at rest. Its tower stands like a truncated lighthouse.

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I walked past buildings that are a cross section of the last three hundred years of the village’s history. Ringland is sprinkled along the road as if it has been sown by a serf in some distant past. The road bent leftward and the grass verge morphed from linear to triangular. I turned left to follow a track, closely hemmed by a skirting board of hedge, as it meandered and climbed, following, yet subtly crossing, contours.

3

Perspectives changed with ascent, no less that of the village. I was now looking down onto the top of the church tower and Ringland became a cluster of buildings nestlings amongst tree and hedge. To my right the Wensum became a shining, gently meandering ribbon, tiny from this comparatively elevated viewpoint. Here and there, blots of water, dark as ink stains, where the recent rainfall had swelled the watercourse to bursting point and drowned areas of the floodplain.

10

Before me, a Kestrel falcon raced the sun and sliced the air like a scalpel, cleaving the blue sky. As I observed the tilt and shift landscape, with mirror image wood clothed hills opposite, with cars and lorries, toy like, racing along the two-lane blacktop scar on the floodplain, I realised that I was for that instant one with the Kestrel. Her view was my view. I was on the summit of Royal Hill, an ancient place.

kestrel falcon

This is primordial landscape, created ten thousand years ago by the sloth of the Ice Age crushing and tearing at the ground in its slow progress, ramping up great ridges of moraine with its melting. It has also fuelled ancient industry. In times long gone, flint mining and knapping were big business. Flint pebbles provided a rich seam of raw material, rolled and abraded smooth, not by the waves of an ancient sea, but by the progress of ice across the land. Sand and gravel were pulled like a dense, warm blanket over great marooned rafts of chalk.

11

In the foreground was a recently ploughed field. It looked like soft brown corduroy. The metallic smell of newly turned soil, damp and fecund, has been with me all my life and is warm and comforting, like strong coffee. As if it had risen spontaneously from the earth like a curious fruit, I became aware of a Brown Hare in the corner of the field. Like old Dick Straightup it was a timeless part of the pattern of the land. It sat as a statue, ears erect, listening, dreaming brown eyes reflecting its world, something of the present yet of older days too. Its nose twitched and caught my scent, even though I was almost certainly invisible to it, such was my distance. It began to canter, ears still erect, before beginning that life affirming sprint which defines its path across its world. Its powerful hind legs quickly propelled it from view, kicking up soil as it went, and the field grew quiet again.

9

I turned sharp left with with a plantation to my right, fronted by deciduous trees and gaunt pines peering over their heads. A long stack of freshly felled shortwood lined the woodland margin like stacked cigarettes. The breeze carried the sweet smell of resin, nascent amber, across to me.

12

The track, rutted like a furrowed brow, tumbled over the edge of the world and the sinuous waves of hills rippled out before me. To my left a closely-knit copse clung blackly to the top of the next crease in the ground, backlit by the strengthening blaze of the sun, an arboreal island among tamed fields.

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From nearby, a Skylark ascended with a flickering flurry of wings. It soon became a dot in the sky and hung like a glider on the thermal.

8

Its bubbling liquid song tumbled back to the ground like a waterfall of sweet sound. Suddenly, the sound ceased, it closed its wings and dropped back to earth as if mimicking the stoop of a Peregrine. Before it made ground fall it had vanished from my sight as its colours became one with the pale, dry soil.

14

The return to the valley floor led me past the edge of the dense belt of trees standing proud and wild like an army waiting to sweep down in attack. At the top of a tree in the wood a Great Spotted Woodpecker monotonously drummed a Morse Code message to announce the imminent change of season. The curve of the lower slope almost imperceptibly levelled out and I walked down through tractor generated Nazca lines in the clinging mud.

great spot

I walked back long the lane and through the village to a bridge over the Wensum. It flowed quickly, pushed by the rainwaters decanting from the slopes of the surrounding hills and swelling its channel. The floodplain was submerged in places and Willows and Alders paddled their feet, unsullied by long years of sporadic inundation.

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In the middle distance, a screech of gulls, reflected in a pool of water like a mirage, peppered the ground like hailstones which had been dipped in caster sugar to create a softer outline. A few Jackdaws and Carrion Crows mixed with them, like shadows cast by the gulls.

19

As I walked back to the church I stopped to admire the freshly emerging male flowers of a Grey Willow, looking for all the world like cats, from whence comes the name: catkin. As they soon mature they will produce the familiar yellow pollen bearing stamens and fire the starting pistol of Spring.

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