Hiding In Plain Sight

While it is a fallacy to say that the landscape of the entire county of Norfolk is level it is true to say that the flood plains of the Broads catchment are as flat as a veritable pancake.

reedham church and cloudshdr 2

The vast area of grazing marshland to the west of the coast between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft would give succour to believers in a flat earth. The skies are as a half sphere, like a planetarium writ large.

13th century hare wickhampton copy

This hare has been running across Wickhampton Church for 700 years

The other day the sky was painted a vivid blue with white cotton wool clouds, pretty as a Faberge egg. I left St Andrew, Wickhampton, the church of the running hare. It sits at the top of a very shallow valley side and I walked slightly downhill and then along the flat concrete road bordered by dykes, the clarity of which turned their waters into the finest Venetian mirror to reflect the sky.

dyke

Beyond the dykes stretched the seemingly endless lushness of grazing marsh, in all directions.

concrete road

I walked on to cross the arrow straight single track railway line stretching to its vanishing point in both directions, the only punctuation was Berney Arms Station, probably the smallest railway station in the UK. No desperadoes were waiting for a train today but a solitary Carrion Crow, hunched in its black plumage on the short platform, served as a gunslinger today.

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I reached Polkeys Mill, a preserved wind pump with its associated pump houses, which housed steam pumps a lifetime  ago. Now they are a silent testimony to a time when such work was overseen by men rather than telemetry.

polkey pump houses

It is always easy to linger here and sit on the seat on the riverbank but today I was searching for an illusion incarnate: Bearded Tits. I turned right and followed the River Yare upstream.

polkeys mill and farm

These little birds are enigmatic and iconic, the poster birds for this area yet seldom seen except by the cognoscenti. For a start, their name is a misnomer on two counts. They are neither bearded or members of the Tit family, the Paridae. Their other common name is Bearded Reedling. This little bird was first described in 1758 by the famed Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, who placed it in the same genus as the other members of the Tit family. After further thought over the subsequent centuries it was decided that Bearded Reedlings are unique, with no other close relations. Now they are the sole members of the family Panuridae, the name of which is a reference to their long tails.

bearded tit 15

These wonderful birds are very much habitat specific and the riverside reedbeds or ronds of Broadland are a stronghold. They are found in other parts of the UK but they are, like Swallowtail butterflies, mostly associated with this area. There are estimated to be 630 breeding pairs nationally but their numbers fluctuate annually as they are hard hit by very cold winters.

bearded tits 8

To say that Bearded Reedlings are difficult to see is an understatement. I think they are often seen but not always noticed. I stood on the river wall and looked down on the huge rond which is their habitat. It was a waiting game now. If Bearded Reedlings gave themselves names they would be called Unseen, Elusive,  Evanescent and maybe Phantom. They flicker through the reedbeds like sunlight dappling the reeds they resemble so closely. I have lost count of the times I thought I had seen one only to find it was a dead reed leaf swaying on the breeze.

bearded tits 7

Their call is a high pitched ping, like the sound made by the old World War II sonar device, ASDIC. The call will not always direct you to the bird. They seem to have ventriloquist skills. Maybe it’s the acoustic effect of the reeds but the sound seems to bounce around and frustrate the observer.

sunrise through the rond 2

Suddenly I heard the call, simultaneous echo, and saw birds moving quickly, appearing to swim through the rond. They stopped to feed, climbing the Phragmites stems to the  seed heads. I was rewarded with the sight of several birds, male and female, feeding. Both sexes are essentially golden honey brown with hints of orange but the males, as is the way with most bird species, have the striking markings and panache. Their bead like eyes are yellow, as are their tiny bills, which look like they have been stuck on.

bearded tit 3

Whenever I see male Reedlings I am reminded of Japanese watercolours, so subtle are the colours against the reed background. The males grey heads, which wash into the body colour, are punctuated by a black moustache like stripe on each side, looking for all the world as if they had been added by a calligraphy brush.

bearded tit 2

They were close, in the birding lexicon, confiding, and I took some shots before, as one, they whirred their way across the river to the mirror image rond of the Island, with their stuttering clockwork flight.

polkeys mill and rond

Their pings were carried away on the gentle breeze and the world fell silent and was perhaps a little less for their leaving.

sun rise seen through the rond

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Life Less Ordinary

My county, Norfolk, has the largest number of round tower churches in the country – 126. They were probably built round because of the lack of stone to make square or oblong blocks to create corners. Anyway, the fact is, they are what they are.

hemblington church

All Saints, Hemblington is a perfect example. It sits in splendid isolation in open yet rolling countryside, with a small copse opposite and a fancy network of hedgerows to the east.

rolling

The church is around 800 years old and the only constant in a landscape that has changed considerably since it was built. The field boundaries and the nature of agriculture have changed. The road beside it would have been a track once but is now metalled. The church fabric has weathered and slowly begun to melt through the battering of countless seasons and the greedy intrusion of gently acidic rainwater. It is a slow process and it will still be here in another 800 years. The church is a most welcoming oasis of calm and tranquility. On the north wall is a tattoo from centuries past. A medieval painting of St Christopher. Unlike the twenty or so others in the county this one also shows scenes from his life, rather like a comic strip from the 13th century.

tattoo

For centuries people have slept beneath the ground surrounding the church, and some resting places are marked by headstones, some plain and some elaborate in their decoration.

hemblington grave

The churchyard is a haven for wildlife in the agricultural Empty Quarter of the surrounding monoculture.

monoculture

Those stones and the fabric of the church, as well as the trees growing in the graveyard are home to organisms whose provenance reaches back unimaginable periods of time in the Earth’s history.

hemblington grave 2

These benign creatures, lichens,  first appear in the fossil record some 420 million years ago and they have not changed significantly in that time. Lichens are ubiquitous. In fact, there are more than 1700 species in Britain and 18,000 species worldwide. They are fascinating and attractive but not showy in the way a butterfly or a bird is. They are humble. They are, rather than do. Look on any tombstone, wall or tree and they will be there. White, grey, yellow, green, orange and pink; many appear almost two dimensional. Their hosts wear them like gymkhana rosettes or dust or the scabs of healing wounds. They appear to be as unchanging as the sun. They are hardy, but most grow extremely slowly. Think .5 millimetres per annum. They are more considered than Tolkein’s Ents as they slowly expand to coat that on which they exist. They are crustose, foliose, fructicose and leprose and they are remarkable.

lecanora campestris

Lecanora campestris

They are remarkable because what we see, whatever the form, is not a single organism but two. In a perfect example of two very different organisms living in close physical association, which benefits both, lichens are in fact a body consisting of a fungus which have algae at their heart, like non-destructive black holes.

caloplaca flavescens

Lecanora flavescens

 The fungus collects water and, rather like a suit of armour, provides shelter for the alga, which, containing chlorophyll, photosynthesizes and provide carbohydrates for itself and its host. These organisms can withstand extremes of moisture and temperature. If it becomes dry the lichen enters a long sleep.  In the right conditions they can live for centuries. A species found in the Arctic was at least 9,000 years old.

lichen

Lichens are the past, present and future of our planet. They are barometers of how we treat it. They are particularly effective at indicating levels of air pollution, such as from sulphur dioxide. They can also allow us to measure toxic elemental pollution and even radioactive metals. Quite simply, pollution will kill them and when the numbers of lichen species falls drastically then we know we are in trouble ourselves.

I spent an hour photographing in a soft golden light as the low winter sun poured its oblique shafts over the churchyard, even raising shadows on such flat structures. The closer I looked the more I was captivated by the beauty of their intricate patterns. I have overlooked them in the past but will never do so again.

xanthoria parietina

Xanthoria parietina

They were here before man was a twinkle in creation’s eye and they will be here when we are a postscript in the history of the planet. They are the meek that will inherit the Earth.

I Can Hear Your Heartbeat

I stepped out into the night once again. The wind that had roared so vigorously, making forward progress difficult these last few days was conspicuous by its absence. I knew from the weather forecast that it was merely resting, gathering its strength to stream down from Arctic climes and bring the havoc of Winter across the North.  Snow, that bleached out, sound deadening and deadly beauty, would fall there. The streets would glisten with fractal frost and the armour-plating of ice.

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Eastern England would be spared that. It would have a couple of days of mercury falling and a deep chill. As I mounted my wheel, swathed in heat preserving synthetics, it was maybe two degrees and still. The clarity of the atmosphere was such that infinity was only blocked from my sight by the light gathering capability of my eyes. I was content to regard the Pleiades, huddled like a choir and the nebula in Orion’s sword, an infinitesimally small mist without optical aids. On my shoulder was the Plough. Alcor and Mizar, the good companions, made separable by the pure air.

starry night over Thurne Mill

My headlamp blazed, as constant as always, as I ploughed the darkness and it felt like I was still and the world flowed around me. Fast and focused, a Bank Vole crossed my progress, legs all in commotion in its haste to find the shelter of the opposite verge. I was not the enemy it feared.

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Somewhere in the darkness would be that ghostly stealth hunter, the Barn Owl. It would be sitting on a post or in a tree watching with those dark impenetrable eyes. They are not eyeballs as such but shaped like tubes, with incredible light gathering capacity. They are not so good at identifying colour but in the world of the crepuscular hunter that is not an issue. If its eyesight is incredible, it pales into insignificance when compared to the bird’s hearing. It is said that they are capable of hearing a mouse’s heartbeat and homing in on it in a pitch black room! They have their ears at the sides of the radar dish face, one higher than the other. When they fly the left captures sounds below the bird and the right captures those above it. So acute are those ears that when the owl hears a sound its brain can process a left and right time difference of 30 millionths of a second. These sensory advantages coupled with those sensuous and soft feathers, which slide over each other allowing silent flight, make for a very effective predator indeed.

As I rolled downhill past Hemblington church, an owl ghost swept across the fields and I watched until its photons faded and it became one with the night. The downhill became a short climb and along the hedgerow, backlit by the glow of the A47’s sodium vapour perma-sunset, standard trees became as X-ray images, all bronchi and bronchioles. On the horizon the white smoke plume of Cantley Sugar Beet Factory illuminated in its floodlights like a finger of ectoplasm.

cantley 2

I began to make my way home and on a narrow lane with the yellow leaves of the numerous Field Maple glowing like the gold leaf on Klimt paintings I came across an almost somnambulant hedgehog, searching out some last morsels of protein before entering the great torpor that winter induces, as they lower their body temperature to match that of their surroundings.

I headed along the last lane before home and was surprised to pass with inches of a quite unconcerned Red-Legged Partridge, standing in the middle of the road looking for all the world as if it had its (non-existent) hands in (non-existent) pockets. The sky was beginning to crack and split, cuts in black silk, revealing a now perceptible lightening as the terminator approached at 1,036 miles per hour and the sun prepared to kickstart the dormant world again.

 

 

 

Lucky Number Seven?

I heard a whisper on the wind today. A whisper so loud that it was really a shout. This wind called itself gale. It’s all a matter of degree and miles per hour. No doubt somewhere on the other side of the world a butterfly flapped its wings and we felt the tsunami of fast moving air today that it created. Like a runaway train its speed grew and with it its strength. The flags and banners of reeds and leaves flapped madly and smaller trees bent like blades of grass before the onslaught.

wind in the reeds 2

The sky was a patchwork of grey cloud over a pale blue backdrop. The late afternoon light sucked the aquamarine of an hour earlier from it. In the west the sun, the colour of a Clouded Yellow, sent wan shafts through the gaps in the clouds. Dusty sticks to light the distant ground beneath them.

sunset

The audience sat waiting by the scrape. The rond stretched to infinity in the fading light. There was little colour left. A noisy gaggle of ducks, mostly Mallard and a few Teal, a few Coots too, warmed up the audience with their antics, like circus clowns. A few Rooks and Jackdaws slid quickly by on the wind, calling to each other, hastening to their own performance a mile away.

ducks

Suddenly, the tension in the air was palpable as the vanguard arrived. Quickly and quietly a group of maybe 7 Starlings rushed in from the west and swooped and tore around the edge of the reedbed. Further over, at the edge of our visible universe, a larger group homed in, as nebulous as smoke, like burnt black ashes from a bonfire. They merged with the first group and swirled around. As if they were arriving from another dimension, more and more birds seemed to materialize from thin air and joined the fast growing throng. They moved as if they were a single entity and moved this way and that, changing direction in a moment, as one. Sometimes the birds at the front rose up and looped down into the mass behind. It was like watching an invisible giant folding dough. Waves or particles? There was a great fluidity yet an underlying structure in their seemingly choreographed aerobatics.

murmuration 2

Apparently it is all to do with a phenomenon called “scale free correlation”. When one bird changes its direction or speed, each of the other birds does so, simultaneously. It seems Starlings co-ordinate their speed and direction with the seven nearest birds. This is amplified across the flock like a supersonic game of pass the parcel. How they do this is, of course, a mystery. Perhaps seven is their lucky number.

murmuration

On the edge of this wetland area two Marsh harriers banked and hung on the air. Perhaps they were salivating at the sight of so much protein close by yet as impossible to grasp as grains of sand slipping through fingers. The dead tree by the scrape held an observer. A Sparrowhawk perched on a branch, huddled close to the trunk. The chance of a takeaway was too much temptation and it launched into the air and headed on stiff wingbeats toward the seething mass. The birds, now numbering in their thousands, surged this way and that and the Sparrowhawk, as if bewildered, confused and maybe hypnotised by the unfathomable numbers, disappeared out of sight below the tops of the reeds.

sparrowhawk and murmuration 2

The audience were silent. This was shock and awe. As the coming together of these beautiful birds reached its climax the sound of the combined thousands of wings hushed the wind. It was a soft sound but filled the air. Now I know why they call this a murmuration. That is exactly the sound they make: a murmur.

climax

As the light grew dimmer as the sun slipped below the horizon, in a last flourish they slipped and slid through the air, as one, like a transparent snake before diving into the reedbed, their roost for tonight and every night after. The Marsh Harriers approached closer and a few hundred birds rose nervously before returning to the reeds.

roost and raptor

The wind resumed its narrative and the world of darkness and sleep succeeded to the throne vacated by daylight.

 

On the impending approach of Winter, Neatishead

In the words of the song: “Es liegt ein Zittern in der Luft, deutlich zu spüren” . A song that tells of a trembling in the air. Today there is a trembling in the air. Today there is definitely a change in progress. As I walked downhill across a wide field with no hedgerow to offer shelter I was exposed to a new wind. Gone are the soft, sibilant southerlies, with their tales of the endless tracts of the Sahara and Caravanserai, of flamenco guitar and castanets.

The wind this morning is a harsher and brutal entity. It sweeps from a place that is plunged into darkness for half the year, Valhalla, and talks in a rough and ancient runic tongue of blue ice and an infinity of snow and frost. It brings the hors d’oeuvres of Winter as the balmier weather of early Autumn is carried off in its relentless path, driven South and carrying with it any tardy migrants.

The sky shows blue promise but this is quickly subsumed by a veil as grey as a potter’s slip; almost featureless save for the barely perceptible mackerel back stripes in the East. In the West a watery sun tries hard to penetrate but ultimately fails.

_GPA7158The field has a dark, forbidding plantation on its right side. The army of conifers lines up and dares me to try and enter. On the right is a cereal field, left to decay after the harvest. Opportunist Thistles have sprung up in a random pattern and small and medium birds fly fitfully from plant to plant, stripping seed heads or searching the ground for fallen grain.

meadow pipit

Meadow Pipit

Greenfinches and Meadow Pipits predominate but I also see three emissaries of the coming Winter hordes: Redwings, those lovely Viking Thrushes, with the reddish brown stripe on their side clear. There is an air of urgency in the bird behavior. It is as if they realise that the time of plenty is coming to an end and they must eat their fill now. The patch of cultivated field beside it is the destination of a small murmuration of Starlings, busily probing the ground with their yellow bills for morsels of protein.

I walk into a lane and find some respite from the wind, cocooned between hedges and trees that line it. The Brambles have lost their gleaming purple succulence but strings of red berries, the fruits of Old Man’s Beard, brighten the otherwise dullness.

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Old Man’s Beard berries

A continual soft arboreal precipitation of yellows, golds and browns from Beech, Sycamore and Field Maple, falls around me. The Pulcinella and Harlequin of the corvids, the Jay and the Magpie, are in close attendance.

magpie

Magpie © Pierre-Selim

Both harsh of voice but fair of plumage. A Jay repeatedly drops into the fallen leaves beneath a Pedunculate Oak, searching for acorns to bury as a food store for the coming season. Jays can carry up to nine acorns in their gullets. In fact, research has shown that a group of Jays can move a forest worth of trees every Autumn.

jay

Jay © Luc Viatour/ htpps://Lucnix.be

I continue down a track bordered by trees shedding their multi-coloured burdens. The surface was obliterated and deeply layered with fallen leaves, a riot of colour.

carpet of leaves

The tell tale calls of those nomads of the hedges, Long-Tailed Tits, reaches my ears and is very soon followed by a family group of these exquisite little birds performing acrobatics in their search for food, continually calling and moving.

long tailed tit

Long Tailed Tit

Other calls reach me and I soon spotted a Coal Tit and a Goldcrest foraging with them. The wind picked up and in an instant they are gone, their calls carried away. As it grows more insistent and penetrates my thin jacket it is time for me to give best and walk back to my starting point, my feet surrounded by now swirling leaves. The crackling sound as they are scraped along the lane gives voice to that Northerly. It is cackling with glee at me.

 

 

November

Like clockwork, the metaphorical cogs slip over one another and the month changes. November: Ted Hughes’s month of the drowned dog is here again. It’s a strange month. A Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of a month.

dyke in mistOne minute the air and ground is sodden, the ditches full to overflowing, and soaking reeds on the margins lose their fight against gravity, leaning at more acute angles until they reach the horizontal. Fog cloaks everything in a diffuse haze, blurring the edges of reality itself.

birch in mist bw

Another minute and everything changes. The russet hues of crisp leaves abound against the background of a Maxfield Parrish sky peppered with an armada of wind driven puffballs. Leaves still cling precariously to branches and twigs. As you look at the twigs they seem to multiply and divide into ever smaller ones, in the same way that the smaller and smaller recurring patterns of fractals reach down into infinity.

stokesby marshes

Chlorophyll breaks down completely during November as the geysers of water and nutrients which surged upwards in the spring and summer begin to rush back down toward the roots and the dormancy of winter which will cloister them in the coming barren months.

autumn colours near stokesby

The Hawthorns lining the path I walk are heavy with a crop of berries which look like pouting lips wearing a bright red lipstick. There is a large flock of Greenfinches, maybe fifty birds, males and females in equal numbers. They appear agitated as they settle on a tree and seconds later swirl into the air, circle and settle again. I haven’t seen this many all summer. Perhaps they are immigrants from continental Europe, an irruption.

I hear the harsh cries of a Carrion Crow on top of a small tree. What appears to be three crows turns out to be two mobbing a Common Buzzard who has unwisely chosen the same tree as its perch. Browbeaten it flies low and fast across the marsh and the triumphant crows circle and then return to their tree. The dry heads of Teasel provide a bounty for a small group of Goldfinches.

goldfinch on teasel

A itinerant flock of little birds dive into a lone conifer. I quickly scan them and find Long-Tailed Tits, Blue Tits, a Great Tit and the little king itself, a male Goldcrest. Regulus Regulus, a member of the family called Kinglets, this is the smallest European bird. It weighs in at around 7 grams, about the weight of a sheet of A4 paper. The flat grey day is enriched by the flash of colour provided by the yellow and orange of the little bird’s crown. In the blink of an eye it has flown and it is nothing but persistence of vision.

My thoughts turned back to something that frequently has been on the periphery when I walk in the countryside. I frequently read of sightings of birds that are rarities in this country, mostly migrating species blown off course by unfavourable winds and making landfall on our shores. They are the quarry of hard-core birders desperate to add to their year and life lists. I often wonder how many of such birds are around us with no-one to see them. Do they pass through the countryside like neutrinos? Do they in fact exist if there is no-one to observe them?

 

As I said, November is a strange month.

Into The Valley

The Mid-Yare valley is an intimate and special place. It lends itself to linear journeys and no more so than in late autumn on a blustery day when the westerly wind blows us, and the fallen leaves, along in its path. Having left a vehicle at Limpenhoe we started the walk from the car park of Strumpshaw Fen, the RSPB reserve. It is an oasis of biodiversity and hosts some spectacular species of wildlife. Today we wanted to eschew the company of others and have the valley to ourselves.

beauchamp arms

Buckenham Marshes

The first little treasure is what I have named the Buckenham Loop. It is a short stretch of country lane accessible by a level crossing at each end and we walked it as the sky grew more leaden and the wind began to increase in speed. A few hunched Rooks gleaned the tailings of the stubble field, the harvest as distant a memory as summer itself. On the right the flood plain in the form of Buckenham Marshes on this bank of the Yare and Claxton Marshes on the other side.

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Wigeon Drake and Duck

The impetus of the autumn migration is beginning to grow and in a few short weeks the ubiquitous whistling of Wigeon will fill the air as they cram the dykes and fresh marsh and turn this area into a refugee camp for this and other species of ducks and geese.

widgeon

Wigeon on Buckenham Marshes

We crossed the railway line again and climbed the hill. On the left is the theatre in which the one of the greatest natural shows in this country, the corvid roost, is performed. Unfortunately there is only one evening performance every day, with no matinee, so all was quiet apart from a few Jackdaws and Rooks, resting like ballet dancers after morning class, taking sustenance before the big show.

The path past Buckenham Church, almost engulfed by surrounding woodland, led to a walk through a network of quiet narrow lanes with hedges on both sides. These were modern hedges consisting of mainly Hawthorn and Field Maple, staggered double rows and some plants still wearing split tree guards from their days as feathered whips. This regimented look makes the lanes seem as if they have been canalized. My favourite hedge species, Spindle with its dayglo pink fruit with equally vivid orange seeds, was conspicuous by its absence. Historically, its hard, cream white timber was valued for making spindles for spinning and holding wool and the fruits, baked and powdered, used to treat head lice.

spindle

Spindle

Among the adolescent hedge plants stood a mature oak, so large that it seemed self-conscious. It sported a beautiful hornet nest on its trunk, a masterpiece of wood pulp and saliva, like a brooch. A perfect example of commensalism: a nursery for the progeny of the insects yet doing no harm to their host.

hornet nest

Honet nest

The lanes were wearing a covering of dry fallen leaves which rustled under our footfalls like wrapping paper on Christmas Day.

valley roadThey led us to footpaths a few metres above the valley floor. I never fail to be amazed by the width of the flood plain and the comparatively small size of the river. From the top of the two valley sides is around 3 kilometers and one has to look back in time to understand the disparity. The valley is a window into the past itself. Around 10 000 years ago the vast ice sheets of the last great glaciation began to melt as the climate warmed. The raging torrents of melt water tore through the countryside, propelled by gravity on their way creating massive valleys and depositing vast quantities of sand and stone high on what became the sides of them. What we see now are the fossilized remains of the work of these prehistoric rivers.

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Mid-Yare floodplain

The paths led to the riverside and a walk past the anachronistic sugar beet factory, as if some giant piece of Brutalist sculpture had been dropped in to this soft landscape.

cantley and starlings

Cantley sugar beet factory

The scrub along the riverbank yielded the highlight of the walk – a Lesser Redpoll, yellow bill, with a speckled and streaked brown body and a small scarlet flash on its brow. It was a last islet of colour in a growing sea of grey tones as the rain began to fall.

lesser redpoll

Lesser Redpoll

All too soon we climbed out of the valley, following a path lined with Corkscrew Willow. This is not a native species and must have been planted many years ago but its presence is not incongruous and enhances its surroundings.

The rain became more insistent as we hurried to the village hall in Limpenhoe and our transport back to the start. The valley began to be subsumed by the low cloud and my focus turned to the road ahead.

 

A Tale From The Riverbank

the yare

The Yare

The river runs to my right. It is the Yare , whose name is the evolution from the Saxon name for it: Jiermud. It has long served this area. Today it wears a soft beige rond on both banks, as though it is a glass ornament wrapped in a fur stole. The glass appears more blue than brown today. It mirrors the sky. After several days of grey scudding clouds there is a change of fortune. A weather system is dragging some welcome warmth from southern climes. At the bottom of the floodwall is the expanse of grazing marsh and the insistent lowing of the cattle and the plaintive baaing of the sheep punctuates the whispering of the reeds. The wind is relentless and conspires to make the reeds talk more loudly. What tales do they share in their glossolalia? Secrets never to be told I suspect. Sometimes the gusts increase in ferocity and the chattering becomes a steam drawn train barrelling through a late night country station.

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Grazing Marsh beside the Yare

A Grey Heron, Old Frank, struts slowly yet purposefully along the bank of a dyke. The wind whips the thin, whispy feathers on the back of his neck and on his throat back and forth, like party streamers. From the reeds comes the familiar pinging call of that most beautiful of birds, the Bearded Reedling. On a day like today they hide in the base of the rond but on days with less wind they can be seen flickering through the tops, gleaning seeds from the feathery plumes of Phragmites. The males are stunning with their chesnut and light brown bodies and dove grey heads. Either side of their bills is the black “moustaches”, giving them an Edwardian appearance. The females are subtler in their camouflage but no less attractive.

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Male Bearded Reedling

A column of Rooks and Jackdaws rise slowly in circles as they climb a thermal to spill off when they reach the top. Are they merely amusing themselves or hunting flying insects? Further away, over the Berney Arms Mill, two past masters of riding the thermals, Buzzards, are so high that they are little more than dots. Over by the brooding carr woodland, a tangle of Sallow and Alder, that line the boundary of the marsh two Kestrel tiercels spill over the trees and swoop together, talons outstretched, before separating, diving fast, low over the marsh, before coming together again and repeating the procedure in acts of pure ecstasy. They do it because they can and at great speed they disappear over the reedbeds and river heading for the Island.

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Little Egret

A Little Egret, the small white Heron which was once such a rarity that it attracted birders from all over the country but now is almost ubiquitous because of climate change, drifts past almost languidly before dropping into the edge of a dyke. A mile away to the North, vast skeins of newly arrived Pink Footed Geese fly like an avian 1,000 bomber raid over Breydon Water, heading for their feeding grounds inland. The strength of the wind carries their wild cries away from my resting place.

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Pink-Footed Geese

Time passes and it is time to retrace my steps. I walk back toward Reedham and as I drop off the river wall onto the lane I am rewarded with one of those moments that only happen when you are at the right place at the right time: a male Clouded Yellow, only the third time I have seen this species. This long distance traveller to our shores, flickers into view and lands on a dried and dessicated reed. Catching breath perhaps, for these fragile little creatures can migrate from as far as North Africa. This one survived all the travails of weather, two seas and predators to make my day. I gaze in wonder at those subtle markings and the impossibly green kaleidoscope eyes.

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Male Clouded Yellow

I walk back along the lane to my starting point, strafed by the hundreds of Hornets that are everywhere right now. If 1940 was a Spitfire Summer then 2017 is a Hornet Autumn. These stunning insects fly purposefully from Ivy flower to Ivy flower seeking sustenance and maybe the odd Wasp takeaway too.

hornet

Hornet

Once again, the riverbank had a new tale to tell me.

Every Night About This Time

Every Night About This Time

sun mist

Buckenham Marshes

The sun hangs between night and day on the far side of the Yare valley, now glowing rather than blazing, reduced to a blood orange, as if the effort of crossing the sky has drained it of power and the mist begins to rise above the grazing marshes, delicate semi-opaque fingers curling around slight eddies in the ether. The air is slightly fetid and oppressive, like the weight of the entire atmosphere is pressing down on this one small area.

cantley at sunset

Cantley from Buckenham Station

I make haste in the gathering gloom along the darkening lane for the hour is fast approaching. Faraway, over by the unseen river, the calls of Greylags drift eerily in my direction but my ears are tuned in to the hubbub coming from the fields to my left, beyond the railway line. I reach the level crossing by Buckenham Station. As I cross, the distant sugar beet factory at Cantley glows like a dark satanic mill, a lurid painted backdrop to what is beginning. I climb the hill and then the hedgebank.

crow roost 3

The Gathering

The field is punctuated with black shapes, moving continually, and the telephone lines traversing it are heavy with yet more, like notes on a score sheet, a dark fruit. Like an orchestra tuning up, the cacophony begins to grow in volume. This is the gathering of the corvids: Rooks and Jackdaws. The gruff fell voices of the Rooks ring out. Black and shabby, with a slightly ragged outline in the dusk, their grey bills and the pale skin surrounding still visible. They look sinister, like so many black-cloaked 17th century plague doctors. Their smaller compatriots, Jackdaws, are now merely dark blurs but their sharper “Chack” calls are bright and insistent in the diminishing light.

crow roost

Above, more birds vector in from all directions, all the while calling and the numbers and tumult grows. The defeated sun drops down below the horizon and the inky sky merges with a ruby red lipstick smear above the far distant trees. Suddenly, almost as one, the vast mass of birds erupts into the sky, filling the sky with their bodies, like black smuts rising from a bonfire, and a wall of sound. It is like being in the largest cinema in the world with surround sound, so loud that it could be Herne himself riding into the sky with his hell-hounds.

crow roost 2

The birds fly the short distance to their roost in Buckenham Carrs, and after a spell of excited chatter they fall silent. It is if I had awoken from a dream but tomorrow it will happen again, and continue until the urge to procreate begins to stir and the birds disperse to their nesting sites. Come the shorter days of autumn they will return to this special place as the planet reaches this same point in its orbit and triggers the ritual again. It will continue when you and I are but distant memories.

crow roost at sunset

These birds are embedded in the weft and warp of the countryside, the cycle of the seasons and folklore of Britain. Watching this spectacle I realise that I am too.

Standing in the dark, the present and the past become one, as I look into the abyss of time, back to when our lives were much more connected with the seasons and nature; stretching back through the centuries to a time of darker nights, when the stories were whispered around the glow of a fire, perhaps the only source of light save for the full moon.

 

On Blakeney Point One September Morn

 

emma lynne pre dawna

Pre-dawn  at the beach car park, Cley

According to the song, Giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon. They are not what you take when walking on Blakeney Point. It is akin to walking through deep new snow. The stones act like some devilish conveyor belt forcing your feet back. Progress is slow. Small steps are what you take.

I began this journey at the car park at the end of Beach Road in Cley. 5 a.m; a stiff breeze was blowing and the air was chill. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom there was the faintest glow on the horizon with an accompaniment of breaking waves on the shingle bank and the lone cry of a Curlew somewhere over the nature reserve, still swathed in darkness.

blakeney point pre-dawn

Dawn, Blakeney Point

Blakeney Point is a shingle spit, which is oriented east-west. The Point is 9.6 miles long, which is considerably shorter than Suffolk’s mirror image, Orford Ness. The width of the spit varies from place to place. It’s shape has been sculpted and defined by the restless sea and it is 33 feet high at its maximum. Apparently, it holds 82 million cubic feet of shingle.

I set off into the darkness, feeling the usual trepidation that the Point engenders. Perhaps I should point out that this walk should only be undertaken once the memory of the last visit has acquired the rosy glow of nostalgia that comes after the memories of the effort and aches and pains have faded. I invariably go alone on this nine and a half mile walk on sand and shingle to enjoy the introspection that this walk encourages.

yellow horned poppy and sunrise blakeney point

Yellow-Horned Poppy

As I trudged along the shingle the sky lightened and clumps of Yellow-Horned Poppy began to appear, erupting like volcanoes from the shingle. I crunched on through the shingle with the slow, steady progress of one walking through treacle.

I stopped again to study the dawn that was unfolding behind me. The sun was rising through a veil of thin cloud, a red disk.

sunrise

After a while I veered left to visit a marooned fishing vessel on the edge of the salt marsh. A cobalt blue hull with the identification mark of WH272 and a superstructure which is mottled white and red with rust, it has sat here for many a year; I named it barca innominata on my first visit. The sheer ferocity of some distant storm must have sat it here, a few hundred metres from the sea

blakeney point wreck at dawn2

The first reference point on this walk is the Watch House and I could gauge my progress in this relatively featureless landscape as it loomed larger. Shortly before reaching that small oasis of vegetated land and a respite from the harsh lunar stonescape I came upon the dessicated body of a Common Seal with its bleach boned skull picked clean, lying like a Phocidean George Mallory, whose bleached and frozen remains have been resting on Everest since his death in 1924, like an alabaster effigy in some country church.

seal corpse

“Mallory”

I continued the short distance to the Watch House, resembling a Marie Celeste; it felt as if somebody had left in a hurry. The land around the house was strewn with old fish boxes, a barbecue and the skeleton of a fish with spines along its long but curled up tail; a Skate.

watch house

The Watch House

I continued my trudge westwards, savouring the occasional patches of vegetation underfoot and passing yet more Yellow-Horned Poppies, their petals resembling Nepalese prayer flags in the strengthening breeze. The high point of the spit grew larger before me.

old lifeboat house from Yankee Hills, Blakeney Point

Yankee Hills

Yankee Hills is a legendary spot for birders. The autumn and spring migration always throwing up some poor bewildered vagrant for a voracious audience to ogle through their spotting scopes and binoculars. I soon reached the marram covered dunes and climbed to their high point. Its soft ridge looked like a Striding Edge covered in velour. I continued the short distance along a compact, sandy track to the Old Lifeboathouse, now a National Trust café, surrounded by timber huts and bungalows, putting up a Sparrowhawk as I did. I watched as it disappeared in the direction of Blakeney Harbour, its passage scattering flocks of small waders.

old lifeboat house blakeney point

The Lifeboat House

I continued my direction in an arc, with the open water of the harbour to my left and hundreds of waders flying to and fro. I soon emerged onto the shingle again, but this time it quickly gave way to a sandy strip between sea and low marram covered dunes. There was a long hank of debris that made up the high tide mark and I followed it, the lines of beached seaweeds punctuated with the occasional corpse of a seal or Guillemot, in varying degrees of decomposition. A Tern lay on a pillow of weed, fresh. Eyes open and head outstretched it, looked nothing less than built for speed, a feathered dart. I was accompanied by foraging Turnstones and the occasional Ringed Plover.

ringed plovers blakeney pointa

Ringed Plovers

Quite unexpectedly, I came upon a National Trust sign, asking visitors not to proceed further to avoid disturbance to wildlife. On the first ascent of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, Joe Brown and George Band, stopped short of the summit because it is considered a sacred place by the Sikkimese. I sat down on the soft sand and listened to the only sound, the gentle waves running onto the merest band of shingle. All sounds of civilization were left far behind me and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at having this wonderful place all to myself.

blakeney harbour from the end of the point colour

The end of Blakeney Point

As I gazed distractedly out over the sea to the distant shore of Wells Beach and the conifer belts that form its western border I had a feeling that I was being watched. Gradually, one by one, the heads of eleven Common Seals appeared out of the water, less than a hundred yards off shore. As I attempted to take photos of them, they slipped beneath the waves, only to re-appear as I concentrated on the next one. Who was watching whom?

seals watching

Common Seals

They watched me with the baleful stares of East German border guards from some Cold War film. I thought of Ricki Tarr’s famous line from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “Who spies on the spies, Mr Smiley?” I half expected them to produce cameras and start photographing me. The technology is there: waterproof cameras but I guess it is kind of tricky to press the shutter release when you have flippers instead of fingers. Perhaps this little problem will be sorted out by evolution over the next tens of thousand years. I rose and began my long journey back, resolved to leave the seals to their solitude and in peace. I was touched that for the first few hundred yards, I was escorted by a solitary seal, surfacing periodically and then slipping beneath the surface to surge forward like a living torpedo.

blakeney point

Debris, Blakeney Point

Finally, I was alone again and trudged the high tide line of debris, revisiting the corpses of marine life and the detritus of modern sailors, casually turfed over the side to litter this pristine landscape. I walked on, now faster, as the return leg had little new to catch my attention. There was a shimmering ahead of me, where sky meets land and the shelter on the Cley beach car park began to appear; at first, a small blob hanging in space just above the land, a mirage. Then I was back at my starting point and my final memory of the day was the sight of a Hobby hunting dragonflies high above the car park, unseen by everyone else.