Somewhat Elevated

bath hills panorama

This cloudless January sky, the pale blue of a Starling egg, and as fragile, lacked the confidence of summer. The sun, brighter than molten steel, punched a hole through the thin veneer, its unbearable corona bleaching colour where it emerged. This sunlight lacked warmth. Any heat was ripped away on the hawkwind whose talons blasted and chilled the land. They tore at my face, freezing and burning simultaneously.

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I walked the fracture line that was the lane. The landscape changed abruptly, as if tectonic plates met here. In the middle, somewhat elevated, here began the upthrust, short-lived but significant in this flat land.

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To my right was a vast sheet of water, the drowned wound of gravel extraction, its ugly scar now thankfully concealed. A raft of Tufted Duck were mirrored in the middle distance of the becalmed water, the males all shadows and light,  right and wrong with no grey areas. A bare boned, barkless tree was decorated with at least a dozen White Egrets, the recent Come Heres in this ancient Been Heres countryside. They saw me and as one they flew across the water, like ghosts of white horses that ride on breaking waves.

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Beyond the flooded pit, the flatland of Outney Common, two-dimensional, defined by a huge meander of the River Waveney and bounded by the curving Neanderthal brow of Bath Hills. In the opposite direction was the gnomon of Bungay church, where Black Shuck, a hellhound seven feet tall with glowing coals for eyes, attacked during a storm in 1577.

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This is land formed by glaciation, where  the melt water of the retreating ice, which carved the wide flood plain, and buttered the land with the sand and gravels  it carried. The frozen wave of the Boulder Clay scarp which forms Bath hills is the ghost of the glacier’s journey across the country.

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The path vectored gently upwards and the pocket sized meadows, scabbed with early Snowdrops, gave way to towering woods, all Hazel coppice and Hornbeam with its Tiger striped bark. The lazy, nagging wind that had dogged my steps like Black Shuck’s breath evaporated as the curve of the path allowed the higher ground to act as a baffle and cosset me like the turned up collar of an overcoat. These favoured slopes had coveted vineyards in Roman times.

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The air was thick with bird song and the constant flicker of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Robins and Wrens as they crossed between the opposite hedges, their flight so fast that they had disappeared almost before they appeared. Ahead, the grey hull of a Sparrowhawk parted the sea of birdlife with its bow wave.

A small building came into view, all brick, tile and wood, organic. Draped in moss and vegetation, it appeared to have grown from the hillside. Yet its fancy gable and doors showed care and purpose in its construction. This may or may not be the cold bath that gave these hills their name and made Bungay a spa town in times gone by.

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I descended somewhat and looked for the Black Poplar, leaning then like a firework rocket in a bottle, that I had seen here a decade ago, but it proved elusive. Perhaps its lean had succumbed to gravity and become too much for its weakened anchor.

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I dropped to Cold Bath House on the valley floor and opposite it a scar in the embanked ground revealed the flesh beneath the skin.

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The path became a road and ramped up steeply. The bank was peppered with the early colour of Stinking Hellebore, all pastel green flowers and dark green pointed leaves, like Nosferatu’s hands. It is a poisonous plant and Pliny advised the need to draw a circle round the plant, face East and offer a prayer before digging it up. I walked on swiftly.

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At the summit the scarp to my left levelled, as if someone had taken a plane to it, as the path bent sharply to the right. It became an equation that was  unbalanced, the scarp on my left had been moved to the other side of the path’s equal sign and the drop to my right became ever more precipitous.

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The trees teetered, their trunks straining to remain vertical as the x/y axes grew closer. 100 feet below I glimpsed Ditchingham Lodge, an 18th century house that had belonged to the Rider Haggard family.

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Fallen, rotting trunks bore witness to long forgotten gales which had smashed them down with impunity. Tripe fungus, Auricularia mesenterica, grew on the decaying wood of a stump, its excresence like a wart on the slimy, damp surface.

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I continued along the narrow defile and as it changed direction again it tilted downward, my aching knees a measure of the angle of descent.

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I reached an iron gate and the claustrophobia of the narrow path opened out as it flowed into the delta of grass of the valley floor. I crossed two narrow bridges over the Waveney, and reached the wide open spaces of Outney Common, grazing marsh, in part inundated by the recent rains.

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To my right a falcon Kestrel, hunched over her prey, flashed me a look of disdain.  I had dared to disturb her meal. She flew off, skimming the grazing marsh in the direction of the hills, now foreshortened and low, the small rodent dangling limp and swaying in the grip of her talon.

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I splashed my way forward and the sun bejewelled waters beneath my feet dulled as a meniscus of cloud shut down the sky like a closing eyelid.

 

 

 

 

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Walking In A Sacred Landscape

It is the great natural shutdown of winter. The grass is green but refuses to poke its new life too far above the ground for fear of the ravages of frost and a wind that cuts like a finely honed blade along the Tas valley. The Tas is a minnow compared to the Yare, wide and slow, which slides along the next  valley to the north. This little river punches above its weight in terms of valleys. The Yare’s is wide and shallow whereas the Tas boasts a narrower, more intimate floodplain and steeper ramped sides, at least along this stretch of its course.

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From the top it offers wide views across rolling countryside.

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This is an ancient and sacred landscape and guards millennia of memories. I approached my starting point at the car park in Caistor St Edmunds from Norwich. I passed the site of the Arminghall henge monument, discovered in 1929 as a crop mark on an aerial photograph.

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Constructed around 5,000 years ago it consisted of two concentric ditches with a bank in between and what appeared in the photograph as a horseshoe pattern of dark patches in the ground. These are the marks left after the posts that had been erected there rotted. The posts are believed to be the entire trunks of mature trees. It must have looked as if it had grown out of the ground like some strange copse, organic, in comparison to inorganic rigidity of Stonehenge.

The functions would have been similar no doubt and we can only guess the religious beliefs of the people who expended so much time and effort in its construction. Almost certainly they would have revolved around the solar calendar and the seasons.

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The henge site, the merest depression in a field, lies quite close to a vast electricity sub-station. It boasts a  crop of pylons and concrete trilithons, surrounded by the swirls of insulators, which  buzz and hum. I wondered what archaeologists in the distant future might make of the crop marks this complex structure might leave behind.

I travelled 3 miles and through 2,000 years, on to my starting point at Caistor St Edmunds. Here lie the remains of what was once a great Roman town, Venta Icenorum, founded in AD 60 and whose name identifies it with the Iceni tribe, in whose territory it lies. Independent and defiant, they famously revolted in AD 61 against Roman rule under the leadership of their warrior queen, Boudica, a revolt which saw the sacking of Camulodunum, modern day Colchester, and Londinium. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the Roman armies.

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Little is known about the fate of the town after the Roman withdrawal form Britain in the early years of the fifth century but the technology they brought to this country was soon forgotten as the curtain of the Dark Ages fell over the land. The walls have decayed and the scant remains stand like rotted teeth along raised banks above the nearby water meadows and grazing marshes, creating a pastoral idyll. In the corner of the site stands the church of St Edmund, whose medieval fabric has Roman brick incorporated into it.

I left the Romans behind, walked across the road and joined a waymarked permissive footpath on the land High Ash Farm. Chris Skinner, who works this land, is not just a farmer. He is also an environmentalist and naturalist who writes and broadcasts in local media.

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Farming is not always carried out in harmony with the natural world and years of more and more intensive farming have squeezed out large numbers of plants and animals, from the traditional wildflowers of field and meadow to animals, from mammals and birds down to the smallest insects. The farm, which occupies the valley side adjacent to the Roman town, is an oasis of enlightenment. Chris Skinner does not persecute any wildlife on his land. On the contrary, he positively encourages all wildlife, from sparrows to foxes.

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I walked uphill, passing beautiful hedges and areas which grew crops aimed at feeding wildlife; great stands of teasel for instance, whose seedheads provide sustenance for all manner of birds through the barren winter months and swathes of ground sown with pollen and nectar mix, to feed insects, those postmen of the natural world, delivering packages to pollinate the plants and crops we depend on.

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Of course, the insects are also a tier in the unseen vast pyramid of the food chain, dwarfing that of Cheops. Chris has set aside half his farmland for wildlife crops and in the adapted words of the quote, “If you build it, they will come.” Chris Skinner has indeed built his Field of Dreams.

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A large clattering of Jackdaws made their presence felt in a nearby field, rising and falling, shouting joyously as they fed among the stubble from last summer’s harvest, that peppered the ground like giant raindrop splatters.

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As the paths rose and fell like a gentle natural rollercoaster I passed mature oaks, their trunks enveloped in the hug of Ivy. It is a myth that Ivy is a parasite which sucks the life from trees like a vampire. The Ivy merely embeds itself into the tree’s bark, which is non-living, for support. Vast cables of Ivy stem wind like pythons around the trees. The berries of the Ivy provide a great reserve of food at this lean time for wildlife. Blackbirds and Fieldfares avail themselves of this bounty.

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Past copses I walked, the preserve of wildlife. Bug hotels and nestboxes abounded. This is a place where man and the rest of nature are equal partners.

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Several mature trees were studded like motorcycle jackets with golden colonies of snails. These creatures, being mostly water, cannot tolerate freezing temperatures which would cause ice crystals to form in their soft tissue so they huddle together in the nooks and crannies of the bark and seal the entrance of their shell with a thick layer of mucus. They then enter this state of estivation, dryness sleep, and wait out the harshest months, waiting for the warmth of spring to wake them from their trance state again.

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I reached the top of a ridge.

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To my right, along it, a sparse line of conifers erupted like vertebrae. This marked the site of a Romano-British temple, where many artefacts have been found. The ridge dropped into a small crevasse carrying a thin watercourse which disappeared into trees.

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As I reached the trees a slate coloured blur flashed past my head without concern for my proximity, a tiercel Sparrowhawk. I turned and watched him roar along the small valley with swift, stiff wingbeats, hugging the ground, then bank sharply uphill, revealing his brown barred underside, with its blush of orange, to head for the copse at the top. His yellow eyes glared across the ground in my direction, a window into the cold, merciless reality of nature, where there is no malice, just a constant quest for food and survival.

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A fenced off area, wearing a covering of rough grass and long legged conifers, was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, where the bones of the dead have lain sleeping through the long centuries since.

As I walked the short distance back to the Roman town, a persistence of vision still blazed on my retinas, left by the collision of the Sparrowhawk’s world and mine.

Lost Horizon

The weather man said the day would start misty and that by mid-morning the sky would clear. Lou Reed sang, “Don’t believe half of what you see, none of what you hear.” I knew exactly what he meant when I looked around me to see the mist growing more dense by the minute. I was in a Western with the Indians creeping ever closer to my circle of wagons.

muddy track

I was at Burnham Norton to walk the Norfolk Coastal Path to Holkham. Holkham was the end of the walk but not the focus. I set off, slithering and sliding along the muddy slug trail of the well walked path through a brown curtain of tall dead vegetation. I soon reached Burnham Overy Staithe and the mist had transmuted into fog. It was a fog,  but not totally opaque, that sucked much of the colour from the salt marsh and mudflats bordering the channel, Burnham Creek, littered with boats stranded by low tide, which led convolutedly to the open sea.

burnham overy harbour boat

One boat lay on a sandbank, as though it was waiting for the tide and Charon to come and ferry souls across this particular Styx.

aggar

The aggar of the raised path left the Staithe behind and stretched into the rolling invisibility of this seemingly lost land. From time to time the flooded remains of silted channels on the fresh marsh distilled from the gloom, looking like some kind of cryptic earthwork.

hawthorn

To my right the rough “gronk” of an invisible flock of Brent Geese carried to me through the muffling damp air. I saw movement in the flaccid and pallid vegetation at the edge of a dyke. It was a male Reed Bunting, his bold breeding plumage a washed out memory. He regarded me with his bright button eye and flew, melting immediately into the impenetrable air.

reed bunting

Mudflats to my left stretched away to join seamlessly with salt marsh, a place where the bedrock of the future is being created by the continuous accretion of sands and silts through the dynamic tidal processes. Some of the dead creatures of this habitat will become the fossils of the future.

mudflats

The mudflats are giant factories nurturing invertebrates to feed the thousands of waders and wildfowl that depend on them. They provide not only food but shelter from the elements and predators in their innumerable crevasses where small streams flow. As I gazed across this alien landscape I half expected the ghost of Abel Magwitch to crawl over the edge of a dim channel.

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I reached a bend in the path and on the horizon something was beginning to form. It was the indistinct hump of Gun Hill, like some gigantic beached whale.

gun hill

It began to dominate the middle distance and detail began to emerge as I approached closer. It was vast and stretched the length of the immediate horizon, a linear roller coaster, rising to its high point of 16 metres and spilling downhill in each direction.

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Gun Hill is the named western end of a largely innominate line of dunes stretching eastwards. The area is collectively known as Holkham Meals. They are the huge accumulations of infinitesimally small grains of Quartz; coarse clothing worn over an underlying skeleton of shingle. I left the boardwalk and the coastal path it carried and walked westward to visit the summit of Gun Hill, the focus of my journey. It is cloaked with  vegetation, which consolidates it, but inevitably fails to stop the wind moving it ever eastwards, a grain at a time.

summit ridge

I climbed the friable ridge and stood on the top. The centre of the dune has disappeared and left a massive hollow like the caldera of some long destroyed volcano. Successive gales have ripped out plants on the surface allowing the vast centre to be blown apart, scattering its constituent parts every which way. The hill is named for artillery which was apparently located here during the Napoleonic Wars to repel an anticipated invasion. Now the hill plays host to invaders of a different kind. A plethora of the divas of the Norfolk birding world, the very rare vagrants from far flung parts of the world, appear here from time to time drawing large audiences of admirers: Red Breasted Bluethroat, Isabelline Warbler, and so the list goes on. Fabled birds I have read about but never seen.

gun hill caldera

Gun Hill is also a stronghold of the Dark Green Fritillary, a butterfly with  black and orange upper wings but which is named for the green hue on their undersides. Although locally common in the summer it is hard to believe today that this alien landscape could support anything so fragile and beautiful.

I looked out into the fog at what looked like a haze of sulphur dioxide hanging over the sea. I descended to the shore and it became clear that I was seeing a sand bar across a narrow channel. I walked left along the tide line detritus of razor shells, oysters and mussels braided onto thin shanks of seaweed mostly dark brown with small flashes of red and green.

seaweed and shells

A piece of chalk revealed the ghosts of worm borings, tomorrow’s fossils.

worm borings

A hank of sponge lay marooned by a past storm, which had ripped it from its undersea anchor and hurled it beyond the tide line.

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At the end of the beach, before it doubled back on itself to follow the landward side of Gun Hill, and across the narrow strait, I saw a mirror image of the dune systems I was part of. It was Scolt Head Island. It appeared to float like Avalon, so near but always inaccessible to me. It was a view that eschewed the modern world, a view unchanged for a thousand years or longer.

scolt head island panorama

I remembered a conversation with an elderly man I had encountered recently. He told me that in his younger days he had regularly sailed the North Sea and that the stretch between Holkham Beach and Brancaster was his favourite part because no signs of modern times and man’s works were visible.

crossing the channel

The afternoon was advancing apace and it was time for me to leave this rarified place and continue eastwards.

pin cushion lichen

Pincushions of Cladonia arbuscula abounded, a clouded pale green oasis,  as did what I though we’re tiny flakes of flint, as if some hobbit knapper had been at work. Closer examination revealed yet another lichen species, Peltigera didactyla.

flint lichens

I was seen off this shore by a solitary curious seal, watching me intently and soon I stumbled through a narrow plain between two dune systems. I soon reached the oppressive darkness of the Corsican Pine and Holme Oak plantation, which began to cloak and consolidate the landward dunes.

holkham pines

The darkness of the trees and the fog dulled my senses  as I walked on to my destination.

 

In A Big Country

 

The trees are in the Deamtime, a suspended animation which stretches back to the very moment of their creation. They appear to hang between life and death. Their vital spark and power has shrunk back to their roots as they await the two stimuli of light and temperature to unleash the greening that comes with Spring. Today all that seems a long way off.

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The dormant branches, now stripped bare of  the ragged brown clothes of autumn, scratched and rattled together in the almost imperceptible breeze, as if a Triffid were lurking nearby as I walked from the edge of the valley to the great wetland below.

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The morning was grey again and the reeds along the dyke were the colour of sand. They craved the alchemy of sunlight to glow like gold. The horizon was milky grey, dimming scale and distance. This big country appeared to stretch away in all directions to infinity. It was as if I was looking through an eye afflicted with glaucoma.

Halvergate Marshes, once so close to being lost for ever, never disappoints, whatever the season. It shape shifts according to the conditions and today was no exception. This ten square miles of grazing marsh, part of an much larger complex of wetlands along the River Yare, on both banks, was wearing its cloak of near invisibilty.

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The air was thick with the high pitched honking calls of massive skeins of Pink-Footed Geese, on their winter sojourn from Greenland and Iceland. They rose from the marsh as one to circle round and drop back to continue feeding, unsettled by the merest hint of a predator. Their fear was not unfounded as I walked past the demolished and devoured remains of a female Mallard. Judging by the butchering I guessed that a Fox had taken her.

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I was now in the middle of the great marsh, halfway between the higher ground of the valley and the unseen river ahead of me. Pancake flat and with the lush grass gently moving in the breeze, it felt like being in the middle of a great calm sea, with the scattered small islets of field gates as its only features. I suppose it is the perfect analogy as this place is indeed the ghost of a sea. 1500 years or so ago, when Romans occupied this area, the land I was standing on was under the great estuary Gariensis, which emptied unhindered into the North Sea. The sand spit on which Great Yarmouth now stands had not yet formed.

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Usually seen in large groups, a lone Fieldfare dropped from a Hawthorn and found a perch on a molehill. These beautiful winter thrushes invade from Northern Europe in huge numbers. As many as 680,000 arrive in Great Britain every autumn to plunder the bounty of food awaiting them. Ever wary, it watched my approach and flew off throwing a stream of Runic expletives in my direction.

lapwing

In the middle distance a  desert of Lapwings took to the air, with a small group of Starlings, hardly a murmuration, in tow. Those beautiful little crested waders rolled and tumbled through the air on their Ace of Club  wings, their shrill and plaintive calls, which give the birds their familiar name of Peewit, carrying across the endless wetland. The reason for their edginess drifted into view. The wings with their brown and grey feathers with black primaries, held in a shallow V, as it glided silently by, announced an adult male Marsh Harrier. As he progressed southwards the Lapwings circled, all in a commotion .

berney arms

I approached the level crossing of Berney Arms Halt. England’s smallest and almost certainly loneliest railway station sits astride the railway line which bisects Halvergate Marshes like a zip fastener.

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I soon reached the River Yare and Berney Arms Windmill. It stands on the bank like a mutant lighthouse. Twenty metres high, it was built in 1870, not to grind grain but the constituents of concrete for a cement works, which stood on the opposite bank of the river three generations ago.

curlew

The river was as smooth as quicksilver and shone brown beneath the mist. The mud revealed on the opposite bank showed that this mercury was falling. I walked south along the flood wall and the way ahead was filled with birds. A flock of at least fifty Curlews, tubby brown bodies and long curved bills, flew past filling the air with their bubbling calls, the essence of winter in this wild place. Close your eyes and those calls will transport you to the high moors of the North on a summer’s day, to a place where most of them will return to breed when the season changes.

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Between the rond and the river was an unseen stretch of water, obscured by the reeds. Every few minutes, with metronome regularity, a large spring of that most beautiful little duck, the Teal, took to the air from it, and after circling at high speed, dropped back down to the water. On one occasion they passed close overhead. The whirring of their wings was the dry rustle of crinoline skirts.

teal

Two Roe Deer tore through the reed bed in blind panic, their white rumps glowing bright through the murk. Every so often they would leap like Impalas to cross some unseen obstacle or gap in the bank. As I continued onwards my progress was punctuated by the exclamation marks that were Common Snipes rising  from the edge of the rond. The way that they rose explosively  from the ground reminded me of fireworks,  twisting this way and that, spilling air from their fast beating wings, until they disappeared into the growing opaqueness filling the air.

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The mist donned the cloak of fog which would blight Norfolk for the next two days. For a while I watched a Little Grebe on the now visible body of water between riverbank and marsh, a perpetual cycle of diving and surfacing,

From the riverbank I saw a Buzzard sitting at the top of a small tree, lazily regarding some Starlings feeding in the grass, as if hypnotised by them.

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The fog grew denser and it was time for me to flee back to my starting point and allow this special place to be subsumed by the increasing solidity of the atmosphere.

No Man’s Land

I decided to take a walk through no-man’s land. The no man’s land that is the coastal strip between the end of the Norfolk Coastal Path, which ends at Hopton, and the start of the Suffolk Coast Path, which begins on the south side of the harbour’s mouth in Lowestoft.

Understated. That is perhaps the most generous epithet that could be given to Ness Point, the most easterly point on the island that is Great Britain. Land’s End has a theme park and hotel, John O’Groats has a shopping complex and Ardnamurchan Point has stunning vistas along a wild and rocky coast with an iconic lighthouse thrown in. Ness Point is low fi.

The fishing port of Lowestoft has undergone a renaissance in recent years and the pedestrianised town centre now has a pleasant ambience. Ness Point is situated at the end of Gas Works Road and is indicated by a simple brown sign. It should carry the words, “Welcome to Hard Times”.

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On reaching the small parking area by the sea wall I felt I had entered a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. The Birds Eye factory behind me looked like a Stalinist era interpretation of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, all hissing and columns of steam.

IMG_7087In front of it is a circular concrete outfall tower with the top appearing to have been obliquely sliced off. A spiral of steel pipe is wrapped round and extends beyond the top, as if it were trying to escape. This piece of brutalism stands at the top of a short flight of steps with railings with an adjacent bed of vegetated shingle. It is as unfathomable to me as Stonehenge.

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The focus of Ness Point is the circular concrete and metal wheel, which is a direction indicator called the Euroscope, on the far side of the sea wall . It shows mileages and bearings to various points in Britain and Europe, as well as the most westerly, southerly and northerly points of this country.

lowestoft ness point

I stepped from the car to the one beat per minute throb of an enormous wind turbine, the perfect sound system for this desolate place. A drizzle, so dense that it was like being wrapped in a cold flannel, enveloped me, and the flood gates in the sea wall, slammed shut, prevented closer investigation of the Euroscope.

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I headed north, driven by a southerly wind, and accompanied by the all-pervading gossamer web of rain. The concrete promenade stretched to infinity and to the left the baleful eye of the lighthouse on the cliff shone periodically. In the foreground caravans crouched below the promenade in a state of hibernation and beyond them rows of wooden posts supporting wooden horizontals. These were used for drying fishing nets in a now almost forgotten past.

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As I approached the end of the promenade, the trees and tall monument of Belle Vue Park and beneath, Sparrows Nest Gardens, came into view. But for a simple twist of fate and geography this could have hosted the most easterly point. An altogether more salubrious location.

With grand houses on the cliff top, telling stories of a time of greater prosperity I reached the end of the promenade.

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Blown on and mocked by the leaking air, I walked through the dunes  and along the high tide line, strewn with strands of seaweed, like skeins of wool, with the gaunt cliffs at Corton almost lost in an ozone fog ahead of me.

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Even the trees in the area of scrub seemed defeated. An Elm caught my attention. Its branches were deformed by Wing Bark virus.

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I reached Corton beach and walked the narrow strip of sand between the ever encroaching waters of an incoming tide, an unsettling and angry muddy brown,  and the sea defences, penning in the towering vertical reality of glacial terminal moraine, the last shout of the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.

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The incalculable tons of ice, kilometres thick, had ground and pulverized the landscape as they moved, sluglike, south and east. As they melted they dumped the millions of tons of detritus they had absorbed, creating a fossiliferous jamboree bag. Here can be found an amazing variety of petrified creatures which are migrants from far flung geologies.

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The wall of granite blocks, dropped in to protect the soft geology from the ravages of storms, and the rising tide made the prospect of inundation a certainty so I retreated up the steps to the cliff top and the road through the village. I reached the public footpath that opened the way to a fine cliff top walk to Hopton, a great favourite, to find that it was not only closed but no longer existed. Erosion had swept it away and the line of the path now lay along the base of the cliffs on an inaccessible beach.

Still the drizzle fell and the walk evaporated. The trudge along the road, with passing vehicles treading raindrops and ploughing their way through puddles, eventually took me and my thoughts to Hopton.

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On the verge, Winter Heliotrope, that pioneer of the New Year, glowed technicolour on a sepia day. It was perhaps the perfect end to an inauspicious beginning.

Seawatching Days

rough sea

I remember an October day at Cley beach a few years ago. I sat seawatching on the shingle bank. Distance is hard to gauge without reference points. The sea was calm and I settled down to watch and wait. The sound of the sea on the shore mesmerizes me, lulls me into a torpor, as does the constant rippling of the water seen through the haze. The waves slump lazily onto the shingle and drag their fingers through the stones. The hiss as the water moves stone against stone, multiplied by a million times, is hypnotic. The longshore drift drags the stones south. This is a dynamic shoreline and although the scene appears constant this beach is a shape shifter, gradually clothing itself with fresh stones. It was an unseasonally warm afternoon with a bank of fog lying a couple of hundred metres or so off shore.

gull and breaking wavea

The fog was a blessing because it brought birds that are normally little more than dots close in too the shore, meteors blazing along the horizon above the swell of the sea . Small groups of Guillemots, their wings a blur as they skimmed the surface were punctuated by the more measured, languid flight of occasional Gannets. Suddenly I was awoken from the mesmeric altered state that seawatching engenders as my ears became attenuated to a faint sound from the blank canvas of the middle distance. As it grew louder I recognized the familiar “gronk” of Dark-Bellied Brent Geese reaching the end of their long odyssey from their summer breeding grounds in Northern Russia and Siberia.

brents over stiffkey marsh copy

Skein of Brent Geese over Stiffkey Harbour

Suddenly the first bird of the skein emerged from the fog. Chubby and black with the distinctive white neck band. Then the other birds emerged in their V-formation, just above the surface of the calm sea, like the Lancasters of the Dambusters raid, calling all the time. I guess this helps them maintain contact with the other birds and keep that energy saving slip streaming formation. They flew over the shingle bank and dropped onto the fresh marsh, feeding in earnest to replenish the energy burned whilst crossing the vast emptiness of featureless sea.

brent geese

Brent Geese

Fast-forward a couple of months and to a different day altogether. Lagged against the ferocious northerly driving off the sea, I stood on the exposed beach at Titchwell. Tendrils of sand whipped past and insinuated their way into every gap in my clothing. I could feel the shape of every grain of sand as they found their way insidiously into my mouth, which was clamped shut. I scanned the boiling sea for birds moving up the coast but it was difficult to follow progress as they appeared momentarily in a trough to be obscured almost immediately by the next crest. A few Sanderlings sprinted along the sand, occasionally pausing to search out a morsel of sustenance.

sanderling

Sanderling

As I gazed through the frosted air, heavy with spray, I became aware of shapes approaching, out near the horizon. They appeared and disappeared. Where they real or just an illusion? After a few minutes it became clear that they were swans. Whooper swans. It was a family group of two adults, dazzling white against the steel grey sea, and three cygnets. These birds fly down the North Sea from Iceland, a distance of more than 1100 miles and as they grew closer to the shore the small group of us watching their progress began shouting encouragement. After what seemed an eternity they dropped exhausted onto the sea, around 100 metres off the beach, to much cheering and backslapping from the gallery. They would recover their composure then head inland to begin restoring their depleted reserves of energy.

whooper swans kyoichi narukami

© Kyoichi Narukami

I don’t know how they manage such a journey through the utmost of adversity. They are driven by urges which we once probably shared  but which have been beaten out of us by years of “civilisation”.  Anyway, the boys are back in town. The boys of winter.

seawatching

 

The Cutty Wren

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Dull days before Christmas.

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The winds that drive our weather systems seem to have taken their feet off the accelerator in the last few days. The sky has become amorphous. Endlessly grey and as unstructured as unkneaded dough, it leaks a drizzle so fine that breathing in is like chewing wet blotting paper.

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The dykes reflect the dome of nothing above and look for all the world like channels filled with potter’s slip. Vegetation rots across the fen I walk and a miasma of decay surrounds me like a cloak.

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These are the dull days before Christmas and the time of the Cutty Wren approaches.

wren

Troglodytes troglodytes. The Latin name of the Wren arises from its habit of foraging in the dark and dank bottoms of hedgerows and reedbeds. It is tiny and often overlooked, yet now considered the commonest British bird. In the long shadow cast by time long past it was considered to have supernatural powers, so much so that the Druids, who considered the bird sacred, believed they could forsee the future by listening to the song of a captured Wren. For such a tiny bird its voice has a magnitude almost on the Richter scale.

Long ago, on St Stephen’s Day, Christianity and paganism would collide as village boys rampaged through the parish, hunting the Wren. The captured bird was killed and attached to a pole decorated with ribbons and ivy. It was considered by many to be a creature of the Underworld because of its habit of frequenting the dark and secret places, and its sacrifice was a way of slaying the powers of the Dark, which seemed to rise and gather strength in the long nights and short days of Winter.

Samhain has now passed and the ploughs traditionally lay still as the ploughboys awaited the thaw of the iron soil. In the dark of a December night, on Boxing Day, an old tradition is again awake.

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Stretching back across the centuries to the far off days when Britain danced to the beat of a different drum, a Celtic drum in the Iron Age, footsteps can be heard. Slow, heavy footsteps as a group of men, all hob-nailed boots and black faces, Old Molly, and their attendant musicians, women who seem born of a hedgerow, their hats draped in garlands of Ivy, open a window into the past. They process like so many Golems, their each step seeming to tear itself from the clutch of the Suffolk clay, carrying before them a carved Wren in a bed of ivy and ribbons.

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If menhirs could move and dance this is how they would do it. Blazing torches light their way until they gather in the village of Middleton. Music strikes up, tunes from days past, whose long forgotten composers lie slumbering in the cold ground.

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A bygone era, when the ploughboys from an analogue time of heavy horses danced for pennies to feed their families, comes to life for an hour as the men begin to dance in their measured, ponderous way.

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Silent and unemotional they dance on, the nails in their boots throwing up sparks into the cold night air. Finally they sing a song of Wren hunting and a final dance around the Wren takes place.

 

The dark closes in again as the torches are extinguished and Old Glory melt away to drink ale and tell stories of that one day in the year, when the King of the Birds was hunted. Somewhere close by a Wren, roosting in the heart of an Ivy locked in an embrace with an Oak, which had been awoken by the dance, closes its eye and returns to its slumbers.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.