Uncomfortably Numb

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

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

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

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

field of snow

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

farm

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

fieldfare 2

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

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

mallards on pond

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

carrion crow and spindrift

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

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

jay

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

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

ice fall tree

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

blackbird

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

robin

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

coots and tufties

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

pochards

 

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

pied wagtail

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

icicles

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

salhouse snowy trees2bw a

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

snow drift

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

a rabbit passed this way spinks hill near salhouse

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

green woodpecker 2

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

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

siskin

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

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

 

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No Country For Old Men

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

view along the coast

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

hares

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

wet wood

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

robin

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

mole

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

fieldfare and lapwing

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

bramblings

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

behind the dunes

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

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

cornice

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

sea2

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

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

herring gull

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

dune slack

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

wind blown tree

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

scrub woodland

This really was no country for old men.

 

The River And The Hills

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

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

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

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

kestrel falcon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

great spot

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

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

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

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The Old Ways

The forecast spoke of unbroken sunshine, which would lift spirits beaten down by a long, wet winter, but the reality was somewhat different. I pulled on my boots at Ranworth Staithe as the south westerly, bone chilling in its ferocity, roared over my bare head like breaking waves. Those invisible waves were rendered visible by its insistent harrying  and tearing at  the waters of Malthouse Broad.

The surface was a dark blue-grey and choppy, throwing the row of Coots, like a line of 8 balls, up and down, as if they were on a Cake Walk fairground ride. A raft of mixed duck species took shelter in the lee of the far shore. This was not a good place  for the inexperienced sailor. The staithe was unusually deserted. It was nice to have the place to myself and my thoughts. I had decided to walk over to Panxworth and back along some old ways and see what was thrown up by happenstance.

ranworth village hall

I walked along the lane which winds past the entrance to the boardwalk leading to the floating visitor centre on Ranworth Broad, and then bends past the rustic village hall, all thatch roof and split plank walls, like a clinker-built boat, analogue in a digital world, and climbs wearily to the towering presence of St Helen’s Church, known as the cathedral of the Broads, the crumbling wall exposing the décolletage of the churchyard.

ranworth church 1

Before I reached the village hall a small bird flew into the Ivy gripped trunk of an Oak.

nuthatch 3

I saw quick jerky movement and I picked out a Nuthatch, slate grey back and warm chestnut sides with a long black bill like a missile. A black stripe, as if it was wearing a thin bandana, separated the colours on its head, in the manner of a dado rail. Its black eye glistened, as it darted constantly, searching out sustenance.

thin hedge

I continued along lanes, keeping close to the meagre shelter of the thin hedgerows, bulked up with cardigans of Ivy. Dead leaves were scooped up by the insistent wind and scraped across the ground with a sound like stiff paper being crumpled. A Horse Chestnut, festooned with sticky buds, like flypaper, gently clasped a gossamer and moss nest to the end of a twig.

nest in horse chestnut

I paused at the lonely tower of All Saints, its decayed nave and chancel eradicated from the site long ago and now fast disappearing from living memory. A couple of Jackdaws regarded me from the top with their suspicious bright grey eyes and then were carried off on the wind, like black confetti.

panxworth tower

As I grew close to the hamlet of Pedham the bullying wind used the strength of its flexed muscles and pushed a bulk of grey cloud ahead of it, which leaned forward as if it were pulling some great weight. It quickly closed down the already occluded blue remnants of the sky. Sticks of dusty sunlight struck the ground, illuminating small patches. The glowing columns leaned at a shallow angle yet were straight, like searchlight beams. I turned left onto a path along a wet meadow scattered with the frozen explosions of Soft Rush.

soft rush

Beyond the raffia fringe of reeds and the tangle of last years bramble, the sombre darkness of Alder carr.

male bullfinch

White flashes near the top of an Alder revealed Bullfinches, 1 male, John Bull, with his puffed out deep salmon pink chest, contrasting with his black cap, like a beret on his head, and his grey mantle, and 3 females, their plumage more subdued and sombre but no less attractive for it.

female bullfinch 2

A patch of sun, sweeping across the trees lit the birds like a Klieg light for less than a minute. As if chasing its warmth they flew as it passed on.

Ahead of me, by a gate, stood the corpse of an English Elm, its bark stripped uppermost branch pointed like a fleshless finger to the sky. It is ironic that a tree much beloved of coffin makers should have become a coffin for its own lost vitality. Its Achilles heel is a Bark Beetle which spreads a fungus which,  in a grim parody of David and Goliath, smites down trees when they reach 30-40 years. Once a familiar tree of the countryside it is yet another barometer of the constant change in the biosphere.

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The path led me to a road, with the now domesticated shell of Panxworth Ironworks ahead. Between 1869 and 1883 it would have been belching dark smoke as its foundrymen fabricated a wealth of very diverse agricultural equipment, now consigned to history and agricultural museums.

I climbed the hill to turn left into another footpath. The weather front which had driven the cloud had itself been peeled away like old wallpaper and banished to the north east.

footpath 2

The sky glowed blue like a fresh coat of paint and the dazzling sun shone over my shoulder and lit the old and knarled hedge and the fresh green of the meadow. In the distance was a patch of Gorse, its yellow flowers like fireflies, but lacking the exotic coconut perfume of Broom.

goldcrest

The unsullied light picked out a wealth of small birds; Marsh Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long Tailed Tit and Goldcrest.

long tailed tit 2

Blackbirds, shadows casting shadows, were ubiquitous and scolded me loudly. The number of native birds is definitely swelled by their continental cousins this winter but although their call may have some subtle dialectic variation my untutored ear could not distinguish it.

blackbird 2

I crossed a road exchanging one path for another. South Walsham Broad’s waves sparkled like diamonds between the trunks of the stand of Alders. I searched for Siskins, to no avail. A shadow eclipsed my view of the Broad with its passing. As if Dracula himself had passed by, a Buzzard sent Wood Pigeons exploding from the trees like fireworks.

The path was lined with majestic mature Oaks, wearing Ivy stoles.

footpath 5 oak

I continued and as the path grew stonier a mutation of Fieldfares burst out of a tall Hawthorn hurling runic insults at me for disturbing their feast.

fieldfare

I turned left and walked the last stretch of lane, with grazing marsh threaded with crystal clear dykes to my right.

dyke

A lone Chinese Water Deer paused among the deep vegetation to regard me with black button eyes. I noticed that his left teddy bear ear was split, perhaps as the result of the sometime mortal combat that is their rutting. Their long tusks are as lethal as a Sgian Dubh.

chinese water deer

A scurrying in an Ivy-covered Holly revealed a Treecreeper, its bill as long and fine as a surgical needle, its white underside contrasting with the Woodcock patterning of its upper body. The collective noun for this secretive and often overlooked little bird is a spiral. Watch one climbing mouse-like up a tree for a few seconds and you will see why.

treecreeper

I stopped to admire a Hazel, a tangle of new growth sprouting from the fading brutality of  earlier trimming with a flail. It covered its scars with catkins, dangling like earrings.

footpath 4 catkins

All too soon my promenade was over but not before looking deep into the bottomless yellow gaze of a Grey Heron, Old Frank the angler, motionless on the quay heading. His head and chest feathers, streamed like Tibetan prayer flags on the gusts of wind.

heron

 

Take My Soul To Where The Falcon Flies

The road, white concrete, bleached by years of exposure to the elements, stretched out ahead like a cursus, its vanishing point testing my eyesight to breaking point. The weather forecast predicted sunshine and clear blue skies but the reality was  scudding rafts of the merest rainfall in the air. It was barely visible at times but this fine drizzle, the sort so thin that it insinuates between the pores of Gore-Tex, almost at the molecular level, was going to be here for a while.

Beside the road was the raised bank that contained and canalized another cursus, the New Cut, completed in 1832 to link the Rivers Yare and Waveney and facilitate the shipping of traffic between Lowestoft and Norwich and bypassing the extortionate taxes being levied in Great Yarmouth. On the other side of the New Cut was a third cursus, the railway line from Lowestoft and Norwich.

I pulled my cap down over my brow, its peak shielding my spectacles from the rain, its Harris Tweed warming my frozen thoughts, and set off, in the one direction possible, walking towards the singularity of the horizon. The mizzle made it seem like I was looking through a dirty window and the view was shutting down all the time. Brigadoon could be out there, waiting, for all I knew.

A  chink in the blanket and a hint of blue raised hope and after fifteen minutes the drizzle turned to random spots and then evaporated away taking with it the heavy grey shroud, ominous and lumbering, which had dominated the sky, now in retreat. A clearing sky, blue background,  was melting the cloud, and the remains of the light rain threw a rainbow across the sky in a last act of defiance to the sun, which now prevailed .

rainbow on the island

My mood was lifted as sunlight, arrow straight and lightning fast, stabbed and pierced the dissipating mantle and made groundfall, lighting up large patches of the marshes. I began searching the horizon for my quarry. It was a slim chance that I would spot a bird weighing maybe two pounds in an area of 7.75 flat square miles with a sky as big as the northern hemisphere.

I was looking for that most elemental of British raptors, the Peregrine Falcon, mercurial and in the way of sub-atomic particles, a bird whose presence is often inferred by the effects it has on other wildlife. It appears and disappears as if it travels between dimensions effortlessly, scattering its prey species like a big wind blowing across the landscape.

I thought back to the first time I had seen a Peregrine in this area. I was at the high point at Burgh Castle and looking into the fastness of Haddiscoe Island.

burgh castle

Standing by the ruins of the Roman fort I saw a bird approaching low across the huge reedbeds, as straight and  fast  as an unleashed arrow. At first I thought it was a Sparrowhawk but this bird was  stockier, robust and pulsing with energy. Through my eyepiece I could see it was a tiercel Peregrine, heading purposefully in the direction of the flocks of waders on Breydon Water’s vast mudflats, on strong wingbeats which hurled it forward, scattering Teal, Wigeon and a few Redshanks, shouting hysterically as they scattered before the pressure wave of its passing.

This morning I scanned the gates dotted around the marsh, the portals from field to field and the sky beyond. I picked out two distant Common Buzzards and a nearer Kestrel on a post.

kestrel

A Chinese Water Deer lay in the grass, so flat that I thought it was a Hare. Closer examination revealed those fluffy teddy bear ears and black button eyes watching me intently. As if roused from its rest by the act of my observation,  it jumped to its feet and bounded off across the marsh, kicking out its back legs as it crossed dykes.

chinese watweer deer2

My attention was focused on the tall pylons ahead of me, sitting foursquare on giant elephant’s feet of concrete, on which they floated, planted on the wet ground.

pylon feet

I scanned the angles where the spars bolted together, a favourite place for sleeping Peregrines, but the giant structures were devoid of life.

stonechats

Two small birds flickered across the path, from barbed wire fence to dead plant stems and back again. Stonechats. The male, all spruce with his dark brown head, white neck band like a vicar’s dog collar and orange breast, and the female, less showy and more brown but with an orange breast, kept close. They are a most companionable and convivial bird, happily posing for photographs.

carrion crows mobbing a buzzard

As the sky continued to shake itself free of cloud it allowed the wind to begin rising up in a show of strength. Two Carrion Crows were mobbing a luckless Common Buzzard who rapidly tired of their attentions and as if brushing them away, swooped low before climbing and soaring in ever larger circles, leaving them far below. The crows shouted  triumphantly  to one another: “Kraa”, and flew together in the opposite direction.

The small stand of Teasel along the fence began to bow before the wind in submission. A small troubling of Goldfinches, their tiny calls as sweet as the tinkling of silver bells, perched at crazy angles, undaunted as they used their fine bills to mine the fruits buried deep in the seed heads.

goldfinches

The concrete road became a hoggin track and then a grass sward which was soon subsumed into the flood wall above.

panorama

I climbed up onto the wall, and Reedham, at the end of the Cut and on the far side of the Yare, was spread out before me. Its houses cluster along its waterfront and cling to the scarp beyond. As a child I always thought that it was what  Devon coastal villages would look like.

reedham

 

To the left stood the brooding Steampunk hulk of the sugar beet factory, belching steam and the foul smell of boiling beet.

cantley

I scanned the endless expanse of grazing marsh before me hoping to see a Short-Eared Owl. They are unmistakable with their big round heads studded with piercing yellow eyes, surrounded by a ring of black feathers, like thick eye liner. Cold winter days usually throw up these stunning daytime hunters quartering the grasslands. They fly low over the ground with acrobatic twists and turns as they search out voles, their preferred food.

Alas, today was not one of those days and I began my long walk back, head bowed against the fierce north easterly. A few small springs of Teal streamed back and forth across the Cut, the sun picking out the bright green specula on both males and females . Only the males had emerald bejewelled heads, like small crowns. Any soft calls they may have uttered were muted by the wind, growing in audacity by the minute,  rattling my head.

teal

A scum of light cloud had now claimed the sky and doomed the sun to a faint glow.

pylon 2

As I reached the great pylons a bird drifted into my peripheral vision, appearing to materialize out of thin air. A frisson of excitement heightened my senses. It was a Peregrine, all quick shallow beats of its pointed wings. It crossed my path to suddenly rise effortlessly, wheel and land gently a third of the way up the nearer of the two. structures.

I studied the bird carefully. The yellow cere at the base of the sickle of its bill, matching its feet exactly, told me it was an adult. The catchlights in its large black fathomless eye reflected the landscape it surveyed. This was a bird which sees all and really is the master of all is surveys. The black moustaches gave its face an imperious expression. Its barred breast glowed brown with a hint of creamy yellow. It look solid and powerful.

I looked away momentarily to catch the kaleidoscope flash of a Kingfisher hurtling along a nearby dyke. In those fleeting seconds of distraction, the Peregrine had launched itself from its perch.

juvenile peregrine 7

With a wingbeat and a glide it was gone from my world, which seemed somehow diminished by its leaving.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

mud flats 2

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.

gun hill2

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.

curlew 2

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.