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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This really was no country for old men.