The frothy umbels of cow parsley along the lanes are beginning to fade, to be replaced by the brilliant white of ox-eye daisies . There is less birdsong; instead, fledglings shout from the hedges and trees, demanding food. Pheasant chicks burst from cover as I walk through Bypass Wood on my way to the village fen.
What shapes a landscape begins in its depths: the soils that lie beneath the heath and woodland and arable fields, influencing drainage, fertility, and acidity, affecting plant and animal life, human use, and even ownership. I am just beginning to see this on my walks, both around the village and further afield.
The Drift, which I walked along to reach Bypass Wood, was once access to the western sections of a much-larger Dersingham Common. The western reaches of the common were flatter than the current commons, and drier than the Bog Common. The edges of the old Dersingham Common and the edges of the sand-belt in the base soil map below follow a common line. Walking the Drift, the subtle land contours can be seen, especially at the western end, where the islands of high land rise above what once once marsh. Now only undulations in the wheat show the difference.
Walking east along the Drift, back into the village, the land rises infinitesimally, obvious only as the dyke on the southern edge gradually blends into the fields. Woodland and pasture lie on both sides now. These were part of the common land, but these were lands that could be put to the plough, and so, it appears, they were taken as part of the Dersingham Inclosure Act of 1797, when land-owners fenced common land for their own purposes. What was left as commons, for grazing, bracken, and wood for the villagers of Dersingham, was the common land lying on the less fertile, steep, greensand ridges that now make up Open and Shut-up Commons, and, the wet fenland of the Bog Common. This was the pattern repeated over Norfolk: the land left for the villagers was the poorest heath and fenland. (Although, deeper digging shows that some of the uses of Dersingham’s common land includes arable, grazing, and shooting rights…but the land used in this way is effectively not common land, although the revenues fund the management of what is left.)
My father’s memories of the common were of land utilized by the villagers. Pea-sticks were cut from the birches, and bracken gathered for fodder. There was a common-keeper, who slept in a shack on the common on a bed of bracken. Ponies grazed. Rabbits were taken for food. Heathland is a man-made landscape, but one so ancient it it is a valid and valuable ecosystem, habitat to flora and fauna found nowhere else. But changing ways of life changed the use of common land, and heathland was left to revert to birch and nettles, or else became pine plantations. Dersingham’s three public commons now are used primarily for dog-walking.
Heathlands may have sand, greensand, or chalk as the bedrock, but each type of heathland is slightly different. Sand heathlands tend to be acidic; that on chalk may have a thin layer of acidic soils overlying the alkaline chalk. Acidic heathlands, dominated by Erica species, were often planted to pines, especially where rabbits, warrened on the heath as a source of food, reduced the landscape to blowing sand. On the old map Sandringham Warren adjoins and perhaps includes part of Dersingham Common. Walking up the sand ridge that rises into Sandringham Park, the demarcation is a boundary ditch, crossed frequently now by unoffical paths; ‘official’ ones have bridges. This is all plantation, with an understorey of rhododendrons and other shrubs, and home to several species of tits. In early June they are all feeding young, and begging and contact calls fill the woods. Jays flit among the pines. There are no rabbits to be seen.
I feel no affinity for plantation (or most woodland, to be honest) and walk here only occasionally. But just west of here, and below the sand ridge, lies a large expanse of open heath: Dersingham Bog National Nature Reserve.
At dusk, (which is at ten p.m. on this June day) we drive to the Bog and walk out and down onto the reserve. We stand on the track, listening. From the pines edging the heath comes the churring of nightjar, a bird related to North America’s whipporwills and chuck-wills-widows. A night bird, becoming active at dusk to hunt moths and beetles over the heathland; sleeping motionless by day on horizontal branches.
Several birds churr, from both left and right of us. Brief glimpses are all we get as the birds swoop over the heath in the increasing dark. Dersingham Bog is low, a triangular scoop of land surrounded on two sides by the sand ridge and on the third by pine plantation: the birds do not show easily against the dark trees. Higher heaths give better views. As we walk back to the car glow-worms shine from the bracken.
In daylight, stonechat, woodlark, and tree pipit can be found here, and in the acidic bog that lies in the lowest elevation of the heath, a number of specialist acid plants – sundews, bog myrtle – grow. Butterflies and moths flit, and bumblebees (three species, told apart by the colours of their rumps and/or legs) gather nectar and pollen. In August, the heath flowers, brilliantly purple, and it can be very hot in this sheltered, sandy bowl. Like most heaths, it became significantly overgrown in the years following World War I, cleared in part and occasionally by fires generated by the railway that once ran beside it. Significant work was needed to return it to open heathland, maintained now by grazing cattle.
The cuckoos have gone. Two weeks ago, out at the Wash, they were calling from the shrubs surrounding the RSPB reserve, and further inland from the woodlands. Now, silence. Reed warblers and other small birds are busy raising huge cuckoo chicks, though.
There are two edges here. The first are the mudflats, those transient lands ‘between the salt water and the sea strand’, filled with birds; the second is the shingle beach, also but less obviously filled with life. The mudflats, actually silt-covered sand, are both mutable and immutable. Immutable, in that they have kept their basic shapes and properties for untold years, long enough to be both named and mapped. Mutable, in that each tide reveals more or less of them, and each storm changes them slightly. Today at high tide the edges of Peter Black Sand are half a kilometer or more offshore, but with the right conditions of moonphase and water, high tide can lap the edges of the shingle. When this happens, the birds are pushed to the very edge in huge numbers, wheeling in huge clouds above the encroaching tide. But today they move slowly at the edge of the incoming water, only occasionally taking to the air.
The shingle is quiet except for the screaming of gulls, the calls of waders, and the songs of small birds in the gorse. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach, and the plant life is specialized and to some extent uncommon. While classified as shingle grassland, there are, apparently, twelve distinct plant communities, reflecting the height above high water mark and the composition of the shingle.
A sea-bank, or dyke, holds the Wash back from the arable fields to the east of it. Most of these embankments are on Faden’s 1797 map, and there are mentions in much older documents of sea-banks failing on the Dersingham marshes in medieval times. The shingle ecosystem exists between the Wash and the embankments, and to some extent on the side of the embankments facing the sea. In the flood of 2013, this whole area was under water. The rising sea destroyed one of the hides, moved another, and introduced salt water into the freshwater ponds. We walked the reserve only a few weeks after the flood: silt and debris covered the site and in some places was nearly to the top of the seawall. Less than two years later, there is almost no visible damage. The vegetation looks as it always has, in my memory.
There are no government plans to protect this coast any further, south of the village of Heacham. No higher sea-walls will be built: if it floods, it floods. (Landowners – mostly Sandringham and Ken Hill Estates – can choose to build privately funded embankments.) Saltmarshes are natural coastal protection, creating a buffer and a transition zone between the sea and the land. I may see the land between the village and the Wash return to saltmarsh, the haunt of waterfowl and curlew, the curls of the roddons below the soil echoed in the channels and ponds of a living marsh.