Three Months in Winter

Morning and evening, the pink-footed geese fly over the village, their haunting, yelping calls bracketing the day. They fly from the safety of the mudflats and shallow waters of the Wash, that great bay of the North Sea, out to the sugar beet fields, to feed on the shattered remnants of the harvested crop. On that twice-daily commute, they fly over saltmarsh and freshmarsh, woodland and fen, pasture, heath, rivers, hedgerows, village gardens.

I make the same journeys, much on foot, some on foot after driving. I can walk from the village to the sea; I can walk to fen and woodland, arable fields and hedgerows, pasture and fresh water. Open heath, saltmarsh, freshmarsh and larger rivers requires a car.  I am here for the birds and the walking, and the great open skies and long views, and the weather that is so much better than Ontario’s from January to March. Three months in winter. These are notes, thoughts, observations, organized more or less by habitat.

Arable, February 14th 2017

shernbourne-walk

Up the hill and along the field paths towards Ingoldisthorpe. Robins and wrens and dunnocks in the hedgerows, the dunnocks singing loudly, perched high. From up here, at the top of the greensand ridge that runs roughly north to south along this part of West Norfolk, I can see over the Wash to Lincolnshire. I’m nearly 5 km from the Wash, but I can see birds – gulls, mostly – moving over the water.  There are gulls much closer, too: I pass a sugar-beet field being ploughed: a horde of birds follow the plough, mostly black-headed gulls, but there are one or two common gulls in among them, picking up the exposed invertebrates.  Jackdaws strut and search further away from the machine.

The field path skirts Ingoldisthorpe, paralleling a lane and, across the field, the Ingol. The riverbank is treed, and above the trees two buzzards are circling, calling, probably a pair laying claim to their territory. On the ploughed and harrowed field, pied wagtails by the dozen bob and run, searching for food. There’s one grey wagtail amongst this flock, but I can’t find it today.

As I cross the Ingol – I’m on farm track now – blue tits and great tits are feeding on the trees at the edge of the river: the blues higher up, on thinner twigs, the greats lower, on thicker branches, neatly dividing the banquet. Blackbirds scratch among the leaf litter and snowdrops. I’m hot: it’s 10 C, the sun is out, I’m protected from the wind, and I have too many layers on.  I remove on layer, stuff the thin shirt in the pocket of my gilet, and keep walking.

Pheasant feeders line the lanes and hedgerows, attracting mostly wood-pigeons, it appears, until partridge explode from beside me. I get the binoculars up in time to see the white faces: red-legged partridge, introduced in the 17th century for sport. A pheasant calls, and another: there are hundreds here, bred and fed for the guns, they’re the most common road-kill, along with muntjac deer, that I see.

On a field on winter wheat four hares catch my attention. Two are sparring, suggesting they are male and female; the other two look on.  Hares boxing were long thought to be rival males, but research indicates it’s actually a female interacting with a male, possibly a judgement of the male’s strength and endurance.

I turn off the field paths and up the narrow lane into Shernbourne (which, by its width, delineated by old trees among the hedges, looks as if it was once a drove, the lanes used to move cattle and sheep to market or to grazing). Another covey of partridge break cover, but they’re not red-legged. The grey, or English, partridge, is the native bird of England: Norfolk, and west Norfolk at that, is one of their few strongholds, due mostly to a number of enlightened land-owners and farmers who actively encourage the birds, leaving weeds standing, farming at least part of their land without pesticides (grey partridge need insects as well as grain), and providing cover.  In the years we’ve been coming to Norfolk, they’ve gone from extremely rare to a common sight on almost every walk through arable land.

As I descend into Shernbourne, nestled in a fold of land where the Ingol originates, theshernbourne road-bank is covered in snowdrops. I walk carefully: this is a narrow lane in a deep-sided cutting, with no place to avoid an on-coming vehicle. I’m not worried about cars, particularly, but a big tractor and I could be at a stand-off! Robins sing as I walk through the hamlet, and collared doves coo from roofs.

No tractors.  I climb up the other side of the valley on the rough verge: this road is busier, faster, and not a good place to be, especially on the hill. But where the land flattens again, there is a track between two hedges paralleling the road. I walk along this, seeing no birds at all, until it meets an unpaved track that will take me back towards Dersingham.

It’s quiet, very quiet. Time of day is a factor: it’s mid-afternoon, warm and sunny, so there is little need for birds to be actively foraging.  But this is also intensive agriculture, probably with high pesticide use. There are belts of planted conifers, for game-bird shelter and for windbreaks on this sandy soil, but I’m not seeing weed strips, or standing maize. A few wood-pigeon, a few jackdaws, the occasional dunnock and wren in the hedge.

I turn off the track and onto the lane that will take me back down, off the high ground, into Dersingham.  The lane is narrow, but the verges are wide, and in most places walkable, which is good, because it’s here I meet the big tractor.  We exchange waves. At a gap in the hedge I look over the field: there are pheasant and red-legged partridge, and the ubiquitous wood-pigeon.

Just before I begin my descent down Dodd’s Hill I hear them: the pink-footed geese, flying west to the Wash. It’s only three o’clock, early for a return to their night-time roost.  What has made them move so soon? Perhaps their feeding field is under the plough today; perhaps they were just satiated with sugar-beet.

I reach the bottom of Dodd’s Hill, cross the road, consider. I’m footsore and thirsty. The pub is right there…time for a cider and crisps, before the last few hundred meters home.

West Norfolk, June 2015

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.

Norfolk

Beyond the village, west towards the Wash, flat fields of barley and wheat, latticed with ditches, lie on either side of the paved right-of-way out to the water. Once this was marsh, and from the satellite images on Google Earth, the patterns of waterflow can still be seen, like a ghost, or a memory, held in the soil.

Around the village, around its bungalows and houses, shops and pubs, church and hall, people going about their lives shopping, walking dogs, gardening, working, I see other ghosts, memories not my own underlying the quotidian. My father’s memories, and his parents, and beyond that for unknown years. Memories now at their newest eighty-seven years past, and going back for generations.

I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring. I would like, as much as can be in a changed world, to know this place as my forebearers did, the knowledge of foot and sight and smell and feel. I have been making small beginnings, over the last thirty years, coming closer together over these last ten. Now retirement gives us longer periods here: a month in the spring of 2015; the first two months of 2016.

A century ago my great-grandfather built a tiny wooden bungalow, a beach cottage, on the shingle beyond the marshes. I do not know exactly where. Between Dersingham and the Wash were the marshes, and, the first part of the lane which is now the bridleway from Station Road, which is recorded on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk. There was (and is) also the Drift, a droveway to move sheep on and off the marshes.

What lay between the edge of the village and the Wash I imagine to be much like the shooting marsh beside Titchwell: a mix of rush and sedge and ling, cut with hundreds of channels and small ponds, rich with wildfowl, water vole and waders. Perhaps not, though; perhaps it was grazing marsh, diked and drained, wet meadow. And perhaps it was a mix of the two; I suspect this is the most likely. Some of the drains, or sluices, are on Faden’s map, so drainage had begun in at least the 1700s.

Now the bridleway and some of the side lanes are paved, huge, tilting slabs of concrete pavement. I am not sure when this was done: either before the war, when the shingle from the pits at the Wash’s edge was being removed, or after the floods of 1953. To the south of the bridleway, the land belongs to the Sandringham estate; to the north, to (mostly) another landowner. The land is arable, planted to cereals for the most part, but also managed for wildlife, or at least for shooting. Weedy headlands, broad buffer strips on either side of the waterways and around each field, some fields left to grass fallow, strips and clumps of trees: all give shelter not only to the pheasant and red-legged partidge, but to other wildlife. The first morning we walked out there were hares everywhere. Marsh harriers hunted over the fields and the marshes; whitethroat, dunnock, robins, blackcaps, and reed and sedge warblers sang, along with finches, green and gold, and linnets. Songs I do not know, songs to learn, to become part of the tapestry.

A few greylag geese are raising goslings in the fields near the Wash, along with several Egyptian geese. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach. Goldfinches twitter from the tops of the blackthorn. Cuckoos call from the woodlands. A whitethroat sings from every bush or tall reed along the ditches, it seems; some will be raising cuckoo chicks, unwittingly.

But while the land has changed, two things have not: the sky and the sea. The vast Norfolk skies, the ebb and flow of the tide over Ferrier and Peter Black Sands, and the birds that belong to both: in May, oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and grey plover, feeding at the edge of the sands, moving with the tide, or taking to the skies in huge wheeling flocks, sometimes put up by a peregrine, sometimes by seemingly nothing. And along with waders, black-headed gulls, nesting on the rocks and islands of the pits, or out on the remnants of the shingle gantry, a structure that was built in the 1930s to load the beach pebbles onto boats, and has withstood the storms of 1953 and 2013.

I am drawn to this flat and open land. There are several walks through woodland available to me, but my instinct is to go west, out into the fields, or the fen. I explore different routes: there is a permissive path that runs north from the Station Road bridleway, over to the edge of Ingoldisthorpe Common: I try that. It loops around two fields: the part that parallels the A149 is loud with road noise, and a few birdsongs from the belt of woodland between the road and the fields, but the western side is quiet. I watch buzzards hunting, one coming down repeatedly into the uncut hayfield beside me, but I see no evidence of success. But it’s an adult bird, so it knows what it’s doing. A kestrel hovers over the same grasses but does not dive. In the distance a cuckoo calls, and the ubiquitous wood pigeons beat across the fields.

Another time I access the fields a bit further south, from the Drift. The Drift runs, for much of its length, between a thick hedge or woodland on the south and a ditch on the north, edged first with houses and then with fields. West of the A149 the southern side is a mix of field and woodland, but the boundary is still treed. Good songbird habitat; lots of blue tits, robins, dunnocks. Wildflowers grow on both sides: yellow flag iris in the ditch, kingscup and buttercup, all yellow. On the woods’ side a creeping purple mint – heal all? – and a starry white flower colour the grasses. I need a book. Or an app.

Where the Drift ends at a cross lane – a Sandringham estate farm lane, and at least to the north open to walkers to make a connection with the bridleway to the Wash – I stop, and look west, thinking of my grandfather’s walk. To do that walk today, were it possible, there are at least three waterways to be crossed: Boathouse Creek, a drain, and the River Ingol, challenges in themselves. What is gone is the vast web of minor channels between them, and the right to access.

I watch the fields for a while. Gulls circle and scream at the edge of the Wash, a kilometer or so distant. Pheasants call. To the south, in the woodland called Gogg’s Whins and firmly signed as to no public access, there are feeding stations for the gamebirds: these are birds for the shooting.

A gamekeeper and his black lab begin to walk a field north of me, paralleling the Drift. As I turn and walk east again, we keep pace with each other. When he reaches a small woodland, I hear the shotgun. I can’t determine what he’s after – possibly wood pigeon, more likely one of the Corvidae – crow or magpie. I hear half a dozen shots as I continue east.

Back within the village boundaries a gate opens off the Drift and into a woodland marked on the maps as Bypass Wood. (Unless a woodland or other landscape feature is very old, it will tend to have a practical name: Bypass Wood edges the A149 bypass of the villages of Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe and Snettisham, and does not appear on the 1992 Ordnance Survey map.) I follow the path round and through the woodland, hearing long-tailed tit, and enter the village fen at its western end. The village fen (once known as Bog Common) is one of the three commons of Dersingham, and would have once been grazed, the reeds gathered and the birches cut for fuel and peasticks; now it is managed as a nature reserve.

I watch a family of robins in one clump of birches, and a single female blackcap. The path branches and I cross the Lynn Road and enter Sandringham Woods, immediately turning left and back up the hill (well, small rise, but this is Norfolk, so it’s a hill), crossing at some point onto Shut-Up Common. More long-tailed tits chatter from the birches which dominate the common now: once it was open heath and bracken, kept that way by the large population of rabbits, and the commoner’s right of wood gathering. Myxomatosis reduced the rabbit population, and most villagers don’t gather wood now. I follow the track across to Heath Road and onto Open Common, and come out on the Lynn Road. From here it’s a ten minute walk back to the cottage.

Had I chosen to walk up Heath Road, I would have passed the house my great-grandfather had built, known then as The Retreat. From this house, it’s a twenty-minute or so walk through Shut-Up Common and across what is now Sandringham Country Park to Sandringham House itself, a walk (or perhaps a boy’s run) my father did frequently in the years he lived here, sent to Sandringham with a message for his grandfather. When he and I and my sister came back, he was in his early 80s and had not made that walk in seventy years, but he unerringly took us across the overgrown common with its branching paths, and onto the estate, the memory of the landscape lying deep within the hidden neural networks of his mind.