A grey morning, late November; a blanket of thick, high-tog cloud slung over the wet flatlands of northeast Norfolk. The day begins serendipitously when, approaching the car park at Horsey Windpump, two distant grey shapes are spotted in a roadside field – grey forms that have enough about them to demand a second look. Binoculars reveal them to be common cranes, an ironic name even here in one of their few British strongholds.
Cranes have bred in the region of Horsey Mere for over three decades but all my previous visits to the area had proved to be fruit-, or rather, bird-less. This time they were there for the asking: a pair feeding on the far side of a field, their visibility as good as it gets for cranes, which, despite their bulk and striking appearance, are shy birds that can be hard to locate. The birds stayed for a minute or two as binoculars were passed round before raising their wings to fly a over a hedge, out of vision. A fleeting sight, but a thrilling one – it was easy to why the Chinese call them “birds of heaven”. I had seen cranes before in Norfolk, at Stubb Mill, a remote winter raptor roost near Hickling Broad, where I witnessed half a dozen swooping in low, bugling their Latin name “Grus Grus”, just as darkness fell. This though, was a surprise sighting – unprepared for, unexpected – and all the more magical for that.
We had, in fact, come to Horsey for the seals. But first, a walk through the marshes alongside Horsey Mere, then to follow the channel of Waxham New Cut before crossing the coast road to Horsey Gap to reach the dunes and the beach. Close to Brograve Mill, a solitary marsh harrier was quartering the reed-beds on the opposite bank. The jackdaws that had gathered on the broken remains of its wooden sail flew off as we approached the mill. Long an icon of the Norfolk Broads, this photogenic ruin looked to be reaching critical mass in its ruination; the brickwork of its tower leaning, Pisa-like, in a losing battle with gravity.
The car park at Horsey Gap had its usual compliment of visitors – most folk do not want to have to walk far to fulfill their annual seal pup quota. Clearly it has been a good year for grey seals, with more than 300 newly born pups along this stretch of coast. Signs and plastic ribbon barriers do their best to encourage the over-inquisitive to keep at bay. Grey seals, despite their bulk, are the epitome of vulnerability. On land anyway – slumped on the beach liked huge slugs with lovable Labrador faces, their awkward obese bodies are an encumbrance out of the water.
The beach action is minimal: an occasional clumsy rolling over; the odd shuffle forward using flippers for traction; sporadic barking and baring of teeth between rival males. The scene looks like an aftermath of overindulgence, bodies adrift on the beach sleeping off the effects of a heavy night. Perhaps it is all that hyper-rich seal milk that explains this torpor: the effort the pups take to digest the 60%-fat fluid, the energy involved in the cows’ synthesising the milk from a diet of fish? Such extreme inactivity brings to mind an assembly of turkey dinner-replete families on Christmas afternoon, individuals sprawled on sofas somnolently waiting for the Queen’s speech. Maybe this is the subliminal reason that so many people come here to see the seals on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day?
Heading inland back to the car, the lowering sun finds a gap in the clouds to paint flame red those that lie beneath. We stop for a pint in the pub and, looking out of the window observe a deer, emboldened by the burgeoning dark, casually crossing a field of sugar beet. At the car park, as the last traces of daylight evaporate, three V-shaped formations of geese fly overhead, their high, wild calls preceding the appearance of their silhouettes in the sky.