On Stiffkey marshes

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On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

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We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

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In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

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The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

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That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

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Beside Song-Köl Lake

IMG_1182There are places that stay in the mind long after visiting. Places that haunt the mind’s memory cache to prevail even years after having set foot there. Such places might be mountains, or rivers, or stretches of coastline; or even villages that charm and bejewel the bedrock of a singular landscape. Usually though, it is a combination of factors that constitutes the essence of such places – earth, sky, water, topography, the patina of a human occupation that beautifies rather than despoils. One such place is Lake Song-Köl in central Kyrgyzstan, the poster girl of a country that has occasionally, and not unreasonably, been described as the most beautiful in the world.

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It had been a long time – twelve years in fact – since I had last visited. My assumption was that it hadn’t changed much in the interim. I was right – the landscape was as I remembered it, almost exactly. If anything, it was I who had changed: a dozen winters of freeze and thaw had affected me more profoundly than it had the pasture of the lake’s hinterland, the ever-renewing grazing pasture that justified its seasonal occupation.

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There are several ways to approach the lake, set high at over 3,000 metres in Naryn province in what is more or less the dead centre of Kyrgyzstan. We drove up from the east, through stark, tightly folded valleys and arid badlands, until the lake finally revealed itself as a blue sliver beyond meadows grazed by yak herds.

The yurt camp where we stayed seemed familiar, although they all tend to look much the same – a cluster of yurts, an isolated toilet cubicle, a hitching place for horses. For all I knew this may well have been where I had stayed before. Its location was certainly very similar: up along the lake’s north-eastern shore away from the main concentration of yurts close to the approach road. The camp was overseen by a cheerful baboushka*, who exercised gentle rule over her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, and fussed over her laughing grandchildren who looked so at home here on the jailoo* that you might imagined that this was the only world they ever knew, although outside the summer months they would probably be town-dwellers like the rest of us. As ever in Kyrgyzstan, we were welcomed with tea and bread… and jam, and honey, boiled sweets and biscuits – just a token snack before lunch – plov*, salad, more chai – which would be ready in an hour. There was just time for a quick walk up the broad, green valley where a drift of chestnut horses were grazing the thin grass of its slopes.

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After lunch, we went horse-riding with the baboushka’s son for the best part of three hours, two hours longer than my habitually non-equestrian body was comfortable with. Later, stiff and sore, and thankful to return to bipedal ways, we hiked up above the valley before descending down to the lake water where horses were lined up drinking. A small marshy area close to the shore revealed a solitary redshank and a grey wagtail. We had hoped for birds of prey but, other than a single circling buzzard, raptors were shy in revealing themselves. Wheatears, on the other hand, seemed to be almost everywhere, flashing white as they cocked their tails flitting from rock to rock. And skylarks too, an improbable density of them jangling the sky – the birds had flown up in such abundance from unseen nests whilst on horseback earlier I had been concerned that we might trample eggs beneath our inexpertly guided hooves.

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After dinner – fish from the lake fried in batter, more bread, more chai – another brief walk to watch the full moon rise. A band of pink cloud humbugged the darkening sky like a vein of quartz in rock as definition blurred and colour drained from the land. Above us, hovering low in the sky, as if serenading – or perhaps, scolding – the rising orb, a single skylark clattered its song in the ebbing light.

*baboushka – grandmother

*jailoo – alpine meadow providing seasonal grazing

*plov – Central Asian dish made with mutton and rice

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