The Hare and the Point

A warm, slightly hazy day on the north Norfolk coast; a day caught on the cusp as an unusually cold spring stumbles into an, as yet unknown, summer. We walk west past a few lobster boats from the beach car park at Cley-next-the-Sea, scrunching through the shingle to reach a meandering path that leads through low glaucous shrubs at the edge of a salt marsh. Just beyond the shingle ridge to our right is the North Sea, a constant mineral grumble of pebbles grinding on the tide; an aural massage – maritime poetry in motion. In the distance ahead, a solitary single–storey building, ‘Halfway House’, cuts a lonely figure in the landscape. Beyond this, in the murky haze at the very end of the Point, is the bright blue of the onetime lifeboat station that now serves as a visitor centre.

So what’s the point? Or rather, where is the Point? Blakeney Point is a shingle spit that begins at Cley Beach and extends like a claw nearly four miles to the west, the result of centuries of longshore drift piling up sand and stone to create new land. Although famous for its breeding population of harbour and grey seals, we are here today for its little terns, which nest at awkward and not particularly sensible places in the shingle leaving their eggs vulnerable to high tides and attack by opportunist predators like gulls and kestrels. Our friend Hanne is one of several volunteers responsible for keeping an eye on the birds.

A cordoned-off area of shingle encloses some of the tern’s nests, although many by now have moved on west to the end of the Point. There are oystercatchers too, and avocets – each species doing its best to mind its own business. Salt-tolerant plants like sea beet, sea campion and biting stonecrop are all anchored in the firmer shingle, while at the looser-stoned apex of the ridge that slopes steeply down to the water seakale is in full bloom. Elsewhere, clumps of yellow horned poppy, another shingle specialist, are starting to throw up flower heads in readiness for blooming. A place that instinctively you feel should be barren; it seems remarkable that anything can grow here nurtured by little else but stone, sand and saltwater.

Hanne takes us for a walk up towards Halfway House. A skylark sings high overhead, little more than a high fidgeting dot to the naked eye. In the distance, across the marshes close to Blakeney Channel, we catch sight of the unmistakable form of a marsh harrier quartering the reed beds. On the Point itself the bushes are alive with restless flittering birds that turn out to be a mixture of meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings, although at times of migration almost anything could turn up here. And it does: as first point of landfall for any bird carried unwittingly by powerful winds from the north, Blakeney Point has an impressive record of rare sightings.

Our most impressive sight by far, though, is a meeting with a brown hare – or, rather, a pair. One of them makes a run for it and disappears into the Suaeda (shrubby sea-blite), the other remains, frozen in its tracks, hunched with long ears flattened to its head in an effort to make itself small. In some ways more resembling a small deer than a large rabbit, with improbably long ears and soft, intelligent eyes, it is easy to see how hares have always been revered in British and European folklore. Long gifted magical properties by those whose livelihood affords them a close relationship to the soil, hares engender a strong sense of ‘the other’: a sacred animal, a spirit familiar, a symbol of fecundity, sex and madness. A means of divination too: the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca is said to have read the entrails of a hare as an augury for victory against the Romans in her uprising of AD61.

The hare slowly adjusts to our presence and cautiously and slowly raises its ears, then straightens its legs before finally bolting off to join its companion. Our serendipitous encounter has been no more than a minute in total but the whole incident has put a temporal brake on the space-time continuum. As the hare moves off, time – at least the quotidian linear time that embraces cause and effect – is finally unfrozen.

We continue our walk to head down a wide swath of firm shingle and sea thrift that Hanne calls the Fairway. It leads to the edge of a tidal creek close to Halfway House. The highly prized real estate of Blakeney village is clearly visible across the channel that separates us from the ‘mainland’, as is St Nicholas’ church high above the houses and, west of this, the iconic windmill at Cley. In the network of creeks and mudflats that fringe the channel, redshanks alternate between stabbing the mud in search of invertebrates and flying short distances, calling plaintively as they go. At the muddy margins, marsh samphire is starting to emerge, although it is still too early to pick. Heading back to the car park, we walk along the sloping beach alongside the outgoing tide. Beyond the silhouetted fishing boats ahead, the distant cliffs of West Runton are visible in the sea-hazed distance. Just pure sea-sound now: no motor vehicles or human voices, just the swash of waves on pebbles, the piercing cry of terns and the aerial clatter of a skylark beyond the ridge to our right.

Many thanks to Hanne Siebers and Klausbernd Vollmar for their company on the Point. Check out Hanne’s wonderful photographs of Casper, Cley’s leucistic barn owl at The Silent Hunter

Winter Light

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Even in winter, the northeast Norfolk coast has its attractions, especially over the Christmas and New Year period when many flock here to see the grey seals that come to the beaches of Winterton and Horsey to give birth. For many it is an annual outing, an opportunity to walk off seasonal excesses, to get close to nature, to delight in the spectacle of the seals and their pups. Some are tempted to get too close, of course, but these days a dedicated army of volunteers in hi-vis orange jackets ensure that visitors and their naturally curious dogs do not disturb the vulnerable animals on the beach.

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We arrive to find grey seal mothers and their fluffy-coated pups scattered like driftwood along the shoreline. Some are on the sand close to the breaking waves, while others are further inshore along the tideline, or even in the hollows of the dunes that back this coastline. Here and then along the beach, a hefty bull seal waddles in awkwardly from the surf to try his luck with one of the nursing females – this is the season for both breeding and mating.

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The seals are not the only creatures of interest here today: walking north along the beach, a small flock of snow buntings – perhaps 20 or 30 birds – rise like a flurry of sleet on our approach before setting down again a little further ahead. Winter visitors from much further north in Scandinavia and the Arctic, they resemble frosted sparrows as they peck busily at the seaweed, sticking close together for security.

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The seals and birds are engaging but the real star this cold January afternoon is the quality of the light, which morphs from gloom to gleaming in the space of half an hour. At first it seems as if the sky is weighed down like stone beneath a dense slate-grey sheet of stratocumulus but cracks soon appear and, like a hagstone held to the eye, an opening forms in the clouds to reveal the blue that lies beyond. As the sun loses height  beneath the cloud layer, shafts of pale golden light break through. The play of light on the dunes invokes a ghostly atmosphere. The wind-bent marram grass of the dunes, caught in the glow, seems almost fluid – an impressionist rendering of a wave-tossed ocean. In the distance, beyond the luminous marram, the Perpendicular tower of Winterton’s Holy Trinity and All Saints’ Church rises loftily above the crouched bungalow roofs of the village. This fleeting serendipity of light gives the scene a numinous quality, an eerie supernatural glimmer. It is a scene that might be co-opted for the cover of a book of ghost stories – a lost work by M.R. James perhaps.

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Black Sea, Blue Sky – Balkan Rain

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This rain that has been falling almost incessantly here for the past 48 72 hours seems to have followed me back home from the Balkans. Travelling coast to coast, from Adriatic to Black Sea, over a three week period I experienced completely rain-free days only at the very beginning and end of my trip.

After a sunny start in Zadar on the Croatian coast a low blanket of rain cloud followed me all the way from Dalmatia to Srem, then eastwards to the Serbian capital. Rainfall dampened most of my days in Belgrade, pooling the pot-holed pavements of the Old Town, swelling the Danube and Sava rivers, soaking my inadequately-clad feet. The view from my apartment window was drear, smeared by a greasy film of droplets forever abseiling earthwards. Rain’s moist music filled my ears: gurgling drainpipes, the subliminal hiss of drizzle; the soft tintinnabulation of raindrops on roof tiles whenever it started to fall a little more heavily; in the distance, the rhythmic swish of car tyres riding wet cobbles. Any ventures outdoors necessitated frequent dodging into doorways and regular respite of strong coffee in smoky kafanas. Smudged ink in notebooks, vital scribblings rendered Rorschach by an ever-leaky sky – uninterpretable, beyond analysis. Water dissolvingand water removing, the song goes. There is water at the bottom of the ocean! Yes, but there was water in the streets too; thoroughfares transmogrified to shallow streams, solid surface rendered fluid.

I followed the Danube east then south along the Romanian border, enjoying a brief interregnum of fine weather before thick cloud and more rain greeted me at the east Serbian city of Zaječar. Reaching Niš, a balmy afternoon gave way to a brutal evening storm, with rainfall as dramatic and sudden as an opened sluice, lightning flashes illuminating the street like magnesium flares. Southern Serbia was a little better – just drizzle in Vranje and hazy sunshine in Pirot, although after dark it rained some more. Railroading into Bulgaria I thought I might have finally left the bad weather behind me but it was sheeting down in Sofia when I arrived, too wet to venture far from the shelter of the railway station while I waited for the overnight train to Burgas.

Mercifully, I finally managed to escape the rain on the Black Sea coast. I took a minibus to Ahtopol, the most southerly town on the Bulgarian littoral. By my reckoning this would be about as far away as possible from the concrete over-development that plagues much of the coastline. Ahtopol turned out to be refreshingly low-key: a quiet resort that still possessed a modest fishing fleet and a measure of unspoiled charm. Although summer had arrived the town was still locked in preseason inertia. The town’s beaches were virtually deserted, serried ranks of sunshades still unfurled. The sky – at long last – was blue, as was the water (not black at all). Tiny boats bobbed out to sea on gentle waves. Wild flowers bloomed on the cliff tops. Hyperactive flocks of house martins swooped low along the shore collecting flies to feed their young. In the overgrown scrubby area that led down to the beach, hidden nightingales sang, their joyous bubbling out-competing the construction noise of  workmen trying to coax a new-build hotel into service for the season.

I had a couple of days before my flight home and so made the most of this long-awaited clement weather. Even so, I scanned every passing cloud, even the most flimsy and innocent-looking, for any sign of rain to come.

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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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Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

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It began with a dislocation. A couple of weeks’ residence north of the border in the house of friends who had chosen to trade the Scottish late winter for the Antipodean summer. It was an opportunity for some writing time away from the usual distractions, with the bonus of optional walks along the Firth of Forth to stretch legs and imagination. The house, in a village a dozen miles east of Edinburgh, was situated midway between the railway station and the Forth shore – a ten minute walk to either. And if I needed a dose of cultural inspiration then I could easily catch the train into Auld Reekie and stay for as long as was necessary.

Travelling north by train, I don’t think I was even aware that the ‘Beast from the East’ was brewing trouble far away in continental Russia, and I had been installed in the house for a few days before the repeated warnings started to slowly filter into my consciousness. In those first few days of settling in, I usually worked until early afternoon before going out for a walk along the shore before it got dark. The first of these outings was at low tide. I walked westwards along the tide-ribbed sand, picking my way across shallow channels of water to head in the direction of Edinburgh, the city clearly visible ahead around the curve of the estuary. The twin-peaked bulge of Arthur’s Seat nudged the skyline in the distance, looking every bit the extinct volcano it was. Beyond it, the outline of Edinburgh Castle stood out amidst a hazy tangle of high-rise blocks and the spidery cranes of the docks at Leith. Across the calm, dark water of the Forth were the low hills of Fife. Beyond these, beyond the horizon, the jagged peaks of the Scottish Highlands rose stealthily in the imagined yonder of my mind, unseen yet a presence nevertheless.

The foreshore, glimmering in the low-slung sunshine of late afternoon, was dotted with waders preoccupied with probing the estuary mud. Periodically some perceived threat would alarm them sufficiently for them to fly off in groups before they settled somewhere else to resume feeding. A mixture of redshanks, oyster catchers and curlews, each bird provided their own distinctive piping call to create a wistful shoreline soundscape. In the shallow water close to shore, groups of wigeon huddled together companionably, elegant feathers rustling in the breeze. Out to sea, just about identifiable at this range, small rafts of goldeneye and eider bobbed dozily in the waves lost in sea duck dreams.

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Approaching Port Seton I came upon the wreck of a boat sticking out of the sand, its remnant ribs blackened by salt and age. I wondered about the boat’s history; how long it had been wrecked and abandoned here; what of the lives of the men that had once made up its crew? Time and tide had reduced it to a stark sculpture of salt-soaked wood, a skeletal marker for a vessel that had once sailed the Forth and provided a livelihood: a monument to past lives, or perhaps a warning, a cautionary memento that spoke of the power of the sea.

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On the day before the storm arrived I headed in the opposite direction for my afternoon walk, across the headland of Ferney Ness in the direction of Aberlady Bay through the curious woodland of the Gosford estate.  The sky was greyer today; the Fife shore across the water less well-defined, the ships out in the Forth no longer highlighted by sunshine but hunkered down in the water. The signs were there: a change was coming. Large concrete cube blocks lined the shoreline – tank trap defences dating from the last war; an incomplete wall to chaperone the meeting of land and sea. The blocks continued even through the woodland, weaving through the trees like a broken causeway, an accidental land art installation that marched like a concrete-laying behemoth ever eastwards.

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The ‘beast’ made landfall on Tuesday but the full extent of its might was not fully apparent until the following day. On Wednesday and Thursday it snowed all day without stopping… and then some more – Snow had fallen, snow on snow, as the famous carol goes. The world outside quickly started to lose its familiar topography – the edges of roads blurred then disappeared, footpaths and gardens lost their definition as they submitted to an ever-thickening cover of white. The world had been transformed; made pure, made ice, filtered of colour and tone to leave it monochromatic, but mostly white. The whole notion of travelling far became laughable – in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go. By Friday it seemed almost as if the world had always been like this… and always would be. Frozen in space, frozen in time, this was a world where eternity was cold and white.

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During a break in the snow showers I ventured down to the Forth shore and found the same transformed world. Stems of straw-coloured grass poked thinly through the snow on the dunes as if grasping for air. Another landfall other than that of the storm had taken place – the fresh arrival of wind-blown thrushes from Scandinavia. The sea buckthorn bushes behind the dunes were flurried with activity, noisy with bird chatter, their branches weighed down with feeding fieldfares that threw themselves up into the air at regular intervals to make a quick fly-over of the beach before returning to the shelter of the bushes and the winter-bleached berries that sustained them. In the trees of the golf links behind, there were hundreds – perhaps even thousands – more of the thrushes perched in the higher branches, occasionally flying up en masse into the air on a whim before returning to the tree. The tide was on the turn and the narrow ribbon of sand and seaweed between the water and dunes held an improbable number of birds frantically sifting through the tide line detritus for something to eat: an odd mixture of redwings and golden plover along with a few lapwings and turnstones.  This unusual parliament of birds appeared to coexist peacefully enough, out of the necessity of hunger if nothing else, but it all seemed strange and topsy-turvy: the harsh weather had brought about a dislocation, a disavowal of familiar habitat to leave an absence somewhere else.

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As if experiencing the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, I felt a parallel sense of dislodgement from the world. Telephone calls to my wife and emails to the house’s owners heightened the sense of dislocation as our communications triangulated between Scotland, Norfolk and Australia. There were absences too – of me at home in Norfolk, of my friends in the house in Scotland. The snow globes of our everyday lives had been given a severe shake up and we were all dislocated, unwittingly or otherwise, from our habitual places in the world. Digital technology has resulted in the world we live in becoming a shrunken globe of instant communication, yet the heavy snow and the enforced lack of mobility that the storm wrought resulted in a sudden reduction of the possibilities the world had to offer. In an instance, while horizons had drawn closer, the world beyond had become vast once more.

Life went on as normally as possible. I spent the days indoors writing and editing work, glancing occasionally out of the window to see if it was still snowing. I occasionally ventured out to trace a route to the village shop to buy food basics from its panic-shopped shelves. I followed my own boot prints back on the return journey – Crusoe and Man Friday on a snow-desert island. In the evenings, I cooked a meal and drank a glass or two of rationed wine. I watched the TV weather forecasts and listened to Landfall by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, a newly purchased CD that turned out to be uncannily apposite. The music helped to extricate an ear worm: Harry Lauder’s  Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, which had been put there by way of googling for something I was writing (don’t ask… not yet anyway). There again, the Lauder song was appropriate too.

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After five days of snow, wind and reduced horizons, the thaw began. Local trains started to run once more and I was able to get into Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow bloggers Murdo Eason and Brian Lavelle. Meeting with folk whose interests overlapped with my own, my sense of dislocation eased – I was back in the world, the familiar world of brick and stone and street signage, once more.

Before I returned home I went back for a final look at the shore. The snow had largely melted by now, although there were still frozen pockets of it on the dunes. The beach birdlife was much depleted: the usual redshanks and curlews were there but only a handful of redwings remained. The sea buckthorn bushes had also fallen silent now, although I could make the silhouettes of a small number of fieldfares that remained in the trees on the golf course. Thousands of birds had vanished overnight from this same locality in the brief transition from freeze to thaw. Their abrupt departure had left a void; an emptiness in the soul of this place, a sudden absence that was almost heartrending.

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Thanks to Murdon Eason and Brian Lavelle for taking the trouble to slog through the Edinburgh slush to meet up with me. Both have excellent blogs that are well worth investigating, From Hill to Sea and Edinburgh Drift. They have collaborated together to produce the highly recommended book + CD Language of Objects.

Murmuration

IMG_3939Norwich, mid January. At dusk over the past few weeks an avian spectacular has been witnessed taking place in the sky over St Stephen’s Street. As the daylight dwindles around the four o’clock mark a swirling murmuration of roosting starlings may often be seen in the sky above this busy city centre shopping street. There’s a pleasing degree of unpredictability to such behaviour, and some afternoons the starlings seem to be conspicuously absent, but as a rule the birds circumscribe a giddy figure eight in the sky above the old Norwich Union office block, Surrey Street bus station, the Marsh Insurance building and Queens Road.

IMG_3933For many of the shoppers and workers hurrying home on the bus this phenomena takes place virtually unnoticed. Even so, there are those who stop to look and wonder at such wild exuberance in what is to them a familiar and quotidian urban environment. While shopping is bought and buses are boarded in the street below the massed starlings dance above – a joyous ensemble piece that twists and turns like a single organism, choreographed by some sort of instinctive group consciousness. As the light fails the birds finally settle, with what seems like a collective spontaneous decision, on the roof of a disused office building where they will spend the night. Darkness falls: the spectacle is over for another day.

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True, this is not a particularly grand example of the murmuration phenomenon – perhaps just a thousand birds or so: it is hard to say – but beauty and wonder is relative and this modest display has a personal dimension in that it can even be glimpsed from the windows of my home. Such a spectacle within a stone’s throw of one’s own doorstep can only be seen as a gift.

Snettisham

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There’s a good omen as we leave Heacham before dawn: the sharp cry of a tawny owl emanating from somewhere in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, walking from Snettisham RSPB car park towards the beach at The Wash, there are already a  few skeins of geese in the sky, flying west, ready to breakIMG_3208fast on sugar beet fields.

Mostly though, you hear them before you see them – a noisy gabbling racket coming from dark rafts of life out on the water. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese overwintering from Greenland and Iceland – west Norfolk must seem like Shangri-La after all that tundra and icy water. The geese peel off in groups at regular intervals, forming fluid arrowheads as, honking excitedly, they fly west inland.

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There is an unwritten discipline at work, and every bird seems to know its place in the squadron. Flapping inland, the geese merge loosely with other groups before they eventually disappear from view. To our human eyes, Snettisham church rising out of the mist is the only recognisable local landmark; perhaps its steeple serves as a beacon to the geese too, as they seem to know exactly where they are going. IMG_3218

The sun rises over the land, a brilliant orange fire that lights the birds as they fly over head, turning their underbelly pink, orange, red. Momentarily they almost resemble flamingos.

IMG_3244The tide is turning quickly and hidden sandbanks are revealed as the unseen moon sucks water from the land. As dawn-pink drains from the sky our attention is drawn to an untold number of hyperactive waders a little way to the south. Mostly dunlin, curlew and knot, it is the latter, another Arctic winter visitor, that are the most extraordinary as dense clouds of them rise sporadically into the sky, tightly grouped like starling murmurations. As they swiftly weave and turn, shifting the angle of their wings, the colour of this mass organism transforms dramatically from black to white to golden – the avian equivalent of a firework display. Such fleeting serendipity of form and colour: a photograph can hardly do this justice. As with the pink-footed geese, the Arctic’s seasonal loss is Norfolk’s gain.

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Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

IMG_6854I don’t quite know what it is that has made me think of Vietnam recently. Maybe it was a casual mention in a conversation that made me realise that I don’t have a very vivid memory of the short time I spent in that country a couple of years ago. It was, after all, just a fleeting glimpse of the fat bottom end of a long thin country – a day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a few days up the Mekong River.IMG_6933I wandered Ho Chi Minh City in a jet-lagged daze, stupefied by a body clock that badly needed winding and oppressive tropical heat that clung like a blanket. What did I do? I gaped at a few of the tourist sites I was told to look at. I dodged road-wide flanks of manic motorbikes (just wait until they get cars!), ate fishy, chilli-spiked noodles and bought, of all things, a copy of David Copperfield in a savagely air-conned bookshop (an unconscious hankering for the fictionalised Yarmouth coast perhaps?). The rest is a sleep-deprived blur, although I do remember Christmas lights – it was early January – incongruous as a Santa suit in steamy Indochina. The city, as I remember it, seemed an awful long way from the imagined sinful metropolis of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.IMG_6811I am also struck by the visa in my passport that reads: Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – despite the reinvented name and the occasional remnant image of a wispy-bearded Uncle Ho, it was hard to imagine anywhere more unashamedly capitalist. The new moniker foisted on the city in 1976 seemed an ironic rebranding for a city that was firmly in the US camp throughout the war (The American War, the Vietnamese call it). One can only imagine the victors’ delight in defiantly renaming this southern capitalist city after their erstwhile northern communist leader. But a name is just a name – the USA may have lost the war but it was the West that inevitably won in the end. IMG_6844

IMG_6919As for the Mekong, what stays with me most is its murkyy lifelessness. It took a day or two along the river before it dawned on me: despite fisherman eking a living from the river’s grey waters and insects aplenty, I slowly realised that there were almost no birds to be seen. No dipping kingfishers, no fish-spearing herons, no skeins of geese overhead; just an occasional swallow flitting nervously above the water. The first egrets I saw were dead: a sorry pair on display in a food market, a meagre meal for a poor family. Uncontrolled hunting and trapping, along with severe habitat depletion, appear to be the main reasons for this sad depletion of what, in a previous life, would have surely been a tropical paradise. IMG_7043A river without birds is a like a song without a melody. Things improved slightly as we approached the Cambodian border but really not that much – for the most part, the river remained the ideal film setting for a tropical version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.IMG_7187IMG_7149IMG_7255

The Turning of the Year

IMG_4891(This winter’s berries)

The turning of the year. These past few days mark the interregnum that sits uncomfortably between Christmas and New Year – a week of virtual Sundays and a period when some of us – those who are self-employed at least – do not know whether they should be at work or not, whether they should carry on regardless or surrender to the seasonal zeitgeist of calorific leftovers, television repeats and relentless retail opportunity. This is a living limbo marked by the dull ache of too much alcohol and rich food, and too little sunlight: rural Scandinavia in a parallel universe on a bad day, where Disneyesque fibre-optic conifers and tattered tinsel replaces the glittering white rime of pines, chain store neon glare subs for the aurora borealis and the petrochemical chug of cars queuing for city centre parking space drowns the imagined crooning of fur-clad carollers, the glassy tinkle of falling icicles and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath sensible Nordic footwear. We are now so far removed from the traditional Christmas tropes that any sense of irony has long been lost, and the multiple identities – spiritual and otherwise – of the winter soltice are now commonly, if erroneously, perceived as having been replaced by Winterval, a quasi-mythical simulacrum close to the hearts of apoplectic ‘PC-gone-mad’ bashers.

IMG_4958 (2)

(Last winter’s icicles)

The weather doesn’t help, of course – too mild, too wet, too windy this year. At least some sort of status quo continues in the back yard where non-denominational  (or possibly JW) goldfinches arrive in pairs to feast on niger seeds as they do every day, a suitably attired mirror-image illusion of avian dandies on opposite sides of the bird feeder. Meanwhile, out in the dun damp arable fields that surround the city beyond the new-build green belt, fieldfares flock – newly arrived winter visitors from Scandinavia, the real place that is, not the parallel universe version. Elsewhere, the TV flickers like a well-behaved heart monitor as a nation prepares for the ritual liver damage and rictus-grinned high spirits that signify New Year’s Eve. Or, rather, the younger ones do: most older folk ensure they are safely tucked up in bed by the witching hour when a nation stumbles forward, arse over tip, across the calendar date line. The circle is, as they say, unbroken. Happy New Year.

Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk

I did a circular walk at Winterton-on-Sea a couple of weeks ago, striking out from the beach car park that looked a little forlorn out of season – largely devoid of vehicles, its wooden hut cafe bolted shut for the winter.

Winterton Dunes immediately north of here is a nature reserve known for its natterjack toads but, this being November, the toad population was in deep amphibian sleep, no doubt dreaming of munching insects in warmer times to come. But, even without the toads, it’s an affecting place – an undulating swathe of sand and gorse, birch trees and heather; a border zone where sea meets land meets sky.  There are other animals to consider as well: over the dunes on the beach grey seals have arrived in number to pup, their sluggish forms slumped awkwardly on the sand – plump, blotchy grey and vulnerable.

At Winterton Ness, where I leave the dunes to venture inland, large concrete blocks flank the track, a reminder that invasion was a constant threat along this coast back in the dark days of World War II. I walk inland along a farm track, through an isolated cattle yard that has leaked several inches of malodorous slurry over the concrete, before heading across fields to walk south. Here, pheasants are so prolific that I soon become immune to the shock of their flying up unnanounced in my wake – an explosive flurry of undersized wings struggling to lift over-the-top plumage clumsily into the air. There are so many pheasants here. This year, they seem almost plague-like.Walking along a lonely concrete road in the general direction of Winterton I come across a man on a bicycle, who dismounts to walk and talk with me awhile. He is a font of local knowledge. According to him, the supersized pheasant population is the result of the local landlord releasing 15,000 chicks into the wild – an awful lot of shooting for even the most enthusiastic rifle-wielder. We talk of other wildlife: the cranes that breed around here, the red deer that rut nearby, the barn owls and hen harriers that quarter the winter marshes. Then, as we approach a corner ahead, he utters, “I won’t walk along here at night on my own. Even the beaters won’t come here at night – and they’re a pretty hard bunch on the whole.” Before I have time to ask why, he answers for me, “It’s haunted, and so is the house by the corner.”The man with the bike starts to relate a story about a local who lived around here a couple of centures ago. Like many along this eastern extremity of the Norfolk coast, he was given to  smuggling and shipwrecking but this particularly unpleasant individual was also reknowned for his cruelty to women and his wraith – a cold, shadowy presence that is said to follow anyone foolish enough to wander around here at night – still haunts this stretch of the road.

We go on to discuss Winterton’s shipwrecking tradition and reputation for lawlessness that persists to this day (“The Yarmouth police don’t want to know about any trouble here, although they’ll come to Horsey just up the road”).  Then, as soon as we turn the corner, he bids me goodbye and disappears into the garden of a roadside cottage – the same one he had said was haunted.

Back at the beach car park, a couple of dog-walkers catching the last hour of silvery daylight eye me (conspicuously dog-less) with suspicion. In north-east Norfolk if you don’t have a furry friend with you then you are probably up to no good. If it’s the liminal hour just before dark then you almost certainly are.