Norfolk marshes


Skeins of Brent Geese

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

There aren’t many places in England that feel like a real wilderness but I have found somewhere that feels as remote as the Central Kalahari of Botswana. Less than two hundred miles from London but there are no motorways here. The North coast of Norfolk is a desolate salt marsh that in the 1700s used to be home to a thriving port. Now, the sea has receded leaving one of the most remote and desolate places in England. In the winter sunshine though it is an inspiring place. The breeze blows through the whispering reeds and dykes and meres are a mecca for the throngs of wildfowl.
I am standing on a dyke in the freezing cold on the edge of the marshes near the village of Cley, waiting for dawn. I am looking at silhouette of the windmill that stands sentinel against the cold wind coming in over the Wash. The sky starts to lighten to a mackerel red and I rememeber that I got up early to take photographs and I attend to my tripod and camera but in between exposures I can delight in being up so early and enjoy the changing atmosphere.
Starlings gather on the windmill’s sails, chatting and squabbling in the growing light. Overhead, skeins of geese fly over. It is a sight that is so evocative of the light and winter in the salt marshes. The Brent geese are our winter visitors from the frozen tundra of Siberia. They come in every morning to feed in the fields on sugar beet tops having the spent the night away from prying foxes on the water. There are over 10,000 of them here in Norfolk. The last place I saw such an amazing site was on the Scottish Island of Islay which is the winter quarters for thousands of Barnacle geese.
One of Britain’s oldest reserves is at Cley and is looked after by the Norfolk Naturalist Trust. There is an impressive eco-friendly visitor’s centre and we sat looking out through the large panoramic windows eating a slice of quiche with soup and tea. There is a book shop and some friendly help from the volunteers on where to go and what to see. Out on the board walks through the marshes there is a series of hides to keep watch on the meres, where there are teal, wigeon, shoveller, thousands of Golden plover and lapwings. It is worth spending some time here. The more you watch, you more you see. As your eyes attune to the variety of birds here you see their interactions and you notice the odd redshank amongst them and maybe a pintail. A bird flew past with a familiar cry. I couldn’t remember what it was although my brain said that it knew. Fortunately it came back and perched on a post. It was a kingfisher who stood there for a while so I could snap off a few shots on my camera before it flew on.
There were reports of snow geese out on the marshes so we went off towards the beach as the light began to fade. There were only a couple of swans masquerading as snow geese but the day had one last surprise. As we walked back to the car thinking of tea, toast and a warm fire it flew over. A barn owl, silently quartering the marshes to disappear over the dunes in one last salute to the clear light that is the feature of this wilderness of Norfolk.

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