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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Dinner at the Cley windmill


Cley windmill

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

The windmill is in a superb position on the edge of the salt marshes in North Norfolk. You can stay there and it is also open for dinner so I couldn’t wait to book in.
When you arrive you are shown into the sitting room. It is a cosy room with a fire going in the wood burning stove. There are old books in the bookcases, some cosy sofas and the hexagonal walls have small windows looking out onto the night sky.
According to the literature, if you go there in the summer you can stand out on the balcony looking over the marshes but it was blowing a gale outside and in fact I felt more like I was in a lighthouse than a windmill.
There is a set course menu so no choices to be made but we were shown a wine list to order something to drink for dinner but strangely we were not offered a pre prandial drink. Instead we had a glass of Merlot each to drink and then to take in to dinner.
The room is small so you are almost forced to talk to the other guests. They were a convivial bunch. A couple who had retired to the village and a couple who had got married here last year and were back again. You can hire out the whole place and I think quite a few people use it for wedding receptions.
According to the waitress, the owner was coming for dinner as well with his family and when he arrived he went and poked the fire around in a proprietorial manner although it was difficult to talk as we knew who he was but he didn’t know that we knew …anyway it was soon time to go into the candlelit dining room.
The starter was very tasty and served by the two pleasant waitresses. Smoked chicken and rocket salad was then followed by pork with mashed potatoes and red cabbage with a selection of vegetables. This was rather ordinary and seemed rather like a catering product than home cooked fresh cooking but maybe I am doing them an unjustice. The Chocolate and orange pavola was a bit too sweet for me. The ambiance however won over. The candle lights, low beamed ceiling and intimate atmosphere makes it a very pleasant and unusual place to eat. Do try it.

RSPB Titchwell


A flock of Golden Plover

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

The RSPB reserve of Titchwell is on the North Coast of Norfolk. There are a series of inland lakes from the sea which are great feeding grounds for a variety of birds. From the hides we saw plenty of wideon and flocks of lapwings and Golden Plover. In the surrounding marshes are flocks of brent geese and curlews.
After a sandwich and coffee at the cafe we headed down to the beach beyond the sand dunes. There was an expanse of sandy beach bathed in December sunshine. With hardly any wind it was relatively warm although not quite enough to go for a dip in the Wash, as the sea is called around here.
On the beach there were oyster catchers, standing around looking half asleep. Turnstones made their way along the high water line of razor shells, turning over mussel shells looking for food. Sanderlings ran across, their legs going like clockwork. Walking along the beach there is the crunch of the razor shells, impossible to step around as they are everywhere. There is a breath of wind through the maram grass of the dunes and the gentle crash of waves up the shallow beach. The cry of curlews from the marsh and every now and then an oystercatcher flies across giving its high pitched ‘kleep-kleep’ alarm call.
Talking with other people we should have seen eider duck and long throated divers in the sea but maybe they had really high powered telescopes.
There is a hide over the fens where a waxwing had been reported but we saw nothing. In any case, a blanket of cloud came over, signifying a front moving through so it seemed a good idea to head back. The days are not long here. By 2.00 is seems as though dusk is approaching so time to head indoors for tea and toast.