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.


Holy Island Walk

Holy Island

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

A perfect walk around Lindisfarne
This surely has to be one of the best walks in the country. A round of Holy Island. Check the tide tables before you go because you have to navigate a causeway that gets flooded at high tide. Otherwise its a beautiful drive across the sands to the island.
This walk is only about three miles distance but takes much longer than normal to walk because there are so many distractions on the way. You can extend the walk easily be taking diversions among the dunes.
Arriving on the Island across a causeway is an exciting start and you park in one of the large car parks and make your way through the town to the harbour. We did this walk in the afternoon and so we picked up some crab sandwiches from one of the cottages and some local prawns from a fish monger. Make sure you go for the local ones – they are smaller than the more attractive tiger prawns but who wants to eat something flown in from miles away when the smaller ones are the tastiest and haven’t travelled as far.
The harbour is the best place to sit down in the grass and contemplate the view. There are boats on the mudflats, the view of Lindisfarne on its rock in the distance and the overturned boats turned into huts, once used for the herring industry. They make stunning photos.
When you are have feasted, make your way to the left of Lindisfarne and follow the track which was once used to market limestone to the kilns.
Opposite Lindisfarne there are the walled gardens. Then a few hundred yards you reach the shoreline where it is worth scanning the horizon for birds and maybe some beach combing. Turn left and follow the coastline along and you reach the lough which is a fresh water pool supposedly dug by the monks to supply fish to the abbey. There is a hide and it is worth spending some time looking out over the reeds. We saw Little Grebes amongst the reeds.
From here the path heads behind the dunes and you can extend your walk by crossing the dunes to the shoreline. Be careful here, there are peri-peri burs from New Zealand growing. You should check your clothes so that you don’t spread the burs outside the region.
From the dunes, the path goes inland back to the carpark.
This is perhaps one of the finest and most interesting short walks in the country. The afternoon would have perfect if there had been somewhere open for tea but typically, come 5.00pm, all the tea shops shut even though it was a lovely afternoon. Bring a thermos!

The Farne Islands


Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Finally managed to get to The Farnes. The Farne Islands are a small group of Islands off the coast of Northumberland. They are the summer breeding grounds of many seabirds.

The weather was wet and cloudy this morning but the sea was calm and it was our last day so we had to go. We caught the boar from Seahouses. The boat chugged out to Staple island where we nosed up into a cove surrounded by guillemots sitting on rock painted paint with their droppings. Along with 60 other people from our boat we stepped nervously off the boat onto the shore and slipped and slid our way up the path. It was only a small island and there were only certain areas that we were allowed on.
Along the paths, female eider ducks sat disconcertingly around on their eggs ignoring everyone who went past. The guillemots sat in huddled crowds on the edge of the cliffs. Every now and then you can spot a razorbill. They stand around with the guillemots trying to blend in but their beaks are slightly different and they are easy to see once you get your eye in.
Then there are puffins. They come ashore to breed and lay their eggs in burrows like rabbits. They fly busily around sorting out nests and generally being busy bodies. I tried photographing them in flight but they are very fast. The only way is to latch on to them as they appear over the horizon and follow their movement. You feel like a gunner shooting enemy aircraft (Not). In the end I found it easier to watch them stand on a bank and wait until they took to flight. They seem to throw themselves off the grass with arms and flippers outstretched before taking to the air.
Back to the boats and we cruised around to the Inner Farnes. A slightly larger island completely taken over by Arctic Terns who nest everywhere. They even nest by the path and in one case – on the path. They get pretty angry at all the tourists coming ashore and scream and shout at them. They even try to attack your head. There are good views down some cliff stacks with kittiwakes and more guillemots. There were loads of puffins and a group of Sandwich terns – black beaks. The Arctic terns have red beaks and there are some Common Terns although the Arctics are more common on The Farnes. We managed to spot one Roseate Tern on the beach.
It’s a great place to experience sea birds in the raw. Half term week is not the best week to go as it’s so busy and it was difficult to get that lost in the wilds feeling with hundreds of tourists stamping over you, making inane comments and using their mobile phones.

Wild places

I am reading ‘Wild Places’ by Robert Macfarlane. It is a magical book as he takes us on a journey around the mountain, moors and woods. I have been comparing it to some of the wild places that the Ravenous Rambler likes to go. I am currently up on the Northumbland coast waiting for the storms to die down so that it will be possible to go the Farne Islands to see puffins and other sea birds. Not sure that it is really going to rank as a wild place as the only way of going there is in the company of hundreds of other tourists but maybe there will be some sancturary. We will see. Meanwhile you can buy a copy at the Ymzala Book Shop

Walk to the American monument on Islay

The American monument

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

An excellent short walk of about an hour on the cliffs to the American monument perched on the cliff tops. Warning – do not attempt this walk in the mist as it easy to walk off the cliff tops!
Park in the car park on The Oa peninsula. You can see the monument on the cliff tops ahead but this is a triangular walk. Walk down the track and turn left round some houses. You get a good view to your left over the coast line and a large waterfall down to the beach. The track gives way to a path that is well signposted through some metal stiles. If you can’t see the signs through the mist you should turn back now because it will too dangerous to continue. You soon reach the cliff edge and turn right to follow the edge along. Eventually you climb up a little way to the large monument commemorating a ship wreck in the First World War.
The path back is well trod and goes direct back to the car park.
On this walk you should look out for choughs with their red legs and beaks and unusual cry.

Isle of Islay

Port Ellen Sunset
Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Just been on a trip to the Isle of Islay (pronounced Il-lah) for a spot of rambling and bird watching. This is one of the southern most islands of the Inner Hebrides and is a great place for birding.
It’s remote. After driving up past Glasgow it’s a long way on ‘A’ roads twisting around past all the lochs to reach the port of Kennacraig and then its over two hours on a boat to the island.
We arrive in the dark and stayed at a self catering cottage in Port Ellen. It was exciting to wake up in the morning to find we were staying yards from a remote beach with only oyster catchers for company. If you are not a birder you need to know that oyster catchers are waders with long red beaks and they roam around at low tide trying to find tasty things to eat.
The island is the holiday home not to English tourists but thousands of barnacle geese from Greenland. They spend their days grazing on the grasslands around the island and one can spend many happy days looking at them through binoculars trying to spot the odd pink footed goose that come down in smaller numbers. Each estuary around the island is a haven for many other water birds including many waders and divers. There are eagles though I didn’t see one, hen harriers, buzzards and other raptors. The beaches are great for watching the world go by and beach combing. If its raining take a tour of one of the several whisky distilleries for Islay is one of the best places in Scotland for malt whisky. My favourite is Ardberg but go for at least a 10 year old.
I shall post some more blogs on walks and places to eat for the ravenous ramblers amongst you so keep your eyes on this space.

Walking at Otmoor

hen harrier flying

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Otmoor Bird reserve near Oxford
From A34 take B4027 to Islip. Through Islip, continue along B4027 towards Wheatley. After four miles turn left to Horton-cum-Studley. Turn left to Beckley. After one mile, road drops down short steep hill. Turn right before Abingdon Arms. Turn sharp left into Otmoor Lane. Follow road to end, about one mile, left through reserve entrance. Car park is on your right. From A40 travelling west: at Headington roundabout, turn right, taking exit sign posted Crematorium, Beckley, Horton-cum-Studley, Headington. After two miles, turn right at junction onto B4027 then immediately left, signposted to Horton-cum-Studley. Follow directions to Beckley as above.

This is a delightful and wild fen area just near Oxford. It makes a good walk but to enjoy it to the full you need to be keen on birds. In one afternoon we saw a hen harrier and flocks of starlings coming in to roost. There are many waders as well as woodland birds along the fringes.
From the carpark follow the main track in to the reserve. After a few minutes you come to T junction. Turn left along a sign posted muddy track. After about a mile you reach another junction and see some lakes off to the left and right in front of you, Turn left here keeping an eye out towards the lakes. You then reach the first hide which is a good place to linger and look out over the reeds.
This is where we saw the hen harrier. If you want to see the amazing spectacle of large flocks of starlings you have to wait until dusk so bring a torch to see your way back.
There is a further hide on the track that continues from the first hide but it was so cold that we couldn’t make it so you are on your own from here on in. Good luck.