Beyond the Shingle Bank/Walking from Cley

Walking from Cley,

from the cobbled clutch of cottages,

jackdaw chattered,

with reedcutters loading a lorry, shouting, across the peat brown river.

Tearooms shut with apologies, tight against cold March.


Along the seaward-running bank, dense alexanders, Smyrnium olustram,

Macedonian parsley, bright stalks glimmering promises of flavoured sauces,

succulent as asparagus, a cure for snake bite, but bitter as myrrh

and now, officially, invading.

Dark seeds spreading in fistfuls.  Fast, unloved, chancing the dry, bare soil.


Walking where the salt streams run, the wind barely whispers the reeds,

the shelduck slip in silence, half-hidden in low-tide banks,

curlews coloured to mud, oystercatchers, calling, calling

and skylarks rising landward, from pale and cattle-short pasture.

Two egrets, Egretta garzetta, hunched in a silt brown pool,

white and thin as moonlight, exotic and slipping northwards, almost unnoticed.


Walking eastwards, a slide and hollow footfall on the heaped and shingle bank,

wave worn it yields a scatter, a shatter of broken, pebbled concrete

and the gradual, darkening rust of Second World War defences;

the hulk of pill-boxes, gravel full, sheltered by flowers of gorse and tiny buck’s horn plantain,

crouched to the marsh and the stone beach’s sudden rise from deep grey water,

an easy, too easy, landing; the ghost of the fear of what might have been.


Landwards here, pink footed geese, Anser brachyrhynchus,

wings dropped to land in formation, over the freshwater marsh.

Blow-ins from Iceland, here for the brief span of winter.


Walking where the shingle bank dips and curves, ripped out by storm and tide,

a drift of pebbles inland, grasping the edges of fields,

the bank buys time, buys time, whilst away on the edge of The Fens,

the Environment Agency and their allies re-trench, manage their retreat,

create for the birds, new reedbeds, water scrapes, pools,

beyond the predicted slow sea’s rising.


Walking between the shingle bank and the passing winter’s pebble ridge,

shining from ebbing waves, a tide line set with razor shells, starfish tragic husks

and slipper shells, Crepidula fornicata, cupped like the hold of my palm,

Beneath, the always surprise of the white half-shell

and knowing the damage they leave on pearl-bright oyster beds.


Halfway to Salthouse a barn owl, soft as a moth, over the hush of the reeds.

Walking inland at Muckleburgh, leaving the sea and the wartime wireless station,

squatting square and staring blankly.

Walking back to Cley on the deserted dusk of lanes,

hawthorns bent to the salt and sharp breeze from the sea,

the sky edge darkening over uneven hills the glaciers left.

In the village the reedcutter’s truck stands quiet,

the church, as broad as cathedrals, bears unspoken witness to the footprint of lost docks,

where Hanseatic merchants traded tar and timber, fish and fur and flax,

barley from the fields along the flowing Glaven, oats and rich dark malt,

a wealth of wool from heaths behind the town.

Until the unseen silt, softly filled the harbour, shallow, falling silent, quiet as back waters now.


A Claylands Diary, January

Claylands Diary, January

Although I am an enthusiast of wild flowers, January walks are strangely a joy; for once I am not distracted by the delights of stitchwort or speedwell, by trying to sort greater from lesser bird’s foot trefoil. Instead, I can look out on landscapes, study bare trees and cold winter ponds with a different eye.

On a walk through the heart of the Norfolk Claylands, my brother, an archaeologist, slowed us down by lightly kicking at molehills. One revealed the treasure he sought – a thin, curved blade of flint I would not have looked twice at. The chipped edge he showed me was human made, one of the thousand upon thousand Mesolithic flint tools discarded across these lands. Most, he explained, were found on dry sandy soils, the reasons uncertain, yet how, he asked, had they recognised these places? For an ecologist, this one question begs many more about how the vegetation of Britain developed as the last glaciers retreated to the north and as herds of large herbivores, from prehistoric bison, to deer and ponies, spread out across the cold steppe grasslands and scrub. One thing I could certainly say is that even today, the patches of sandy soils left on the edge of the ice sheets can be easily distinguished amongst the ground up chalky clay of South Norfolk; earlier walking over the common at Wood Green, we had crossed an area of gorse and fine grasses, visible even in winter. In summer, heath bedstraw and heath speedwell grow here, although most of the common is clay, with meadow vetchling, meadow buttercup, cowslip and black knapweed.

Nearby Fritton Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with orchids and ponds were great crested newts breed, but in the bleakness of January, my attention was drawn to the almost straight rows of oak trees, most noticeable on the western boundary. Some of these are huge old trees, the largest in the south-west corner showing signs of pollarding – a way that small wood was once produced by cutting and re-cutting above the height of grazing stock. Collecting small wood from pollards was often the right of the commoners, whereas the timber trees themselves were the property of the lord of the manor. In the centuries when barns and houses and especially warships were built on oak frames, these trees were valuable, their management and planting central to a farm’s income and survival; it is likely that the amount of oak across many English counties is not a virtue of ecology, so much a legacy of old economies and the insatiable need for timber for ships. Today, being winter bare, these trees make curious shapes, with a large, gnarled trunks and many holes; invertebrates inhabit the crevices and barbestelle bats, which are have been recorded hunting over the common, no doubt find a roost in the cracks and fissured bark.

The lines of pollards continue south of Fritton Common, along a sinuous path, known locally as Snake Lane. Hedges in the Claylands are often tall, with mature trees and a flora suggesting these are old fragments of woodland. The wide hedges of Snake Lane indicate long generations of woodland management, with pollards of oak and field maple; between them the pale slender trunks of hazel show signs of past coppicing. Like pollarding, this produced small wood for hurdles and tool handles by cutting and re-cutting, but this time at ground level; the re-grown trees have many stems and a distinctive stump or “stool”. A few hornbeam grow here too, their bark smooth and twisted into long creases, their timber once famed for its hardness.

Returning home, across Morningthorpe Common, a whisper makes me look up. With a sound like the lightest of summer breezes in tall trees, a flock of fieldfares is heading to roost. I have spotted a lot of these large, grey-backed thrushes over the past week, no doubt forced briefly south by cold weather.

By the end of our walk, dusk is wintry, grey and damp; warmth and hot tea beckon, but so do more days of walking the quiet, hidden tracks of the Claylands, exploring the endless, inseparable layering of human and natural history.