As soon as I crested the railway bridge lying only 100 metres from the busy junction I saw the golden brown form of a short-eared owl drifting low over the marshland to my right. Further along this arrow straight road a party of 30 or so Bewick’s swans grazed contentedly on the lush green sward. These birds were still in their family groups, the young birds sporting duller grey-brown neck and wing feathering. Such wildness within earshot of a murderously busy trunk road and within sight of a large, heavily populated town.
It was quite some time ago that I first discovered the unique delights of these East Norfolk marshlands. On that occasion my friend John and I cycled the 22 miles from our homes in Norwich to Gt Yarmouth, battling a strong headwind all the way. The chill easterly airflow was especially punishing along the loneliness of the Acle Straight, that notorious 6 mile stretch of unbending and unforgiving tarmac that dissects the flat marshlands lying just inland from the coast. Where once a large salt water estuary played host to Roman merchant shipping it is today a large almost unpopulated area of wet gazing meadows, intersected liberally with drainage ditches fringed with reed. Wind pumps, some restored and complete with their wooden sails, dot the landscape most of which lies at or just below sea level; a reminder that this was once seriously wet landscape tamed and drained by the ingenuity of man. On the day in question, 14th May 1972 as a matter of fact, we made the naive decision to try and ride our bikes back home along the wall of Breydon water and then the banks of the River Yare, little did we know of the difficulties such an ill informed choice would cause us. It took us many frustrating hours to push, carry and otherwise manhandle our cycles over dykes, styles, fences and thick grass before we reached the relative civilisation of Reedham. Exhausted as we were upon gaining firm ground we still had 15 miles of hard cycling to go before reaching the sanctity of home, a goal we eventually achieved as dusk was falling. I do remember being so exhausted that I had to stop and rest for several minutes whilst just a few hundred yards from our house. I'm pretty certain I slept well that night. But the seeds were sown, the die cast, because despite the hardships of our journey we had none the less seen and heard many things to delight; the flock of summer plumaged grey plover resplendent in their monochrome livery, exploring the dilapidated and abandoned farm house where we noticed wren, blackbird, songthrush, carrion crow and shelduck nesting, lapwings displaying with exuberant abandon over the damp green meadows, the belligerent mute swan whose nest blocked our path and the wide open spaces that reached to the horizon on all sides. Nowhere else like it in the whole of Gt Britain yet ours for the day for we saw not a soul.
Over the following years I came to know the area well and it seldom failed to provide evocative memories and special encounters with nature. Through the seasons its wealth of wildlife has given much pleasure, but my visits have lapsed of late and it has been a while since I have strode over its skylark infused lushness and soaked up its sense of space and wildness. High time to make amends then.
So, having dispensed with the cycle and driven to our chosen venue, I found myself for the next 3 hours or so in the company of two valued friends walking the now designated long distance footpaths (Wherryman's Way and Weaver's Way) between Reedham and Halvergate. We do this kind of thing every couple of months as a way of keeping our friendship alive, catching up on gossip and (usually) sampling as much food and drink as we can respectably cram in to what is essentially a wildlife focussed walk.
It was a beautiful, calm late winter day as we left our start point in Reedham village with just a hint of spring in the still air. The river bank here is now lined with a 50 metre belt of reed and shallow pools. Prime habitat as it turned out for bearded tit, reed bunting, marsh harrier and duck of various species, all of which we saw within a few minutes of leaving human habitation. One of the marsh harriers that we flushed from the far bank had a prey item clutched in its talons. This bird flew away from us into the territory of another that gave chase, tangling with the first bird causing it to drop the vole it had laboured hard to catch. This is I guess a positive indication of just what a high population level these raptors now have in this area; no one bird can move far without invading the airspace of another.
Barn owls do very well in this part of the world and as we approached one of the very few habitations bordering the river one of these ghostly white birds silently flew out from the cover of an outbuilding. We were debating why the bird took flight, given we were not that close and could probably not be seen from the depths of the roosting site, when we espied a dog fox bounding away across the unkempt grounds. Mystery solved. The fox caused a second barn owl to dislodge from its chosen daytime perch; obviously a breeding pair is in residence here. Barn owls nesting in your back garden, wouldn't that be fine. The reason these owls do so well in these areas of large tussock filled meadows is no doubt due to an abundance of their primary requirements: food, shelter and undisturbed breeding sites. The abandoned wind pumps, homesteads and cattle sheds make for ideal nesting and roosting sites and there are obviously plenty of voles and mice available in what is a very wildlife friendly habitat.
On gaining the mill at Berney Arms we left the riverside path to traverse the Weaver's Way which was rather wetter than I anticipated. I regretted my poor choice of footwear instantaneously, note to self: take your wellies next time. But once your feet are well and truly sodden, splashing in another puddle has no further effect and so we carried on a troshin as they say in this part of the world.
The Berney Marshes, now owned and managed by the RSPB, was festooned with birds. Of especial interest were the very large numbers of waders using the area, literally thousands of golden plover and lapwing, large flocks of starlings, gulls of several species and a flock of well over 100 curlew. And every so often a grey heron would flap lazily away from a dyke side on huge rounded wings. We had a good look for more short-eared owls and the rough-legged buzzard that has been present over the winter months, but failed to connect on this occasion. However we did see a couple of brown hares lying motionless in thick grass with only their large ears showing, and noticed a Chinese water deer loping away across a field.
We walked nearly seven miles in total and saw a total of two other human beings, they being RSPB staff on the Berney Marshes. My saturated feet protested at every step of the final three miles, but it was great to be out in the fresh air and a thoroughly enjoyable yomp. Two of us did manage a pint and a pie at Reedham Ferry Inn where once planted in the atmospheric bar we could have stayed all afternoon. It was a struggle to raise ourselves from the comfort of our seat, but we still had 15 miles or so to drive home. Quite a contrast from my first visit, but somehow just as tiring.