We all need inspiration in our lives, and can I'm sure think of a number of instances which have resulted in our meanderings being nudged along a particular track or hijacked by a particularly charismatic personality. I often think of us each being like a drop of rain water running down a window pane; we will all reach an inevitable end but have no idea of the unpredictable course of our descent, and have no conception of what we will gently merge with on the way. Chance, lottery, the throw of a dice; so our lives twist and turn and unravel in such unpredictable ways.
Such philosophising begs the question why are we all so interested in the natural world, (I’m assuming you are or you wouldn’t be reading this)? Why do we all find such pleasure in the sight of the first brimstone, the first scream of a swift above our houses in early May, the subtle changes that herald the transition between seasons? Like me I’m sure you feel these things, smell these things, sense these things. But what turns us on to them in the first place?
Maybe it's genetic, in need only of the appropriate stimulus to set things in motion. The pivotal moment for me took place one spring when the dad of one of my school chums took us both for a walk over Mousehold Heath in Norwich. This would be sometime in the early 1960s when, had I been aware of the fact, red backed shrikes, nightjars and goodness knows what else still called the area home. No matter. On this particular sojourn the poor bloke, no doubt desperate for some diversion to entertain us kids, found the nest of a song thrush in a stand of hawthorn close to where the Homebase superstore stands today. And here the world changed for me. The man could have simply pointed to the lofty assemblage of grasses and moved us on, in which case I would not be communicating with you now. Instead, and to my heartfelt gratitude, he lifted me up so that I could see the contents of the wonderfully constructed nest. There staring back at me were 4 beautiful sky blue eggs, marked liberally around the top end with dots and lines of black. I was spellbound. I'm sure my jaw dropped, I know my heart soared. I'd never seen anything so marvellously, stunningly wonderful in my life - and I was only 8 years old. From that moment my little life took a new direction. I have no idea what the bloke’s name was, I can't for the life of me remember the name of his son, but boy do I owe them.
So the kindling of a young mind had been fired and, as I’ve recounted elsewhere in this blog, I embarked upon a career of traipsing around the country lanes, marshes and woods of my beloved Norfolk looking for bird’s nests, butterflies, snakes and the like, having wonderful fun filled adventure on the way. But as you reach the teenage years interest can wane. Too many other things crowd into your life and it is all too easy to leave childhood interests behind. A higher level of inspiration is required to keep the fires burning bright. Fortunately at around the time I was experimenting with my dad’s razor, tentatively scraping the emerging down from my bespotted chin, nature appreciation was beginning to become an acceptable mainstream activity. The perception of someone engaged in such recreation was changing; where once anyone with binoculars or a butterfly net was considered wildly eccentric, likely dangerous or mad (possibly all three) now there was greater enlightenment and tolerance. We had a whole new generation of TV naturalists to thank for that. These articulate gentlemen invaded our living rooms via the little box in the corner, not now just the old black and white jobs (‘For those of you watching in black and white the blue ball is behind the green’) but new resplendent colour models, albeit insipid and green-washed. Enter David Attenborough, Peter Scott, Tony Soper and the like, whilst at a local level the infectious enthusiasm of Ted Ellis and the cool calm teachings of Dick Bagnall-Oakeley. At around this time I also discovered the existence of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists and their annual Bird & Mammal Report, which galvanised me into wanting to explore further afield and catch sight of some of these more exotic sounding species. In such a way interest was retained and slowly matured into a broader appreciation of wild spaces and wild things.
I was reminded of all this quite recently when visiting Wheatfen with some friends. Wheatfen was of course the domain of the aforementioned naturalist, writer and broadcaster Ted Ellis whose life spent on, and love of, the site raised its profile to one of international renown. Ted’s daily columns in the EDP were a true inspiration and I used to read these poetic accounts of his frugal existence living cheek by jowl with nature avidly. His appearances on TV on a Friday night were not to be missed as they informed us all of the wonders of local nature and what was happening around the county in places that were at that time almost inaccessible to us. The postbag element I found particularly interesting because it was a great way of learning new stuff based on everyday observations of like-minded folk. Without these innovations it is quite possible my leanings would have been tilted away from the natural world towards worthless pastimes such as girls, drink and a career, so my gratitude in being encouraged to focus on the things that really matter is deep and genuine.
When my mate passed his driving test and we were able to borrow my dad’s beat up Hillman we sometimes visited the riverside pubs dotted around the Yare Valley and more than once espied Mr Ellis cycling to or from Coldham Hall, knees splayed, ears protruding, red of face, and once found him ensconced in the bar holding court to all. In later years, now married and on my way to becoming an almost responsible adult, we invited him to give talks to the children of the YOC group I helped lead. On these occasions we had a packed hall and Ted, with his boundless energy, had the kids in the palm of his hand. It is a special gift to be able to enthral over 100 people and bring smiles to every face, but Ted did it effortlessly because he simply loved his subject, manifest in sparkling eyes, whirling arms and a delivery devoid of inhibitions. He enthralled us all.
Upon his passing away in the mid-1980s, our YOC group was moved to raise sufficient funds to purchase a hide that was placed on the edge of Surlingham Church Marsh, dedicated to the great man and opened by his widow Phyllis. I’ve still got the book she gave us in return, a copy of ‘Ted Ellis’s Countryside Reflections’ within which are reproduced many of his wildlife articles written throughout the course of his life. I’ve reread them all again over the past couple of weeks and even now they are able to inspire my middle aged passion and make me want to get out and experience the brush of the wind through the reeds, the sweeping of clouds over wide horizons and the reflections of dragonflies winging over broadland dykes. It takes a rare talent to be able to inspire someone to engage in a lifelong interest, and we should all be most grateful for those that have affected our own lives so intimately. Where would we be without them?
Egg Laying Emperor Dragonfly at Wheatfen
Grey Dagger Larva