Monday, 28 January 2013


How lovely it was, to see a proper snow cover in such soft, pearly light earlier this month.  The skies over our fen, on 21st January, were almost as featureless as the ground and certainly darker in colour.  How often, even on a sea-scape, is the daylight sky darker than the ground?  Part of the ethereal effect was caused by the lightest and most uniform of mists.  Calming, dreamy, heavenly!

  Snow round our way 1.  Hacconby Fen on 21st January.

Glad tidings. . .

According to Michael McCarthy, Nature Correspondent for The Independent newspaper, the tiny policing unit which, until recently, had a keenly honed axe poised above its skinny neck, will not be part of the current round of token austerity cuts.  (More detail here as a tail piece to his delightful article on fieldfares.)

The budget for this little policing unit is minuscule when you consider what policing can cost.  But its function is of incalculable value to wildlife conservation and therefore of great importance to everyone, including nature-haters and even economists.

The NWCU was set up to prevent, or to catch the perpetrators of such calumnies as shooting and poisoning rare raptors, nicking the eggs of threatened bird species, ransacking protected habitats and a lot more besides.

We should, no doubt, thank some deity or other for the Unit's current salvation but according to Mr McCarthy, the decision came from Richard Benyon, Wildlife Minister at DEFRA.

That's wonderful news but a little surprising.  It was, after all, the keen field-sportsman Mr Benyon who, last October refused to outlaw the possession, in England, of carbofuran, a toxin popular among bird poisoners and already outlawed in Scotland.  It's good – though unusual – to see something worthwhile coming out of DEFRA, for a change

   Snow round our way 2.  Trees' were painted in starkly contrasting tones by snow  adhering to their limbs and branches.

Paradise lost. . .

Speaking of aquatics, I recall, as a boy, looking for the rare wild Water Soldier, Stratiotes aloides which grew in a neglected stretch of the Great Ouse known as the Old West River.  We never found it – though every time we tramped the riverside washes from Ely to where the Ouse parts company with the Cam, the wildlife we observed was constantly amazing.

I heard my first drumming snipe, on those wet meadows – I must have been about fourteen – and discovered meadow rue, water violets and once, green winged orchids.  These grew on the drier, higher stretches, not far from where cowslips bloomed in the turf of a long-abandoned apple orchard.

How much of that wildlife remains?  Not a lot.  Many of the meadows over which we roamed have been built on.  Some people describe such land as 'developed' but to me it's lost, wasted, gone.  Little, ticky-tacky boxes with neat fronts, Sunday-valeted cars and Sky TV.  And if a cowslip should dare to pop up, in the manicured verges, it will either be mown off or blotted out by well-meant but ugly splurges of big hybrid naff daffs.

Snow round our way3.  The view from our kitchen window.

Fudgetastic. . .

The PG and I visited north Norfolk for a couple of days, for a bit of punishing exposure to the north-east wind and in the hopes of spotting a few respectable birds.  We were not disappointed.  The very first I saw, for instance, at Titchwell RSPB reserve was a brambling and the most unusual, for midwinter, was a green sandpiper.

But the bird which gave a surge of Joy was neither – it was a fulmar.

The most wonderful coastal features, between Sheringham and Cromer, are the cliffs. These are not proper cliffs, towering majestically and holding the sea and bay with indestructible granite or steadfast slate.  No no.  These cliffs are tired, folded, collapsible and insubstantial – a bit like this garrulous blogger!  Made of glacial till, they have the consistency of fudge – not the bendy fudge that is offered, for example, at Sheringham's sweet shop Fudgestastic – but the crumbly kind you make at home.

You can dig out the sandy material of these cliffs with a lollipop stick – or, if you're American, a popsicle stick.  So it's not surprising that Sand martins colonise them every summer.  You can see hundreds of the small, brownish birds gliding and soaring up and over the cliffs.

The glacial cliffs at Beeston Regis, on the north Norfolk coast.  Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on this beach, in one's tender years, often in a glacial east wind.  (Beeston Hall School is a short walk inland.)

When we were young, fulmars also nested in the cliffs.  They're are related to albatrosses and glide on curiously straight wings.  They're grey above and white below – like so many sea birds – but unmistakeable in flight.  And if studied through binoculars, fulmars have the most exquisitely beautiful dark eyes.  It's almost as if they've dabbed a little eye-shadow on, just to look more alluring.

Every year, after I'd grown up and moved away from that part of the world, I'd try to get back from time to time, partly for nostalgia but also to see the fulmars.

And then, one year, they vanished. Sand eel populations in the North Sea crashed and those lovely creatures stopped coming.  Like little terns, guillemots, puffins and a number of vulnerable seabirds, their population suffered.

I gave up looking for them, after a while, but always felt a pang of sadness if we visited the Beeston or West Runton beaches in summer.  One would glance at every passing gull, in the hopes of seeing straight wings – but always in vain.

But this year . . . well, here's what I wrote in my diary on  9th January: 

The fulmars are back!  We saw two, cruising the cliffs above the grey, rising tide.  All so beautiful along the crumbling cliff edges which seem as soft as ordinary soil.  And the break-waters make a dark, hard, contrasting pattern along the waterside – strikingly beautiful because it echoes the line of the cliff but in geometric terms.  And with the waves showing how the timber dissipates their strength, the picture becomes perfected.  So lovely, so stark, so Norfolk.  I’d love to live here again.

Sea defences.  The cliffs, composed of sandy glacial till, are weak and crumbly, hence the breakwaters, constructed soon after I had  moved away.  The cliffs' current outline bears no resemblence to the tucks and folds that I remember, back in the 1950s.  The coastline has retreated several metres in nearly 60 years.

I'm listening to  a concerto for Erhu and orchestra 'Gazing at the Moon' played by the Shanghai Chinese Folk Orchestra.  It is calming, lyrical and lovely.  The erhu seems to have the sweetness of a violin but the guts of a viola.  If you haven't listened to one, other than as background in a Chinese restaurant, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

This week's film was a cleaned up, Blu-ray edition of Gone With the Wind: four hours of Southern saga.  Recollections of the French and Saunders spoof made us giggle at inappropriate moments and I was struck by how much, at certain angles, Vivien Leigh resembles The Duchess of Cambridge.  But it's a fantastically glorious film and on Blu-ray the picture quality was quite good.  The sound was utter crap, though.

Bye bye, for now.


  1. Bravo - you've changed your photo :) We went to Poole last Friday - I was so tempted to get NAH to stop the car near Shaftesbury to take a very similar scene to your top photo. It's captivating :)

  2. This is my 2nd attempt.. I wrote a nice long comment and then lost it! I have a shadowy childhood memory of walking the coastal paths in Pembroke and there being puffins wandering around on them. The sea was teeming with fish and mackerel chased in by larger fish threw themselves onto the beach and holiday makers ran down to the shallows and scooped them into their towels. Now mackerel can no longer be fished sustainably and a puffin sighting unlikely except from a great distance. It's good the fulmars are back. I was so happy to read that rivers in Devon and Dorset are now home again to otters - until I read that the naughty otters were stealing fish from fish farms and the farmers were proposing a cull!!

  3. Hi, I love your opening shot, beautiful monochrome scene of snowiness indeed. The snow clinging to the tree below is rather lovely too.
    I've never seen a fulmar, though I was lucky enough to see an albatross on a trip to NZ - absolutely spectacular.

  4. Those are some truly stunning pictures, especially the one taken of the trees from your kitchen window. Wow

  5. It's a conundrum, isn't it. We live in a house with an oldish garden, all over the place around us older houses are being torn down and the gardens being built over with larger houses or blocks of flats, I think it's a terrible "development", but who are we who have our place to tell others they can't have theirs? I hate seeing old gardens, trees and habitat disappearing to be replaced with concrete, decking and such stuff, and often almost find it sadder than bits of the green desert out there being built over. But whichever way, land and habitat is being lost and I think we're the poorer for it. Rant over: Norfolk is one of the loveliest areas we have visited in the UK - the birding is fantastic and seeing a fulmar is real treat.

  6. Rather distracted from the important points in this post by the mega pictures. Spent ages just staring at the top one.
    Fulmars nest in the cliffs on Portland. Sometimes, we go to look down on them. (No place on the shore there to look up. No shore.) But I hadn't realised they arrive this early.
    'Developed' is an odd word.
    If your heart is tugging, could you not live in Norfolk again?

  7. Thank you kindly for your comments, and for the compliments on the pictures.

    Arabella, thoughts of an otter cull seem appalling anywhere. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

    Hillwards, seeing real albatross is utterly amazing, isn't it? I've watched several species, in the southern Hemisphere, including black-browed and sooty - but never a wandering albatross. Now that, I'd love to see.

    Helen, I agree about building. I just think that there are places which are so beautiful that they should never be built on. And that particular area of Norfolk cliff-top is horribly disfigured, both by caravans and new houses.

    Lucy - we could move back to Norfolk, but most of our friends are where we are now. So it's difficult!

  8. WONDERFUL photographs PMN... Or should I call you Ansell?