Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Autumn Creeps In

Autumn this year seems to be crawling in on all-fours, rather than striding boldly across the land. One place I thought we would be sure of a little colour is at Lynford Arboretum in Norfolk. In case you don't know the word, an "arboretum" is a collection of exotic trees, a very fashionable adjunct to any large mansion in eighteenth and nineteenth century England. But first a little stroll before we get to the Arboretum itself.

Quiet weather and a silvery light on the old gravel pits alongside the River Wissey.

And a secluded stretch of the river itself.

Turning back through typical Breckland scenery, with just the odd tree dressed for Autumn.

That all looks very peaceful, doesn't it? Though in reality there was a distant thumping of heavy artillery - that fence on the left is the edge of a military training area. Either they demolished the target or they gave up; the bombardment didn't last long.

Now just what is that strange yellow plant? I feel that I've seen it before, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't belong here in the Norfolk countryside. Answers on a postcard, please.

And so to the Arboretum....

The golden hues here were rather more impressive, especially the various birch trees.

At a distance I thought this might be some kind of sculpture in bronze, though closer inspection revealed it to be wrought by the hand of nature - just a few little fungi on top of an old stump.

The Arboretum mingles deciduous and coniferous trees to good effect. It seems more natural to photograph the Autumn colours against the darker backdrop, but here I thought I'd try it the other way around, with the golden foliage shiny through.

An old brick water-tower makes a frame for an isolated tree.

Memory card filling up!

This low-growing maple was spreading its coppery boughs beneath the soaring conifers.

It's a great place for fungi-hunting too. But lets walk on beyond the Arboretum....

After the orderliness of the tree-collection it was good to see nature at her wildest, with branches surging in unstoppable growth.

The Highland Cattle have very sensibly forsaken their summer pasture which is now partly under water, though they can live happily on far rougher ground than this.

They are now on much better-drained land. Flocks of Redwings, just arrived here from Scandinavia, were feasting on the hedgerow berries.

A resident female Mallard was taking life easy....

....while Lynford Hall was reflected in the water of the ornamental lake.

Take care.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Out Of The Box

Just a small selection of pictures of Boxford, not to be confused with Boxted which we visited recently, or indeed Boxworth, which is just a short walk from my brother's house. This is Boxford, a little town in Suffolk which has some interesting old buildings.

I realise that we're rather light on photos today, so to make up for the shortfall here's a little guitar music......

This is Afon (Welsh for "river") by Ben Walker, one of the finest acoustic guitarists around, though he's usually heard accompanying singers like Josienne Clarke or collaborating with other instrumentalists. 

Nice to hear that shimmering, silvery guitar playing.

Take care.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Roy Bailey, Gentleman And Scholar

Here's a singer you may never hear of in the usual mad world of musical entertainment. Roy Bailey was for some years a part-time, though much respected, singer on the folk music scene of England. The rest of the time he was a lecturer in Social Studies at Sheffield's Hallam University. Here he is, accompanied by his son-in-law Martin Simpson. He'll introduce the song himself....


In the nineteen-eighties Roy was diagnosed with a heart condition and advised to give up his University post. He still carried on singing though, being driven to gigs by various accompanists and friends. He sometimes appeared on stage with the Socialist MP, Tony Benn and they won a BBC Folk Award for the best live act. 

As you probably gathered from the first song, he's no dour political singer; there's a warmth and humanity to all he does. He also recorded albums of children's songs. Here's a charming song, written by his daughter, Kit. He's joined on stage by his grand daughter, Molly, and her mum and dad, as well as the accordion-player Andy Cutting....

Roy sadly passed away a couple of years ago, thirty years after being diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. He left behind an extensive body of work and there's lots to discover on YouTube for those who care to look. If you want a glimpse into his more serious side then I'd recommend his TED talk (with songs), "Misfits And Pioneers":

Take care.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Reaching The Heights

After plumbing the depths of nine feet below sea level in our last post, we're now going to scale the heights. Ramsey Heights in fact. The settlement of Ramsey Heights is not perhaps as grand as it sounds, but it is built on a hilltop - the summit of which is one whole metre above sea level! They have an odd sense of humour in the Fens.**

But it does have a tiny jewel of a nature reserve on what used to be a brickworks. The building above has been renovated and repurposed as a visitor centre, and in less restrictive times than these, you can still see some of the original works inside.

It has some absolutely beautiful carved benches where you might sit and have your packed lunch - not that we did of course. Oh no, we squatted uncomfortably on some damp, upturned logs, then later found this magnificent seat just around the corner.

There are a few little water channels where, in brickmaking days, boats moored for loading. It's recorded that on at least one occasion the bricks were still hot and set fire to the boat. But we're on our way to Woodwalton Fen which is a much more extensive site.

The first thing you notice on arrival is that the whole reserve is surrounded with a water channel, very much like a moat. This has enabled water levels to be maintained, which has preserved many of the fen plants and flowers. If you peer into the distance you can see that the water (and the reserve) stands higher than the surrounding land. Not only has the peat shrunk as it's dried out, but also high winds after a dry spell can cause a dust storm. A "fen blow" as it's called locally.

Everything's very lush and green as you walk around, which is hardly surprising as the water level in the channels is maintained at virtually the same level as the path. The paths can be a bit squelchy and in winter or after heavy rain you'd need rubber boots.

A few fungi are colonising any felled trees.

And other timber has been transformed into more of those carved benches, a wooden Long-Eared Owl peers out from the ivy. It's a good deal easier to find and photograph than its real-life counterpart!

And standing in the centre of the reserve is this this thatched bungalow on stilts. It was built for Charles Rothschild who bought this remnant of fen in 1910. He was a very successful banker who also bought Wicken Fen, where he founded Britain's first nature reserve, in 1899. When he wasn't counting his money he was counting and identifying moths, fleas and other insects for he was an leading amateur entomologist. One wonders what the local farmers made of Rothschild and his pals wandering about at night searching for moths.

Rothschild's collection of 260,000 fleas can apparently be seen in the Natural History Museum, though he's perhaps better known as the compiler of the Rothschild List, 284 sites which he had visited and thought would be suitable for preservation as nature reserves. This led to the formation of the Wildlife Trusts. If you want to read about how the various sites have fared then you need to read a little book called "Prophet And Loss: Time And The Rothschild List" by Simon Barnes.

Rothschild's children were an interesting lot too: 

Miriam Rothschild became a famous zoologist, entomologist and campaigner on mental health issues. 

Victor became an intelligence officer in WWII and went on to be an advisor to Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher; 

and Nica moved to New York and became a patron of the jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. She even took legal responsibility when Monk was busted for drugs (presumably because she knew that the punishment for a member of the wealthy banking family would be much more lenient than for a black jazz pianist). Monk wrote the tune "Pannonica" (her full name) for her. Incidentally pannonica is the name of a moth, bestowed upon her by her entomologist father. Rather appropriate for someone who lived a nocturnal life in the jazz clubs and bars of New York. But we digress...

Down at the far end of the reserve you can stare into the future. This is some of the land which has been acquired for the Great Fen project. Already Marsh Harriers are quartering the ground and some Common Cranes spent much of last winter there.

But we've just time to fit in one more location...

Monk's Wood is an area of ancient woodland, parts of which are used by the Centre For Ecology And Hydrology for their various projects and experiments. I wanted to visit to find out how much scope there was for future walks there.

Quite a bit of walking as it turns out, with marked wildflower and butterfly walks in the appropriate season.

And that concludes our whistle-stop tour of the north-west corner of Cambridgeshire and its nature reserves. We may well be back....

(**  the archaeologist and TV personality Francis Pryor believes this quirky predilection for ridiculously inappropriate description is why the soaring 266ft (81m) tower of St Botolph's Church, at Boston in Lincolnshire, is known as "Boston Stump". It's a better explanation than many).

Take care.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Lowest Of The Low

There used to be a wide, misty lake in Cambridgeshire, three miles across and surrounded by wet, marshy ground. There were sailing regattas in summer and ice-skating races in winter. Huge flocks of water birds made it their home. It was called Whittlesea Mere and it was finally drained in the mid-nineteenth century.

Even after the drainage, the village of Holme was still a difficult place for travel and the vicar came up with a novel way of reaching the more isolated members of his flock - a floating church that became known as the Fenland Ark. It had a font and a harmonium, and seventy-four baptisms took place on it. It's still fondly remembered on the village sign. But what's that in the top left-hand corner? 

Those would be Holme Posts. I've mentioned in previous posts that when the peat was drained it began to shrink; a problem that had not been foreseen when the first drainage schemes took place. By the time this area was drained it was a well known phenomenon, though no accurate measurements of shrinkage had been made. It was decided to bury an iron post up to its very top in the peat. Yes, believe it or not, that's how much the peat has shrunk! My brother Les is there to add both scale and style to the picture. A second post was added recently in case the original one is completely uncovered.

Although it's called Holme Fen, it's not really a fen any more. Drainage has meant that trees can recolonise the area, albeit trees that are well-suited to fairly wet conditions. It's now the largest area of birch woodland in lowland Britain. And when I say "lowland" I mean low; this, as intimated by the title of this article, is the lowest place in England, around 9ft (2.75m) below sea level.

I was really hoping for more fungi after the recent rains - and a little more Autumn colour would have been nice - but those subjects will have to wait for another day.

No matter, it was still a lush and tranquil place for a short stroll.

Some of the bracken is changing colour, but even the green fronds look striking with the sun shining through them illuminating the structure.

We wandered on around the short Discovery Trail, for this was going to be just a brief getting-to-know-you visit and we wanted to check out another nearby nature reserve. Both reserves are part of the Great Fen Project.

The aim is to connect Holme Fen with Woodwalton Fen by gradually acquiring farmland and restoring a wetland habitat. This ambitious plan is expected to take another 30 years to complete. The larger area of "natural" wetland should be able to attract and maintain populations of species, which small fragments of wetland cannot do on their own. 

It should also be possible to maintain a higher water table, though I hope that doesn't lead to a total demise of these fairytale birch woods.

Just a little off our track we located this. Not a cauldron for boiling up missionaries, but a charcoal kiln, left over from the Second World War when it was used for making charcoal (for gunpowder, perhaps).

Just to show you how random our weather and seasons are at the moment, here's a wild Foxglove still blooming in October.

Elsewhere things were looking a little more Autumnal.

There are some small bodies of water on the reserve where common ducks and geese were present. And those birch trees will shine like gold in just a few more days. But we're moving on now to Woodwalton Fen and a couple of other places, which we'll find out about in the next post. But on our way we stopped to have a look at an old lump of wood!

Before the birch woodland there was fen. And before the fen there was an oakwood. When the land began to become inundated with water the huge oaks succumbed and in time fell over into the water and were engulfed by peat. Here they were preserved in the peat below Whittlesea Mere till the land was drained. As the peat shrank farmers would strike these "bog oaks" with their ploughs. I remember seeing big heaps of them by the side of the fields, though there can't be many left buried now.

So just how old are these ancient timbers? About 5,000 years! That's something to think about as we travel across this very flat landscape on its incredibly bumpy roads.

Take care.