Wednesday 25 August 2021

A Purple Patch

When most people think of heather, they think of Scotland; or at least the moors of northern England. But we have heathland down here in the south too, and few places are more spectacular in August and early September than an area of poor, sandy soils to the east of the town of Kings Lynn in Norfolk. Lets go for a wander and I'll point out a few things along the way.

This is Roydon Common which is in the care of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It's quite a large, complex area with marshy land, grasslands and woodlands as well as the seemingly endless swathes of heather. Most folk probably just wander from the car park along the most obvious path, though there's plenty of scope here for longer walks. 

There's some bracken here and there, but it's mostly under control. Photographically it provides a pleasing counterpoint to the heather whether it's green.....

....or golden.

Here's part of the conservation team. These are White Park cattle and are descended from the ancient wild cattle of the British Isles. They've been around for at least 2,000 years and unlike many newer breeds they retain the ability to thrive throughout the year on the roughest pasture. 

There are just a few isolated trees on the heath.

A large part of the common is kept free from human disturbance, allowing birds like Lapwings and Curlews to nest.

The sandy soil shows here and there, but everything else is covered with blooming heather at this time of year.

And this is the rather unimaginatively named Sandy Lane, which forms the southern edge of Roydon Common. South of here is Grimston Warren which was a very similar landscape until the 1960s when it was decided to cover the land in coniferous trees, despite plenty of advice that this would be an environmental disaster.

But recently almost all of those trees have been cleared and the land has been allowed to revert to its former beauty and richness.

A few stumps still remain to remind you of the land's recent history.

It was feared that it might take decades to restore the heathland to its former glory. The birds had other ideas and some heathland specialists were returning to the area even while the heavy machinery was engaged in clearing out the old timber.

But what is that curious building on the horizon?

It turns out that this (and another identical structure a short distance away) was built during the last war as an observation tower. There was a wooden structure on top, reached by a ladder, and from there members of the Royal Observer Corps would pinpoint the exact locations where shells fell while the army practised their artillery skills. They could then get some idea of just how accurate they were and make the necessary adjustments to their sights.

Grimston Warren is also threaded by paths to allow an extended walk - and more recently a third area, now known as the Tony Hallatt Memorial Reserve, has been added.

Now we'll make our way back by a slightly different route, but still with plenty of heather to be seen.

The cattle are still hard at work!

There's also a small herd of Dartmoor ponies, not to be confused with the Exmoor ponies we saw a few weeks ago at Knettishall Heath. They are a similarly tough breed and well-suited to conservation grazing. Back in 1950 they reckoned there were 30,000 ponies on Dartmoor, but now there are only about 1,500 and purebred Dartmoor ponies are a rare breed.

At this time of year the Rowan, or Mountain Ash, trees begin to produce their bright red berries, set off here rather exotically by the purple heather.

Then we're back into the birch trees which grow on the northern edge of the reserve. But while we're in the area there's time to investigate one more location.....

These are the ruins of the eleventh century St James' Church, which stand in an isolated location reachable only by a rough farm track. It was once the parish church of the village of Bawsey, which has disappeared even more completely than its church but may once have occupied the surrounding fields. The church has been a ruin since at least the seventeenth century.

Take care.

Sunday 22 August 2021

A Field Of Sunshine

Recently a field of sunflowers has started to bloom, just a half mile or so from my house. On closer observation it seems to contain a variety of plants and may well be intended as "cover" for game birds, that usually means pheasants around here**. If that is the case it will also provide plenty of feed for the wild bird population too, so I'll be keeping a look-out during the winter months. But for now lets just enjoy the spectacle....

** I've been reading up on the subject and I now believe that this field has been planted with this mix of plants to suppress the growth of weeds, encourage beneficial insects and improve soil structure. There's always something new to learn about farming; at one time they'd have just sprayed the whole lot with chemicals.

Take care.

Friday 20 August 2021


Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a little boy who begged his mum for "The Observer's Book Of Birds". Now in that book was a bird of fantasy and fable which was pure white and stood on long, spindly black legs. Even more unbelievably this bird had a long beak shaped just like a spoon. Well, anyone would want to see a bird like that, but everything the boy read told him that you were very unlikely to ever see one and, even worse, there would soon be none left anywhere in England.

Until the last few years, for Spoonbills have started to come regularly to our shores once again. Of course it's just my luck that most of the time they hide that remarkable bill underneath their wing and just mockingly observe you through one half-open eye.

But not all the time! I have seen Spoonbills on the coast, but having them here in the Fens is still something of a novelty. And so it was, encouraged by recent sightings of the birds posted on-line, that my brother and I made our way up to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust's reserve at Welney, just over the county boundary in Norfolk.

The birds soon became unusually active with a lot of chasing going on.

If you look closely you should be able to see that, while the bird in front has a dark bill with a yellow tip, those of the three in pursuit are lighter coloured. And that's because they are this year's chicks. Nobody knows (or at least nobody is saying) where they bred but if it's near here then it's very exciting news indeed.

Over three hundred years ago they were common birds in this country, but they disappeared rapidly after the Fens and other wetland areas were drained for agriculture. A few turned up here every autumn but none stayed very long. Then in the last couple of decades they've quietly increased in number, though the breeding population here is still very small with the RSPB estimating as few as 0 to 4 pairs breeding annually in the UK.

Mother, or is it father, began to get annoyed with the constant pester-power of the youngsters.

In Europe they are not rare at all, but it's heartening to see the gradual return of water birds to our countryside at a time when many other species are in decline. It's easy to say that it's the result of global warming but it must also be partly because of the increase in the number of wetland conservation projects.

And this is the curious way that a Spoonbill feeds, by walking, or even running, in shallow water waving its beak from side to side. It looks faintly ludicrous but it seems to work! And there was also another bird which made a distant appearance....

I apologise for the quality of the picture but they were really distant. These are Cranes, another bird which is on the increase in recent years.

Take care.

Monday 16 August 2021

1595 And All That

As I dithered and dawdled on my way along Church Street in Litlington, with the vague idea of completing my set of photos (see previous post) with a view of the rather beautiful church, a friendly gentleman wished me "Good morning" and with little further ado announced that the church should be open "if they've remembered to unlock it". I've seen the church before but didn't want to disappoint him, so in I went.

I didn't know much about the building, though apparently parts of it date from the twelfth century. Lets see if the keyholder's alarm clock worked this morning!

Sure enough, the door swung open. Once inside, apart from it being a much larger church than might have been expected in a small village, everything was much as I'd remembered. 

There's a bright and colourful window showing St Catherine, but it seemed to be of no great age. The inscription confirms that it commemorates the life of one William Pateman "ringer and choirman of this church", who passed away in 1935. 

Unusually this church has two organs, one in the nave and another, just a few feet away in the chancel. One dates from 1877 and the other from 1879. I wonder how that came about. Then I was struggling to find anything I really wanted to photograph - time to get inventive...

Some modern glass (or perhaps it's plastic), inserted between the nave and the tower gave curious reflections of the old windows, which also seemed to link up with the silhouetted bell-ropes hanging in the tower.

Then something attracted me to this rather off-kilter composition. Somehow it reflects the rather large church and this small village (and presumably even smaller congregation).

Next I was attracted by the light shining through St Catherine's window and lighting up the stone work. But there's always something which has survived from an earlier age, despite all the tidying up which some churches underwent back in the late 1800s.

Just inside another window I found the above, having been tipped off by a small printed notice beneath it. It falls within the category called "church graffiti" and used to be blamed upon bored choirboys. However more recent research has shown that it's something very different from our modern idea of graffiti. Most of these graffiti are very old - indeed they date from a time well before there were any choirboys. Rather than being the result of vandalism they were tolerated and even encouraged by the medieval church, being something akin to "prayers in stone". This one, to save you a probably fruitless task, says, according to that little printed notice:

Francis Drake, knight, about to set sail in the thirty-seventh year of the reign of the most august and serene prince Elizabeth, by the grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith. 1595 

The same always, John Sherman.

That's right, it does say prince Elizabeth but that may just be because of the bizarre hand-writing or the fact that it was written in Latin. Clearly not the work of bored choirboys, but seemingly a prayer for the safe return of the expedition and, being in Latin, probably the work of a man of the church. Was it a simple act of patriotism or did the writer have a friend or relative on board? 

I had another look around and found these. Carvings of heads are common enough in our old churches, but I've never seen anything like the triangular headgear of the lady on the right. At first sight I thought she had a strap under her nose (!) but now I reckon it is supposed to represent a veil. Whatever it is, I don't foresee fourteenth-century ladies' fashions making a comeback any day soon.

And behind the tower was this - a probable Roman coffin. Apparently it's a "Listed Building - Grade II", though its listing doesn't reveal any more than what I've already told you.


This is nothing whatever to do with churches or the village of Litlington, but I thought you might like to see a couple of pictures taken as I wandered with my brother along a little watercourse known as Wicken Lode.

A spiky swan - well, you'd have a funny hairstyle if you had to put your head underwater to find your dinner!

And a couple of baby Moorhens floating on a lily-pad, proving that it is possible to be both cute and ugly at the same time.

Take care.