Sunday, 15 May 2022

Big Skies Over Little Ouse

Sometimes I wish there was an ancient or more poetic name for some of the places I visit, but in this case there isn't; so "River Little Ouse" (pronounced the same as "ooze") it has to be. It's a frequent companion on our wanderings as it winds its way through Breckland and the Thetford Forest, though on a fine spring day this stretch alongside Lakenheath Fen is as choice as any. Mind you, it can be a bleak place in mid-winter.

The valley, as it approaches the Fens, is very wide and very flat, with the river inching along almost imperceptibly. The floodbanks, on either side of the river are set back at a distance to allow the riverside meadows to flood in times of heavy rainfall. These washes, as the flooded lands are known, look like deep lakes till you spot wading birds out in the middle of them with the water barely up to their knees.

It's easy to spend all your time scanning the floodplains without paying much regard to the river itself. That would be a mistake.

That's not a log in the water but an otter, a bit of a speciality of this little stream. We spotted two of these secretive animals and apparently they have a family of young cubs, so we were told. They are mostly nocturnal so we were lucky to see these around nine in the morning.

The path runs along the top of the floodbank and at this time of year it's lined with bright yellow buttercups.

Cows, and the occasional bull, are grazed along here, though they generally stay on the lush grassland down by the river and rarely bother to climb up to the footpath.

Bully's on the extreme left of the group, if you're interested. With all those wives he's not bothered about you.

The relative smallness of the river, compared to its huge valley, was first noticed by Rev Osmond Fisher over 150 years ago. He convinced himself (but nobody else) that this was something to do with glaciation. Recently it's been shown that the sandy soil of Breckland was deposited in a large lake, formed by meltwater from the ice sheets which spread as far south as this at the end of the last Ice Age. The water from the lake eventually escaped down this valley, making it much larger as it went.

The skies were not as threatening as they look in the above photo. However it's time to turn away from the Little Ouse and make our way back through the reedbeds of Lakenheath Fen.

A Greylag Goose had some goslings hidden away in the thick green reeds. 

The wide skies continued to entertain as we wound our way back.

The line of trees are poplars: whole plantations of them were planted here by Bryant and May, manufacturers of matches. I wonder how many matchsticks you could get out of one of those trees? Since the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) took over the site, the water level has been allowed to rise, which is good for reedbeds, of course, though I've noticed that many of the trees are blowing over in the wind lately. I'm not sure if the two are connected, but I think they may be. The little building you can see is a lookout, just a bench with a roof over it, so you can look out over New Fen in comfort.

 And here is that view (above) and another look across the river valley (below).

Which brings us to our mystery object......

Some of you were in the right general area. In 2008 the Salthouse Annual Art Exhibition, which takes place in the church, organised a Sculpture Trail. It was some 14 miles (22.5 Km) in length and had a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibits. After fourteen years this is the only one left. It's called Monument to Salthouse Mariners and is made from parts of the old sea defences. Here's what it looked like in its prime:

(found on the internet)

As usual when searching, I found out something that had never occurred to me. These ports, even when the river channel was fully navigable, must have been incredibly difficult harbours to get in and out of. This was actually an advantage, as pirates, who were unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of the currents and sandbanks, could not gain access.

Take care.

Friday, 13 May 2022

A Seaside Saunter

 A seaside saunter from sunny Salthouse, in fact.

Parking in Salthouse is a free-for-all scramble for any available space around the green. It's busy on a weekday in May - probably best avoided on August Bank Holiday weekend. The cream-coloured building on the right is the village pub, The Dun Cow; but even more to my brother's liking this morning is the sign announcing that Cookie's Crab Shop is open today.

A short stroll beside the coast road brings us to the footbridge over the Catchwater Drain and onto the marshes.

The raised path leads towards the coast, between reedbeds alive with the songs of Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers.

Glancing back over my shoulder, with Salthouse Church dominating the skyline.

Then we're down on the "beach", which here is a long shingle ridge which stretches for another six miles (9.5 Km) westwards, forming Blakeney Point, which sheltered the old ports of Blakeney Haven from the North Sea gales. It's not a very comfy surface for sunbathing, but the pastime of piling stones on top of the old sea defences is always popular.

The trudge along the shingle (no, we're not doing anything like the full six-miles!) is relieved by occasional clumps of Sea Campion.

Or cast your eyes inland across the marshes, towards the village of Cley and with Blakeney Church appearing on the horizon. The shallow pools, which are home to many birds, are all that's left of the channel which once allowed Salthouse to be a port. The distant figures are walking along the bank which leads between Arnold's Marsh and the Cley bird reserve. That's where we're heading.

The path leads us back to the coast road and the bank of gorse which bears the name of Walsey Hills. Now it may not look like much to you (apart from being so colourful), but to a migrating bird it's a vital oasis, providing shelter to recuperate after an exhausting sea crossing. For ornithologists it's a place to trap, weigh, count and then release birds, gaining insights into their movements which inform attempts at conservation.

From here there's a path leading beside and across agricultural land, all the way back to our starting point.

I've been walking paths like this all my life and like to think I can recognise most things I see, but then I find this. An elderly gentleman was coming our way, lets ask him if he knows what it is. "Ah, have you heard the cuckoo this morning? Wonderful to hear them, isn't it? I've heard a number of them today. One of my favourite birds..." and so on and so on. But he did answer my question.....eventually. Any ideas?

And there's the church appearing on the horizon. Not far now.

And we're back to Cookie's Crab Shop. If your looking for my brother Les, you won't see him; he's inside buying his crab. On our way home there's just time to stop on Salthouse Heath where the gorse should be in full bloom.

That's all for now,

Take care.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

From The Days Of Old Sir Henry

We were on our way to Salthouse on the North Norfolk coast and this time I hoped to visit the church which I failed to see last time we were up this way. As we travelled the roads through Cambridgeshire, parts of Suffolk and across Norfolk, we passed mostly arable fields, but very few sheep. That wouldn't have happened a few centuries ago. (The old boy's rambling again, but he usually gets to the point in the end).

What we did arrive at was the little village of Salthouse and it's impressive church. I think you can see immediately that the whole of the body of the church is all built in one style, apart from the tower, which looks a bit older. It's not normal to find village churches like this; most of them have had many additions and alterations over time. 

The church was totally rebuilt during the fifteenth century, paid for by Sir Henry Heydon. Sir Henry sank part of his considerable fortune into several building projects and this church was just one of them. Although he was knighted he spent most of his time, not at court, but in Norfolk, and later down in Kent where he built himself another mansion. And, believe it or not, he amassed all his wealth from farming sheep. He also married Anne Boleyn (not Henry VIII's unfortunate wife, but one of her ancestors). 

Wool was big business in Medieval England and you can find splendid churches built with the profits wherever sheep were grazed. Vast amounts of money were made from exporting both fleeces and finished cloth and much of that trade took place through the ports of North Norfolk. And for a time, before the river channel silted up, Salthouse was one of those ports. Just a short distance away are the villages of Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley, all once ports and all with grand churches as a result of wool and shipping. 

A little of the church's former glory can be glimpsed on these painted panels, though the passing years have not been kind to them. They are said to represent saints and prophets. More interesting to me was what was on the reverse of the panels...

... crudely scratched pictures of ships. For years such writings and drawings were called "church graffiti" and thought to be the work of naughty boys. But some are in Latin which suggests that they were written by learned men, perhaps clergymen. This has prompted the idea that they were a symbolic act, rather like lighting a candle in church nowadays. Some of these inscriptions appear to be praying for a safe return from a voyage. And maybe those who couldn't write drew pictures of ships for the same reason. Whether that's all true or not, some of the ships drawn in Blakeney church, just down the road, are so detailed that they can only have been drawn by sailors.

Here at Salthouse there's a magnificent font to marvel at too. It bears a carving of the Tudor rose which suggests it must be much the same age as the church itself, but most people enjoy looking at the rather comical lions.

Whatever was intended to be conveyed by the inclusion of these wild beasts on the font, I think we may assume that the sculptor had never seen a lion, but instead its appearance had been conveyed to him by a series of "Chinese whispers". I like its silly smile!


No, I've no idea why the Vicar of Happisburgh was buried, some twenty miles from his own church, in Salthouse. 

The reason why we have this unblemished example of a fifteenth church left in such original condition is sheer neglect. Soon after it was built the money ran out, perhaps because the port silted up or else because the descendants of Sir Henry chose to spend their fortune elsewhere. If cash had continued to be available then surely the tower would have been replaced too. 

What we see today is exactly what was seen as pious good taste in the fifteenth century - an impressively large building but with simple, graceful lines and free from fussy ornamentation. 

The population of the small town has dwindled over the centuries to just two hundred. It's a surprise that the building has survived as well as it has - these flint-built churches have collapsed in many other places and this one sits in an exposed position right on the coast.

The church is dedicated to St Nicholas who, apart from his Christmas associations, is also sometimes regarded as the saint of sailors, based on a story of him once calming a storm. There's another reminder of the church's maritime associations if you peer up to the top of the tower...

We'll have a look at the coast and countryside around Salthouse in the next post.

Take care.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Every Mile Tells A Story

The Rules: Go out for a bike ride. After each mile, get off the bike take a photo. You may not lock up the bike, so must always stay close to it. No macro lens, no long telephoto - that would be cheating!

I got my bike from the shed, opened the gate and wobbled off down the road. I was quickly clear of the little cul-de-sac where I live and turned on to the village street. I said "Good morning" to one of my neighbours who was returning home with his Sunday paper. Passed the school where I worked for twenty-odd years, then on past the church - no service today, but warnings of "Messy Church" this afternoon! I think that's what we called Sunday School, but with added paints and glue. And then I stopped at the end of my first mile....

Exactly where I stopped there was a gap in the hedge, which gave a view of the house where the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams stayed on his holidays, back in the early years of the twentieth century. I carried on till I swung into Malton Lane, a fairly minor road with not much on it - this could be an interesting challenge I've set myself. Luckily however.... brought me close to Malton Farmhouse and a field of highland cattle, both of which I ignored in favour of a picture of the road and three posts. My route continued between green fields of wheat and a mile of that deposited me near a house called The Retreat.

It always seems a rather lonesome place to live. I pedalled to the village of Orwell, then turned towards Barrington. You won't see any of Orwell, pleasant little place though it is, because I can't get off till I've completed my next mile. And when I did there was nothing much to get off for....

A lot of Cambridgeshire's like this; either large open fields or thick hedges. The monotony of this section was only relieved by a right-angle bend in the middle of nowhere. But, hey, it's only a mile till I get off again...

This is the track down to Trinity Farm. It's right on the edge of Barrington, one of the most picturesque villages in Cambridgeshire, and that's where I'm heading next - through the huge village green with thatched cottages gathered around it, past the village pump, the cricket field, the ponds and the church. And you can't see any of it because it's not time to stop yet. (No, I'm not that cruel; you can see it all in the post I wrote called "A Very English Village").

As luck would have it my next stop was just the other side of Barrington, near where the road crosses the river. There were lots of people out on bikes on this fine morning. As I recommenced my journey another huge group of enthusiastic cyclists sped by, all heads-down and nose to tail, and right on a sharp bend too. If something had been coming the other way......A little further along they were all stopped on the roadside as one of their number was mending a puncture. I crept quietly by, though the urge to say something about hares and tortoises was strong.

Here is where the main Cambridge to London railway crosses one of the Cambridge to London roads. That gate beside the Stop Look Listen sign automatically locks before trains come through. It was installed after a number of accidents and near-misses. I could then ride along the cycleway beside the busy A10 road. I'd soon had enough of that and turned off into Shepreth.

I clocked up the next mile near these meadows where there are often sheep and horses. I carried on through Shepreth, but again didn't get to stop till I had "come out the other side" of the village. My next pause was on the road back into my home village.

I take this to be a field of flax (or linseed), though I didn't go to investigate closely. It's appeared in a small field between the two villages. The wires in the distance are associated with the electric trains that speed through regularly. 

Well, yes, there are picture postcard cottages too. The thatcher has added a straw Pheasant to the ridgeline. I thought I'd like another photo so I took a loop around to get home. I was soon passing signs that said Road Closed, but there's always room for a bike to get through. In fact no roadworks were taking place and if they'd only moved the signs there would have been room for cars too.

Just to show you that we don't all live under roofs of thatch here are some more modern houses, just down the road from me. And if I carry on around the corner, past the school and the shop, I'll soon be home once more.

Take care.