There is indeed so much, so close to home. I’d forgotten how rich the small wetland area we used to call ‘Whitlingham Marshes’ can be. It was one of those areas we stumbled upon as children, as we gradually stepped out of our comfort zone to widen our explorations.
At first we ventured no further than the rough ground across the road from our estate, comprising an area of degraded remnant heathland, a small plantation and the jewel in the crown: the ‘Newt Pond’. No newt, small frog or stickleback was safe from our nets and jam jars, but we always released them unharmed. We were too young to understand what biodiversity meant, let alone be able to spell it, but I wonder what gems were present on this land. There must have been a rich array of wildflowers, a plethora of small invertebrates, no doubt a goodly cast of birds and quite a few butterflies. The latter I do know about, because, to my shame, we collected them. Common blues were just that, common, holly blues likewise. Small coppers and the browns abounded, while cinnabar moths added a touch of mystique and the exotic. It didn’t take much for us council house kids to be wholly impressed. Needless to say, most of this area gave way to concrete and tarmac many years ago. I can remember us youngsters playing on the fledgling building site, stacking bricks in wobbly piles to create our own mini-residences and having a whale of a time. Health & Safety be damned.
It was the pillaging of our wild playground that forced us to roam further afield, discovering just a mile and a half away the wetland alluded to in the opening paragraph. It was easy to reach; past the rookery, pop into the sweet shop, walk down the hill and there you were. All that remained was to climb the stairs over the metal bridge spanning the rail line and the world, or all we required of it, was our oyster. I know memory plays tricks, but I’m pretty sure we stood atop that bridge watching a pair of Yellow Wagtails feed a nest full of young placed in a tuft of rich meadow grass. Wildlife was everywhere. We watched fascinated as clusters of tadpoles rose in unison from the depths of the drainage ditches, wondered what jabbering bird was making the manic squeaking, twittering and whistling from deep dykeside cover, saw Kingfishers, as a bolt of electric blue, streak along the river, and fearlessly prised wriggling grass snakes from the lushness. I took a grass snake home once, securely curled up in my jacket pocket, half filled the bath and released it therein. I was transfixed watching it swim around and around. Mum wasn’t quite as taken with the sight when she came home, and her screams resulted in all the neighbours opening doors and windows to see who was being murdered. I didn’t do it again.
During those years of the 1970s, we discovered those marshes also played host to Snipe, Lapwing, Little Ringed Plover, Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings and any number of cow pats. All this adjacent to a major thoroughfare on the southern edge of the city. Quite remarkable.
But then I forgot. I forgot about this place because I temporarily moved to the other side of the city; because the insatiable requirement for building materials licenced gravel extraction from half the marsh and turned it into a industrialised mess; because I forgot what it was like to be a small wondering thing in a shop layered with jars of new delight. For many years this place slipped from my memory, sure there were a few superficial visits, but nothing of substance. Until a few days ago this place and all its wildness had slipped from my consciousness. Thanks to the 220 for 2022 quest I’ve dreamt up, a few days ago I remembered.
I decided to revisit this childhood haunt and see what I could add to the 5K from home list, and to discover what changes the passing of five decades had wrought. The place is now called Thorpe Marshes (perhaps it always was), and is an official urban nature reserve managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The bridge over the railway hasn’t changed, and doesn’t look like it’s been painted since our short legs energetically carried us across half a century ago. The path leading to the jetty is the same, the area of sedge and scrub by the bend in the river seems intact. The pathways, the arteries, across the marsh are in exactly the same place, the clean, clear water, the lifeblood, still sparkles in the sunshine, and the sense of wildness is still there. Yes, half the water meadows have been turned into a lake following the extraction of glacial deposit, and certainly most of the remaining fields are much more overgrown than they were, but essentially the heart of the place remains strongly beating.
With quite a spring in my step I traversed the old, familiar stomping ground, reminiscing here and there on things we saw and things we did. But the present revealed itself to be every bit as good, maybe even better than it used to be. I was able to listen still to the manic jabbering of small brown birds, but now I know them as Sedge Warblers. Their familiar squeaking, twittering and whistling was a constant accompaniment. Reed Buntings repeated their simple song from atop wayside willows or from the depths of last years reed, a Buzzard spiralled overhead and peacock butterflies, unseen as they basked on the bare ground, flushed at my approach. A newly hatched brood of Mallard ducklings and their mother were unfazed by my close attention and in the background a Green Woodpecker ‘yaffled’ his way through tall riverside trees. I caught up with this fellow as he proclaimed loud and proud from a dead bough, the first time I’ve ever been able to watch such an unassuming bird making such an unearthly noise close to.
Along the riverbank I listened, and had good views of Blackcap and Garden Warbler, both of which were lovely but unsurprising. Not as expected was the Whimbrel that 7-whistled across the lake. Even more intriguing was the female Stonechat flitting around one of the drier patches. Are they breeding here, so close to home? It got better. A female Cuckoo arrowed past, alighting in a dead tree to scrutinise the sedge beds for signs of nesting activity by small birds. And then, as I turned my back to leave, a lovely Marsh Harrier floated across the meadows as a way of saying ‘look at all you’ve been missing’.
I’d forgotten there was so much, so close to home, but I will go back soon, of that you can be sure.