What’s That at Wheatfen? Dick Meadows
It’s around four in the afternoon at Wheatfen. It’s the Eve of St. Agnes, January
20th, immortalised by John Keats in his poem of the same name: the owl, for all
his feathers was a-cold/The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass/And
silent was the flock in woolly fold.
Well, it’s not freezing but the flock in the nearby fields are settling with the twilight.
And close by Old Mill Marsh a barn owl is silently quartering the fen in a final
search for food. You’d need to be very close to even hear her wing beat.
I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I would rather be at this moment. It’s a
windy afternoon with the moon already peering through the fast moving clouds.
The wind muffles the faraway drone of the A47 but occasionally the rather
comforting rattle of the Norwich to Yarmouth train carries across the countryside.
Sally-Ann and I have walked here most weeks for five years and more. I have
known Wheatfen for much longer but never so well. I’m no naturalist but when
your wife is a wildlife film maker, then ignorance is overcome with the simple
question, “What’s that?” So now plants have names, trees become species and
animals are no longer anonymous.
We’re walking down Penguin Dyke. It’s that time of year when the winter smell of
decay is still strong but the landscape is already bursting with piled-up energy
waiting to take off again like an athlete. This is my favourite place. I like the faint
absurdity of the name (after the wherry Penguin) and the sense of solitude and
secrecy in this dead-end track whose way is barred by Fen Channel.
Perhaps its selfishness, too, in enjoying a natural place not stifled by too many
people or the over-arching, school-masterly strictness of some of the big
“What’s that?” It’s not the aircraft far above trailing its ragged vapour path and too
high to hear. The noise is the conversation of rooks heading for nearby
Buckenham and the biggest roost in Britain. Some estimates put the numbers well
in excess of 50,000. There aren’t too many birds above us but their chatter is as
animated as a football crowd after a winning game. Wonder what they are saying.
No wonder a gathering of rooks is called a parliament - just as noisy as their
As the chatter and clatter of the birds subsides I’m reminded of Ted Ellis’s
unforgettable description of the Broads as a “breathing space for the cure of
souls.” Not sure about the soul but Wheatfen certainly calms a restless mind.
My memories of Ted are shorter than many people’s but memorable still. When I
joined the BBC in Norwich in the mid seventies he was a familiar figure in the
newsroom, funny, kind and with a beguiling broadcasting style that made him a
household name. When the BBC eventually decided to dispense with his wisdom
and wit it was entirely their loss.
We’ve now walked across Eleven (new!) Bridges and turned right into Smee Loke
for what we affectionately call the ring road route via the river. Maybe its
superstition but we always walk anti-clockwise.
“What’s that?” Its wigeon on the wing heading for some nearby dyke. Their call on
the water always makes me smile. Sally’s description is spot-on. They sound just
like rubber ducks in the bath when you squeeze them and they squeak. I never tire
of these paths. At this time of year David has hedged back the reeds in Smee
Loke. Before long they will be on the march again skywards, squeezing the path
almost into a tunnel.
The river is quiet, no speedboats and water skiers to wash away the tranquillity
and the banks. But the river isn’t empty and this time even I don’t have to enquire,
“what’s that?” Bobbing on the tide are great crested grebe. We have a game,
best of five, trying to guess where they will surface after each dive.
There’s a momentary panic as Sally almost drops her battered but still exquisitely
precious Carl Zeiss binoculars. They’ve been repaired at least twice before. Being
married to a birder means I have to remember to refer to them as ‘bins.’ If it was a
toss up between me and the bins I wouldn’t bet on it.
As we head back through Alder Carr Marsh, the magic of this magical place casts
a final spell. There’s a Chinese water deer on the path. We are downwind so she
doesn’t smell or see us. We stand and watch for several minutes. In our mad,
careless world I can’t help but think that sometimes we seem to know the price of
everything and the value of nothing. Perhaps this little creature is a reminder that
the value of Wheatfen is priceless.
Dick is a Trustee of Wheatfen.
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