Halcyon Days Revisited

It was on the way home from this year’s HUBB UK meeting at Baskerville Hall (inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes adventure) that we dropped into the Nagshead RSPB reserve.

We sat patiently in the pond side hide, camera trained on a log at the water’s edge. In-between torrential downpours, Rosana finally got her photo.

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Big Skies

The sky was enormous, seemingly stretching for ever in all directions. The vast mud flats of the Wash lay before us, wading birds strutting through the mud and plucking tasty morsels from the goo. Kestrels hovered over the salt marsh, wings beating furiously as they searched for their prey. Behind us the farmers were working overtime to harvest their crops before the forecast rain arrived. It was the summer bank holiday weekend, so of course rain was forecast – anything else would have been unnatural.

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We started our walk from the southern bank of Guy’s Head, not far north of the the border between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, all the while keeping our eyes open for seals. We’d left the van parked a short distance up the river Nene, where two similar looking lighthouses marked the entrance to the murky waterway, guiding shipping safely inland.

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Further upstream the Crosskeys bridge spans the river. Built in 1897 the swing bridge is still operational today, halting traffic on the busy A17 to allow commercial and pleasure shipping through. We hadn’t come for the engineering though. Like many visitors to the area we were here for the wildlife that is attracted to the nutrient rich mud flats.

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We chose a campsite at a pub, figuring if the weather got too bad that at least we’d have somewhere to hide from the rain, but for now the sun was still shining and the clouds only just starting to gather above us. It wouldn’t be long though, the farmers knew it and they worked their harvesters long into the night.

Awaking to dry skies, we headed for the RSPB reserve at Frampton Marsh. Our timing was not great, the end of the summer being too early for the autumn’s mass migrations. But none the less, the wardens were excited about a rare bird that had arrived. We followed their instructions and found the bird at the location they described. No idea what it was called, but it was black and white (not the one in the photo, that’s a lapwing and not rare).

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When the rain finally arrived it was heavy and driven fiercely by the wind. We made a hasty retreat to the campsite in the hope that it would clear overnight. As the rain drummed on the roof and fat wet droplets ran down the windows we cocooned ourselves in the snug confines of the van, wondering if it would let up enough to even make a dash for the pub.

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Monday was quite possibly wetter, so we set a simple goal of fish and chips by the sea, maybe taking in a lighthouse along the way. We followed the coastal road around to Old Hunstanton and ticked off the lighthouse from the day’s to-do list, then continued on east. A quick stop at Blakeney to see if we could see some seals found us quickly retreating to the safety of the van as the rain became horizontal.

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Heading further east we made a random left turn into the busy seaside town of Sheringham and settled in to watch the grey expanse of the North Sea while eating our lunch, ticking off the second and final item on our day’s to-do list.

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This Desert Life

We arrived at the spot we’d planned to spend the night and were immediately concerned.  Columns of black smoke appeared to be rising from the ground all around the nature reserve we had chosen to stop in.  On closer inspection it turned out not to be smoke but insects. Thousands, millions probably, of insects rising in great plumes. A few landed on the windows, attracted by the light. They were big and scary looking.

“Erm, not sure stopping for the night in the middle of an alien insect invasion is a good idea?”

The question hung in the air as we sat looking at other options for somewhere to park. But suddenly and to our surprise the insects disappeared. Just like that, as if the “No Insects” switch had been flicked, the end of the insect working day.

“Well, that was weird.”

Weird. It was a word that would sum up the whole weekend, but weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Parked up just outside of Dungeness, we were in the UK’s only desert. Some of its highlights include two lighthouses, a nature reserve, an RSPB centre, a narrow gauge railway, a small town of mostly wooden buildings and a pub that closes at half past eight of a Saturday.

It was near the RSPB centre that we were camped. Around ten in the evening the police turned up. “Here we go” we thought, but no, they circled the gravel car park, gave us a cheery wave and left. We heard them again later, it’s quite nice to have your own security patrol.  Even the group of lads who turned up later in the evening parked a respectable distance away.  Things were looking up.

The shingle flatlands of Dungeness provide a unique habitat for large numbers of plants, birds and animals.  A day spent at the RSPB reserve rewarded us with several magical moments.  Birds of prey got so close to the hides that you could almost feel the wind from their beating wings. We ooh’d and ahh’d and the coot chicks and ducklings. We listened to the cuckoos, though they remained hidden from sight.

Birds

Bird

We got our first view of the train that runs along the narrow gauge railway as we stopped in nearby Lydd-on-Sea to pick up some food to cook for dinner.  The engineer, tightly ensconced in his locomotive, tooted his steam whistle as his train emerged from between the suburban gardens and rattled across one of the many level crossings.  Over the weekend we noticed three different trains running, two steam locomotives and a diesel, all miniature versions but capable of pulling large numbers of tourist filled carriages.

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Being a headland, and a constantly changing one at that, Dungeness has long been the site of a lighthouse. The first lighthouses were built here with a plan to charge passing ships for safe passage but collecting the toll proved problematic and the scheme soon failed.  Currently there are two lighthouses, the old and the new. The old lighthouse, built in 1904, is no longer in use and is purely a tourist attraction. It was replaced in 1961 by the new lighthouse, required because the nearby power station obstructed the beacon of the older lighthouse.

New lighthouse

It was next to the old lighthouse that we camped for our second night in the area.

Old Lighthouse

We had planned to go for a quick pint in Dungeness’s only pub and braved the light rain to find it closes quite early, relying on daytime trade only. It’s not surprising really, the area is sparsely populated and there is not much in the way of passing trade in the evening. We weren’t alone though, a few other vans were parked up for night and there were many people fishing from the steep shingle beach, their lines disappearing into the murky sea.

Climbing the 169 steps to the top of the old lighthouse brings a view over the vast flat landscape.  It’s got an almost eerie feel and from this height it even feels slightly abandoned and it’s clear that not all the houses are occupied full time.  

But there is life here and it’s quite vibrant.  Someone is working on an old Airstream caravan.  People are living in the old Coastguard lookout tower.  Artists sell their work from shed like houses, with bright and kooky installations to tempt you in.  Trawlers are dragged up the beach by tractors and fishermen land their catches and smoke them there and then, the smoked fish sold from little huts by the road.  It’s an incredibly photogenic landscape.

There’s rememberance here too, hidden in the scrubland we find a makeshift monument to two Polish spitfire pilots killed nearby during WWII.

Boat and Tractor

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Paintbrushes

House

gloves

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Lighthouse keepers cottages

Coastguard station

And behind it all, the power station sits, gently humming to itself twenty four hours a day.

power!