Wicken Fen (01/01/15)

Hoar frost forms as a sub-zero dew, on bitter still nights under the stars. It is the architecture of temperature and moisture: a crystalline fragment of frozen water like glassy barbed wire. On fenland afternoons when the blue sky lies about the temperature, the hoar clings on to the links between the boardwalk slats, out of the sun and beyond the reach of errant footsteps. Breath still condenses around our faces. The track away from the boardwalk is thinly iced and deeply puddled. We turn back with the ice cracking around our feet above puddles deeper than our boots. Between the reeds and the lode runs a thicket of hawthorn and tangled guelder rose bushes. A mob of Fieldfares descends from the clear sky on to them, as unruly and noisy as drunks at closing time, squabbling over the best of the pale red berries.

The fens. A landscape made by man. The extent of green and brown and water may deceive but the spirit level horizon and ruler straight lodes remind you that this was once below sea level. It is a landscape you can put a precise date upon. Wicken Fen is also precisely datable: from 1899 when the first patch of land was bought and set aside as one of the first nature reserves in Britain. Fenland is a young habitat too, requiring constant management to ensure it doesn’t dry out or succeed into scrub or woodland. The sea of reeds in front is a landscape that is kept permanently young, younger than its 115 years. 

The sea of reeds gently sways in the slightest of breezes. Spider silk shines against the light, joining reed head to reed head. I shiver. I’ve been coming here since a child and I have no warm memories of the place. I have memories of seeing my first Barn Owl on a family walk down the lode, wellies ankle deep in snow. It was spotted first by my mum, flying towards us. She thought it perhaps was a swan at first. I’ve been here in summer and still felt a distinct chill sweeping over the landscape. I can hardly picture it in anything other than winter; half-frozen in still tranquility, full of the empty space and silence I crave.

The sun turned golden and lit up the reeds.

The tranquility lasts just a moment until the next step flushes a Blackbird with clanging alarm notes. The sun disappeared. A Hen Harrier drifted down a ditch. A young male. Young: the brown-streaked underparts were suffused with a golden freshness; male because the wings were glazed with a greyish-blue tinge. It is a bird that carries its own sense of drama. There are no underwhelming Hen Harriers, being physically imposing and the rarest raptor to breed in England. Winter in the fens offers them relief: easy pickings along the fields and lodes, safe roosting in the middle of undisturbed marshes. In summer they head to upland moors where — with the habitat for 300 pairs — four nested this year. Tagged chicks vanish. Adults get their legs crushed in illegal traps. Meanwhile an adult male joined the young male out over the marsh. The adult’s blue-grey plumage appeared as ghostly as its effortless movements in the cold light.

A blood-orange sun sinks out of the cloud, flares briefly and drops below the horizon. A clean air sunset. A Barn Owl quarters slowly into the gathering night

January 2014

It could have been a scene from Scandinavia: the silver birch and the rusting bracken, thick dark mud and lashing hail. It lasted for two skin stinging minutes. The wood thinned out. Bracken gave way to heather, the hail to the numbing wind, and the path to a bridleway of finest sludgey mud, studded with white ice. Half a kilometre over the heath to a clump of pines where the Parrot Crossbills are and the clouds break up; the last hour or so of sunlight appearing over the distant pines. All around was heather, oak, pine and birch; damp and glittering in the light. It is tempting to lose yourself in this landscape that feels so old and right and proper. 

It is not Scandinavia. Not even Scotland. It is Nottinghamshire.

Behind the pines on the horizon the black edge of a slag heap can be seen. The product of a hundred or so years of removing useful things from the earth and putting it back somewhere else. The map is ridden with names that tell my dad – Nottinghamshire lad – of the old pits and collieries that were shut as he grew up. They’re just names on a map to me. Further back, and the animals that would’ve kept this area open and unwooded have been replaced by conservationists, counter intuitively pulling out trees in the name of nature. It’s in the name: Budby Common. Ignore the fences passed on the way here and it still appears like the common lands of a John Clare poem, though lacking in its people.
Curious landscape paradox. It is deeply coloured by human hand yet it looks and feels untouched.

Parrot Crossbills. Large red finches from Scandinavia, they are rarities that turn up on the back of a poor pine seed crop in the Arctic taiga, in search of food. I had tried and failed to see them elsewhere three times this winter. The itinerant nature that brings them here also makes them hard to catch up with. This time felt luckier. A birder we had met on the way here had successfully seen them and gave us directions to the pines on this heath.

We were not lucky. Damp and cold, we saw Common Buzzards shrieking over the woods and Jays flash exotically against the sky, but nothing particularly out of a birder’s idea of the ordinary. It’s only on the long dark train ride home that I begin to wonder why we do it. Why I, in particular, turn my nose up at the idea of twitching, but continually return to places where Parrot Crossbills have been seen and will be seen by seemingly everybody but me. I don’t keep doing it for the dubious honour of being Britain’s unluckiest birder.

I’ve been birding for eight years to general apathy from friends and occasional hostility from others. But oddly there’s been a recent flourishing of interest from several people, mostly focusing on why we do it, why we ‘just look at them?’. It’s a question that opens a gap of mutual incomprehensibility. They can’t understand the interest, and I can’t understand why they’re not. I have to explain my hobby and the seeming irrationality of it.

I’ve always been interested in animals, since childhood visits to the zoo, watching birds on the garden feeders and being sat in front of the Lion King and Free Willy, my favourite films as a kid. I’ve been a fisherman – fly and coarse – but thankfully never a hunter. I found watching wild animals to be the best route to knowing and to experiencing nature with as minimal an impact as possible. I would feel the thrill of catching a fish between the waits that seemed like they would never end. I would feel conflicted about hauling it on to land, looking at it, then putting it back. Better to have never taken it out in the first place? I recognise that need though, the drive that makes the fisherman spend days on the lakeside, waiting for the elusive fish bite. I don’t know why millions of people will watch Attenborough documentaries, but never try to seek out nature for themselves, unmediated and with the intimacy of real experience.

will keep trying to get to know nature. Nature may be amorphous and defies definition at every attempt, but for me that’s part of the attraction. It is at once full of things to learn and full of things that are unknowable. It takes me to silent places and a horizon without houses, but lets me hear the beating of my heart, and hold conversations with the most interesting people.

The box-ticking, blinkered, crowd mentality of twitching is something I find very distasteful, but with my attempted twitches of Parrot Crossbills it’s taken me to new places, on the Essex coast and in my own home county. It’s shown me the loveliest part of Nottinghamshire.

All without the actual birds.

All in the act of just looking.

Noup Head 04/09/13

Ravens hang in the white like crucifixes on church walls.

The wind that fixes the Ravens there is the wind that pushes the tops of waves over, picks up the scent of salt and the stench of manure and crushed crab fertiliser, and takes it to the gulls circling overhead like vultures.

The path to the cliffs is a rough track over damp grassy ground, becoming steadily bleaker as it extends out of the bays either side. Westray is an isolated Orcadian isle, the most north-westerly of them all, and the ferry from Kirkwall takes as long as the ferry from the mainland did in the first place. On the bus to Pierowall – the main village – we hardly lost sight of the sea. But if sea explains islands, it’s the wind that characterises them. It is the wind that carves the cliffs at Noup Head into the serrated stack of sandstone they are today.

But the wind purifies too.

I stood on the clifftop after a walk that felt longer than it looked, close enough to the edge to worry my mother. The salt and sand and wind that grinds down rock over millennia was gentle on me, rubbing away the tiredness accumulated from early starts and fitful nights in tents. With a wind like this I feel you can breathe again, properly. I can feel more than just air reaching down into the furthest alveoli. I feel the unexpected ecstasy of fresh air again.

The waves below literally boom as they collide with rock. Gannets cry. Fulmars chuckle.

And with the ecstasy, the fear. This is not a towering cathedral of rock but one that plummets, sheer, to the jagged rocks and white chaos of waves below. And I feel a twinge of the old vertigo that inflicts dad and lurks in me. My friend inched to the edge on hands on knees to peer over an overhang. I couldn’t bring myself to get more than a foot closer. Sweaty palms and leaden feet. Vision takes on the peculiarly sharp yet disorientated feel, as if your retina was an unspooling, like a tape measure, into a distance fathomable only by fear.

I stand back. Admire the naturally fearless Gannets folding themselves up and falling headfirst into the water at speed, emerging with a fish and returning to its identical sandstone ledge with its near identical chick; and repeating this with clockwork regularity, clockwork efficiency.

I stand back. Admire the view – greater than 180 degrees – of sea in almost every direction. The most northerly I have been and to the eye just sea beyond.