Day 54

Back on the beach. The tide is on the way out. Two of the three tiers of shingle are visible. From the water line to the top of the shingle is a climb of about ten metres. The depth of the beach this evening is maybe fifty metres from the top to the foaming wash. The beach has three distinct shelves.

Despite this being a receding tide, the north wind drags heavy, breaking rollers to the shore. I walk along on the ridge on the second shelf. Pebbles spill seaward under my tread if I get too close to the shelf edge. The waves surge up to the raised line of rounded stones, occasionally pouring over the step.

The wind is unrelenting. It is cold, about five degrees centigrade.

At Great Eye the only evidence of sand martins is the line of nesting burrows they have excavated over the years on their summer visits. The lie of the land is such that their colony directly faces the North Sea. The burrows can be up to metre in length and are always several metres up a sheer face, offering security from non-flying predators. I wonder how they are dealing with this cold wind off the water.

Even the sand martins struggle to keep a footing when waiting outside a nest hole for access. One of the returning adults may fly straight into the hole, but I have seen them land just underneath the entrance and then flip up before disappearing into the cliffside. When another adult, or two, arrives at the nest site they have to cling to the sandy bank and wait to enter. Sometimes they just wait until the original returnee comes out and they fly off together. As with the greylag geese and their goslings, I notice that some nests have more than a pair attending. Have the females arranged additional home help? Are the males competing to support the young, not certain of paternity?

When I first closely watched these birds yesterday, I noted that the colony’s adults would all arrive over the top of the sandbank together in a loose flock. There was then a lot of activity and chatter around the sandbank for several minutes, before the flock would gather again and disappear over the grassy top to seek more food. Few if any adults remained on duty.

Today I find them at their feeding site. A small, shallow lake that is set well back from the shingle bank. The sand martins are struggling to maintain balance in the forceful breeze. Any gliding they do is for short periods and unstable. Adjustments to catch midges and mosquitos have to be matched by adjustments to keep steady flight. They stay close to the water’s surface and rarely fly above the height of the hedge that offers something of a wind-shield. The journey back to the sandbank at Great Eye will be heavy work.

As I make a way to the village, a solitary avocet is being knocked around by the gusts. Its long legs do not look strong enough to carry the black and white body. The bird is leaning into the wind to remain as upright as possible. When the wind strengthens it wobbles, unsteady on its pins; even crueller is when a gust blows by and loses strength suddenly, causing the bird to nearly fall onto to its chest. It is moving as if punch-drunk. The avocet is determined to scour the pond for food despite the blustery conditions. Its upward-curved beak, as fine as its spindly legs, is a delicate piece of engineering that is quite strong enough for the work required.

Today I see only one hare grazing, huddled in the lee of a hedgerow. The mute swan sits tight on its huge nest in the reed bed along the drain, hugging its clutch of pale green eggs. Rooks are dispersed evenly across the marsh plugging away at the turf.

A flight of four mallards, (three drakes accompanying, (or chasing) a lone duck), somehow manage to maintain a fixed display formation, despite the unfavourable flying conditions.

I head home without cobwebs.

Christopher Perry

10th May, 2020

Day 53

Great Eye, a lump of clay and sand, is dissolving a little more with each storm tide. It used to be further inland, less exposed to the direct action of sea. For a while it was the site of a folly building, which then became a coast guard rocket house, before the foundations and brickwork succumbed to the tides.

Random sections of old brickwork still exist, but they lie down the beach, edging toward the sea. The mortar still holds, but is gradually thinning. The red bricks have long since become smoothed and rounded off at their extremes. The sea has a way of rounding everything off, smoothing things out with its steady soothing motions.

I picked up several pebbles on the shore this afternoon, I kept hold of four: a black, flat ellipse of granite; another egg-shaped disc, closer to ivory than stone; a tiger-striped orange and brown disc, roughly the size of a 50 pence piece; a deep red pebble the size of my thumbnail.

I dropped a fifth stone accidentally when examining a dead green crab that had acted as host to several barnacles on its shell. This pebble was almost see-through and small enough to set in a ring for a little finger.

The granite disc fits perfectly into my right palm. I can close my hand fully around it. It warms in my grasp.

The red pebble gains a shine easily.

The tiger stone and its pallid twin lose their lustre once dry, but retain their physical integrity. The tiger stone is distinct enough to become a reminder of these days, walking this coastline during unusual times.

I was going to write about the sand martins here too. They are busy at Great Eye today. I will visit them again soon.

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Christopher Perry

9th May, 2020

Day 52

I turn off the road and follow a track through the woodland. Today the cool is most welcome as the sun is strong. It is a rare day of constant warmth and I have spent too long in the open.

The canopy of sycamore, oak and ash whilst thin, is nearly complete. Bluebells are not the only flowers here bringing a touch of the sky to ground. I see a mass of tiny blue flowers decorating thin stalks dabbed among fresh nettles. I make my way over to them crossing a carpet of dry twigs and dead brambles. I think that these are Wood forget-me-knots. They are in their natural habitat here, a remnant of ancient woodland.

The nettles are a delicate fresh green. I am stung on my shin as I turn back towards the road.

The pinging sensation lingers on my skin for much of the rest of the day. It reminds me vividly of last May, working in Somerset at the end of lambing, when we were moving the cows to fresh pasture and learning how to herd the ewes and their gambolling lambs along too. There were plenty of nettles there.

My son, on a break from the hospital sends four photographs from his family walk today. They have come across a large slow worm lying on a track in a patch of sunlight in their local wood. They all look well.

I take a circuitous route back home. As I follow the lanes round to the coast road I think back to the emerging colours of flowers I have seen these few weeks. Yellows predominant as Spring begins, soon followed by masses of white. Delicate violets and purple mix into that confection and now, once the blues have arrived, it is the pink and pale red flowers coming out on the verges and in the hedges to join the the white of the May Tree and yellow of gorse and dandelions.

Along the top of one hedge I see numerous lilac panicles. Today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, (Victory in Europe, 1945). I choose not to gather any of the flowers, preferring to let them grow wild – and according to the old war song gathering lilac is not meant to be a solitary activity.

Out to catch a glimpse of the fiery sunset at the back of the house, I find myself having to dodge a large droning insect with a fierce looking spike. It settled on one of the lower branches of the goat’s willow.  I have been told that this odd-shaped creature, with its slow heavy wing and a drone louder and lower in pitch than a bumble bee, is a May Bug, or doodle bug. The protuberance identifies the female bug as it is a tube for laying eggs into the root layer of the ground, where its hatching grubs feed on the roots of grasses. 

The May Bug is not a popular insect with farmers trying to produce wheat and barley. Chemical controls have prevented infestations in recent years. I am delighted they have survived in this area, as will be the rooks, who enjoy feeding on the grubs of these odd-looking creatures. The May Bug grubs are apparently known as “rookworms” in some areas because of the attraction they hold to the crow family.

The sunset is diluted by a brief, heavy rain shower. Low, thick clouds prevent any sign of the moon, bright as it might be.

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Christopher Perry

8th May, 2020

Day 50

I had a long list of things to write about today, but in the end one magical moment grabbed my attention; the hares above Kelling Hard.

Native to Britain, they remain a sight for sore eyes in much of the island, but in this area they are seen in nearly every field, in the pastures, on the marshes, even bounding along the hedge-lined lanes. I am still at the point of savouring seeing them without having to seek them out. Like the barn owl earlier this month, if you remain alert to their possibility, they will appear.

It is May and my expectation is that hares are now settled into family groups, with territories agreed and the contest for female attention passed. So, I am surprised to see a stand-off between two hares. One is sitting tall on its haunches, ears pricked forelegs at chest height, looking like a relative of a kangaroo, or wallaby. The other is in a stalking, crouched position. Its shoulders and hips bulge above the outline of its back, it is ready to pounce; its ears are down, aligned with its back.

The upright hare ensures that it holds its tall, confident posture, but has to turn where it is facing to follow his crouched opponent, who circles, trying to gain a place from where to attack. This posing and positioning, the stand-off continues for several minutes. It is clear that neither is going to turn tail on the other. Around the field numerous other hares quietly graze in the lee of the hill, enjoying the last warmth of the day’s sun.

Suddenly, the two spring into action. Kicking and flailing at each other. There is a moment when they are both fighting in mid-air; backs bent to the fight so all feet can claw at the other. In this combined leap they repeatedly scratch and hit out, twisting like air-borne fighting blackbirds, the hares’ sprinters’ limbs a blur.

I am watching this from behind a low hedge down the slope. When they launch into action they break the line of the horizon above and I see blue sky beneath them; they continue fighting stalled in flight at the point before gravity brings them back to earth – Norfolk Ninja warriors.

The last vivid memory that I have of watching such behaviour was when I was a primary school pupil. It may have been during the March of 1968. Our teacher, Mrs Lally, took the class for a walk out of the school, past the art college and along the bank of the river. She told us about weeping willows, we saw grey, fluffy, ugly-duckling cygnets with their mute swan parents, rainbow trout against the gravel in the shallow river and across the water meadows, on the other side of the Itchen, hares. These were the already renown Mad March Hares, in good numbers, with three of four pairs boxing with each other.

As a child I was lucky to be part of a family where going for walks and learning about the natural world was part of growing up, even though we lived in a spacious, suburban, dormitory town. As a consequence, most of what I was shown on those school walks was not new to me, but the boxing hares were novel and exciting to see; lively, wild animals behaving badly – what a treat!

On this evening walk I had seen another family of greylags, but this time with just two adult geese in charge. I had my binoculars to hand and was able to count twelve goslings being shepherded by the parents. Something spooked the parent birds and they quickly set off with the goslings towards a shallow ditch where they could shelter en masse. The adults, instead of walking tall, heads elevated like periscopes, ran crouched low to the grass, beaks held out in advance, just a few inches above the grass, tails counter-balancing this unusual position, also just a couple of inches from the turf. The goslings moving in unsteady single-file between the big birds, allowed me to be more certain of their number. Can greylag geese count their hatchlings, or do they just instinctively protect the ones who can keep up? 

The call of cuckoos is becoming as commonplace as the sight of the swifts above the red-tiles in the villages here. Swallows are now more obvious in better numbers. Various bee species lay a gentle background buzzing to accompany moments sheltered from the wind. 

Against the setting Sun I see the shape of someone emerge from the sea. The man is up and away, jogging on home without much hesitation. I am wearing a cycling jacket and at least two good layers underneath that. Swimming in the North Sea might be good for me in some ways, (blood circulation, a sense of being in the present, a stimulant) but pneumonia is something I wish to avoid.

The wind gets at my chest and despite being sun-burnt on my face, I do not feel totally healthy as a result.

I will not report on the temperature today, other than to note that it is normal for Norfolk.

Christopher Perry

6th May, 2020

Day 49

There are some very long-lived people resident in Norfolk; the cool climate is clearly a contributor. Like living in a massive fridge, the chill stops one from going off, perhaps. I struggle with the dichotomy of clear blue sky matched with being perpetually cold. It is also true of this neck of the woods that there are few residents, apart from at weekends and during the holiday seasons, so those who are permanent are clearly hardy, adaptable folk.

I heard a remark today that captures an essence of this period. “The days go by so fast, but each day is so slow.” Something very strange is happening to our experience of time. 

Today is another Wednesday. It is the fiftieth day of writing about what I am witnessing here, but it still all seems new. Perhaps this practise of writing something about each day keeps it so for me. The gradual emergence of Spring comes later here in comparison to the southern coast. I have an opportunity to note the natural changes as they arise.

I sense the changing tilt of sunlight in these days between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. This time when days lengthen and shadows shorten has often been lost to me before. School and then study and then work have always been busy during this phase of the solar cycle, so I am blessed to be able to immerse myself in it this year. 

It is less than six weeks to Midsummer’s day, (just 46 days) and from then the days will shorten, the shadows lengthen. Of course, the air will be warmer, the soil heated and the long tail of Summer leading into Autumn will pass through some blissful days, but it is this phase, when each day is brighter and longer than the last that is the time of renewal, growth and hope. I pray that I am able to appreciate each one, as and when each arrives.

In the sunlit evening, I put on a thick, windproof jacket, zip it to my chin and step out into the blustery air. I do not treat the walk as exercise, but as a stroll. I take my time to move within, rather than through the landscape. This allows me to see the muntjac deer before it hears me coming, to enjoy the leverets chasing each other, to watch the rabbits nibbling and to study the hedge birds hopping about from branch to nest and perch. In one instance, in the wood on the hill, two young rabbits come towards me. I halt my gentle pace and am able to watch them for a few undisturbed moments before they amble off under the brambles.

This Spring I have been able to see the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn by the time of their flowering. The blackthorn is turned to green leaves before the hawthorn’s May Flower sprouts. The blackthorn covers large areas of the escarpment below the heath and when in blossom presents a picture akin to a dusting of snow. The hawthorn trees are more dispersed and so there is no blanket coverage to wonder at, but the hawthorn explodes into flower when the right conditions arrive, which here, this year come at the very end of April and now, the first week of the May.

I eventually turn onto the coast road, edging the old salt marshes. It is mayhem out there. Various hatchlings are out and parent birds are fighting tooth and claw to protect the young from marauders. I have mentioned the birds of prey and the carrion before, but now gulls are more commonly seen too. The larger gulls are not averse to adding eggs, or young to their omnivorous diet. The peewit parents exhaust themselves in defensive duties. It is now that their speed and agility in flight becomes vital to the survival of their species.

Another more commonly seen bird, overlooked and unremarked on because of its modest size, is the pied wagtail. There are several active around the Green at the bottom of the Purdy Street. These birds with jerky, clockwork movements are happy catching small insects. Sometimes they flitter a few feet into the air, almost in a hover, to catch something, at other times they walk restlessly, pecking to left and right at the ground for easier pickings. When they stand still, tail wagging up and down, with short, sharp, black beak pointing slightly upward, they are preparing to fly. 

They seem to need a moment to compose themselves before springing into the air and making their way on an undulating flight path. They land with a silent splash of black and white, often not far from the point of lift off, before resuming their mechanical-toy movements. The pied wagtail emits chirpy notes as it goes about its business. Just enough to attract attention, not enough to call a song, although they do have songs in the repertoire.

At last an evening with some play – dominoes. This is a game that allows some conversation and distraction. It is not overly competitive, because of the luck of the draw, but a game that allows gentle conversation, whichever variation is played. I teach my sister two new variations and remind her of a third. An enjoyable evening.

After your on-line choir we talk by telephone for well over an hour, in fact until well-past midnight. I fall asleep exhausted, you find sleep eventually.

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Christopher Perry

5th May, 2020

Day 48

There are days when all details of its passing are over-shadowed by a few brilliant seconds, when there is no need to address the minutiae of the other hours.

This morning from the west, following the channel of the drain by the coast road, I spot this year’s first flight of swifts, rising and falling in the face of the north-easterly wind. They are making headway toward the small town of Sheringham, set above the clay cliffs. There are too many of these fine winged birds to count in this group. Their collective flight is reminiscent of watching a loose shoal of fish. “The swifts!” I call to my sister cycling behind, “The swifts!”

I cycle on alone through the village towards the hill, but just before passing the pub, “The Three Swallows” I catch sight of a bulky white bird flying a circle around a small paddock. At first I think that it is a little egret. I had seen one struggling with the windy conditions over the marsh only a few minutes earlier. However, as this bird turned, not twenty feet from me, I recognised the round face and stubby frame of a barn owl. This was just after nine o’clock in a period of full sun.

I have not seen one of these birds since I arrived here. I have watched out for them in vain on my evening walks, so this is a delightful surprise this morning.

I have to use the word luminous to describe the white of the feathers. The barn owl continued its slow patrol of the paddock, before easing its way to the grass for a fraction of a minute and then gently lifting itself on its broad scooping wings to a wooden fence rail behind a willow. I could see the ghostly image resting there, even through the fresh green of willow leaves. I reached for my mobile phone, but the battery faded as I switched to the camera. I stood and watched intently, committing the image to memory.

Happy to move on again, the owl resumed its morning flight. It took a half-turn around the back of the field and departed over the five-bar gate and away behind a tangle of old blackberry brambles, keeping low to the hedge-line for cover.

Later, at the top of the hill, I heard a tawny owl’s hoots. This is a time for hunting. Young owls need feeding, whatever the time of day, or night.

I recharge my phone and find a message from my friend who I used to stand with at the football. He admits that he is using these days in aspic to improve his cooking.

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Christopher Perry

4th May 2020