Peddars Way: A Walk, With Wildlife

Peddars Way 1st stage1

Path: a society that never meets. Its walkers share a citizenship linked by the thinnest line; their footsteps overlap, and thoughts of travel bind them.

Peddars Way has witnessed human doings for thousands of years. Like so much in northern East Anglia, it is entangled with the life of Boudica – queen of the Breckland-based Iceni. Her ferocious revolt against the Roman invaders in AD60 shook the British world as it then was. The Balkerne Gate down in Colchester (then called Camulodunum) has stood for nearly 2,000 years as a reminder of how the town was rebuilt after Boudica’s forces obliterated it.

Roman gate Colchester

In Breckland, too, the Romans clearly wished to build something new: a road of order, rather than a tribal land of rebellion. Peddars Way is drawn with classic Roman straightness between Knettishall Heath and the wild northern coast.

That path still lives. But today you hear no hobnailed Roman sandals on the march. Buzzards cry over an autumn putting on its golden coat.

Peddars Way 1st stage2

And spindle berries brighten the hedgerow.

Peddars Way 1st stage3

England and Wales are threaded through with a mind-boggling 140,000 miles of rights of way, and a select few have been waymarked as our showcase National Trails. Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path form one of them: 129 miles from the harshly grand Brecks to marshes and saltwater.

The Brecks is everything: farmland, military range, commercial forest, beech plantation. Chalky, sandy, hot and cold, open and shadowed – Neolithic mines and modern conservation. Whatever light forest grew on the sand at the end of the Pleistocene was cleared into steppe thousands of years ago, and endured by generations of farmers. My own ancestors are part of that story: they worked a small part of the Brecks from at least the 1400s onwards, inadvertently helping to create the tumbling mosaic of habitats that support such an incredible array of wildlife.

I don’t know precisely where their land was, but like much of the Brecks, it was acquired by the Ministry of Defence after World War II, and today probably lies within the huge Stanford Training Area Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Peddars Way 1st stage7

And the path goes forever on. Ten miles done, and much more of the Peddars Way lies ahead.

Peddars Way 1st stage5

The Signposts

Everything growing is a post-it note left there as a hint to the bigger picture.

Waxcaps: You are on undisturbed land

The fungi of a dozen colours, family Waxcap is bright, obvious, and sensitive. They thrive in old mossy grasslands and churchyard edges that haven’t been ploughed, fertilised or otherwise harmed. If disturbed, they might not return to a site within a human lifetime. If watched, they tell their stories. Blackening waxcap begins with a glow of gold.

Blackening waxcap golden

Before turning dark, spreading its spores back to the earth.

Blackening waxcap2 Oct 21

Wall barley: You are on disturbed land

Thriving on the opposite, this grass and its extraordinary bristles (properly known as ‘awns’) like roughed-up areas. It often appears on urban road verges and cracks in pavements. It is related to the barley species grown on farms.

Wall barley 30 Oct 21

Stinging nettle: You are on nutrient-rich ground.

That may sound like a good thing, but most of those nutrients will be run-off from agriculture or be leaking from old iron fences. Too many nettles equals an environmental question-mark. They are also fierce to the touch, as most rural children know. But they have been used by many cultures for various things, from medicine to textiles.

Stinging nettle 2 Nov 21

Mist: You are in November-land.

It is autumn, and that grows mist. And it is beautiful.

Misty morning1 3 Nov 21

Heather-Heathland

Small copper Sept 21

Why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? – William Shakespeare

Heather: the plant of spaciousness. Lonely moors, winding roads and harsh weather bind to it. It crept into our place names (Heathfield, Hothfield) and leapt into our ancestors’ lives, serving as brooms, bedding or roofing thatch. It is oddly ambiguous to us: considered good luck in Scotland, at least in its rare white morph, and a reminder of bloodstains in Germany. 

It needs us – like Eurasian grasslands, it is a habitat made by people interacting with the land over thousands of years, and the collapse of traditional industries like turf cutting imperilled it to invasions of birch. But it also needs us not to build upon it, overstock sheep, or set fire to it with BBQs. Conservation of heathland is basically replicating what the ancients inadvertently did to it while scratching a living.

Heather is not everywhere, but in parts of the North, you could be forgiven for wondering if it is.

Northumberland Sept 21

Northumberland National Park – northern moor, wild and free. Or not; sadly, that’s another thread in heather’s paradox. These beautiful hillsides are an industrial-scale red grouse production factory, the source of so much friction between conservationists, gamekeepers and rewilding advocates. 

I’m more familiar with southern heath. Its fragmented lowland remnants look unforgiving, but are abuzz with tough, magical wildlife. Surrey and Dorset have smooth snakes and sand lizards; the East Anglian Brecks have their stone curlews and military orchids. And there’s a bit of it on the north Norfolk coast, too, in the unusual condition – for East Anglia – of being on a hill.

Beeston Regis2 Sept 21

But when is a hill not a hill? The chalk dome that became the North Downs was made the conventional way; it was forced upwards by the same collision of the Eurasian and African plates that raised the Alps. But the ridge under this north Norfolk heathland – here dominated by bracken – is a present from the Pleistocene ice. It’s old glacial moraine, stacked up to hundreds of feet. 

Beeston Regis1 Sept 21

Poor, sandy soils: rich for heather and gorse, its frequent companion. Of course, if they really were rich in an agricultural sense, they would be far poorer in heathland wildlife.

Let’s just call heather the topsy-turvy type.

 

 

Storyteller Willow

There’s a panther in the willow tree. At least, in the mind of a six year old me, holding the family cat against the wrinkled old bark and my imagination fired into the exotic. Willows will do that to you – maybe it is their limbs, waterfalls of grey-green leaves tumbling earthward like plaited hair, or their voices, crack of old bark and rustle in the wind.

Crack willow is abundant in wetter parts of Norfolk, and is rather more at home here than my old companion was in the dry chalky North Downs. It is a grey trim along the riverbanks like a furry coat lining, leaning towards the water, reflected back towards the sky.

Crack willow2 4 Sept 21

Willows always retain one limb inside the human imagination. Perhaps JRR Tolkien saw a hollowed shell such as this before the hobbits had their misadventure with Old Man Willow?

Crack willow3 4 Sept 21

And as for the Wind in the Willows – Ratty, my favourite character, is properly called a water vole, and he still stars in Norfolk’s waterworlds.

Water vole2 21 Aug 21

A rushed photo admittedly, but I was thrilled to glimpse it at all. These large aquatic rodents have had a catastrophic decline in the UK due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Bizarrely, a few days later I saw another mammal swimming up the river.

Squirrel swimming 25 Aug 21

Yes, that is a grey squirrel, and it was swimming well enough and making for the bank. It probably fell out of a willow. Is it just my imagination that the tree could jettison a climber so easily?

Keep listening to willows. They must have many more stories.

Crack willow 4 Sept 21

Ghost Hills

Did they know that they would become this?

Thompson Common skies 29 Jul 21

Breckland, after the ice sheets.

The most formidable glacial advance in the entire Pleistocene is named ‘Anglian’. The East Anglian peninsula was swallowed by it – this meadow once looked like Greenland. As the climate warmed, standing blocks of ‘dead’ ice were left behind, eventually to be topped with soil and grass like surviving examples in polar regions. The Inuit word pingo is used to describe such hillocks with a heart of ice. They would have stood tall over the flat Breckland landscape, but they pressed into the soil like a knee. 

But they melted, in time. Now, their legacy is ponds. The ghosts of lost hills, water-filled depressions carved by ancient glacial games.

Pingo pond 29 Jul 21

Breckland is rich in pingo ponds, also known as kettle ponds. It is also very rich in dragonflies, rare beetles, great crested newts and other species that appreciate wet habitats. Northern clade pool frogs, the UK’s rarest amphibian, made its last stand in the pingo ponds, and has recently been reintroduced.

Away from the water, other species exploit the meadows. Six spot burnet moths are hard to overlook.

Six spot burnet

I heard many birds calling, but didn’t get any good photos of them today. Here’s a couple from another Breckland visit a couple of weeks back: goldfinch…

Goldfinch Jul 21

And a juvenile blue tit.

Blue tit Jul 21

Two very common British species, but the Brecks can do far better; it has stone curlew, turtle dove and many other specialities. In total, nearly 13,000 different species of wild things have been identified, and many have comfortably rubbed shoulders with farming for millennia. Poppies on the edge of an arable field are a reminder of that.

Poppies Thompson Common 29 Jul 21

And all of it, from the soil to the sky, is a reminder of the ice.

Wild East

Agrimony and burdock: plants that cling to you. Their seeds have hooks that love fur and clothes. The parents of these plants, in fact, clung to my dog, and fell off her somewhere on the front drive. So they grew.

Agrimony and burdock Jul 21

Places can cling to you too. I moved from Norfolk – England’s wide-skied east – in 2012 after finishing my MSc, but never really left it behind. Now I’m back, and the Yare is still flowing. In its own way, so subtly it reflects the clouds.

Meadow cranesbill 27 Jul 21

Norfolk is wetter, drier, colder, flatter than nearly anything in England available for comparison. It is the gateway to the sunken plains of Doggerland – a land bridge to the continent long since snapped. Mammoths, hyenas, Romans, Vikings and Iceni rebels; they’ve all called the sprawling Norfolk landscape their own. So did many of my own ancestors, who farmed Breckland for centuries and must have often heard stone curlews wailing under the stars.

I have heard something else: a deer with the voice of a fox.

Muntjac munching 26 Jul 21

She was literally two feet from me, right below my window; I had to switch to my macro lens to take the photo. She is a Reeves’ muntjac, a preposterously tiny deer about the dimensions of a border collie. Not a British native, but firmly established – they were introduced to Bedfordshire in the 19th century, and further releases or escapes cemented their presence. Like water deer, they are indigenous to China. 

Norfolk is most famous as the best birding county in England, but it is also very rich in wild mammals. I heard a water vole this morning. That is, a plop as something small dived into a ditch near the Yare. Otters, foxes, and harvest mice are also around and I will try to catch up with more of them over the summer.

Fly and campion 28 Jul 21

Ground-blue

Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.

Bluebells1 May 21

Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.

Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.

Bluebells2 May 21

Or frames a passing fox.

Fox in bluebells May 2021

England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.

Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.

Bluebells3 May 21

Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.

The Artist’s Laboratory

That artist being the Sea, of course, playing some kind of experiment on southern Kent. For the last 5,500 years, it has been building a bizarre headland of chunky shingle at Dungeness. Arid, harsh and flat, whisked by wind with attitude and flanked by nuclear power plants, you know when you’re there, and you never quite forget it.

Dungeness1

Spacious, but hardly lonely; an incredible 600 species of plants occupy Dungeness, supporting some extremely rare invertebrates. Bitterns boom from the reeds and warblers sing in the scrub.

Colour is everywhere.

Dungeness2

Blossom

Even in the legs and beak of a redshank.

Redshank Dungeness Apr 21

Birds must have been here since the sea started experimenting with the shingle. Dungeness is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the geology that underpins its wildlife as well as the species themselves. For the last few thousand years, shingle has been shoved into ridges by storm waves that form the flanks of a triangle, one that is still changing shape. Shingle forelands are uncommon globally and Dungeness is one of the best examples anywhere.

And yet, when you visit this wild and surreal place, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the rest of the world is even there.

Dungeness3

Letter from the Deadnettle

A red dead-nettle. I photographed it last year when it ended winter by brightening the verges. Now it’s here again – nothing has changed. 

Red deadnettle 28 Feb 21

Well, really. More has changed than we would ever have conceived possible. But not this flower, this tiny leftover from the whims of our Neolithic forebears, who inadvertently introduced a palette of wild flowers along with early agriculture. Dead-nettle reminds us that as we work, play upon or explore wild places, we are writing a story whether we wish it or not – and pages from it can be read 4,000 years after their authors are gone. 

Read, that is, in the flowers, and more: in even the folds of fields. Ridge-and-furrow is the insignia of the Middle Ages: this field has not been ploughed for centuries. When the ancient historic landscape survives, so often does a rich community of wild things. Such places are alive, as well as a tangible link to what came before.

Ridge and furrow

In the trees, too: via coppicing, the art of felling a tree yet keeping it alive. Stumps sprout new straight stems that were useful for many things, including the supports for the Sweet Track – a causeway built across boggy ground in Somerset almost 6,000 years ago. Hazel was one of the species used, and it continued to produce many useful goods until coppice was finally overtaken by modern industry. Woods remember the past with clustered stems of old coppice.

Medieval bank

Dormice love them: hazelnuts to eat and safe places to hide. Many conservation groups encourage coppicing to keep this habitat alive. But there is a little more in the photo above – see the bank in the foreground? That, too, is a relic – post-medieval earthworks of unknown purpose. Whoever built them, whoever designed them, we do not know; but their legacy lives on, even with bluebells emerging upon it.

And pages from the past – and present – are written in the birds, too, and none as bright as the gorgeous yellowhammer, a bunting that thrived for so long in the hedgerows that the Enclosure Acts promoted, and suffered of course as agriculture industrialised. Their cry of a little bit of bread and No cheese is not as familiar as it once was, so I was delighted to see four of them on my walk yesterday.

Yellowhammer 27 Feb 21

We are still writing stories in nature. Future generations will learn far more about us than we might want them to know simply through reading the land, and it will not lie to save our blushes. Let us make sure that the stories we leave are honourable ones.

Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1