More from my trip to Northumberland back in the spring, AKA another respite from this burning summer in the south.
About 1,300 years ago, a middle-aged man moved to Inner Farne, seeking hermitage in the buildings where Aidan – Apostle to England – had dwelt not long before. So great was Cuthbert’s need for solitude that he grew his own food rather than accept supplies, but he accepted the friendship of the island’s wildlife, and sheltered eider ducks when the weather turned raw.
Cuthbert passed some of the world’s first conservation laws to protect these exquisite sea ducks on the Farne Islands. When he died, his body was moved to Holy Island (Lindisfarne), and after the Vikings invaded, monks faithfully carried it inland. His eventual burial place by the River Wear is now Durham Cathedral.
That is the drama of many lifetimes ago. But Cuthbert’s ducks – still nicknamed Cuddy ducks in his honour – continue to grace Northumberland, and they are far from alone.
Grey heron, eating a brown trout
Oystercatcher bathing on the shoreline
Rock pipit, perched on the whin sill
Back in Norfolk, it is 32c and the fields are sandy-brown. Roll on autumn.
It is an icebox, with delicate visitors where the river moves.
And everything taking a long breath where water has vanished under a glassy lid.
The white bird in the photo of the river is a little egret, a graceful relation of herons. Several of them have taken up residence in my local wetlands, while the grey heron itself lurks in the undergrowth.
They may consider it cold; siskins, on the other hand, come here to escape. Some do breed in southern England, especially in the New Forest and the Brecks, but most spend their summers in Wales, Scotland or the continent.
But the frost in the hedgerows is a reminder that spring is still a fair time away.
Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.
Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?
Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.
Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach.
This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.
They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.
And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.
And the skies keep tripping over themselves.