Peddars Way: Almost Roman

Peddars7 25 March 22

Black oil beetle, wandering in the north Norfolk dust. As a larva, this beetle climbed into a flower and waited for a solitary bee, hooking itself onto its unwitting host and hitching a ride to its nest. There it ate the eggs, pollen and nectar and slowly grew into an adult, ready to emerge on the Peddars Way.

Peddars Way

Back on the trail after a winter hiatus. The final quarter of the 46 miles is quiet save for skylarks, and you can imagine, if you choose, the legionnaires’ feet of 2,000 years ago. Where were they heading? To a coast of fitful weather and colourful cliffs?

Some have called it the Roman road to nowhere; it was built to intimidate the rebellious Iceni, rather than to obviously link towns. Today it is flanked by blackthorn, one of our fiercest shrubs – albeit its thorns are cloaked with beauty in springtime.

Peddars1 25 March 22

Norfolk has no mountains, but in the north the trail rises through arable fields and falls once more, rolling over the bumps of moraine dumped by the icesheets long ago. In little villages, ducks sleep and chickens keep watch.

Peddars3 25 March 22

Peddars4 25 March 22

And then the road ends in a glory of sand and salt.

Peddars6 25 March 22

Or does it? The coast has eroded southwards in the last two millennia and Romans would have had to march a little further to glimpse the North Sea. We do not know what was at the end; possibly a ferry port across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

But back to the south for me.

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A few comments about Peddars Way for anyone else considering walking the National Trail. The first leg starting from the south includes a very dangerous road crossing (over the A11!) which should be avoided, possibly by beginning at Stonebridge. In general it is an easy trail to walk and well-signposted, and wildlife and historic landscapes are abundant.

New Year, Old Year

I couldn’t blame the sun for looking like it wanted to turn in early. It’s been a long twelve months.

Afternoon sun 31 Dec 21

But whatever upheavals 2021 brought to people, the wildlife of the Broads continues its business. Water deer patrol marshes bustling with ducks and geese. This is a buck – you can just see his tusks. Water deer are not sociable, and although half a dozen were in view, they kept apart.

Water deer SF 31 Dec 21

What does a lapwing sound like to a water deer? We transcribe their call as peewit, peewit, to the point where that is an alternative name for the species. Elegant, cleanly marked and with preposterous feathers on their heads, these sweet-voiced waders have become internationally threatened – here’s a close up from Sussex, several years ago. 

Lapwing2

But nowhere in the south have I seen flocks like Norfolk’s. In fact, there were more lapwings in view yesterday than I’ve seen in the last decade put together. The vast Broads sky filled with a lapwing murmuration, swirling smoke trails of feathered hope. Not easy to photograph, but good to think about.

Another rarity swooped over the reeds. Marsh harriers – the signature bird of the Broads – are unmistakable.

Marsh harrier SF 31 Dec 21

And buzzards flew a little higher.

Buzzard SF 31 Dec 21

Otters kept lower, and quieter, leaving their five-toed footprints in the mud.

Otter track SF 31 Dec 21

And so onwards, into 2022. I’ve already seen my first wild mammal: on the pavement, just after lunchtime, threading between walkers and families. A small squat dog-like deer – a muntjac. With an all too real dog pounding after it, and I am grateful that the deer is unhurt after it bolted across the main road, skidded over, and finally lost its pursuer in a construction site. The dog was last seen running back into the open countryside valley; I walked around for a while, seeking its owner, but drew a blank.

People do many things that aren’t malicious but have consequences for our wild neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances of why this particular dog was loose, but it goes without saying that chasers should really stay on the lead. 

But I didn’t want to start the year with a grumble. Let us have an ambition to tread lightly, and walk a little more slowly and listen to the land a little more. Its stories are wonderful things.

Under the Fogbow

If a rainbow stands guard over a pot of gold, what treasures does this ethereal archway hide?

Fogbow

Fogbow, mistbow, white rainbow – a sailor might call it a sea-dog. It is created by light refracting through mist, and there was no shortage of that in Norfolk yesterday, as if the clouds had wearied of the heavens and slumped onto the land to wait out the dying embers of the year.

Misty dunes

Fogbows are uncommon; I’ve never seen one before. And in a twist of magic, it did have white gold at its feet – but of fur, not precious stones. The seal haul-out beach that I last visited in October is now a nursery for over a thousand babies.

Seal pups4 18 Dec 2021

Many terrestrial carnivores give birth to helpless young and nurse them for months, if not years, but grey seals have no such leisurely schedules. After just three weeks of intensive feeding on milk that is over 50% fat (compared to 4.5% in human breast milk and 6% in fox milk), they are done and weaned.

Seal pups3 18 Dec 2021

This little one tried to explore the beach by itself, and its mother lumbered after it, putting the breaks on its travels.

Seal pups5 18 Dec 2021

But they leave her soon enough, living in the dunes for a week or two, their white fur taking on the speckled hues of the adults.

Seal pups1 18 Dec 2021

Their mothers, meanwhile, mate with the bulls. Eleven months from now, new pups will be born.

Maybe the fogbow will return to greet them.

Peddars Way: Timekeepers

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” – Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Peddars Way 2nd stage3

This is a village, an old, busy village, with streets, moats and people. Houses of wood coated with clay and capped with thatched roofs clump in any old direction, shepherds and dogs passing by. Reeves inspect fields, villeins and free workers sweat as they thresh grain, and disagreeable types languish in the stocks. Oxen pull ploughs – but they are gone.

The thought remains. Great Palgrave is the ridges under the clouds in the above photo; the village failed in the 15th century, leaving only the bones of its roads and structures behind. Elongated bumps in old English fields almost always indicate archaeology, but some of it is much bigger.

Peddars Way 2nd stage4

St Mary’s Church is a treasured survivor of another lost ancient village. Houghton-on-the-Hill reached the 19th century before its population drifted elsewhere. The church dates from 1090 AD or possibly earlier, and its walls wear bricks crafted by the Romans, no doubt recycled by later peoples from a nearby ruined villa. Inside are 11th century wall paintings.

The Peddars Way goes forward, yet time drifts backwards, and the road that the Romans built 2,000 years ago points remorselessly on.

Peddars Way 3rd stage4

But some may call it young. A watcher rests beside it: a longbarrow that was already 1,700 years old when the legionnaires arrived.

Peddars Way 3rd stage1

Inside this mound are bones of Neolithic people – the earliest farmers, they who set in motion changes to the British landscape that evolved into a dazzling mosaic of semi-natural habitats, inadvertently supporting such a rich community of animals and plants.

It is a sobering thing to look at this barrow and know that the Romans and Iceni – perhaps Boudica herself – saw it, even as they must also have seen the bracken turn gold.

Peddars Way 2nd stage2

I can only guess at their memories of their walks, and their thoughts as the trail led onwards towards the sea.

Hauling Out

There is something indelibly printed on the British psyche that we must, at unpredictable intervals, approach the sea. Our coastline is as jagged as if a child had drawn it – a fair-sized island we might be, but it is still staggering that we’ve have over 10,000 miles of coastline. Icecream, sandcastles, Victorian piers, laughing swimmers taking Christmas dips; all of that is true of course, along with far too many coastal towns struggling with poverty, but none of is the whole story. The coast has its wild too, and it is big!

Grey seals2 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Grey seals. If people head seaward, seals lumber landward, most especially at this time of year when the pupping season is almost upon us.

Grey seals3 Horsey 25 Oct 21

For these magnificent beasts, Britain is defined by its haul-out potential: it is merely a beach just above the sea. In fact we have a good part of the entire global population, and the biggest colonies number in the thousands. Bulls argue half-heartedly in the surf.

Grey seals1 Horsey 25 Oct 21

They can weigh over 800 pounds, or approximately equal to 16,000 dormice. They are inelegant on land – they are built for water, with sensitive whiskers that help them catch sand eels, cod and other marine prey.

Grey seals4 Horsey 25 Oct 21

It is often said that the UK has two species of seal, and it is true that only the grey and the smaller common seal are generally here, but we are occasionally graced by extra guests from the Arctic. Ringed seals and bearded seals aren’t unknown. And, of course, a certain famous walrus. Attracting the crowds. Marine mammals tend to do that.

But it’s not always in their interest, either with walruses in Cornwall or seals in Norfolk. I took all these photos with a 600mm lens in a designated viewing area on the dunes. But every year, there a few people who try to approach them for selfies or allow their dogs to get out of control. The Friends of Horsey Seals have wardens on site to manage the situation for the best benefit of both people and seals.

Oblivious to human fascination, they continue to beautify the sea.

Grey seals5 Horsey 25 Oct 21

Lagomorpha

This is a European rabbit, and it has stories to tell about people.

Rabbit1 Aug 21

Yes, people: the ambitious species that has taken it on a journey most flattering, adventurous, cruel and extraordinary. People like the mighty Carthaginians – who named a peninsula Ispania, literally the Land of Rabbits, AKA modern Spain. People like the Romans, whose British litter includes rabbit bones – perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that some of the invading army were based in Hispania.

People in Norman chainmail, masters of the culture that introduced rabbits to Britain permanently as livestock. And people in medieval times, supporting themselves through farming rabbits, especially in the shifting sands of Breckland.

People worked hard to introduce rabbits. And then, with equal angst, sought to evict them. Rabbits did not stay tamely as livestock – freedom called too loud. Many farmers cheered when myxomatosis entered Britain in the 1950s, and some institutions (especially in Scotland) deliberately spread it. But rabbits, always rubbing shoulders with the famous, had a friend in Winston Churchill, who used his influence to make such acts a criminal offence. Today, myxomatosis waxes and wanes, but the newly-evolved Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease type 2 is repeating the decimation.

Rabbit1 18 Sept 21

They’ve been here for centuries; critically important habitats like the Breckland heaths are now dependent on their grazing and digging. So I was pleased to see a fair number yesterday.

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This is a brown hare, and no one knows where its British tale began. Also not a native, but introduced in the Iron Age, and flying its black-tipped ears like flags in open farmland ever since.

Brown hare 18 Sept 21

Hares are fleet of foot: 45mph say some. They run across stubble, and they run into our minds, etching themselves on our art – perhaps nowhere more than in the ancient Cotswolds town of Cirencester, where the Romans added them to mosaics while Constantine the Great ruled the world.

Cirencester hare1

Modern artists continue the custom. Trails of colourful animal models are becoming popular attractions around many English towns, and in Cirencester, the species was easy to choose.

Cirencester hare2

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We do have one native lagomorph: the shy mountain hare Lepus timidus, restricted (in a rare example of a species name making sense) to the uplands. During the Pleistocene, its range extended southwards but as the ice ran away, so did the hare.

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Ice and sand. Rabbits and people. Rivers and farms. It would take many lifetimes of oak trees to unravel more than a few chapters of this tale.

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

Inside the Sky

Yes, inside. You don’t feel like you’re under it in Norfolk; it is a part of the day, for it is everywhere. In the rivers:

Reflections2 8 Aug 21

In the lakes.

Reflections 8 Aug 21

Hosting some birds.

Buzzard and gull 8 Aug 21

Teasing the colours from others.

Rook portrait 8 Aug 21

The last photo is of a rook, a very sociable member of the crow family. As the evening progresses, they drift towards their rookeries. 

And then the sun falls below the horizon, and when dawn comes, sky is part of the land again.

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.

A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.