Tak­ing a Walk

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Pa­trick Barkham

This month I took a boat, but it was at a pace, and in­volved enough paces, to qual­ify for this col­umn. Na­tional parks are all about stomp­ing through a scenic land­scape, but walk­ers are left baf­fled by our only man-made na­tional park, the Nor­folk and Suf­folk Broads. A few years ago, I met a hol­i­day­maker who took a day trip to the Broads and com­plained he ‘couldn’t find them’.

In a flat land, too marshy for foot­paths and dom­i­nated by reedbeds and swampy wood­lands, the 125 miles of nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways and lakes formed from me­dieval peat dig­gings are hid­den from easy view. I grew up nearby and spent my child­hood trag­i­cally in ig­no­rance of the strangest and most mar­vel­lous land­scape in Bri­tain be­cause I never took to it in a boat. When I did, it was rev­e­la­tory. The Broads’ six rivers be­gin as minia­ture Ama­zons twist­ing be­tween over­hang­ing trees and end be­tween thick­ets of reeds be­low skies of bil­low­ing clouds.

I’ve just com­pleted the best Broad­land ‘walk’ twice in a week at the Hick­ling na­tional nature re­serve.

‘A breath­ing space for the cure of souls,’ is how nat­u­ral­ist Ted El­lis de­scribed the Broads, and the breath­ing slowed as soon as we en­tered the meadow by the mod­est vis­i­tor cen­tre where rang the gen­tlest song of the sum­mer, the tremu­lous, de­scend­ing call of a wil­low war­bler.

Be­yond was a track across open reed beds. The reeds, and their lesser-known cousin, sedge are still har­vested for thatch. With­out such har­vest­ing, the reedbeds be­come a for­est of alder carr. These marshy thick­ets are fas­ci­nat­ing in mod­er­a­tion but, unchecked, would smother the charis­matic swal­low­tails, bearded tits and emer­ald-eyed Nor­folk hawker drag­on­flies.

The reeds rat­tled gen­tly in the per­pet­ual breeze and shook to the ran­dom, crazy, scratch­ing song of sedge war­blers (reed war­blers sing marginally less crazily). The land rose by some young oaks and there, in a reedy in­let, lay Lit­tle Tern. While many broads still throb to the mucky diesels of tra­di­tional hire boats, this sleek, wooden for­mer reed-har­vest­ing ves­sel was pow­ered by an elec­tric mo­tor.

Out we crept, silently cross­ing the largest broad, be­fore duck­ing into nar­row chan­nels be­tween an ar­ray of reed is­lands. Some float; oth­ers sink; all have names – Plea­sure Is­land, where lo­cals once played cricket while watch­ing sum­mer re­gat­tas; Turner’s Is­land, home for 22 years to house­boat-dwelling Emma Turner, a bril­liant Ed­war­dian or­nithol­o­gist who dis­cov­ered that the se­cre­tive bit­tern was not ex­tinct as a Bri­tish breed­ing bird but en­dured in Hick­ling’s reeds.

We crept be­low reed height so silently that a stat­uesque heron didn’t even per­form what poet Paul Far­ley calls ‘one of the most be­grudg­ing avian take-offs’ – ‘All right, all right, I’ll go to the garage for your flam­ing fags.’

Then we stopped and walked to a copse with a 100ft view­ing plat­form which gave us a panorama of reedy, wa­tery flat­ness right out to the coast, an ex­panse of postin­dus­trial wilder­ness scarred by noth­ing more than a few old wind­mills and me­dieval churches.

Another short walk to a wooden bird hide brought views of a marsh har­rier, rarer than a golden ea­gle in Bri­tain, but com­mon as muck round here. This long-winged preda­tor flew low into the wind, de­lib­er­ately, to slow its progress, be­fore drop­ping into the reeds, ris­ing a fum­bled mo­ment later with a neat pack­age of wa­ter vole in its claws. I’m caught too, in the talons of the Broads, and there’s no walk­ing away from it now.

*Hick­ling Broad nature re­serve (NR12 0BW) is sign­posted from the vil­lage of Hick­ling, Nor­folk. The nature re­serve is open all year round from dawn un­til dusk (£4.50 or free for mem­bers of Nor­folk Wildlife Trust). Guided elec­tric boat trips can be booked via the vis­i­tor cen­tre; 01692 598276. Ord­nance Sur­vey map: OL40 – The Broads

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