Taking a Walk
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