About the Wild Place
This small, wild place lies on the north side of a shallow valley in the headwaters of the River Yare. At the top is a wood with a little lane running along the back of it The big field slopes down on the south side, through a bog and on towards lakes and a stream. Alder trees densely crowd round the lakes to cool their feet in the murky water. A triple row of sky scraping poplars marks the far side of more lakes beyond. Some of Arthur’s rag-tag assortment of cows graze the field in the winter. And apart from Arthur, I’m the only human visitor.
A hundred years ago this valley was rough grazing meadows, wet and boggy, on the edge of a gravelly bottomed stream. It was the beginning of a continuous, soggy, meandering ribbon of water meadows running from here to Yarmouth. A rich seam of gravel runs underneath and this place has been repeatedly dug for it’s precious resource. First, a smallish patch at the bottom of the hill, on the north side of the stream, which soon filled up with water from a spring, forming a group of three lakes. Then later a long stretch on the south side of the stream was dug for hard core for the world war 2 runways which dot this east anglian landscape. The stream was diverted into what is now a string of long narrow, shallow lakes. Finally in 1947, the field next to the road gave it’s last crop of mangol werzals and was excavated! Without any re-landscaping it was abandoned in 1953. Amazingly this coincided with the arrival of the myxamatosis outbreak which wiped out the local rabbit population. This and the rarity of deer then, meant a wood began to grow. Slowly clothing and eventually hiding the lumps and bumps left behind by the diggers. Small, black, reedy, ponds formed in the biggest holes. A text book case of natural regeneration.
First came the pioneer species, willow and birch. The wind generously sprinkling their tiny seeds everywhere. Willow seeds fill the air on hot days, lazily floating up as well as down. Sometimes they just hang motionless, unwilling to start their root bound life in the earth. Eventually they settle in great white, airy, pillows of fluff that tremble in fright as you walk past. These delicate little seeds grow fast, creating the perfect conditions for later arrivals, such as ash and oak, With their slender leaves they create a gentle dappled shade which suppresses the worst of the undergrowth but encourages the oak and the ash to grow straight and tall towards the light. 40 years on the willows are old, they’re reaching the end of their lives and have begun to blow over. Dainty nurse maids who leave behind a woodland of lusty, young oak and ash, the oak capable of living for at least another 500 years.
Almost everything growing here has planted itself. They’ve found a toe hold and battled to out compete their neighbours. Either by shading them out, smothering them or efficiently taking all the available water. The competition is deadly and very often fatal. But there are also great acts of friendship. Like brambles providing impregnable protection to young trees, headless of the fact that one day the sapling will take all their light.
Because everything is self sown here it means it’s local. The oak trees are from the autumnal downpour of acorns from the majestic road side oaks who are the children and grandchildren of the ancient oaks, wide and low and knobbly and still surviving dotted here and there on the edge of nearby farm land. Some arrive on the wind. The thorn and the crab apples are brought by blackbirds. Hazels by mice and jays. Some things do well for a few years and then just disappear. But you know that they’re just lurking, waiting to seize the moment when conditions become right again. From the cool darkness of the wood, through the dry scrub at the top of the field, into the soft mud of the bog and finally soaking in the lake; there’s a place for everything.
The big field was farmed until about 16 years ago. A crop of barley was harvested and then the field was left. Brambles, couch grass, docks and thistles were the first arrivals. Then gorse began to reappear where it had been 50 years ago. Orchids. Cowslips. Different types of grasses. Vetch and then, as the drain blocked and crumbled and the spring re-asserted itself, mint and pin rush. Alder, birch and thorn have dotted themselves about.
And with all the different vegetation came birds. Green woodpeckers and barn owls, warblers and tits and thrushes. Flocks of siskins merrily dancing in and out of the tops of the alder. The lakes echoing to the trill little peeps of teal in the winter. Flashes of kingfishers in the dark watery light in the summer. The silent swans doubling up in elegant reflections of themselves. Hawks, corvids, buzzards and sometimes a visiting osprey. Mysterious and solitary snipe plunging their beaks deep into the boggy ground and woodcock, appearing and disappearing like magic. At night it sometimes sounds as if every owl in the country has come to call.
The air is thick with insects in the summer. Plagues of horse flies make July a very uncomfortable month. Beetles of all shapes,sizes and colours. A wild opera of crickets and bees. Hornets singing the bass. Spiders invisibly wrapping everything up until the autumn dew and the low sun put a spot light on their sinister spinnings.
I’ve watched the comings and goings of plants on the big field. I’ve looked up new arrivals in my wild flower books. There’s nothing really extraordinary about any of them, the books always tell me they’re common, and usually found on waste ground. Everything is typical of this part of England. There’s nothing unusual here but yet what’s here is becoming so rare It’s everything that has been banished to skulk in the odd untended corner or neglected ditch by intolerant, insect hating, industrial agriculture. It’s the natural seed bank of south east England let loose for a small riot of life affirming joy, bringing with it birds and insects and animals. This place is either the saddest story in the world, a tale of everything that is on the verge of being lost. Or, the happiest, a story of resilience and the zest and variety of life against all the odds.
I’ve lived in it for nearly 20 years. Brought my children up in it. We’ve swum in it, climbed trees in it, camped and picnicked in it. At first, I watched with mild interest, but over time I’ve begun to put down roots here too. I feel green tendrils gently binding me. I can’t turn away from this story, I have to watch it as it slowly, endlessly unfolds. Barely a day goes by without me drawing or painting there. The more I draw, the more I look and the more I look the more I see. The more I see, the more there is to see. This is my completely unscientific study of a really wild place.