Reverse Migration: A Discourse into the Spirit of Place: Excerpt 4

Did my Saxon ancestors come this way?

Movement

The great chalk arable uplands of Norfolk have very little of wild left, being intensively farmed to wheat and barley, rapeseed and sugarbeet.  But even here, hedgerows, lanes, and verges have life, and many farms are part of stewardship schemes, leaving ‘weedy’ margins, not cutting hedgerow and lane verges, putting up nestboxes.

The bird I notice most ‘up’ here (up being by Norfolk standards only) is the yellowhammer, singing its ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song. (To me, it sounds more like ‘see me see me see me please’.)  It’s a bunting (ammer means bunting in Germanic (Saxon?) dialect, so, yellow-ammer = yellow bunting) of dry, open country, and these wide fields suit it well.  I am walking, on a  warm and sunny day, a section of the Roman road known as the Peddar’s Way, running north from Thetford to Holme.  It’s a lane here, bordered on both sides by hedges, with occasional opening s to the fields.  A hare lopes toward me:  it hasn’t seen me yet.  In every spot of shade it stops.   Eventually it realizes I’m here, although I’ve stopped and am as still as I can be, and it disappears into the hedge.

round barrow
Bronze Age round barrow near Anmer

The land slopes slowly down, south and west, to the valley of the Babingley.  On the highest ground are several Bronze Age barrows, round, slightly conical hills.  On the lower slope would have been the fields, and below that, closest to the water, some industry.  The barrows were ancient when the Romans – or more likely, auxiliary troops from somewhere in the Empire – built this road nearly two thousand years ago. There is a good chance they were from Pannonia, a Roman province lying south and west of the Danube, based on a military diploma – a document granting citizenship after twenty-five years of service – found in Norfolk a few years ago. Walking away from Pannonia to service in Rome’s most northerly province, they would have heard yellowhammers singing along the road.

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If I continue south, I will come to the B1145, the old Saxon road running across Norfolk west to east, from the port of King’s Lynn to Aylsham, north of Norwich, where it meets a north-south road. If I walk north, I will come to the road from Flitcham to Docking called the Norman Road. I can find no documentary evidence to tell me this is truly a Norman road, but the name is tantalizing. Roman, Saxon, Norman roads, intersections of time and history.

In the triangle of land bordered by the Peddar’s Way, the Norman Road, and the by-way from Anmer to West Rudham lies another Bronze Age burial mound. This one is reputed to have had a second use: that of the moot-hill for the hundred, the administrative unit of the area in Saxon times. Moot-hills were the location for the courts and administrative debate and rulings and were supposed to be as close to the centre of the hundred as practicable. I walk by it on on a sunny January day, the track beneath my feet muddy and rutted. Did my Saxon ancestors come this way, to hear judgment at this ancient hill, walking in the same mud up from what is now West Newton?

Roads are not static things: they come in to being and they disappear. Sometimes traces remain only as cropmarks seen from aerial photographs and as earthworks on the ground, or even only as excavated archaeology, as is the case with some of the oldest trackways across the fens. Changes in land ownership moved roads; villages were deserted in medieval times by plague or by planned changes by the landowners and roads fell into disuse; enclosure of common lands removed access. But many of the roads shown on old maps of this area are still in use, as bridleways and footpaths. East of Castle Rising the old road from the village to the watermill on the Babingley is now a footpath leading to the bus stop on the A149.

Partridge run from the side of the track; here, they are mostly grey partridge, the native bird, and growing rare in most of Britain. Management practices on the two huge estates bordering the Peddar’s Way here have allowed it to maintain reasonable populations; the same practices allow the yellowhammers to flourish. Harriers – marsh, hen and this winter a vagrant Pallid Harrier – are winter hunters over these upland fields, joined by barn owl and short-eared owl, common and rough-legged buzzard, and little owl. Once, a road, extant on the 1797 map, ran across the Peddar’s Way to the hamlet of Flitcham, where an abbey stood before the dissolutions. No trace of the road, even as footpath or cropmarks, remains west of the Roman road, although it continues in use as a footpath to the east. But were it there, and I could walk it to Flitcham, I would come to Abbey Farm, where the remnants of the fishponds and water management canals of the abbey are now overlooked by a bird hide, and a huge old oak is home to a pair of little owls. These tiny owls – they are about the size of a starling – might have been known to the Roman soldier, but not from here. Nor would my Saxon ancestor have known them (although their first Norman overlords, born in France, might have). Introduced to England in the latter half of the 19th century, they are a bird native to Europe and Asia. It is just possible that my father, as a boy, would have seen them hunting mice over the pastures.

 

Reverse Migration: A Discourse into the Spirit of Place. Excerpt One

I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring.

Norfolk, England, May 2015

Beyond the village, west towards the Wash, flat fields of barley and wheat, latticed with ditches, lie on either side of the paved right-of-way out to the water. Once this was marsh, and from the satellite images on Google Earth, the patterns of waterflow can still be seen, like a ghost, or a memory, held in the soil.

Around the village, around its bungalows and houses, shops and pubs, church and hall, people going about their lives shopping, walking dogs, gardening, working, I see other ghosts, memories not my own underlying the quotidian. My father’s memories, and his parents, and beyond that for unknown years. Memories now at their newest eighty-seven years past, and going back for generations.

I would like to know this place intimately, to understand its ecology and geology, its weather, its landscape, its history. I want to watch the seasons here, the ebb and flow of waders on the Wash, feel the wind off the North Sea in the winter, bringing hard frost and snow; hear the nightjars churring on the Fen at a summer’s dusk; see the hordes of geese returning, and leaving, autumn and spring. I would like, as much as can be in a changed world, to know this place as my forebearers did, the knowledge of foot and sight and smell and feel. I have been making small beginnings, over the last thirty years, coming closer together over these last ten. What can I learn, this time, in a month in spring?

I am walking in what I am arbitrarily determining as the boundaries: the old marshes west of the A149; the three commons of Dersingham; the footpath on the old railway line as far north as Ingoldisthorpe; Sandringham Park and Dersingham Bog NNR. The first walk was to and from the Wash.

Map

A century ago my great-grandfather built a tiny wooden bungalow, a beach cottage, on the shingle beyond the marshes. I do not know exactly where. Between Dersingham and the Wash were the marshes, and, the first part of the lane which is now the bridleway from Station Road, which is recorded on Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk. There was (and is) also the Drift, a droveway to move sheep on and off the marshes.

The Wash 2
The Wash

What lay between the edge of the village and the Wash I imagine to be much like the shooting marsh beside Titchwell: a mix of rush and sedge and ling, cut with hundreds of channels and small ponds, rich with wildfowl, water vole and waders. Perhaps not, though; perhaps it was grazing marsh, diked and drained, wet meadow. And perhaps it was a mix of the two; I suspect this is the most likely. Some of the drains, or sluices, are on Faden’s map, so drainage had begun in at least the 1700s. At some point in the 1920’s, my grandfather, Percy, and one of his brothers-in-law, Sid or Eph, walked out from the Drift to the bungalow, across the wet land and the unbridged waterways. Because this story was still being told eighty years later, I think they arrived very wet, very muddy, and to a good telling off from the women.

Now the bridleway and some of the side lanes are paved, huge, tilting slabs of concrete pavement. I am not sure when this was done: either before the war, when the shingle from the pits at the Wash’s edge was being removed, or after the floods of 1953. To the south of the bridleway, the land belongs to the Sandringham estate; to the north, to (mostly) another landowner. The land is arable, planted to cereals for the most part, but also managed for wildlife, or at least for shooting. Weedy headlands, broad buffer strips on either side of the waterways and around each field, some fields left to grass fallow, strips and clumps of trees: all give shelter not only to the pheasant and red-legged grouse, but to other wildlife. The first morning we walked out there were hares everywhere. Marsh harriers hunted over the fields and the marshes; whitethroat, dunnock, robins, blackcaps, and reed and sedge warblers sang, along with finches, green and gold, and linnets. Songs I do not know, songs to learn, to become part of the tapestry.

A few greylag geese are raising goslings in the fields near the Wash, along with several Egyptian geese. Oystercatchers and ringed plover nest on the beach. Goldfinches twitter from the tops of the blackthorn. Cuckoos call from the woodlands. A whitethroat sings from every bush or tall reed along the ditches, it seems; some will be raising cuckoo chicks, unwittingly.

But while the land has changed, two things have not: the sky and the sea. The vast Norfolk skies, the ebb and flow of the tide over Ferrier and Peter Black Sands, and the birds that belong to both: in May, oystercatchers, dunlin, knot and grey plover, feeding at the edge of the sands, moving with the tide, or taking to the skies in huge wheeling flocks, sometimes put up by a peregrine, sometimes by seemingly nothing. And along with waders, black-headed gulls, nesting on the rocks and islands of the pits, or out on the remnants of the shingle gantry, a structure that was built in the 1930s to load the beach pebbles onto boats, and has withstood the storms of 1953 and 2013.

I am drawn to this flat and open land. There are several walks through woodland available to me, but my instinct is to go west, out into the fields, or the fen. I explore different routes: there is a permissive path that runs north from the Station Road bridleway, over to the edge of Ingoldisthorpe Common: I try that. It loops around two fields: the part that parallels the A149 is loud with road noise, and a few birdsongs from the belt of woodland between the road and the fields, but the western side is quiet. I watch buzzards hunting, one coming down repeatedly into the uncut hayfield beside me, but I see no evidence of success. But it’s an adult bird, so it knows what it’s doing. A kestrel hovers over the same grasses but does not dive. In the distance a cuckoo calls, and the ubiquitous wood pigeons beat across the fields.

fields 2
Norfolk fields and sky

Another time I access the fields a bit further south, from the Drift. The Drift runs, for much of its length, between a thick hedge or woodland on the south and a ditch on the north, edged first with houses and then with fields. West of the A149 the southern side is a mix of field and woodland, but the boundary is still treed. Good songbird habitat; lots of blue tits, robins, dunnocks. Wildflowers grow on both sides: yellow flag iris in the ditch, kingscup and buttercup, all yellow. On the woods’ side a creeping purple mint – heal all? – and a starry white flower colour the grasses. I need a book. Or an app.

Where the Drift ends at a cross lane – a Sandringham estate farm lane, and at least to the north open to walkers to make a connection with the bridleway to the Wash – I stop, and look west, thinking of my grandfather’s walk. To do that walk today, were it possible, there are at least three waterways to be crossed: Boathouse Creek, a drain, and the River Ingol, challenges in themselves. What is gone is the vast web of minor channels between them, and the right to access.

I watch the fields for a while. Gulls circle and scream at the edge of the Wash, a kilometer or so distant. Pheasants call. To the south, in the woodland called Gogg’s Whins and firmly signed as to no public access, there are feeding stations for the gamebirds: these are birds for the shooting.

A gamekeeper and his black lab begin to walk a field north of me, paralleling the Drift. As I turn and walk east again, we keep pace with each other. When he reaches a small woodland, I hear the shotgun. I can’t determine what he’s after – possibly wood pigeon, more likely one of the Corvidae – crow or magpie. I hear half a dozen shots as I continue east.

Back within the village boundaries a gate opens off the Drift and into a woodland marked on the maps as Bypass Wood. (Unless a woodland or other landscape feature is very old, it will tend to have a practical name: Bypass Wood edges the A149 bypass of the villages of Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe and Snettisham, and does not appear on the 1992 Ordnance Survey map.) I follow the path round and through the woodland, hearing long-tailed tit, and enter the village fen at its western end. The village fen (once known as Bog Common) is one of the three commons of Dersingham, and would have once been grazed, the reeds gathered and the birches cut for fuel and peasticks; now it is managed as a nature reserve.

I watch a family of robins in one clump of birches, and a single female blackcap. The path branches and I cross the Lynn Road and enter Sandringham Woods, immediately turning left and back up the hill (well, small rise, but this is Norfolk, so it’s a hill), crossing at some point onto Shut-Up Common. More long-tailed tits chatter from the birches which dominate the common now: once it was open heath and bracken, kept that way by the large population of rabbits, and the commoner’s right of wood gathering. Myxomatosis reduced the rabbit population, and most villagers don’t gather wood now. I follow the track across to Heath Road and onto Open Common, and come out on the Lynn Road. From here it’s a ten minute walk back to the cottage.

Had I chosen to walk up Heath Road, I would have passed the house my great-grandfather had built, known then as The Retreat. From this house, it’s a twenty-minute or so walk through Shut-Up Common and across what is now Sandringham Country Park to Sandringham House itself, a walk (or perhaps a boy’s run) my father did frequently in the years he lived here, sent to Sandringham with a message for his grandfather. When he and I and my sister came back, he was in his early 80s and had not made that walk in seventy years, but he unerringly took us across the overgrown common with its branching paths, and onto the estate, the memory of the landscape lying deep within the hidden neural networks of his mind.