Norfolk in ruins

Last week I spent a very enjoyable day out in West Norfolk and the Fens with my friend Clive (who took the fantastic cover photo for my novel), as we poked around various old churches and ruined buildings. One of the churches we visited (which shall remain nameless for now) was very much the inspiration for the church in ‘The Listeners’, and revisiting it for the first time in several years was quite poignant.

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“I can feel the ice-white harshness that pours through the windows, like light inside a glasshouse, mesmerising me…”

The church organ was suitably gothic, but I couldn’t get a sound out of it, despite pumping the bellows in true William Abrehart style…

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If I had seen this ‘Table of Kindred and Affinity’ while researching the book I would have definitely have included it somehow, as it was absolutely perfect. This photo isn’t staged either, this is exactly how it was placed.

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To the side of the altar, I loved the way the light fell on this chair and lectern. I could imagine Reverend Thurtle standing there, but there was no sign of him, fortunately.

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Nearby were the remains of a ruined priory. Despite gazing longingly many times at them over the years, this was the first time I have managed to have a proper close-up look, courtesy of kind permission from the owners of the house whose grounds they stand in.

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After this – and the appearance of a timely ‘stormcock’ (Mistle Thrush) overhead – we headed west, deep into the Norfolk Fens, to explore two ruined churches and a ruined house. I was particularly drawn to this face, which contained so much character in its lichen and its weathering.

 

Review and media roundup

Weed Death - the Non-Poisonous Weed Killer Poweder.

 ‘Weed Death’. Not really relevant to this post, but I needed a photo and rather liked this! I took the photo in Norwich Castle Museum a couple of month’s ago – the box was there in a display of found objects.

Gunnar Jaeck has just posted an excellent, and very interesting, review of ‘The Listeners’ on his website, Metal Reality. Click here to read it. And also have a look around the rest of the site while you’re there. It’s definitely metal, as well as also pretty mental (and I mean that in the positive adjectival sense that was widely in use when I was in school!).

Less metal, but more classic condiment: I was interviewed on Norwich’s local TV station, Mustard TV, a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about this year’s Wymondham Words with my Festival co-director, Moniza Alvi, and also read from ‘The Listeners’ (complete with funky sepia video effects!). Here’s a link to the item, though I don’t know how long it will stay live.

Africa’s Vulture Crisis

The situation for Africa's vultures is bleak - but it's not too late... (Photo: Estitxu Martinez de Albeniz)

The situation for Africa’s vultures is bleak – but it’s not too late… (Photo: Estitxu Martinez de Albeniz)

I thought I’d share an article that I wrote for the September 2015 edition of BirdLife International’s World Birdwatch magazine, which highlights the grave threat these magnificent birds of prey are facing.

To read a PDF of the article (500 KB), please click here.

To help, please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/africanvultures

Kingdom of moths

I’ve been catching moths in my garden (using a harmless light trap) for almost a month now, and in that short space of time I’ve already managed to identify more than 50 different species. I’ll write more extensively on this in future, but for now here’s a short selection of images.

Privet hawkmoth

Privet hawkmoth, caught on the evening of Sat 4 July. One of the largest of our resident moths, with an incredible 8cm wingspan.

Burnished Brass.

Burnished Brass. An incredible-looking moth with a glorious metallic/mother-of-pearl sheen to its wings.

Beautiful Hook-tip

Beautiful Hook-tip. A very attractively shaped moth. I’ve only caught the one to date.

Buff-tip

Buff-tip. One of the commonest moths in my garden at the moment, but certainly one of my favourites with their amazing birch-twig mimicry.

I’m recording all of my sightings onto the excellent Norfolk Moths website, so hopefully the data will also prove useful in showing some of the hidden biodiversity in this corner of South Norfolk.

Elephant Hawkmoth

Elephant Hawkmoth. Just one so far in the garden of this common, lilac-tinged giant.

New trailer for ‘The Listeners’

Trailer for 'The Listeners'Thanks to my friends Simon Brooke and Clive Dunn (who also took the novel’s wonderful cover photo), I now have a trailer for ‘The Listeners’, which I think perfectly captures the atmosphere of the book.

I helped Clive to film it in an abandoned house in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, so the setting is certainly authentic. Simon then very kindly edited and made a story out of our rambling rushes.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it and thanks again to Simon and Clive. If you ever need some graphics made, videos edited, or photography or video taken, then check out their websites.

Click here to view the trailer on YouTube.

Signed copies of ‘The Listeners’ now in more bookshops

In good company on the shelves at Toppings, Ely

In good company on the shelves at Toppings, Ely

Signed paperback copies of ‘The Listeners’ are now available in more bookshops around East Anglia. The latest stockists include the wonderful Toppings Books in Ely, Bookmark in Spalding (thanks to Christine and Sam for organising my event there last week – and to everyone who came!), Crabpot Books in Wells and Cley, NWT Cley Marshes visitor centre, Ceres Books in Swaffham, the Holt Bookshop, and Waterstones King’s Lynn.

Thanks to all for their help and support, as well as to my other local stockists: Kett’s Books in Wymondham, The Book Hive, Jarrolds Book Department and Waterstones in Norwich city centre, and Waterstones UEA.

Fantastic Mark Cocker feature on ‘The Listeners’

Nature writer Mark Cocker wrote a wonderful two-page feature on The Listeners in last Saturday’s EDP Weekend.

I particularly enjoyed his description of John Abrehart, the character who strides through the centre of the novel (though we never get to hear from him directly due to his untimely demise before the novel begins):

“This centrally absent figure, John Abrehart, is evoked piecemeal by his offspring as a crudely vigorous muscleman, who is at once a war hero and a sensitive country labourer steeped in rural mythology and the elemental life of the fields, but he is also morally flawed.”

As the EDP don’t always digitise their Weekend features I’m including a pdf link of the article (877 KB) here for anyone who’d like to read it in full. And many thanks to Mark for the wonderful write-up!

A spring 2013 visit to Upton Broad

NWT Upton Broad and MarshesAlways when I have visited Upton before it has been the height of summer and the place has been alive with insects: dragonflies and damselflies quartering the dykes, and butterflies skitting low over the nettles that blanket the woodland floor. This evening, one of the last of April, I would have expected summer to have almost arrived, but the strange, stunted spring has put paid to that. Nature is a couple of weeks in arrears, and despite a false promise of things to come a day ago, the wind gnaws at me as I get out of my car. Even so, I am excited at the prospect of walking around one of my favourite Norfolk nature reserves at an unfamiliar season; from the look of the empty car park, it seems I will have the place to myself.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Upton Broad and Marshes is located between the villages of South Walsham and Upton, two miles northwest of Acle. Covering over 300 hectares, it’s a sizeable reserve, comprising a mosaic of different habitats: open water, reedbed, wet woodland, grazing marsh, and the exotic-sounding quaking bog. As well as its wealth of dragonflies, Upton is also famed for its plants, including being one of the few sites in the country where the exquisite fen orchid can be found. The site forms the heart of NWT’s Bure Valley Living Landscape, which aims to connect together parcels of important wildlife habitat into an impressive whole: already, the Trust has made several purchases of neighbouring land, and evidence of conservation improvements and management work are plentiful around the reserve.

NWT Upton Broad and MarshesFrom the car park, I head along a woodland trail. It’s quiet, apart from the wind, but now a chiffchaff – one of the most pioneering of summer migrants – pipes out its staccato song from somewhere unseen. I come to an open area where the reeds have been cut to encourage new growth, and admire a display of daffodils which bring a vibrancy to the early-evening greyness. Despite the breeze, it is an oddly tranquil scene, with the woods that border the clearing soaking up any stray background noise. I press on, along the side of a dyke. The water it holds is black, with a thick film of bubbles and scum floating on top, a reminder of all the nutrients and life below. When I approach more closely, an army of pond skaters whizz away across the oily surface. I carry on, the ground spongy, but firm underfoot; no need to worry about the quaking bog, a sign assures me, so long as I stick to the path.

Reeds at Upton MarshesA great spotted woodpecker passes overhead, drawing my attention with its sharp call, and a wren scolds at me from among a stand of stark ash trees. Now I come to a boardwalk and the wood opens out. Large towers of exotic sedge jut up like termite mounds, and I stop to examine a semi-rotted birch stump covered with strange, sculptural fungi. The sun has emerged from behind the clouds, and although the breeze is no less severe, the newly arrived brightness makes the scene different again: the green shoots look verdant, and spring really does appear to be on its way. A blackbird begins to sing and a rival replies, not wishing to be outdone. Abruptly, I am into a sea of reeds, one lone birch ahead standing guard in the middle of the path. I stop, to try and take in the tranquillity, but am shocked by a commotion from just off the path. A brown shape crashes away into the reeds and I know it can only be one thing: a dog-like Chinese water deer, an introduction from the Orient that now flourishes in East Anglia.

As I carry on around the circular trail there are lots of signs of the hard work that goes into maintaining such an important jigsaw of habitats – pyramids of cut reed-straw cleared from paths and rides exposing the new growth below, shovelfuls of peaty soil dug from half-blocked channels, and piles of logs where willows and birches have been chopped back to stop the unceasing progression towards scrub and carr which, otherwise, would continue unabated.

Grazing marshes at Upton BroadI reach the grazing marsh, which looks resplendent in the late sunshine. The cattle glow orange-brown as they make their way, in unison, to wherever they are headed. Another deer gets up from among the juncus, disappearing into the distance like a frightened hare. I count five windmills on the horizon, reminders of the landscape’s human history: Clippesby, Oby, Upton, St Benet’s and Thurne Mills. From the reeds comes a loud rattling churring and I scan with my binoculars to find the culprit, who eventually pops into view – a sedge warbler, another long-distance summer visitor. In a few weeks, this reedbed will be alive with these smart, striped songbirds, as well as their plainer relative, the reed warbler.

Since my last visit new water-filled scrapes have been cut out among the reeds, and over on the marshes. Two lapwings spiral and dive above them, making the peewit calls that give them their local name – an odd, evocative noise unlike anything else. In the distance I can make out a lone little egret, pure white against the darkness of the land, and the V-winged silhouette of a marsh harrier strains the edge of my sight.

Chinese Water Deer at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes

Chinese Water Deer at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes

Returning through the other side of the wood, more life stirs. Pale yellow primroses paint the floor below feathery willow catkins. Stock doves cough out deep hooting calls as big flocks of woodpigeons scatter from the treetops, and two new summer migrants join the evening chorus: the bubbling chatter of a blackcap and the down-slurring song of a willow warbler. Almost back to where I began, I pass alongside another reed-fringed dyke and disturb one last water deer. This one though is braver, peering at me through a curtain of brittle stems, so close I can make out its distinctive facial pattern. I swear its down-turned mouth is scowling at me.

As I reach my car the light is slipping away fast, but there is still time to look up at the source of a twittering call: my first swallow of the summer.

[A version of this article first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 11/5/13]