Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ten reasons why people love Cley Marshes

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

There are many reasons to love our best known, oldest and most visited nature reserve.  Here are just some of them! I have distilled these from the comments left by visitors at our recent Cley Marshes: A wild vision screen-show in Norwich, from the wonderful and moving comments send in by the many generous people who have donated to our Cley Marshes land purchase appeal and from interviews with artists, birders and local people at Cley nature reserve.

·      A sense of wildness

NWT Cley Marshes, photo by David Tipling
One word that comes up time and time again about Cley is wildness. The landscape of marshes and reed beds, shingle and sand, sky and sea, this edgeland of Norfolk running from Salthouse through Cley to Blakeney Point is hugely valued for its wildness. Some comments talked about it being one of the last wild, natural landscapes in England. Our warden, Bernard Bishop, might be horrified because of course Cley Marshes is also a highly managed and created environment: the scrape pools dug with bulldozers and the reed bed only here because of constant years of toil and  management. However a sense of wildness is clearly something highly valued about this precious coastal landscape and something we must pay regard to in caring for it. Too many signs, the wrong sort of hides or pathways, could all put this at risk. Wildness of course is not so much out there as inside us: in our perception. In our hearts. Something we feel and experience; an emotional response to something special and wonderful about this place. This feeling of wildness can descent on a place with a storm, the fall of night, a peregine’s stoop or a curlews lonely call. We value places like Cley for touching us with their wildness.

·     Changing light

Storm approaching, photo by Tasha North
Another quality that was mentioned by many people, and by all the artists that we interviewed, was the special light at Cley: constantly changing and something about it capable of inspiring people.  If you have ever sat looking out the window of our visitor centre at Cley you will know how the amazing view over the reserve constantly changes with the changing light.

This changing light can create some really memorable moments: the reedbed turning to fiery pink on winter evenings as the sun sets, storms approaching off the sea, and if you  are an early bird some amazing dawns.

One of the best ways of perceiving the way the light changes is to watch reflections in the water. Stand on the bridge over the catchwater dyke and watch the reed reflections, so many colours in the water. We talk about reflecting on things – well Cley is a great place for reflections. Maybe it takes an artist to see things in their true colours but any visit to Cley adds some colour to life.

·      Rare birds   

The first Pacific Swift, photo by Julian Bhalero
Of course Cley’s other name is the ‘Birdwatcher's Mecca’ and lots of people did mention seeing rarities as one of the great Cley attractions.

Way back in Victorian times, when the naturalists saying was ‘What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery’, Cley and Blakeney Point were already known for rare birds. Perhaps we should forgive these early naturalist-collectors as they didn’t have the modern optics, field-guides, scopes  and pagers we take for granted today. So the first Pallas’s Warbler for Britain was shot with dust shot and then stuffed and many lesser rarities, bluethroats, wrynecks, shrikes and barred warblers were collected in this area. Probably, along with Fair Isle in the north, the Scillies in the south and Skokholm Island to the west, no other area in the UK can claim as many ‘firsts for Britain’ as Cley and Blakeney Point.

Rarities continue of course to attract many visitors – the Western Sandpiper a couple of years ago, the Wilson’s Phalarope just a few weeks ago, the pallid swift a few days ago. There is always the chance of the unexepected at Cley. So part of the meaning of Cley is its long history of attracting rare birds.

·      Cley’s sounds

Cley has a soundscape as well as a landscape and like the landscape this changes with the seasons. People frequently mentioned how important to their experience of Cley were its distinctive sounds.  

The wind in reeds, the sounds of waves breaking on shingle, the murmurings of Brent Geese on the marshes, the clamour of pink-feet overhead, skylarks singing in a blue summer sky over the shingle ridge, a redshank’s warning as it flies out of the marsh. Cley has so many wild voices.

If we lose the booming of bitterns or the calling of cuckoos over Cley Marshes do we lose part of its meaning? How much does the noise of more small planes overhead or increased traffic along the coast road impinge on this meaning of Cley?

·      Wild geese and ducks

Pink-feet skeins
Wild geese, perhaps unsurprisingly, were mentioned a lot. So flocks of geese and ducks have to be part of the meaning of Cley Marshes. The pink-feet arriving in September and October, gabbling their way across Cley’s skies, their skeins writing calligraphy over the marshes are now one of the icons of wildness at Cley. Approaching the hides in winter and hearing the whistling calls of wigeon. Looking though the hide flaps and enjoying those amazing colours of teal, elegant pintail, or watching shelducks with beaks lowered hovering their way through the mud is all part of the Cley experience. These birds also mark the changing seasons. Flocks of ducks and geese are one of the winter specials of Cley. Not to be missed!

·      The place to watch marsh harriers

Another bird which has become an icon for Cley is the marsh harrier.  

Marsh harrier, photo by Daren Mulley
In spring and summer they are ever-present – drifting on V shaped wings over the marshes,  causing pandemonium when they fly over the scrapes. People described how memorable seeing their first ever marsh harrier at Cley was and having fantastic views of food passes in April and May with birds grappling talons in mid-air. Special sights, perhaps glimpsed only for moments, but  forming a memory that will last a lifetime.

Cley continues to play an important part in the success story of this species.  Don’t take these amazing birds for granted, rarer as breeding birds than golden eagles, they are a special part of  the Cley scene and part of the magic of its reedy and watery landscape.

·      Big skies – a sense of perspective

Clouds at Cley, photo by Barry Madden

The sky can be a dominant feature at Cley. Stand on the coastal shingle ridge and look inland. The marshes and visitor centre ,even the villages of Cley and Salthouse and the Cromer ridge behind, can all be dwarfed by Cley’s huge skies. Towering cumulus clouds in infinite blue skies. Dark storm clouds that approach and pass by. Time spent cloud watching is never wasted!

When we spend time in this very open landscape we can feel very small and nature feel very big. Lots of people commented on this sense of perspective and how walking at Cley helps make sense of the world, quite literally giving us a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer scale of the landscape.

·      Wader flocks

You can’t talk about Cley without talking waders. Flocks of waders performing aerial spectacles, golden plover spiralling onto the scrape pools, long-billed black-tailed godwits probing the mud. Waders bring a touch of the international to Cley, passing through from distant lands on almost unimaginable migration journeys. These birds are beautiful to watch with their great migration journeys inspiring wonder and awe. More than most birds waders bring a touch of wildness on their wings. We are touched by their beauty.

·      A place to walk in nature

Cley beach, photo by Barry Madden
Not everyone who comes to Cley, to the visitor centre or the beach, comes to see wildlife.  Many just come to walk. One of our challenges is how to cater for this audience without compromising wildlife protection. But people chose to come here to walk at Cley for a reason: Cley makes people feed good. Time spent outdoors in wild places increases well-being. Gives us literally a breath of fresh air and provides us with a natural health service. Try it and blow those cares away with Cley’s wild salty winds.

        Avocets and breeding birds

In spring and summer people come here to watch the spectacle  of breeding birds. May was frequently mentioned as a favourite month. Black and white avocets  with their ‘kloot- kloot’ calls on the scrape. The opportunity to watch all their amazing behaviours from display and mating  to nest building and incubation. A chance to watch fluffy chicks being brooded safe under the adults on Cley’s Scrape pools.If you visit Cley’s reed-thatched hides in spring some of these special sights can almost be guaranteed.

Avocets, photo by Steve Bond
Avocets are another of Cley’s great conservation success stories. Their return to Norfolk in 1977 to breed at Cley after 150 years absence from Norfolk and then with our protection increase in numbers and spread north along the coast is a wonderful conservation success story of which Cley can be proud.

Today of course in spring and summer people also come to watch spoonbills at Cley. The start of hopefully another conservation success story.

·     The timeless landscape

The landscape is mentioned as often as wildlife as a reason that people value Cley Marshes. The quality of views between Cley  and Salthouse. From the famous East Bank you can look west over Cley’s reedbeds to the towers of Blakeney Church or turn around and look east to Salthouse Church. A much loved landscape made up of many elements: its history,  its wildlife and its habitats.

The new land between Cley and Salthouse Marshes, by Barry Madden

Yes, I know that was actually 11 reasons to love Cley Marshes, but in reality there are as many reasons as there are visitors. Visit and you will discover your own personal reason to love this living landscape. If you are lucky you too will have a magic moment, a fleeting glimpse that becomes a lifetime’s memory. But be warned: Cley is highly addictive. Once you come to love this place without doubt you will return time and time again. That’s what our visitors tell us. Some, visiting from distant places have even moved house to come and live close by.

I believe we can learn a lot by understanding what it is that people value about Cley Marshes. At NWT, our work involves providing opportunities for people to connect with nature. To inspire people to make decisions that benefit wildlife. It’s only when people gain a personal love of wildlife, when wildlife and wild places have real meaning to individuals, that people will take action to protect nature.

One of our great challenges is to ensure that even in this modern world, with all its pressures, when more people live in cities and move with jobs from place to place, even country to country, that a new generation still builds this deep affection for place. Is there a risk that the next generation will have less opportunity to build this connection with place and with nature? Part of our work at NWT is to make sure a new generation also comes to appreciates all that Cley means. To inspire a new generation to fall in love with Cley’s wildness, its sounds, its special light and its birds. 

The next few years will be exciting ones at Cley as through the recent Heritage Lottery Fund award and the our very successful appeal we now have an amazing opportunity create a vibrant new education centre, the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education centre, and to ensure that young people have the opportunity to discover for themselves new meanings for and old but ever-changing reserve. To develop their sense of awe and wonder. To discover their own special moments at Cley which will become their lifetime, and perhaps life-changing, memories.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this article because it just sums up the Cley Marshes experience. The feeling you get from the amazing Norfolk skies and vast open landscape is an experience worth having, I can never get enough of this incredible landscape. Walking through the marshes to reach the hides, you can totally loose yourself to nature.

    NWT has totally conquered the challenge it had of how to use the area for walkers without compromising the wildlife protection, and being able to do a circular walk from the Cley visitor centre up towards the beach and round back to the centre makes it accessible for anyone - a very enjoyable 2 hour walk (or a little bit longer depending on whether you stop at the hides or not).

    I agree, you must visit this NWT site, and as for getting the younger generation to continue with an interest in nature, this is one of life's experiences that you should give them. It's a brilliant place to come to.