Monday, 16 October 2017

Wildlife going off the rails?

Old railway lines in Norfolk can be fantastic havens for wildlife, according to project officer Mark Webster. As part of the County Wildlife Action project, the trust has been surveying a number of them for wildflowers, and we have been ‘chuffed’ to discover some real rarities at sites where steam trains used to rush past! So why not muddle along and go somewhere along the Norfolk Trails long-distance paths?
It can be a bit of a strange experience walking along the old railway lines that criss-cross the county. You can be feeling how tranquil the area is, far from the sound of traffic, and then suddenly realise that exactly where you are walking, and not so long ago, express trains used to rush along, perhaps passing a line of trucks filled with cattle on their way to market - or a seaside special would be taking hundreds of excited families from the midlands off on their annual holiday on the sandy beaches of Norfolk’s east coast.

Platforms and original fencing at Briggate
Honing old station as it was
One of the sites I’ve been working at is the old Honing station at Briggate, and it’s a fascinating place – an abandoned station where you can walk among the remains of the brick walls, stepping from ticket office to waiting room – and even into the ladies and gents, where you can still see the layers of paint where the Midland and Great Northern railway’s brown and cream colour scheme was covered later by the green of the Great Eastern railway company. The M&GN was somewhat affectionately known and the ‘Muddle and Go Nowhere’ railway, because of its tortuous route across country from one little village to another. This section of track didn’t even last until Dr Beeching swung his axe – it shut in 1959, but still the original wooden criss-cross fencing survives, along with the huge platforms, and remains of the signal box and cattle pens, now with brambles and nettles growing where once was a busy workplace.

And there is a lot of wildlife along this route too – recent surveys have recorded several species of bats feeding here, and there are surveys for fungi coming up on 18 October, and mosses on 8 November, both of which are open to the public to join, with absolute beginners welcome to come and learn about these often forgotten organisms. 

Small-flowered catchfly in Felmingham
Nearby at Knapton and Felmingham, there are substantial railway cuttings, amazingly dug by hand. And the work of the navvies is not wasted now, as the cuttings’ south-facing slopes have become hotspots for wildflowers and the butterflies that feed on them.  I was especially delighted to come across lots of the endangered small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica) here last summer: it’s a delightful little red and white flower which depends on the open sandy soil here.

Most of the old railway lines around North Walsham are owned and managed by Norfolk County Council, and there is more information about these and other walking routes here. Or if you would rather not explore these places alone, why not join one of the free activities run by our partners TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) which include some free short wildlife ID courses in October and November. The Mushroom Foray is led by county fungi recorder – and real enthusiast for his subject - Tony Leech. Find out more about these curious organisms.
Indoor events will include renowned wildlife cameraman Jerry Kinsley showing some of his stunning nature photos – and sharing the secrets of his success, which includes the somewhat surprising use of a skateboard – at Honing Village Hall on Tuesday 17 October at 7.30pm, and a talk by local railway author Nigel Digby on the M&GN at North Walsham Community Centre exactly a week later.  

For more details about how to join any of these walks and talks, please contact me via  or 07843 069 567, or see the What’s On pages of the NWT website

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