The coast of Norfolk is an edgeless place, of land and sea and sky all seeping into one another. It is a place of change, exchange, fluidity, where sediments, water, genes and carbon are all cycled and recycled endlessly.
And it is my home.
The Wash is coastal Norfolk’s western outpost, a missing notch from England’s eastern flank which has been filled, by rivers and the tide, with silt. Twice a day the moon turns mud to sea here. Twice a day a billion animals’ lives are radically altered. Under the briny tide, countless cockles harvest plankton and innumerable other invertebrates feed. A second tide – of birds – occurs now too: tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of wading birds driven from the muddy, food-rich safety of the Wash onto forbidding land. By its very nature, the Wash is all exchange.
Our saltmarshes, stretching from Holme to Kelling, and echoed around Breydon Water in the east, are just as obviously fluid as the Wash: subject to daily tides and yearly storms and migrant flows of wigeon, curlews, brent geese. The sand dunes, grazing marsh and shingle of North Norfolk’s coast seem, by contrast, constant, but their fluidity is merely measured over greater time. They too are children of the ever-changing wind and waves. They too are flux.
Our dunes are made by wind, whipping sand inland until it falters and is colonised by prickly saltwort and sea rocket. Sand couch comes next, pinning the mobile sand in place, crafting the conditions required by marram, which will build and stabilise the dune. Where there is shingle on our coast, as at Cley and Salthouse, it has been hurled ashore by waves. Then, over time, it has been softened by the kindly touch of common cat’s-ear, sea campion and biting stonecrop. Though seeming stable, these coastal habitats are always changing too. Thrashed by November storms, they are scoured away or violently pushed inland. The stop-start process of their formation begins again.
East of this low, north-facing stretch of sand and shingle, sea and sky, is Norfolk’s northeast shoulder. Reaching from Weybourne down to Happisburgh, this is a coast of cliffs.
On a bed of chalk – the graveyard of untold trillions of Late Cretaceous phytoplankton – sits a layer of mud. Three quarters of a million years in age, this is the silty, sludgy bottom of a limitless estuary. Within it are the bones of hippos, rhinos, elephants, shrews and sticklebacks. Above this mud – mere infants in geological time – stand cliffs of sand and rubble pushed here beneath the crawling bellies of late Pleistocene ice sheets. Unlike the staunch, resistant schists and granites of the UK’s west and northern coasts, our Norfolk cliffs are soft and vulnerable. Weighed down by rain, they slump onto the beach, where their sand and clay are gnawed by unrelenting waves and tide. Here the land is slowly – sometimes dramatically – giving way to sea and sky again.
Still further south, where Norfolk faces east, just before becoming Suffolk, lie the Broads. This is a low, coalescent landscape, where saltwater, freshwater, soil and sky all blend.
As recently as Roman times, much of what we know today as Broadland was subject to the tide, and it is likely that – with our changing climate – much of the land will soon surrender to the tide again. For now, embraced only by a flimsy bar of coastal dunes, this is an untamed waterscape of reed and fen, of barely anchored wetland woods and Mediaeval pits dug out for peat.
Both along our low north stretch of coast and in the Broads, there’s grazing marsh. Uniquely, this is habitat shaped by people. Where they are found along North Norfolk’s coast – at Holme, at Holkham and at Cley – grazing marshes have been stolen from the sea. Historically, more money could be made from grazing sheep and cattle on grassland fed by springs in Norfolk’s underlying chalk than could be made on saltmarsh. From the seventeenth century, wealthy landowners had saltmarshes embanked, keeping out the timeless tide and banishing salt. These obdurate, sea-resisting walls jar with our shifting, edgeless coast, where sea and land and sky are one. But, with the North Sea hungering to breach them, their time is almost done.
It was in grazing marsh that my life with Norfolk’s geese began. On any given Saturday in November and December 1987, a big white van – a black kite stencilled on its driver’s door – was parked along Cley Beach Road in North Norfolk. The driver was a biology teacher from a nearby school, with a patient passion for sharing natural history with his pupils. The four boys huddled in the back, clutching beginner binoculars, had all been taken beneath his wing. One of the boys, in cheap black wellies, charcoal school trousers doing nothing to protect his scrawny legs from winter’s cold, peered with bright blue eyes from under a thick brown fringe. Insecure and timid though he was, he loved these Saturday morning outings to the coast. Little though they knew it then, the boys were learning, from their kind, red-spectacled teacher, a way of looking on the world. Their lives were being peopled with wild friends, whose arrivals and departures would forever mark their seasons.
In November 1987, beside Beach Road, the teacher and the boys were watching geese. Though doubtless a few feral Canada geese were nearby too, our focus – for I’m the mophaired boy, of course – was on a flock of brent geese, hundreds strong: dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia, Norfolk’s saltmarsh geese. In the memory of my slight boy self, the winter Eye Field – embanked as grazing marsh from the 1600s – was always gloomy but also always full of brents, the cold air resonant with their throaty murmur. Here our teacher – still among my dearest friends today – taught us to distinguish the year’s youngsters by their neat, white-pencilled backs; taught us to look for families in the flocks; taught us about their cycles of success, mirroring booms in lemmings on the tundra. With his guidance, brents were the first geese that I learned to love.
The binoculars that I had back then were dreadful but it mattered nothing. Each time I raised their icy metal to my face, to watch these wondrous beings, I was conveyed into their Arctic lives, into a wild where I belonged. Among Siberian geese and birdwatchers, I’d found my flock.
Extracted from ‘The Meaning of Geese’ by Nick Acheson. Published today.