The last of my 2016 posts - two months together, as there's not much I haven't blogged already!
We celebrated two fortieth birthdays (not mine!) in November. I was very proud of the ridiculous quantities of decorations I managed to find. I think my favourite was this pirate and sea-themed banner, which is customisable for any age. Genius.
We went for a very windy (but beautiful) walk along the beach from Hastings to Bexhill with a couple of friends.
I might as well share this video of the waves again. I find it quite soothing. Maybe you need soothing, too.
As the days got shorter and the weather colder, we scaled back to smaller trips in order to get outside without the pressure of completing long walks. We climbed up East Hill in Hastings . . .
. . . and went for a walk near Herstmonceux with our local LGBT walking group.
Later in December, we headed up to Norfolk for a week-long holiday. We stopped off in North London for a night, then broke the next day at Wandlebury. We'd briefly vsited Wandlebury a couple of months before and I wanted to check it out again.
I also wanted to go for a walk every day in Norfolk - and we almost managed it!
That's it! I quite enjoyed this reflection on what was a pretty good year (personally, if not globally). You can find my other 2016 year in review posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September and October.
(Try saying that five times fast!)
We spent a week of winter holidays in Old Hunstanton, a pretty village tucked up in the northwest corner of Norfolk, where The Wash becomes the North Sea. We have several favourite short walks in the area - these are a few of them. I've included GPX files so you can download them if you want, but most of them are pretty easy to figure out for yourself once you're there! They’re all circular or there-and-back strolls that will take 1-2 hours, so they’re perfect for stretching your legs in the morning or for catching a breath of fresh air after lunch.
1. Above and below the Hunstanton Cliffs
Although on paper this walk is pretty much a there-and-back-again kind of affair, the 'there' along the beach is very different to the 'back' along the cliff top. We started in Old Hunstanton, walked up the beach below the famous two-tone cliffs, had a cuppa in Hunstanton at the lovely Norfolk Deli, then wandered back via the lighthouse and old ruins. You could just as easily do it the other way around. (NB: check the tide times if you want to make sure you can get around the bottom of the cliffs.)
Another diverting feature of the beach, the wreck of the Sheraton, a steam trawler built in 1907 and wrecked in 1947.
2. Up through the Ringstead Downs
Norfolk is famously flat - but it turns out there are some "hills" just out the back of Hunstanton, at Ringstead. We drove out one beautiful frosty morning and parked at the Ringstead end of the downs, following the path straight up between two low, mainly wooded rises. The return walk was much the same, though we detoured up to a lookout over the little park in an old chalk quarry and then down through said park before heading to the car.
3. Beach huts and holiday homes . . . next-the-sea
This walk follows the River Hun (which is not very big, for a river) from Old Hunstanton to Holme-next-the-Sea, with the golf course on your left. At Holme, walk out towards the beach, then follow the Norfolk Coast Path back to Old Hunstanton. You'll see all manner of holiday accommodation, from hotels to beach huts, caravans to fancy houses - especially if you explore the villages at each end.
Holme is where the Peddars Way joins the Norfolk Coast Path (they're treated as one national trail). More warning signs!
Now we're talking! Beach huts (or beach boxes, if you're from Melbourne). We slept on the verandah of a box like this last December. Not this time!
4. Handsome Holkham Hall
This final walk is a little longer and a bit further east along the coast at Holkham. Holkham is a large, walled estate with a fancy hall, a landscaped and well maintained park, farmland, various monuments and loads of deer. They have a number of suggested walks, both shorter and longer than the one we did. We set off a bit after 9am on Boxing Day and by the time we had finished the carpark, the village and the nearby nature reserve were heaving. We'd chosen a good day to come early!
Probably my favourite building at Holkham (and one of the oldest): the ice house. Not spectacular, but very cool. (Cool, haha.)
I hope you found those little walks enjoyable to read about - and if you ever visit that corner of Norfolk, I hope you give them a go. Let me know if you do!
February's microadventure challenge was set by Emily. She chose wildlife spotting. Inspired by Emily’s species-tracking updates, Dan and I thought we’d keep a log of what we’d seen in our courtyard and beyond. As the month progressed, I also started thinking about why we hadn’t seen more wildlife.
In our courtyard
Beyond our courtyard
A couple of friends who have joined the microadventure challenge invited us on the spur of the moment to visit Wildwood in Kent. Since I hadn’t managed to spot a (live) badger, I thought this was likely to be my best chance of seeing one.
We had an interesting but cold afternoon wandering around the park. We saw a sleeping otter, then later on we were lucky enough to watch one up close being fed. They have amazingly powerful little teeth and jaws that can bite clean through a person’s fingers. There were a number of deer species and a couple of elk (they have bizarre looking faces). I enjoyed watching the big, hairy bison - they looked like pleasant creatures (though I wouldn’t like to have one charge at me - they’re massive). Dan was quite taken by the lynx, I was in a flap over the little owl. We saw lots of other animals, including storks, Bennett's wallabies (did you know there are colonies of wallabies living wild in the UK?), Scottish wildcats, harvest mouse, beavers, eagle owls, barn owls, wild boar, wild horses, egrets, ravens (they are so much bigger than crows!) and wolves. We all spent a long time looking at the edible dormice (which are much bigger than I expected and look almost like sugar glider possums), but that’s possibly because they were inside, where it was warmer. Oh, and we saw some snoozing badgers, too: success!
I’m always a bit uncomfortable in places like this. The animals aren’t cooped up in concrete boxes for display like in old-fashioned zoos, but they still don’t have a lot of room to move around in. I know that many of them are rescue animals and are better off here (e.g. Wildwood has just raised enough money to rescue two Bulgarian bears), but I didn’t like seeing the wolves pacing around the fence line of their enclosure, or the raven flying from end to end of its little aviary.
Where is the wildlife?
If declining wildlife, birdlife and biodiversity is something that concerns you, you might also want to get involved with a local conservation group. In the UK you could try: RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, BTO, Butterfly Conservation Trust, CPRE, High Weald Landscape Trust, Hawk and Owl Trust, Bumblebee Conservation Trust or Buglife.
In North Norfolk, at the mouth of the Wash, the wind churns the sea into choppy brown peaks and sends clouds scudding across the wide horizon.
At low tide, mudflats and salt marshes stretch endlessly, carved through by meandering waterways, spiked with grey and yellow grasses, lightly but thoroughly trampled by flocks of wildfowl and waders. Inland, fields of wheat, corn and sugar beet stretch across the gentle, shallow swells of a landscape punctuated occasionally by dark stands of trees and the grey flint spires of village churches. Life exists here on a thin strip, like the Earth’s crust, sandwiched between sky and stone.
Having visited Norfolk several times during the colder, off-peak months, I’ve tended to describe it as flat, bleak and full of birds. But this time, after the best summer in years, I was struck by the abundance and diversity of the hedgerows, streams and tidal marshes. As I explored the area, I couldn’t resist making the most of this wild harvest. . .
Foraging for leafy vegetables and herbs
Stinging nettles and mallow are familiar friends. We found them growing in great quantities along a footpath snaking between coastal villages and we sautéed a few bunches with mushrooms to make a tasty snack. The wild mint we found alongside the nettles went into fresh mint tea. We later found a stream overrun with watercress, but we were out without a bag or container, so I made do with munching on a few peppery leaves.
Foraging for berries and fruit
Established hedgerows encircled the village we stayed in, offering a variety of fruit. Blackberries are probably one of the most commonly foraged fruits in the UK and we tossed a handful of small but sweet specimens into an apple crumble along with the last cherry plums from a nearby tree.
Intertwined with a couple of sloe bushes, and easily distinguishable in such close proximity, I discovered damsons – the first time I’ve found these small plums in the wild. I made a tiny batch of damson jam to experiment, and it was absolutely amazing – tart and flavoursome. We went back later to pick a few more and made them into jelly with some crabapples collected during a bike ride. This wasn’t quite as lively, but it was still good spread on challah toast in the morning.
The hedges were dripping with droopy bunches of shiny, black berries on bright red stalks. After checking with some knowledgeable friends on Twitter, I identified them as elderberries.
These were completely new to me, so I decided to make something simple to get a feel for the flavour. Alys Fowler in The Thrifty Forager claims elderberries “have a slightly rank taste so it’s always the last jam in our house to get eaten”, but I was not to be dissuaded! I made a tasty (if slightly too sweet) cordial, which was reminiscent of a well-known blackcurrent drink. We drank it with ice out of champagne flutes while sitting in the Norfolk sunshine. . . bliss!
Foraging for samphire
My most exciting find, out on those wide, sticky flats, was patch after patch of marsh samphire. I had never eaten samphire before. I snipped a few bits (not sure if it was legal to harvest it, not wanting to disrupt an ecosystem I was not familiar with) and added it raw to a salad. It was gorgeous – tiny, crunchy pockets of salty sea-flavour bursting in each mouthful.
(N.B. We later went to Titchwell Manor for a delicious evening meal, during which I was presented with an enormous bowl of samphire. It made my foraging efforts look rather paltry in comparison. . . but food is always tastier when you find it and/or grow it yourself!)
Over the course of our holiday, this flat ribbon of North Norfolk became more than a beautifully bleak and bird-filled landscape to me. Through our foraging excursions, I connected with it on a personal scale and felt grounded there in a way I hadn't before.
What wild food is in season where you live? Have you got any foraging stories or questions? I'd love to hear them in the comments or on Twitter.
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