Sculpture in the Valley at Potton Hall on the edge of the Blyth Valley was a dramatically different venue to our previous homes at Earsham and Raveningham in the Waveney Valley. The area immediately behind the coastal Sandlings region of East Suffolk is one of sloping landscapes, dense woods, flower meadows, little streams and open heathlands. Potton Hall’s 10 acre site gave access to all aspects of this diversity and the creative installations – sometimes consciously but also perhaps unconsciously – responded to this variety in form and shape. What emerged for me was a feeling of creative generosity from the 40 participating artists, whether in the form of conceptual, abstract or figurative art, all of which were well represented.
Something else that emerged over the period of the exhibition was the involvement of other creative disciplines, something to which we have not given too much thought during earlier Trails. True, Mel Horwood has run dance workshops at previous venues, but the one that she organised at Potton Hall ended up being particularly expressive – even therapeutic – for the smaller number of participants involved. Members of the Suffolk Poetry Society also came together to compose and perform in situ poems written directly in response to the artworks which affected them, with startlingly original and moving results. Finally, and for the first time, we contacted local musicians to come and informally busk near the café in order to create more of an ambiance, especially at weekends. Their contributions were quietly appreciated by customers and passers-by alike, and the musicians themselves enjoyed the opportunity to strut their stuff after such a long period of not being able to play for live audiences.
Another important aspect was the willingness of Waveney & Blyth Arts’ members and friends to give generously of their time and energy to help manage the resulting ‘show’. I calculate that somewhere in the region of 55 volunteers gave more than 500 hours over a period of four weeks and five weekends. And these figures do not take into account the enormous number of paid and unpaid hours spent in preparing for the Trail – meetings, phone calls and emails; contacting artists; booklet design and marketing activity; making technical alterations to the website box office; preparing templates for recording daily actions, bookings and sales; preparing information and safety notices and numbered posts; organising volunteers and researching the constantly changing Covid requirements. It was an enormous effort!
And what do we have to show for it?
Well, most importantly the pleasure of receiving a huge number of positive comments from visitors, all of whom commented on the quality and variety of the art works and the beauty of the setting. This translated into ticket sales to nearly 2,000 visitors as well as one of our best sales of artworks since our Trails began – good for W&BA and good for the artists who sold their work! And also good for John and Priscilla Westgarth (our hosts at Potton Hall) who benefitted from a massive increase in visitor numbers, especially to their Yurt Café, with the result that they experienced a significant increase in footfall and café sales.
However, the exciting news is that John and Priscilla have decided to offer interested artists an extension to the sculpture trail in the form of a ‘Silent Auction’. This is taking place over the next two months ending on 12th September when sales will be confirmed to the highest bidders above the artists’ declared reserve prices. In the event 20 artists showing 35 sculptures/installations are taking part in this arrangement which will include new works in addition to ones already previewed during Sculpture in the Valley. So, tell your friends and neighbours about this extension and encourage them to discover the delights of Potton Hall and experience the continuing ‘afterlife’ of all our creative efforts!
Site Manager for the Trail
Half way through the year now, the summer solstice has passed and the on-off summer lurches on. The days will begin to shorten. Swifts are screaming through the garden as they prepare to leave us. Every year, they fly up at the eaves of the house and perch briefly on the gutters. I assume they are checking out nest sites for next year and will probably be first time breeders at three or four years old. Swifts seem to define our summers but then one morning I realise they haven’t been heard for a few days. They were still here this week but as July moves on so will the swifts.
July’s other great winged visitors are the dragonflies and damselflies. I made a lockdown pond and, although small and still settling into itself, it has been blessed by four different species. The first to arrive was a male Broad Bodied Chaser – known for quickly colonising new ponds. It is very territorial and sits on nearby perches to keep an eye open for rivals, every few minutes doing a quick tour and back to its sunny spot. After a week a female arrived, brown to his blue, and was soon laying eggs into the water. Chasers lay what are known as Exophytic eggs, round eggs that are deposited directly into the water and lie just below the surface.
The next visitor was the Common Blue Damselfly. Tiny little darts of blue hovering around the pond – there were five males on several days. One female arrived and, protected by her successful suitor, laid her eggs. Damselflies lay Endophytic eggs, oval shaped eggs laid directly into plant stems or rotting wood.
Now I have a new pond already expectant with three species of these amazing creatures. Eggs usually hatch within a few weeks but it will be 2-3 years before the life cycle completes and the larvae emerge to become the dragonflies that grace our summer. Just before dawn on a warm July day the nymphs will emerge from the pond and around12 hours later the adults take to the wing. With fossil dragonflies being found from over 300 million years ago this is a story that keeps unfolding.
Damselflies are smaller and at rest close their wings whereas the larger dragonflies rest with their wings open. Damselflies have more of a fluttering flight, seeming delicate and more fluid in character. The more robust dragonfly can be an aggressive predator and its stiff wings can be heard as it comes up to inspect you or rushes down a green lane looking for insects. Masters of aerobatics they can move each wing independently allowing them to hover, fly backwards and turn sharply. They can also fly at speeds of up to 30mph.
There are 57 species recorded in the UK but only a dozen are more commonly seen. They are rich in imagery and name. Darters, chasers and hawkers describe the main groups of dragonflies and their colours are jewels: emerald, azure, sapphire and ruby. Imagine the rippled reflections of sunlight on water and you will see the glory of these winged insects as they sparkle across a wetland.
I have a fancy for a dual life
so I can taste the water
and the air. I’d like to try
being ugly, overlooked
and where I can hang out
with fish and frogs and feel
caress of ripples, share
the bubbled oxygen that
diving beetles bring,
and the sun clear through
a skin of water. But then –
oh joy – to creep up some
tall stem of reed, clasp to it
under summer sun, to shed
the damp and blackened me
and there, plant slung,
unfold a mirror to the sky,
pump up my wings,
shiver out of water
– and to fly.
On a cool June afternoon, seven poets gathered at Potton Hall to visit the Waveney & Blyth Sculpture Trail and trace its path of artistry and inspiration.
“Be inspired!” was the exhortation from Suffolk Poetry Society, of which they were all keen members. And indeed they were inspired!
Some had visited the outdoor exhibition previously and some had visited the website photographs to gain their inspiration. The poems, some of which you can read here, responding to the sculptures and installations, all demonstrate the magnificent individuality, the creative quirkiness of the human mind, its intuitive sensitivity and its sense of humour. The poems also demonstrate a poet’s love of language and how art in whatever form it manifests connects the heart of the viewer and listener to the heart of the creator and his motivation, to his thoughts, materials and, in this site-sensitive exhibition, to the location of the piece or installation.
Another Use Of Chicken Wire
After The Bitterest Pill by Nick Ball
The plastic bottles are empty, the tins are without
their food contents and the beer cans have been drained.
Soon they will be welcomed at the re-cycling centre.
And that is how it should be.
But in the real world that nice garden over there,
that beauty spot by the river or that playground
provide spaces for the chuck-it, ditch-it, drop-it brigade.
After all it’s not on their patch, not in their backyard.
The environment isn’t their problem; it is someone else’s.
They’re not responsible for the greenhouse gases,
the threat to the ozone layer, the climatic changes
or the export of litter to third world countries.
So where does this leave us, the ones that care. How do we
get the message across? Tell them to Keep Britain Tidy,
Take Litter Home or Bin It. More fines? More sanctions?
Or maybe Nick Ball has shown us the way?
That chicken wire is shaped like a cod liver oil capsule.
Perhaps we could all take a responsibility tablet once a day-
after breakfast maybe. So, come on GlaxoSmithKline.
Come clean, go green.
After Litter by Dide Siemmond
I’ve just thrown away a finished pack.
I hope the pills have done their job,
those cocoons of potent drugs,
small sarcophagi nestled in foil.
I press them out, swallow in one gulp
with a glass of cold water from the tap.
Sometimes they refuse to leave my mouth
or get stuck half-way down my throat.
I have to schedule the day to take them
at the right time, one hour before a meal
or two hours after, evenly spaced between
morning and night. No sign of side effects.
I take for granted their power, fling away
the empty shell without serious thought.
After Cynosure by Mark Goldsworthy
Her smooth rounds,
her voluptuous curves
relaxed with a sigh into the marble.
This marble has waited for eons
to express the sigh of a woman
who has waited for eons
to relax into marble.
And time still passes by
without stopping to comment
or to make its mark.
No further mark to make.
Find out more about Suffolk Poetry Society here.
June has arrived and with it warm sunshine. Combined with the inch of rain we had here towards the end of May there is a great green growing. I return from a walk waist high in cow parsley and knee high in grasses. I stood for some time listening to the turtle dove – its call a slow purr that gives a sense of drowsiness and contentment. I last saw a pair in my garden in 2013 and that territory now seems to be vacated so I walk up to the village where they still return to a four acre field tumbled down to scrub.
Turtle doves are migratory returning here each summer to breed. They like tall trees and weedy ground and their diet is mostly fumitory, black medick, red and white clover, common vetch, birds foot trefoil and redshank. All of those grow in my garden which has a tendency to be wild!
By June many of our resident birds are keeping a low profile, busy nesting and feeding young. Usually their absence is less obvious as the skies are full of swifts and swallows. But not this year. A pair of swallows returned to the barn but there are only four swifts here. And still no house martins. The skies might be brilliant blue but they are empty.
Instead I take solace from the butterflies. It has been a good year for the Orange Tip, which has been a regular visitor, feeding on garlic mustard and lady’s smock. I have also seen an early influx of Painted Ladies, a few Holly Blue, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and yesterday the first Speckled Wood. Some of the butterflies are resident but others migrate, most notably the Painted Ladies which arrive from Morocco – it seems an amazing journey for such a delicate looking, tissue paper thing.
With longer days it is time to sit and ponder and watch nature at its most abundant. I have been absorbed by the new pond, which is still finding its balance, the plants still settling and growing. Peering into the murky depths I watch the manic behaviour of water boatman as they rest for a few seconds upside down under the skin of the water and then row frantically across the pond to a new position. More elegant are the diving beetles which surface for a bubble of air and descend again. The least attractive is a small pale grub-like wriggling creature with a long spiny tail. It is a rat tailed maggot – yes even its name is unattractive – but it is the larva of the hoverfly which is an important pollinator. Everything has its place and we are too often drawn only to the charismatic wildlife.
One thing I am trying, this first week of June, is to keep a nature journal so I was encouraged to find it is Nature Journaling Week – which has lots of ideas and inspiration.
The 21st of June is the summer solstice – the longest day with the sun rising earliest and setting latest – a great time to get to know moths, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and all our other amazing minibeasts!
And start a journal.
Melinda Appleby June 2021
We’ve had some lovely buskers at Sculpture in the Valley this year.
Opening with Lovely Boy on 28 May, and this weekend we saw Los Perroflautas and The Kitchen Band below.
We are pleased to announce that we have a selection of the best local music talent performing for you outside the Yurt Café on a ‘busking’ basis. Listening is free (applause is permitted!) and donations “in the hat” are much appreciated. The Line-Up is as follows:
Wednesday 16 – Sizewell Gap – members of this famous local Ceilidh Band will perform a rollicking set from about 2pm.
Sunday 20 – Matt Shepherd – singer/songwriter somewhere in the spectrum between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – performs his own material from 10am.
Thursday 24 – Heartbeat – women’s choral group singing beautiful harmonies to delight the ear – from about 1pm.
Saturday 26 – Ambientstra who, as the name suggests, play improvised ambient music – from around mid-day.
Sunday 27 – Zarama – jazz-tinged tunes from around mid-day on the FINAL day of this year’s Sculpture in the Valley!
OTHER EVENTS – DANCING, WALKING, LISTENING, LEARNING AND DEBATING!
PLEASE BOOK ONLINE in advance at waveneyandblytharts.com so that we know whether the events are viable (we will contact you in advance and refund payments in case of cancelation). Meet outside our Reception Marquee.
Thursday 17 – ‘Curator’s Walk’ with David Baldry – A walk around our Sculpture Trail in the company of the man who selected the works displayed. David will say something about the artists involved and their intentions in producing the works that you see – there’s plenty of scope for vigorous debate! – from 2.30 to 4.30pm – £10 / £8 (for W&BA members) BOOK HERE
Saturday 19 – ‘Follow the Trail and Tell the Tale’ with members of the Suffolk Poetry Society – Join the poets who have been inspired by the sculptures to write and read their personal reflections in situ. Come with them on the journey, listen to what they have to tell and offer your own responses to their poetry and the installations that inspired them – all in the intimacy of a small and interested group of fellow explorers! It’s FREE but please use the link to the W&BA booking site so that we know that you intend to come. BOOK HERE
(For information about the Suffolk Poetry Society go to https://suffolkpoetrysociety.org/ )
May Day brings rain – at last. After an April frostier and drier than many, spring seems to be on hold. The swallows have arrived and the whitethroats sing their scratchy song from the still leafless hedges. But we are waiting for house martins and finally the swifts. Hoping for some sign of the seasons changing I visit Redgrave Fen, the source of the Waveney. A cuckoo has arrived and suddenly summer seems possible. The north-easterly has dropped a little, allowing birds to battle through from Africa. Across the fen grasshopper warblers churr their long cricket like song and Cetti’s warblers startle from bramble bushes. When the wind direction changes to south, our summer migrants will arrive.
So instead of looking for birds, on this morning’s walk, I kept a tally of the flowers lining the field edges and lanes: primrose, stitchwort, red dead nettle, white dead nettle, ground ivy, red campion, cow parsley, celandine, violet, dandelion, chickweed, coltsfoot, speedwell, forget-me-not, buttercup, herb Robert, cleavers. The field edges and ditches are full of cowslips. Their Latin name, Primula veris, means ‘first rose of the spring’ and they were traditionally used to make May Day garlands and wine. Our family call them paigles. Their sweet apricot scent is welcome.
Not bad for an ‘ordinary’ piece of countryside. Most of the plants are several metres from the field edge, separated by a track or a hedge. Some years ago I was judging a farm conservation competition in Somerset. On one farm the family, keen to improve wildlife, had made particular efforts to provide habitat for farmland birds. Walking along the hedge and track beside one of their arable fields, I asked why a short stretch was full of wild flowers. We were mystified by this sudden display of colour and diversity. We realised that on the other side of the grass track, a bank of earth had prevented any drifting from fertiliser and herbicide applications. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I measure the distance the spinner has sent out fertiliser pellets and it can be over three metres. That just encourages rapid growth of grasses and the high nutrient levels suppress the variety of wild flowers we might hope to see.
Somehow wild flowers have slipped from our countryside. They once covered our road verges, track sides, hay meadows and river banks. They have disappeared, lost to development and the plough, grassland and greens strimmed to within an inch by those who are tidy minded. There remain a few reserves managed for flowers and insects which depend on them. Wild flowers with names once part of our vocabulary, part of every medicine chest and larder.
You can search through a long list of plants on the Suffolk Wildlife Trust website:
The names might encourage some lines of poetry and the photos, or out in the field, subjects for artwork.
Perhaps May is mostly associated with the hawthorn frothing into flower.
Associated with maypoles and the green
man symbol it is a tree of great symbolism. The blossom should not be brought into the home which would lead to illness and death. Perhaps that comes from the rather pungent smell caused by the chemical trimethylamine found in the blossom, a chemical also found in the decaying bodies of animals!
It is time to get reacquainted with the smaller things in life and to enjoy the burst of green energy that May should bring. There is much to enjoy with our summer migrants arriving, plants growing as you watch them, frog spawn hatching and a feeling that perhaps summer is nearly here. And remember to leave a few unmown corners to yield treasures that have been hiding, just waiting for the right moment.
We don’t claim to have invented Doggerland, but certainly W&BA was an early explorer of its often mythic significance – and the exploration continues.
At the beginning of 2015 Jan Dungey (who
invented Waveney & Blyth Arts) suggested we take a multi-disciplinary look at the landmass that in Mesolithic times connected us with mainland Europe. Nicky Stainton, Melinda Appleby and others took up the challenge and that April a number of what we like to call creatives gathered at Covehithe. Under the tutelage of a geomorphologist with specialist knowledge of Doggerland, various themes were discussed.
The idea was to assemble very broadly-based responses to the changes that resulted from the floods that depopulated what was a rich hunting, fowling and fishing ground. A film by Debra Hyatt gives an insight into those creative processes, watch here.
From that emerged a series of public workshops in the summer. The creatives had already been working on ideas inspired by Doggerland. They were then able to use the workshops to get the attendees producing performances, artworks etc. Poetry, song, photography, film, sculpture and painting were among the disciplines involved.
Then in November all this preparation and work came together for Discover Doggerland – a day at The Cut in Halesworth. Two academic presentations kicked it off. Professor Vincent Gaffney, a landscape archaeologist from Bradford University, brought news of his research into Doggerland. Using seismics, he and his colleagues have mapped huge areas of the early Mesolithic landscape off our coast. The work continues, including digging out sedimentary DNA. He was able to enlighten the big, enthralled audience about the past, present and future of what has become a rich research site. Googling him now demonstrates this.
Nearer to home, Tim Holt-Wilson, a local geo-conservation activist, focused on the environmental story of Doggerland and the time dimension of coastal change. This extract from his blog (Mythic geography) gives a flavour of what he had to say:
No Mesolithic folk tales have survived about the drowning of Doggerland. Many people are likely to have been killed by the tsunami from the Storegga slide which swept over the land about 8,100 years ago. Over the generations, people would have watched their ancestral hunting grounds and sacred places being invaded by water; they would have become separated by widening tidal channels. Evidence for their camp sites, flint and bone tools now lies under the sea. Birds migrating to Britain would have found the task more challenging with each passing year. Driven by an enduring geographical instinct, we see them today clinging to the desks and masts of seagoing ships and offshore rigs, rather than to the twigs and branches of old Doggerland.
These two introductory speakers were then joined in a panel by Bill Jenman of Touching the Tide, a conservation project which helped fund our Doggerland project.
The rest of the day was devoted to enjoying the fruits of the many weeks of creative work in the various disciplines. Each practitioner’s work was inspired in some way
Film-maker Debra Hyatt showed both the film referenced above here and one based on a story by Melinda Appleby, Dreaming Doggerland.
Choir leader and singer Sian Croose grew up on the Norfolk coast, so was readily inspired by the Doggerland coast. As a director of The Voice Project she commissions new work from contemporary composers and creates large-scale site specific works for massed voices
Jeremy Webb specialises in landscape and coastal photography, so his shots of the fringes of Doggerland were very telling. He recently completed a project to photograph the Norfolk coastline – a documentary series which culminated in an exhibition and book, Spindrift. He is also interested in techniques such as pinhole photography and camera obscura
Maggie Campbell’s is a maker, sculptor and workshop leader who has worked with outfits like Footsbarn Theatre as well as in school and community settings. Her works frequently reference fossils and spiral shell-like shapes.
Paul Osborn’s ceramics reflect his interest in history and myth; he experiments with different techniques to produce unpredictable work.
Visual artist Jayne Ivimey gave a personal account of how she arrived at Doggerland and showed paintings which used materials collected locally to explore coastal erosion and landscape character.
Samia Malik’s songs are about language and belonging, and she is interested in themes of migration, change, recent and ancient history.
Writer Steven Watts focuses on place and time, language and memory:
Like flying without touch
Water moves underfoot
Footprints that are not mine
Among the audience for this event was celebrated local author, Julia Blackburn. Inspired by the story, she started her own, unique investigation of Doggerland. This led to in the publication in 2019 of Time Song: Searching for Doggerland. And she came back to the Cut to talk about the book. Like her books on subjects as diverse as Billie Holiday, Napoleon and the Norfolk fisherman turned artist Thomas Craske (Threads, 2015), Time Song is an inspiring mix of the factual and the personal. Julia Blackburn includes fragments from her own life with a series of 18 ‘songs’ and stories about the places and the people she meets in her quest to get closer to an understanding of Doggerland.
With her for this W&BA event was the renowned anthropologist, film maker and writer Hugh Brody. They had collaborated on her book and now discussed Doggerland. He also presented a film about the Canadian Inuits, whose lives in the early 20th century relate to all hunter gatherers, from the Neanderthals to the Mesolithic people who inhabited Doggerland a mere 7,000 years ago.
Even more Doggerland
Later that same year a terrific, if terrifying novel appeared called simply Doggerland. It tells of a man and a boy more or less marooned on disintegrating North Sea oil platforms. Author Ben Smith references Vincent Gaffney at the end of his book, and soon after publication popped up on Radio 4’s Start the Week, in discussion with… Julia Blackburn. So, our circle was very roundly completed.
Looking Out April 2021 by Melinda Appleby
The Fattening of the Buds
Gradually as spring nears the trees change. I call it the ‘fattening of the buds’ when flowers
and leaves begin to swell and break from the winter skeletons and there is less sky between
the branches. With the sudden warm weather at the end of March it seemed as though the
pulse of the land was quickening. Shirt-buttons and goose-grass sent up their spirals of leaves
through the drying mud. Now cow parsley inches up visibly in the lane. Everywhere life is
returning and with it hope.
Chiffchaffs arrived on 19 th March, tentatively tuning up in the buffeted trees. Blackcaps
followed with a short song on 29 March but now all is busy and the song is building from
wood, garden and hedge. April is a month of firsts. Our summer migrants gradually arrive –
swallows, house martin, willow warbler, whitethroat and cuckoo. The first Brimstones have
brought a splash of yellow – like daffodils in flight. Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell are
warming up and even the bats are busy in the dusk, click-clicking along the hedge and over
The long cold winter kept toads in hibernation so our toad patrol is still out as. Just before
March ended I sat by the village pond watching stars rise and mallard paddling in pink rippled water. It was the night of the Wolf Moon. By 8pm toads were emerging purposefully
from their day-time rest. I have read that toads co-ordinate their emergence during the waxing and full moon so they arrive at their courtship sites together. Now warm days echo with their squeaky song and the deeper call of frogs. But they are in decline. Our toad patrol regularly collected 600 in a night but this year we have only found around 140 since collecting began.
April brings with it such a bounty of song. The dunnock is the first up warbling its little trill
from the top of the hedge, then blackbirds join in and a faraway thrush. Even the chaffinch
cascades its song down from the cherry whose blossom is beginning to break.
The National Trust is hoping to catch people’s imagination with an emphasis on blossom this
spring. Taking inspiration from the Japanese celebrations (Hanami), the Trust has launched a
website for people to record their first sight of blossom. And blossom circles are being
planted to create green spaces in towns and provide uplifting sights and smells. The Trust
quotes Professor Richardson from Derby University who said that ‘spending a few moments
looking at and enjoying blossom can have a surprising impact on feelings of wellbeing.’
Blossom provides a lifeline for bees and butterflies as they emerge and we have had queen
bumblebees of several different species already out foraging – early bumblebee, buff-tailed
bumble bee and red tailed bumblebee like little drones humming into sight over early flowers:
Look, look, a bee, big as my thumb
see her work the lavender flowers,
a buzz so deep it’s your teddy bear’s
growl. She’s striped black and yellow
with her buff bottom. And here small
black bears, bees with red bottoms…
From Looking at Bees by Melinda Appleby
April is a month to look forward, to see detail as it changes daily, to take hope and creativity
from the arrival of colour and song in our environment. Perhaps one of the most loved and
joyful April poems sums it up: – Home Thoughts from Abroad by Robert Browning
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
Famous Five Birds – Eights years on
‘One of the most imaginative and innovative projects ever launched in East Anglia’
so said the East Anglian Daily Times describing Waveney & Blyth Arts 2013 project – The Famous Five Birds.
Featuring five iconic birds from the region – barn owl, bittern, bearded tit, marsh harrier and nightingale – the project took birds into local schools and celebrated our association with them through poetry and song.
With our focus on a creative response to the environment, this project recognised the role of birds as an indicator of environmental health. To help young people become more aware we joined forces with the RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk & Suffolk Biodiversity Partnerships, and took a team made up of bird experts Steve & Kathy Piotrowski, RSPB poet Matt Howard, and Nutmeg Puppet Company’s Meg Amsden into local schools. These sessions were the starting point for a fabulous children’s entertainment event.
Hosted by the eccentric Bernard the Birder (played by Greg Hanson) these feature:
- Nutmeg Puppet Company’s beautiful shadow puppet show, with music by Nathan Williamson
- fabulous film and theatrical bird impressions
- chances to do a quirky quiz, make musical bird calls, and sing a special song about the fab five.
We all know that barn owls screech and nightingales sing – but what sound does a bittern make? What is so special about marsh harriers? And do bearded tits really have beards?
In addition to work with schools the project offered a walk along the river Blyth with Natural England staff, a chance to spot one or more of the featured five and listen to poems dedicated to each bird by poet Matt Howard.
And our regular Arts & Eats lunch introduced ceramicist and printmaker Georgina Warne talking on: Art, Life and Birds. The lunch was held at the Raveningham Centre which hosted an exhibition of two and three-dimensional work featuring British birds. The exhibition, curated by Sarah Cannell, celebrates the beauty, diversity and appeal of our feathered friends.
In support of the project I created a ‘fact file’ on each species and wrote some short descriptive passages about discovering the birds in the two river valleys.
Here is an extract of that work:
“I am in the Waveney valley, a thin thread of a river that winds from its source at Redgrave Fen down through marsh, meadow and woodland via Carlton Marshes and Breydon Water and out to the North Sea. In winter, the trees are thin, withdrawn, shaking out the moss-lined cups and twiggy platforms of last summer’s nests. Spent seed heads of valerian and meadowsweet hang over the river wall; only the reeds remain standing.
Now, looking out across this January fen, I see a marsh harrier, quartering the embankment, turning and skimming low. A female, her cream head marking her out, alert, hunting. I watch her lift higher and return along the river. I remember harriers from my childhood. They returned year after year to the coastal marsh, using some salt weary trees as lookouts. Their population has since increased and they breed in river valleys and on the coast in eastern England. She has found her prey and drops out of sight. The wind ruffles through the reeds again, plays with a scatter of leaves, like a ghost passing through. And like ghosts, my memories of those childhood marshes, recall other birds.
Where now is the bittern – the reedbed dweller, that barred and streaked secretive bird that is more often heard than seen. Its call, described as booming, penetrates through the reed stalks like a novice learning to play a difficult bassoon. I thought it more like the noise we made blowing across the top of milk bottles. They are difficult to spot as they sneak in and out of marsh pools hunting fish and eels, their plumage a tapestry of broken, reed stems and dark shadows. Sadly bitterns have disappeared from so many places where they used to breed. They are ghosts from my childhood.”
This early project set the tone for Waveney & Blyth Arts’ innovative approach to arts and the environment and showed how we could draw in partners, experts and volunteers to create something magical, informative and appealing. Other projects were to follow in the years after.
A summary of the project and highlights from the performances can be seen here:
and the Nutmeg Puppet Theatre film is here:
Sample of Famous Five Facts
Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus
Sometimes called bald buzzard, bog glebe, dunpickle, harpy.
Population and distribution
A reedbed specialist, the marsh harrier’s population has fluctuated particularly in response to persecution by game keepers. A few hung on in Norfolk but their recovery as a breeding bird was set back again by the 1970s use of organo-chlorine pesticides. The creation of reedbeds in Suffolk, after wartime flooding, helped provide a suitable habitat to aid their recovery.
Harriers fly low across the ground, with steady flappy wing beats between glides; when they stop beating their wings they hold them in a characteristic V shape. They can be seen pursuit flying across marshes in April when they are selecting nest sites. They may perch on a prominent tall dead branch.
Occasionally their spectacular aerial food passes can be seen. The female rises from the nest before the male is above it; she turns over, upside down and catches food as he drops it.
Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Local names: gladden, boomer, bull o’ the bog, butter bump, buttle, (Norfolk) night raven, bog drum.
In the 1963 severe winter, bitterns were starving and weak birds were picked up and brought to Minsmere to recover. One of the birds was found, bemused with hunger and fatigue, as it stood by a queue of people at a bus stop in a London suburb.
Population and distribution
Rare and declining except where protected in nature reserves, as many as 85% of those breeding may be on nature reserves. By about 1886 the bittern was extinct as a breeding bird but recolonisation took place in Norfolk in the early 1900s.
After the severe winter of 1947, there were thought to be only a few pairs surviving. Their recovery began in the 1960s believed to be triggered by populations moving across from the Netherlands.
Some 5-600 pairs breed in the UK. They are particularly associated with the Norfolk Broads where they are known by the local name, reed-pheasant. They can also be seen along the lower reaches of the Waveney Valley where there are good stand of reeds such a Carlton Marshes, a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve.