Working Lives

Twenty five years of natural history. The Wheatfen warden (1992-2017)

Location: Norwich, Wheatfen

David spent many years working in the farming community. He then worked at Wheatfen nature reserve, where he was warden for 25 years until his retirement in 2017. During this time he worked closely with the Ted Ellis Trust. He now volunteers at Hardley Mill.

I was born near the cattle market in Norwich in 1951, in what we used to call Old Lakenham. We lived in one of the first council houses, and later moved with my parents and two sisters to near the county cricket ground to Cricket Ground Road.

I went to school in Lakenham and left when I was 15 without any qualifications and jokingly tell people that the only certificate I ever had was a cycling proficiency certificate.

I thought, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ In those days we had careers officers, which was very useful. I thought that I would get an office job and so I got a job with Eastern Counties Farmers, in Cattlemarket Street in Norwich. I started right at the bottom which meant doing all the odd jobs, running jobs, going to the post office things like that.

Our head office was based in Ipswich and consequently a lot of communications which were printed in those days had to be sent by train, so I would take them to the station. After about five years of office working I thought that I could do better than that. As it turned out one of the representatives whose job it was to go around the farms to buy and sell from farmers decided to leave. I decided to apply for that job, and was given the opportunity by a really good manager Ken Legget. I started on the road, as it was called, calling at farms. Prior to this I had hardly been on a farm, I didn’t know my red and white Friesians from my Ayrshires, or my wheat from my barley.

The job involved walking the fields, looking at livestock and over time I got on very well with the farmers, their sons and the next generation coming on.

After many years I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to carry on working in the farming industry?’ I decide to leave when set-aside came in, as this would mean that more land would be taken out of production and certain people like me would be needed less and less.

Redundancy and retraining which led to my connection with the Broads

Having taken redundancy I decided to take a year out, and moved from Loddon to Kirby Cane and really got involved with all aspects of village life. It turned out that Otley College were doing a course about teaching conservation so I joined the course and got my qualifications. Ironically I had spent several years on the chemical side, crop spraying, killing beetles and bugs and here I was now trying to preserve them. So I sort of went from one extreme to the other.

Doing this qualification is what led to my connection with the Broads. I had to have a work placement near to where I lived and one of the available placements was to help at Wheatfen Nature Reserve near Surlingham. It was a three to four month placement and suited me as it was only six or seven miles away from home. I was working with the warden and helping him with the winter work, reed cutting, tree maintenance and the management of the fen. From somebody who had driven about calling on farms this sort of physical work came quite hard to me, there is no two ways about it is a physically hard job.

Wheatfen – the Ted Ellis Trust and becoming warden

Just to reflect on Wheatfen, it is very closely associated with Ted Ellis, one of Norfolk’s leading naturalists. The previous owner of Wheatfen,  Major Cockle, used to visit Ted Ellis when Ted was the keeper of natural history at Norwich Castle, showing him various insects and things he’d found at Wheatfen.

Ted Ellis was invited to visit Wheatfen and he soon realised what a wonderful place it was. He subsequently moved to Wheatfen in 1946. Around 1930 he had decided to study and record everything that ever lived and breathed there. We have some wonderful records of that time.

When he died in 1986 the question of what would happen to Wheatfen came up. As it happened some of his friends decided to form the Ted Ellis Trust, and worked alongside Ted’s wife Phyllis. Phyllis was very much involved and with her contacts they formed the Friends of the Ted Ellis Trust and it was registered as a charity in 1987. At that time there was no full time staff, there was John Tooley and some volunteers.

So it comes back to Wheatfen and how as a Broad and nature reserve was it fitting into what I was doing at the time? What we had in Wheatfen was a wonderful nature reserve but as nature took its course the Broads practically silted up, we were losing water and if left  we would have lost some of Wheatfen’s wonderful diversity of wildlife.

The ironic thing is that Ted’s philosophy was, ’Let nature take its course and study that’. But even towards the end of his life he realised that something needed to be done.

I remember the day that I arrived at Wheatfen I met Phyllis in her kitchen, something which I did many times over the years. I had to write something down and she told me that I had terrible writing. She was the driving seat regarding the volunteers and funding, I remember her in her tiny car going off to all these village halls promoting Wheatfen. She had a wonderful understanding of Wheatfen having lived there all those years and I would have been a fool to not accept and carry out her advice.

I came in to help John and after four or five months I had the contract extended. Very sadly John died after being ill for quite a long time and as I had been there over a year I was asked to stay on. This was in 1993 and I retired in 2017.

The cottage at Wheatfen 2019. (WISEArchive)

The job of warden was 95% practical and part of the job was preservation of the reed beds. From October through to March we cleared the vegetation from the dyke edges, including cutting reed beds. Our reed is not suitable for commercial reed. Some is left  basically there to enhance diversity. When the clearing was done we didn’t burn anything but put it in litter heaps, which was good for the wildlife.

From March onwards you would be amazed at how quickly everything grows back, Wheatfen being a wetlands site with the humidity. I always jokingly say to people, ‘If I ever make a mistake in three months you’d never know as it would all be grown back’.

I was lucky as I inherited eight or nine volunteers from John Tooley and over 25 years I had my own volunteers. Most of them stayed with me until I retired, including Bill who was well into his eighties.

I don’t want to say that we put Wheatfen back into some sort of order, but we needed to sort a way to benefit it for the future. The first thing that we did was look at the wonderful maps produced by Ted, showing where everything was, where everything grew. The dykes were the most important thing, they are the arteries of the reserve. Wheatfen is unique in that it is tidal, there was no water control, just a natural flow, so consequently we wanted to get our dykes restored. Over the years that I was there and with various grants and things we got that done, a great thing to be able to achieve. I costed it out and to get Wheatfen where we wanted it to be must have costed about £200,000, but interestingly we never needed National Lottery money.

I have met some very interesting people especially when you consider that we have up to about 4,000 visitors a year. One of the things that Phyllis would do would be to have an open house: in other words anybody who happened to drop by would be seen, so I met some incredibly interesting people such as the late Professor Oliver Rackham and Dr David Bellamy.

When the reserve was initially set up there was hardly any access, the paths weren’t in any state and we had no toilets or visitor centre. In the early days people were just prepared to go around the reserve and wetlands with proper boots and everything.

Over the years we built footpaths and bridges and were lucky enough to have a warden’s office put in, a study centre built and the car park enlarged. Visitors could visit from dawn to dusk and we got the walks up to about 2.5 miles, which is quite, quite acceptable.

Visitor centre, Wheatfen

We used to promote Wheatfen as quiet peaceful place, I use the words ‘non commercial’ to describe it. I used to get people ring me up from various magazines saying ‘we’d like to do an article on Wheatfen to promote it’ and I would say, ‘Thank you very much for calling but I’m afraid that we don’t want it’. That really came as a surprise to people, so I tried to turn a lot of that away.

We had a link up with a university in Holland and one of the things I always found enjoyable was at Christmastime we invited students to come over. They would stay locally and help me on the reserve. One who came over in 1993 is still a firm pen pal to this day.


Wheatfen in winter (David Nobbs)

The filming of the Secret of Eel Island

Phyllis died in 2004 aged about 91, the cottage then stood empty and was maintained by the rest of the family. We were approached by the Eye Film Company who were looking to make a children’s drama in the Norfolk Broads, it was called the Secret of Eel Island. The story revolved around a young girl who lived on the island and all the adventures that she had. The company making it were local, based in Magdalen Street in Norwich and I had the task of facing a film crew for about seven weeks.

The crew brought a sailing yacht, in pieces, and put it in the middle of our wood. We then had a horse, goat, a raven and a tame otter. I had to make sure that the public were kept well away from the area.

All the catering was done on site, so one advantage was that I had free meals for six or seven weeks. I had the pleasure of meeting John Ringham who was also in Dad’s Army, and Lesley Joseph who was in Birds of a Feather, she was in the second series. So we got to know quite a few celebrities.

Wildlife at Wheatfen and managing that wildlife

Wheatfen is known for being the home of the swallowtail butterfly, which is very important. I have to say, when I first arrived at Wheatfen I hadn’t seen one for three years. Now it’s one of the best sites in Broadland. We have a rare beetle which was discovered here, it is not found anywhere else in Britain so we have to manage for that.

One of the most important things, before you do any work on a place, you need to know what was there in the first place. Through Ted Ellis’ records, Wheatfen was one of the most recorded nature reserves in the country. We’ve got books of species you’re talking over 900 beetles, 7 or 800 moths and endless records on fungi, which Ted was renowned for. This meant that all our work reflected on ‘let’s see what’s there, let’s see what we need to do to maintain things and preserve things and encourage things for the future’.

I, along with various other friends and specialists would survey the area so we knew what we were doing. Whatever work you do, in any area you are going to affect something, there is no point cutting something down when a key species relies on it.

Swallowtail caterpillar (David Nobbs)
Swallowtail butterfly (Wheatfen)

Is Wheatfen navigable by boat? That is a very interesting question

The answer is yes and no. Wheatfen is tidal and in theory tidal waters should be open to the public. I describe Wheatfen as a junction off the mainline and the river Yare runs through Rockland Broad and into Wheatfen off a little channel which is only yards wide. Consequently when you go into the waters here we want it to be quite peaceful and quiet so we did actually chain it off. In theory you could get through with a canoe but we have signs to discourage that.

Ted Ellis was really the first to discover how our waterways had declined, due to the chemicals that ended up in the water. When I first went there there were hardly any plants, the bottom was just mud, but a combination of a major mud pumping programme being completed and  various companies  stopping the dumping of phosphates in the river has seen things improve greatly.

I can give you an example of how, I had a little boat called a Ted, it was moored up by the side of a dyke. When I first came here I could take the boat anywhere around the system. By the time I left it had to stay where it was because there were so many water lilies and water weed that I couldn’t get the boat around at all. This was great as it showed that things had improved and that we had various insects and things living on plants.

The Broads are gradually silting up and salt water is coming in. Phyllis used to record the tides that we had over 25 years, going down every morning and I carried on that work. When I started we were flooded about four or five times a year and by the time I left it was 15 to 20 a year, you could actually see seaweed floating down the river Yare. We are lucky that we are tidal and the salt will come in but it will go out quicker. If we decided to stop any water at Wheatfen we’d have salt sitting there for months. I suspect that over time things like plants will adapt. Wheatfen is an ever changing environment, it’s just a question of prioritising what you feel you are able to do.

Wheatfen views

Retirement and a bright future for Wheatfen

One thing I was very pleased to be involved with was the appointment of my successor, he’s a young chap, full of energy, very capable and he is doing a very good job and I am pleased to see how things are progressing.

I can see a bright future for Wheatfen: we run a very tight ship, have trustees and it’s been kept focused in the right direction. Ironically when I first started funding was very tight but when I left we were probably in the best financial position we’d ever been in because we had been left some quite large legacies.

One other important aspect which continues is the focus on education, something which the Ellis family was particularly keen on. I would concentrate on university and older students. Now it’s slightly different as Ted and Phyllis’ granddaughter and her family are very involved. Rose set up a forest school for children at Wheatfen which runs three or four times a week and that’s going on very successfully, which is really good as they are our future.

David at Wheatfen

New interests

I’m proud of the efforts that we made and ironically you are making a recording of me, one thing I did do was I kept a diary every day from 1993 to the present time, so I know day to day who I met and what I’ve seen. I’ve also got 20,000 photographs of Wheatfen and all the associated people and wildlife, so there is definitely a book in there. One day I might actually sit down and put them in some sort of order.

It’s funny though, I haven’t been back to Wheatfen since the day I retired, I know that they have done things differently , I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but I have decided that it’s in my past and to move on to other things.

I think that the future of the Broads is good, we have people who are managing it who are aware of the problems of the past and that is good news. Otters are coming back and various other things are thriving so yes I would say that the future is looking good.

The only thing that I fear is that the southern Broads, of which Wheatfen is part of, will get too commercial, if it did it would be killing the thing which really is the Broads – the peace and quiet. So from my point of view if we keep the southern Broads as quiet as possible allow them to carry on as they are then that should be fine.

I’m actually now helping, as a volunteer, at Hardley Mill, which is a windmill on the Broads. I was very much involved with the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, but I have sort of gone in other directions. And I think that I have had 25 years of farming, 25 years of natural history so let’s do something a bit different.

David Nobbs 2019

David Nobbs (b. 1948) talking to  WISEArchive on 25th November 2019 in Loddon.

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