Wanderings of a Naturalist (1940s-2019)

Location : Norwich

Having studied natural history for most of his life Roy joined the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society in 1966, becoming secretary soon after.

I grew up in the Second World War. My father was a Bristol Channel pilot, and therefore the hours kept in our house depended on which ships were coming up the Channel to be guided into harbour.

I became a naturalist at a young age and as a child we had very few restrictions. From about the age of nine or ten I used to leave the house at all hours of the day and night, apart from school times, wander out into the countryside and just enjoy life.

I used to go picking flowers, looking at birds climbing trees, swimming in the sea, at a very early age to the extent that by the time I was thirteen years old my father said to me, ‘Look, here’s the key to the house, stop waking your mam and I up when you come in and go out’, because I’d often go out well before dawn and some days I’d come in when it was dark. You see by the time my father was fourteen he was on board a clipper ship bound for Australia so by thirteen to him I was a young adult.

I studied at Reading University under two of the top zoologists in the country, one being Professor Alistair Graham, a remarkable man who has written many books. I left Reading after three years and came back to Wales, to Cardiff University for a year, and on my wife’s insistence, although we were not married at the time, that I find a job I applied to the Navy. I served mainly in Malta and then returned home by which time I had osteoarthritis in my right hip. Having been operated on it went again two years later, and I have been like this since the age of twenty-eight.

I worked for the Nature Conservancy Council on coastal movements. This included the movement of the shingle at Orford Ness and the history of it. I was able to learn a lot about that and all the marshes inland because we obviously did drilling to see what the prehistory was like. Braunton Burrows in North Devon, Bridgewater Bay and Chesil Beach were other studies that we did.

After five years I came out of that and took a job at Keswick Hall, training teachers in science. And later on Keswick Hall College of Education became the School of Education at the University of East Anglia, where I worked until I took early retirement, sometime in the late eighties/early nineties.

Move to Norfolk and joining the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society.

We moved into our house in Swardeston in January 1966 but we stayed there less than six months because we had young children and we had not realised just how busy the road was. We then moved to Mulbarton which at that time was a small development ‑ now it is a town more or less. We decided to move out and have been in our current home, a 17th century cottage, for fourteen years.

The Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society will be 150 years old this year, I have studied natural history most of my life and I joined in the winter of 1966 and in three years found myself as the secretary. In those days we had a very small committee, including the great Ted Ellis. My job was to organise the whole programme, book the speakers, venues and organise the fortnightly excursion. We went out all over Norfolk, every fortnight and really active naturalists got together to study an area for the day, wrote it up and moved on.

That is how I got to know so many top people in the naturalist world and that continues, and I am still there, an honorary vice president of the Society for life.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary the Society is writing a book with 150 species of plants, animals, fungi, algae and seaweed. Derek Howlett and I have written four articles and I should imagine that it will be out by Christmas.

I met my friend Derek Howlett, a great naturalist and Keith Clark, a world renowned expert on diatoms, and with the help of one or two people formed a consultancy where people could ask us to come and survey a place for them. It was varied work, development for building, more often it was people like the Broads Authority wanting to know things about the river and  the Broads, or the Environment Agency, City Council, County Council and landowners. And we would say ‘Yes, we’ll do it for you quite happily, as long as you pay our petrol money and give us a good pub lunch and a couple of pints of beer and the cost of printing the report’.

So, in the last thirty years we have travelled all over Norfolk, many times, and written lots of things about the county.

I am going to talk about two of these. One is the five year study of Haddsicoe Island and the other is concerning my great friend the naturalist Ted Ellis and a wonderful piece of land at Surlingham on the river Yare.

Until the late 1940s, early 1950s people thought that the Broads were natural, that they were just natural flooded areas. They are not. They are man-made  peat diggings from the fourteenth century. One of the people who discovered this was Joyce Lambert whose investigations included putting two transects across Wheatfen in two places and then using an auger to extract peat cores from the fens.

During the research they kept coming up to high banks. And when they looked at it it was a series of rectangular pits and there were banks round it. And that is how they discovered that all the Broads are in fact mediaeval peat diggings.

Haddiscoe Island

Too often people go along and say ‘Oh it’s a rare buzzard, I’ll tick it off, I’ve seen it’. To me that is not natural history, it is just sheer recording of nature, and I think that it is just very boring. I like to look at landscape history, see the development of the land, talk to the people on the ground.

Haddiscoe Island is a unique piece of land, with a great history. In Romano-British times the water levels were much higher, Great Yarmouth did not exist, and the great estuary came in. Burgh Castle, the Roman fort, was on one side of the estuary and on the other was Caister on Sea, another Roman Fort, the ruins are still there. The water levels in the whole system of rivers was much higher and this explains why ships could get up to the Roman Town of Caistor St Edmunds just sound of Norwich.

Over time the sea levels of the island dropped, and the spit came out and formed Great Yarmouth.

You find that because of the Vikings’ presence the whole of the island area has Viking names, Ormesby, Clippesby, Hemsby, all –by.

The rivers Yare and Waveney meet at the top of Breydon Water and there is a large area in between which was once marsh land, salt marsh and in the summer people used to bring their sheep on the marsh to graze. It was a non managed landscape, but the thing about salt marshes, the levels build up and flood and that is what happened with this huge area of land.

In 1832 it was decided to cut the ‘New Cut’ as it is called from Reedham Ferry to St Olaves. This was to stop the ships from Lowestoft having to go all the way down the Waveney to Breydon Water and up again and it became the ‘New Cut’ in six months. Now you imagine doing this in this day and age, you’d have 12 months planning, arguing, people objecting to it, the rest of it and it would take years to do. Six months. And this produced Haddiscoe Island, which is privately owned and this is as it is now.

A view along the Haddiscoe New Cut towards the River Yare.  The river bank drops down to the main soke dyke and hence onto the flat grazing marshes with their dyke boundaries. This bank is prone to overtopping during tidal surges and there are one or two sections where water seeps through the bank at high spring tides.

There were a number of winding creeks on the marsh and the local owners started to build dykes and slowly it moved from salt marsh to grassland. On a map the dykes are straight lines and they are the boundaries on the island from the eighteenth century. It is thought that the Dutch built the walls, there are no bushes and hedges and the cattle and sheep grazing are kept in by the dykes.

Each year, in April, there is an auction at St Olaves at the Bell Pub, and each grazing marsh or sets of grazing marshes are put up for auction. People then bid for them and the cattle or sheep come on then from April until usually late October early November and they are taken off and obviously they have been fattened up. It is some of the best grazing land in the country.

Life of the marshmen of the island

Originally there were marshmen living there but now there is only one left, Brian Mace and he lives in a cottage there. His father Bob Mace died last year at the age of 85, and he and Brian were brought up there all their lives.

Originally they lived further up on the Yare and they went to school at Reedham Primary. They would mainly walk to the junction, row across the New Cut, get off there, moor the boat, climb on the bank, walk over the railway bridge to school and back again in the afternoon.

Imagine a young child, no parents walking across that bridge, all their school life, nowadays that would not be allowed. But they just did it as youngsters, they went to school and you can imagine going across the river there and back in a boat, in the winter, in the dark. But that is how their lives were.

Drinking water was brought along the river Yare in old milk churns, and even today they live near The Cut and their nearest shops are either going to be Beccles or Gorleston. And of course in the old days they used to walk. There is a train which runs along the New Cut to Lowestoft and there is Haddiscoe station which I think has the longest platform in Norfolk.

Derek and I first met Bob in 2001, we went down there in October. I knew what the east coast was like, it was bitterly cold and we were wrapped up, hats on and Bob was there in a woollen shirt open to the waist. He was so immune to it.

Bob was a remarkable character, he was very intelligent, but it was hard life. He grew up on the marshes and he describes how each year they would have to work on some of the dykes. And they could do about 200 yards at a time in a day. And this was pulling the weeds out and even cutting the dyke’s banks out, and if they had to get rid of the mud from them they would just wade in, fill up buckets and throw the buckets out.

He describes the work, and I have it written down –‘Dyke clearance is phased normally over five years that is at present, but often on a needs only basis. In earlier times the dykes were maintained by marshmen using traditional Norfolk hand tools, meags [long handled reap hook for cutting weeds] didles [triangular spade for ditching], cutters and cromes [a rake with strong curved tines]. Winter work was to draw dykes, this involved cleaning thirteen miles of dykes and eighteen miles of drains to keep them clear of weeds. It was all knee and wrist work, in a good day a man could clear two score hundred yards of dyke’ – imagine people doing that today.

Summer work was looking after the cattle and sheep. A couple of marshmen and a shepherd live off the island but Brian is the only marshman living on the system now, so it is a strange life.

In the 1930s bullocks made up 100 percent of the stock, forty percent in the 1950s and only between five and ten percent in 1982. It was very much a beef grazing area and even to this day they are brought in from Kent and such places.

Sheep grazing predominated in the 1980s but in 2012 there were 1800 head of beef cattle and 310 sheep grazing the marshes between April and October.

Sheep tend to graze the grass very short, there is one species, Soay sheep from Scotland they graze so closely it is like a carpet. Different species of cattle graze differently too. In the 1980s when the sheep grazed the botany of the area was very different to when the cattle grazed.

As it is a salt marsh there are two sluices to keep the water suitable for the cattle and sheep to drink. The water coming down from the Waveney is fresh water and sea water is coming in at Breydon Water. The fresh water will float on top of the salt water, so at the height of the tide the sea water is coming in and the fresh water is still going out, one is flooding and one is ebbing. You open the sluices at the top and you get fresh water onto the dyke system and it is pumped around the system, keeping the level of salt water in the system very low so that cattle and sheep can drink it. That management has been going on for time immemorial.

Bob Mace recalls that after the floods of 1953 he lived in the Six Mile House windmill – ‘We nailed sacks round the walls to keep out the draughts and there was an old grate in which we burned scrap wood to keep warm. We only went home to get fresh grub. Two of us worked four hour shifts using a tractor and an admiralty pump to clear the water, for seven weeks’.

Now you imagine somebody doing that today.

Six Mile House Mill is referred to as Chedgrave Mill and is thought to have been built in the 18thC. and probably rebuilt around 1870. It was a cloth sailed mill winded by a tailpole. The sails turned anticlockwise into the wind and drove a 14 feet diameter wooden scoopwheel. By 1946 the windmill ceased to function and the scoopwheel was driven by a diesel engine and/or a standard tractor. The tower still stands and is listed as a Grade II building and is cared for by the Norfolk Windmills Trust.

Haddiscoe Island underwater

In 2013 there was a huge surge, from the North Sea it hit Yarmouth and surged up the river, normally the sea water only gets as far as Cantley and it is quite diluted by this point. In this surge it overtopped the river walls and the whole of Haddiscoe Island was under water, salt water the whole of it.

As it was December there were neither cattle nor sheep on the Island, so it was decided to leave the water there until March to allow some dredging of dykes to be carried out before pumping fresh water into the system.

It topped over again in 2014, breaking over the New Cut and flooded the area near St Olaves.

The actual rivers are much higher than the land, if you go to the Maces’ cottage you look up at the New Cut and you can see cruiser boats passing by higher than the cottage.

Proposed change of use of the marshes

In the 1960s the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Food wanted to drain all the marshes and turn them into arable fields. The head of what was then the Nature Conservancy Council, Martin George, fought them on it, saying that you could not destroy the landscape for arable farming. They did some of it on Halvergate marshes but he managed to stop them and he stopped them on Haddiscoe too, otherwise you could have had fields of wheat. The problem with arable would be that fertilisers and chemicals are used and they kill off everything in the system.

Martin George did a marvellous job, he saved the area for the future.

Wind pumps and reed cutting

Most of the wind pumps have gone, there is still one at the Berney Arms, and there is an old one near Raven Hall which is a holiday home. Six Mile Mill is still there but it is just a stump; there is another one on the Waveney side which I  think  the Windmill Trust are talking of renovating, which would be nice.

Reed cutting occurs on a piece of land roughly from St Olaves up to the first Smock Mill. The thatchers come in and cut the reed on an annual basis. Elsewhere a lot of reed is cut on two or three year cycles (called wales). The quality of the crop can vary, sometimes it can be affected by caterpillars and it has to be burned. A couple of years ago all the reed bent over, well you cannot put bent reed on to a roof, it has got to be straight, so that was cut down and burned.

Our work on the Island

Derek, Keith and I got involved with the Island in 2001 when the Broadland Environmental Services started to rebuild the Broads’ walls .When you go up a river the first bit is the rond, then you come to the wall and the back end is called the fold. And there is always a dyke behind the fold, so any water that overtops or seeps through the wall collects in the dyke, they’re called soke dykes. We were asked could we survey them on the Island and on the other side of the river the Yare before they started work which is how I got involved with it.

Then years later we always said ‘Well one year we’ll do all the dykes on Haddiscoe’.

Well you are talking, I think I am right in saying, it is 12 miles around the river wall and I think there are 100 miles of dykes. It took us five years to do it because a lot of the time you could not walk into the fields because there were cattle with bulls in there and obviously we were not brave enough.

This five year study of the Island which the three of us started, unfortunately Keith died so Derek and I have finished, is just in the printers to be published. It is all about how our landscape has developed, but largely remained unchanged and how conservation and land management for farming can live together.

Ted Ellis and Wheatfen Broad

Before Ted acquired Wheatfen it was bought in 1913-14 by a Captain Maurice Cockle, who was a keen naturalist, It was a shooting estate and he stopped that. Ted used to go down there and he described all the natural history of it in a series of papers for the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalist Society. When Captain Cockle died it was offered to Ted and Phyllis as rented accommodation at a nominal amount, and eventually they bought it. The cottage still belongs to the family.

When I joined the Naturalist Society Ted Ellis was the leading light and as he was on the committee and I was the secretary I got to know him and I spent a lot of time down on Wheatfen Broad nature reserve. I did my doctorate degree down there, on the sex life of snails, a very interesting study, and for four years from April to October I used to go down on the marsh, once a fortnight, collecting and counting snails.

I always used to pop in to see Ted and Phyllis and have a cup of tea and a cake that Phyllis called ‘concrete cake’. I used to talk to Ted and that is how we got to know each other.

I knew that Ted was ill, and had gone to see him and we discussed what we were going to do jointly that summer. I had then gone off to America, to the state of Maine to do some lecturing and when I came back my daughter met me at Heathrow airport and she told me that Ted had died.

Ted was buried in Surlingham church, not the present church in the village but the ruined one which is down a lane, a loke, on a mound. It is just bits of ruin there now, but you can see right up the Yare valley and in the winter you can see Norwich Cathedral. You cannot in the summer because of the trees.

We went back then, all down to the cottage where the family had the wake. And while we were there our friend Keith Clark and myself and another friend David Pearce-Gould  were just chatting and saying ‘what’s going to happen to this beautiful place called Wheatfen?’ and we said ‘Why don’t we raise the funds to buy it, if the family agree, make it a charitable trust and see how it goes’. So we approached Ted’s brother Martin who was a top fungus expert and his wife. They were enthusiastic so we approached Phyllis and asked her if she would like us to raise the money to buy it and run it as a nature reserve, a charitable trust.

Phyllis being Phyllis jumped at the chance and the rest of her life she enjoyed it, so that was how the Trust was formed.

I said that I would raise the money and we did by public appeal, I wrote to so many places, and the money poured in. Ted had written over 10,000 articles for the Eastern Daily Press and other papers, he’d been on television and radio for years. He was so well known that within six months £124,000 had been raised, this was thirty-two years ago, so it was a lot of money. We could afford to buy the place, and gained Charity Commission status. We had a management plan written up but it was different to others as ours was the idea of Ted’s vision – management by neglect, let nature take its life, do not start doing things unnecessarily.

That was how we started but of course if you invite visitors you have to have paths that are cut, you cannot have them tripping over tree trunks. So there is management but we try to keep it in the same tradition as Ted would have wanted it. A lot of what Wheatfen is today comes from Ted.

We appointed a warden, who sadly died after two years. We appointed another warden, David Nobbs who only retired last year, he was there for twenty-six years, and is a keen naturalist and worker.

We have a little group of trustees and had to have a chairman. We receive some grants to help manage it from English Nature, the Environment Agency and Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] because it is a unique area, but we survive largely on donations. I was chairman for many years, and I was the president of the Friends of Ted Ellis Trust. This is group of volunteers who work down there and meet up on a monthly basis. A couple of years ago I felt my age creep up on me and I could no longer give talks so I thought, ‘That’s enough for me’, so they have a new chairman. The actual patron is the great botanist David Bellamy.

The Trust is publishing a book in the near future, a historical study called, ’Freshwater snails, mussels and clams of Wheatfen and Rockland Broads and associated marshes’.

What is interesting is that looking at the map Rockland Broad is a large area of water and Wheatfen is small bits and pools, but in 1838 – 1840 it was all one massive Broad. Over time reeds have come through and the build up has encroached and unless you dredge it you have lost the big open water. This is a problem all over the Broads.

If you stand on large areas of Wheatfen Broad to this day you are just standing on a thin layer of peat and if you go through you go into quicksand. We lost a digger there in the 1990s, it was left there overnight and the next day you could just see the top of it sticking out, it was a mammoth job to get it out.

We are a freshwater system of two Broads, Wheatfen and Deep Waters, linked with a big channel to Rockland Broad and out into the Yare.

We get two tides a day because Rockland and the Yare are tidal and every now and again we get a surge of sea and the salt water can come up into the Broads. This is a problem because it kills everything off. It is unique as most of the Broads on the Yare are banked and do not get the tidal bit.

Opposite us is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB] site, Strumpshaw, they have banked their area so they do not get tidal movement. But when the water comes up over the bank they have got salt water in their lagoons and they have got to pump it out.

As we are still linked ours will drain out.

The effect of water quality on the life of the Broad

The water quality in the Yare was extremely poor, Whitlingham sewage works used to pump lots of nitrates and phosphates into the river system. In the1950s detergents were invented and what are they? Phosphates and nitrates, plus more and more nitrates and phosphates were being put on the agricultural land which runs off into the river. And the river system died and virtually all the description of Wheatfen Broad which Ted Ellis had meticulously recorded in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s vanished. The animals were killed, the plants were killed, very few survived.

Whitlingham cleaned up its act in I think 1992 and now the water quality is good, so it has all returned. Now we have got the problem of having too many plants we have got to keep clearing the dykes of them because there are too many. So it has recovered to what it was before. I know that one species of snail was lost but we did find it again about four years ago, these creatures do move and come in and out.

Ted’s grandson Bob Ellis found a new moss growing on the banks of one of the dykes about four or five years ago. It was new and has been described and also a rare beetle was found in one of the fens about ten years ago, the only place in Britain. We had beetle experts from all over the country looking at it.

The levels of the dykes and Broads were filling up due to the diatoms, little shelled creatures. When they die the shell which is made from silica drops down and causes the bottom of the dykes and Broads to come up, one or two centimetres a year.

We got a grant from the Broads Authority and for six months they mud pumped us. They came with a boat that sucks the mud out, pumps it and throws it on to the land. To this day we still have to do it about every eight years and it is being done this coming winter.

Rockland Broad is a mess because they have not pumped it, they keep the navigation channels open for the boats but the Broad is going like we did and it needs to be mud pumped.

Thousands of visitors a year, swallowtail butterflies and a study centre

We reckon that we have about five thousand visitors a year. We do not charge and you can come and no one is going to tell you anything unless you ask, we do not tell people what to see we just say enjoy it. But mostly it is just two and a half miles of footpaths where you can walk around, down to the river, have a look at the Broad, wander through and see what you see.

We have a new warden Will Fitch, a very good man, and we have the volunteers who help the warden out usually in the winter. There are various occasions when we have open days or run courses, in June we are joining up with the Butterfly Conservation Society to have two days of the swallowtails.  Wheatfen is managed now as one of the major habitats for this beautiful butterfly, which is a rarity in this country. We usually get between two and three hundred people down there all photographing the same butterfly.

We offer courses on identifying mosses, identifying plants too.

Helen Brotherton was chairman of the Dorset Wildlife Trust and a great friend of Ted and Phyllis, and when she died she left us a lot of money to build a study centre, which was what Phyllis had always wanted. It was opened about four, five years ago, by me. It has got nice work benches, full of microscopes, fully accessible toilets and the library of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society is being transferred from the Castle Museum to it. People can hire it out for courses and just give us a couple of quid in donations.

It is a highly successful arrangement which will continue to be run in the future by us and new trustees.

Tales of the fen – being stranded overnight and being used as a decoy for Norwich in the Second World War

For obvious reasons we do not want people over on the fen in case they fall through it. There is a famous tale, Ted took a party of The Naturalists’ Society on there once, right into the carr, that is like a scrub area. And dusk came down and he couldn’t find his way out, so the whole party had to wait until the morning to get out. There is the railway on the other side of the river and they heard the train’s sound and knew which side the railway was so they could get out. But they had to spend the night on the fen.

In the Second World War it was used as a decoy for Norwich, they put the lights there and the German bombers would drop their bombs there. There was an RAF observation post up on the high land above watching them. A doodlebug landed, fortunately not on our bit, and blew up and apparently the peat and mud just went everywhere, you can imagine it. A chap, who was in his late 70s, who was one of the observers for the RAF observer corps came down and told us that was his job, sitting up in this observation bit watching the German bombers dropping their bombs there. So when we get the diggers in sometimes you have to say ‘be careful there might an unexploded bomb’. In fact when we mud pumped a beautiful World War One officer’s revolver came up, in the mud pump.

Plans to make Rockland Broad a navy base

I only know this from the newspaper article but in 1912 the Navy were looking at developing Rockland Broad as a naval base, as it was far enough inland not to be reached by German shells from the high seas fleet. The Plan was to cut a canal out to the North Sea, very much like the Germans built the Kiel Canal, which I have travelled up with my wife, which went right up joining the Baltic and the North Sea. The idea being that you could build a canal so the big ships could go straight out, because of the depth of Yare and they would have made it a harbour with locked gates. Needless to say this never happened. But imagine that as a naval base.

Notes by Ted Ellis on some characters who lived on the Broads

Ted has got very fine handwriting, and his notes on a couple of characters are as follows.

‘Isaac “Ikey”Blake the village miser he wore cords tucked into boots without socks. His boots were tied up with string. For a coat he wore an old sack over his shoulders with a piece of binder twine to hold it in position. A round canvas hat, he had six acres of garden, two cabbages a big horse and a shop in the village. He hoarded his money in bins, it was said that he was one of the most regular collectors of horse dung from the roads’.

 ‘Old Packman Spectacle Joe, half blind, squinted, tall and thin with a box on his back. Joined up in the 1914-18 war to fight for his country. Opinion was that he couldn’t fight a rice pudding, sold needles and thread, tape, elastic, hooks and eyes. Haberdashery laces etc.’

Searching for the swallowtail butterfly in the fen at Wheatfen

Roy Baker (b. 1935) talking to  WISEArchive on 5th April 2019 in Tacolneston.

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