So here we go, with our first blog post! It’s a rather long one and, strangely for a Norfolk themed blog, we have slipped over the border to Suffolk. The excuse I have is that we must start somewhere and since I spent a recent day at the mill writing and sketching I thought you may enjoy my scribbles and sketches. It’s only just over the border anyway !
A Summer Walk to Smock Mill
The summer beckons, once again, and demands that I escape the confines of four walls and retreat to the life enhancing beauty of the Norfolk/Suffolk borderlands. The draw of this location, very familiar to me, finds me parked on a grass verge worn to just over a car’s width by infrequent visitors. The road seems strangely busy today. Cars buzz past with unsettling regularity as I prepare to walk the short distance to the sanctuary of the footpath that will, thankfully, get me away from the vehicles that bare down on me, front and rear. In the many years that I and my family have visited this place I can’t say that I have ever been particularly happy with this, very brief, road walk. Vehicles seem approach a little too fast and a little too close for comfort but a visit via this route leaves little option I’m afraid unless you park in the nearby village and walk the alternative, much longer, route following the river. This is no great hardship, indeed the walk is equally pleasant but my aim, given the time available on this occasion, was to reach the mill reasonably quickly.
The nearby Old School House marks the start of the walk. Until recently this had been a forlorn and decaying building. Once alive with the vibrancy that only children can bring, this lovely old building has been slowly deteriorating for as long as I can remember. Admitting to trespass, I once gained entry to the place through a door that had been prised open by a previous intruder. Through all the decay the school house hinted at the obvious standing it had once had in the community as a place of education and, although floorboards creaked menacingly under my weight and ceilings threatened to dump plaster and straw on my head, it had great character and not a little charm. It saddened me deeply at the time to witness the waste of its decline. I am very glad to find that over recent months someone has decided to halt the building’s demise. The roof has been stripped and restored, broken out buildings removed and blown bricks replaced and I for one am glad of it.
Road safely negotiated I am quickly on to the footpath which gently slopes and twist away ahead. The old Smock mill is approached first through a corridor of vibrant vegetation that quickly drowns out the traffic on the road now behind and above. The narrow path continues its shallow descent through encroaching thickets of fern, bramble and elder. Then under a canopy of oak and hawthorn you are transported into a land of dappled light and deep shade as vibrant light penetrates through leaves glowing green.
The sandy path flattens now and I notice, with a growing amazement, the rippled, streamy patterns formed in it by a minor torrent of water that must have flown down the sloping path after a recent summer storm. Looking back I can see its path cut into the earth revealing pebbles lying just beneath the scarred earth. It must has been some flow this. Little walls of twig, leaf and earth mark its path and its end. By the look of it this flood travelled some distance before being absorbed back into the land with only the detritus swept up in its current left to tell the tale of this micro tsunami.
Following its track the path briefly breaks free from the canopy and the welcome shade of oak and here the still, oppressive heat returns. The path is alive now with the hum of hosts of insect life, feeding or being fed upon. The glory of the scene before me hides the eternal struggle for survival of the numerous species that occupy it. Nature offers her bounty but there is a price to be paid, one of sacrifice, life is sustained through death. It is never to be feared or turned away from in judgmental disgust, it is just the eternal dance of life being enacted. A flash in the periphery of vision perfectly portrays this. Dragonflies patrol the borders hunting prey as their species have done for millions of years. Their flight and hunting skills have been perfected, only the elusive hobby hunts the hunter, can offer a challenge to their aerial superiority I think. Throughout the many years that I have watched their darting flight I never find indifference in familiarity. The awe of watching the elemental beauty of this ancient creature and its hunting prowess never wains. As the path leads on butterflies scatter from hidden rest at my approach, glorious colours of, red admiral, peacock and tortoiseshells are on display as they return briefly to foliage and flower opening wings to sunbathe before becoming airborne again as I, once again, disturb them into haphazard flight. Rustling gossamer wings of dragonflies beating on reed and leaf betray their presence as they dart with sudden agility from camouflaged rest as my clumsy steps disturb their seclusion. Once again I step into the cool of shadow and the light catches puffs of pollen from nettles offering their fertility to a lazy breeze that, somehow, finds it’s way into the still, warm air. A crow’s bark cracks through the stillness and hum and a sentinel magpie warns that this clumsy human has violated their sanctuary.
The path is punctuated by a style that leads to open pasture. The mill is clearly visible now. A familiar sight it punches through the flatness of the surrounding landscape. Emerging once again from the coolness and shelter of the trees the full heat of summer hits you hard. I have dressed for the walk. Familiar with it I know that full length trousers and boots are a necessity if you don’t want to carry home the scars of bramble, nettle and horse fly ! but it makes progress uncomfortable in this heat and already I can feel beads of perspiration forming. Now free from the canopy I turn my gaze skywards in the hope that forming clouds may offer some small respite from the unforgiving sun. I notice then that the heat is percolating the clouds, stirring them upwards on hidden thermals. Flat bottoms darkening, and ragged blue grey forms ripped from the forming mass threaten the approach of summer rain or maybe a storm. That said,I know that these brewing unpredictable skies can pass as quickly as they can form, so I push on.
The path follows a dyke that shoots straight as a dart to the mill, again butterflies erupt at my passing, bees buzz in their industry and damselflies, little shards of electric blue and bright red flit and hover over luxuriant borders of reed, thistle and rose bay.
The sun throws patches of vivid light across the scene as drifting clouds mask out its rays and I am reminded of one of my favorite artists, Edward Seago, who had the gift of capturing on canvas these distant splashes of light so well. Cattle amble lazily across this living canvas their forms quivering in the heat haze, heads bowed they mow the lush pasture, nuzzling the fertile grasses they munch and masticate tirelessly the waste of their industry adding to the fertility of the already rich loam. I walk on lost in the dreamy richness of the scene. Drawing closer now my progress to the mill is suddenly brought to a halt at the hissing of a swan. On the opposite side of the dyke two white mature swans keep guard over six grey brown cygnets. One of the pair warns at the threat of my approach, the other cleans and preens with total disregard and even distain that this feeble wingless creature could pose a threat to such a noble bird. The cygnets stretch their immature, stumpy wings and with ungainly waddle plop one by one into the gin clear water and quickly disappear from my intruding gaze.
Hard to think that in a few weeks time these awkward creatures will turn into the majestic birds that white spot the river and marsh of Norfolk and Suffolk. With a reassuring word from me that I mean no harm, I leave them in peace. Quite why humans do this is beyond me but it seems appropriate and respectful as we blunder into the security of their wild spaces.
Rose bay and reed line the dyke banks thickly, purple thistle heads and the shock of yellow ragwort intrude wonderfully as bee and butterfly feed on their nectar.
One more style and the mill stand proudly before me. It’s fading black shape invites you to cross a narrow wooden bridge to reach it. So I oblige. The mill pond is almost lost under a thick cover of lily and fringes of willow herb drink deeply from its sustaining waters. Dragon and damsel flies hover and dart, hover and dart tirelessly.
Over the bridge we stand in the company of the mill at last. It stands defiantly as it has done for many years. Resisting the ravages of the seasons, it is testimony to the attention still given it by enthusiastic people determined to not allow it to be forgotten and fall into disrepair. Once a blot on the landscape, a machine made by man to drain land that must be tamed and bent to his will. It usefulness has now been superseded by a much more efficient machine that does not rely on the whims of the wind to power it. But this stark, square impersonal block offers nothing even close the beauty of the mill and I doubt future generations will look to seek out this cold, featureless box and marvel at it, it is functional but incredibly boring and it will never fit into the scene. The only saving grace is that it is hidden away some distance from the mill and so, thankfully, does not intrude. In contrast the old mill is now fully absorbed into its surroundings and the scene would miss its dark silhouette if were to disappear. And it has gained new purpose now, its usefulness determined by the wildlife that use it as their sanctuary, as a place to perch upon, hunt from and nest in. For humankind it also holds an aesthetic beauty and is a nostalgic reminder of past times that seem much simpler, but that were probably not. It black shuttered form thrusts skywards and skeleton white arms are spread wide as if to proclaim and shout “here I am, look at me!”
Although still maintained, there is a beauty in its fading facade. The mills black body is enhanced by contrasting mosses and lichen that etch the flaking paint. Close by the rusting corrugated shell of the pump house offers companion colour to the greens of elders that surround it and pipework that once carried surplus liquid from the land reach out, snake like, from rich vegetation and still water below hidden by a bordered walkway, the metal serpents gaping flange of a mouth now offering shelter to various species of insect or rodent.
And so I sit for a long while in this tranquil space and try to soak up the scene and bask in the peace of the place, the sun beats down and I write the notes that I will later commit to paper on my return home. Next to the notes I make quick sketches in a vain effort to capture a moment which pen and pencil could never hope to express. Then into this scene flies the bishy. It lands on my hand carefully folding its wings into its crimson shell, I watch as it spirals up my pen and reaching the tip it pauses briefly splits its crimson lid and, in an instant, is gone. The bishy was a bright and welcome visitor. So too the peacock butterfly that alights upon my leg and fans its colours at this human transfixed by the miracle of its delicate beauty. It vainly displays for a while as I write and leaves me only when I start at the sound of the two toned horn of a passing train which splits the peace of the place. It distracts only for a short while but reminds that man’s busyness and industry can only be escaped for a far too brief moment.
I stand and decide to walk along the raised bank that divides river from the land that lies beneath the level of its languid flow. My path is restricted by a mass of nettles. I wade through undeterred, hands held aloft in surrender to the threat of stabbing little hypodermics full of stinging venom, I am glad of my trousers now ! my progress is further hampered by the distraction of a marsh harrier that seeks a thermal and spirals aloft. It soars and swoops, flapping powerful wings briefly it glides, keen eyes scanning the fields for the little creature that dares to break cover in careless disregard of sharp tallon and ripping beak. A dip of wing takes the bird rapidly away and down, the quarry caught! At this point I notice the clouds are heavier now and dark patches at the horizon threaten, time to return I think. I gather my rucksack take a brief but welcome swig from my bottle and retrace my steps back over the rich meadows erupting the down encased seeds of thistle and ragwort as I go.
I turn once again to drink in the familiar view which never fails to satisfy my inner need, for the healing to my soul it offers. I will return again soon and in full knowledge that, although the landmarks remain, the mill, the dyke, open pasture, cattle and vast flat horizon, the picture ever changes as season follows season and year follows year. I will come alone, I will come with family and with grandchildren as I have done many times in the past, to share with them the glory of it all, and I will never fail to be captivated by it and to fall in love, once again, with this wild space.