Having passed Scarborough – an unexpectedly large (and long) town, with a splendid castle looming over its twin harbour bays – we start the day at Bempton Cliffs, an RSPB reserve which would have impressed us greatly, had we started our journey from the eastern coast; it is the largest land-based gannetry in the world – but its twenty thousand birds are nothing compared to what we had already seen before.
It’s nice to see them this close without venturing out in a wobbly boat, though; from the view points, the gannets can be observed easily, circling for hours over the sea in their thousands. It’s not long after the breeding season, and many of the chicks are still in the nests, the same size and shape as the adults, but black all over; in time, the black pigment will remain only in the tips of the wings, to protect them from the impact of the death-defying dives the birds are famous for.
The super-tall Humber Bridge welcomes us with the strongest cross-winds we have yet encountered; bravely – and barely – we struggle across, the Humber estuary below us dark brown with tidal mud, and white with roaring waves. We are now in Lincolnshire; it is still the old Danelaw, the land once ruled by the Danes – the names of villages end with the telltale suffixes, -thorpe, -by, -ness…
Eastern Lincolnshire, having been mostly reclaimed from the sea and marsh over the centuries is the flattest, most featureless land in England. Fields of cabbage, sweetcorn and potatoes, sown on reclaimed soil, stretch from horizon to horizon. We take advantage of this flatness, and of the fine roads, to traverse as much land as possible in a day. We still keep to the coast as best we can – even if that means driving through the horror that is Skegness, the Blackpool of the East. It may be a quintessentially English seaside resort, but there is something American in the abundance of tacky entertainment available here; this is how I imagine Jersey Shore would look like if it was built in the Fens.
The distinctive, Dutch style windmills, boat filled canals and the Heavens-reaching pillar of the Boston Stump – the ridiculously tall and narrow tower of the town church – tell us we’ve reached another in the succession of the reclaimed territories of the east coast – the Wash; before long, we cross the intricate bascule bridge over Great Ouse and into Norfolk.
Norfolk is some two hours train drive from London. We are almost home. We’ve been here before, twice, both times to watch birds. The Wash, and the entire Norfolk coast, are a twitching paradise. In high season, there are millions of birds here – and tens of thousands of twitchers.
We stop at King’s Lynn, a town almost too familiar – this is where the London train stops. We haven’t really visited it properly before, and it’s time to make up for it today. The harbour and the Old Town around it is what interests us most; over the centuries, King’s Lynn’s centre moved away from the river, towards the non-distinctive market place and a network of shopping streets. But in the 14th and 15th century, the heart of the town lay at the harbour: around a district inhabited by the German traders.
King’s Lynn was the chief English port of the Hansa, second only to London in wealth and fame; the German trade confederation owned a large warehouse in the middle of the town, and it’s the only Hanseatic building still standing in England, a venerable wall of intricate brick, leaning from old age, but painstakingly restored four years ago. The Old Town around it boasts several more similarly ancient buildings, including the old jail and a monastic college, with its wooden doors still intact, the carving praising its benefactor, mayor Thomas, still readable in the heavy late medieval letters.
There’s still time to visit one of the many RSPB reserves along the Norfolk coast, for the sake of old time; Snettisham was the first such reserve we had ever visited, and to this day remains an unbeaten best. If you can only visit one RSPB reserve in your life, this is the one you want – provided you come here at the right time, on the right day.
The tide table is the key here; once every few days, especially in early Spring and late Autumn, a particularly high tide forces all the wading birds from all the nearby beaches to fly to a small, man-made lake at Snettisham. This is the greatest gathering of wading birds you’re ever likely to see; the silver clouds of tens of thousands of knots cover the sun and darken the sky; the redshanks and dunlins are not far behind, though in smaller numbers. The spectacle is unforgettable, and well worth shivering from cold in the tiny hide.
Today, however, was not one of those days, so we just took a stroll along the seafront and back, picking late blackberries from the bushes and remembering the old days. The knots and dunlins were still there, but far out on the beaches, barely in range of the binoculars, as the tide receded; pink-footed geese were
gathering for their last flight away for the winter. October was in the air.
Sandringham C&CC is a large site in the middle of a quiet forest park of the same name – better known, of course, as the Royal Residence. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the Queen among the trees, but we did find quite a lot of mushrooms growing freely among the motorhomes and caravans, given wide berth by the slightly terrified natives – all perfectly edible, of course.