Wandering through the Warren
PUBLISHED: 11:42 14 July 2015 | UPDATED: 12:54 14 July 2015
David Falk, manager of Suffolk County Council’s Brandon Country Park, explores a hidden gem of nature beyond the frenetic worlds of Aldeburgh and Thorpeness
Just north of Aldeburgh and inland of Thorpeness lies a natural hidden gem missed by many heading to better known sites nearby. North Warren is a small patch of heathland, marsh and woodland hemmed in by a main road, footpaths and fences.
I’ve been visiting North Warren since I first moved to Suffolk, some 15 years ago and today approach it the along a narrow footpath. Beside the path lies fencing and behind that extends a flat expanse of rabbit-cropped grassland decorated with vibrant yellow gorse bushes. The coconut smell of the gorse flowers fills the air – it always reminds me of Malibu.
Jackdaws hop about the grass in small groups and large murders of crows croak overhead. A green woodpecker bounces above the landscape skimming the land as it rises and falls.
The path leads gently downhill to a junction where a wooden bench named Peggys Perch invites me to sit. Opposite stands a strange metal post and on top of the post sits a sculptured steel dragonfly. It marks a junction of the Sandlings Walk, a 60-mile long distance path that links the many heathlands between Ipswich and Southwold.
At the junction I meet a dog walker and we get chatting, exchanging experiences of walking here. We swap bird sightings and she tells me that today she’s hoping to hear a cuckoo. It’s been over two years since her last sighting. I reel off my mental list of things I’m hoping to see today. Cuckoo is there, along with marsh harrier, bittern and hobby.
From the junction, the grassy path leads on to a long length of boardwalk. The boardwalk is narrow – a cyclist precariously approaches me, the rider gingerly slowing down as he passes. It leads through a cut reed bed of golden grass. On the path liquorice slugs slide across the wooden boards. All around, insects buzz and bird songs resonate. Above, the sun shines bright through an azure blue sky with pillowed clouds. The air is fresh and clean – this really is a magical place.
I drift into a small woodland, crossing a short wooden bridge over dark waters of a stream that barely flows. Leaf litter and twigs lie motionless on its surface and the sunlight sparkles brightly in the water, breaking up mirror reflections of the riverbank. Leaving the wood, the boardwalk leads to a viewing platform. I’ve not seen this before – it’s new. I climb the steps and am greeted by a wide view over the reeds. A bearded photographer sits on the platform, cloth cap shading his head, binoculars hanging around his neck, camera with camouflaged lens at the ready.
My mysterious companion proves invaluable. He provides a gentle commentary of what to see: “Marsh harrier just taken off, bittern flying at the far side, six hobbies in the air, escaped Harris hawk in that tree”.
Each line jolts me, especially the last. A marsh harrier, bittern and hobbies are all excellent sightings – I’m ticking off my list with unexpected speed – but a Harris hawk?
I peer at it through my binoculars. It’s perched on a high limb in a tall tree and after a few moments takes flight, soaring over the reeds. It’s coloured deep rufous and black with a bright white patch on its tail. There’s a break in its wing feathers and it forms a distinctive jagged sillouette against the sky. My companion tells me its an escapee, probably from a local zoo, and has been here for over a year. Without his knowledge I would have been very confused.
Over the far reeds the hobbies dance. They’re a small bird of prey and resemble peregrine falcons with distinctive black and white facial markings, but with the addition of boldly barred and speckled undersides, and cherry red rumps. They skim the reed beds catching insects and devouring them on the wing. They are true gymnasts of the sky and provide a mesmerising sight.
Out of the reeds floats a male marsh harrier. He has white wing patches and a brown body and hovers over water, descending and then rising up, before floating onwards in the search of prey.
A greater spotted woodpecker bounds through the scene. It lands in an alder sapling, clinging to a fragile limb as it feeds, before bouncing to the next tree, leap-frogging its way across the marsh. A flash of blue signals a kingfisher. It grips a reed and sways in the wind. I study it patiently until it drops into the water, flies upwards, hovers, dives again, and then flies off to another reed, which bends under its weight, before flying off out of sight.
I could sit here for hours, but instead wrench myself away to stretch my legs. I follow a footpath around the marsh. The path leads towards a former railway line that once took trains into Aldeburgh. The line opened in 1860 and served the local population for over 100 years. At one time it provided a direct service to London and ran eight trains a day. All that remains is a long grassy path and a popular walking route between Aldeburgh and Thorpness. It passes the edge of Thorpness Mere where a bench has been perfectly positioned. I sit awhile soaking up the view, looking back across the reeds towards the viewing platform. I remember some years ago sitting in the same spot, watching a pair of cuckoos chase each other in circles above the trees. I listen intently, hoping to hear one again, but they are not here, not yet.
Beyond the bench the path leads past cottages. In the garden of one a kestrel perches atop a wooden frame. It peers at me as I watch it, calmly remaining on its post as I pass by. I wander through woodlands of alder and oak and step quietly past hidden homes at the end of sandy driveways. I’m soon stepping on boardwalk again and back at the viewing platform where I started. The platform is now a small hive of activity with evening bird watchers. I end my day in their company, watching those performing hobbies, the floating marsh harrier and that escaped Harris hawk. This really is a gem of a site.