As night-time falls, the marsh becomes the province of the ‘will-o’-the-wisp’, that mysterious blueish light that dances hither and thither, occasionally picking up the slow beat of the barn owl’s wings, more usually skitting across the water meadow, leaving you wondering whether you really did see it or not. Was there a man out there with a torch in the dark? A Hare lamper? A lost marshman?
The rising sun over the north sea brings the first warmth to cheer the marsh, it produces a mist that appears to rise up; a ghostly spectre, lifting its skirts, a few inches at time. A glimpse of an ankle! A deer ankle…then, if you are very quick, you can count the deer legs; four legs, eight legs, twelve legs. By the end of the summer we knew there were at least nine deer living in that alluvial plain, a brilliant green of reed-milk parsley and marsh mallow, sphagnum moss and herbs. A gourmet delicatessen surrounding their pied-à-terre.
As the mist departed, they would lie down; the same spots every day. We knew where they were, could still pick them out, delicate brown ears hidden in the sward. On rare evenings you could pick out the grazing Does, heavy with kid.
The rains came, and rare spots of sun – enough to encourage the grass to grow; a foot, then two foot. The days of deer spotting were over; just the Marsh Harrier to entertain us – until we went up river and discovered the delights of the little Egrets. We had no idea what they were, an elegant white wading bird gathered on the mud flats at low tide. ‘Distinctive yellow feet’. At home I searched for them; discovered that they were extinct in Britain as recently as the later half of the last century. Not any more; there are dozens of them out on the Breydon water.
Then one day he appeared, riding on an ancient Fordson Dexta. An equally ancient farmer. Round and round the field he went, cutting a swathe through the sweet hay; three times, four times, five. Nooo, I thought, the deer, they are in the middle. I watched for hours, convinced that I would see them rush out one side or t’other. Then just as suddenly he stopped, and trundled off.
How odd! The weather was good and most farmers will work from dawn ’til dusk to bale their hay when they get the opportunity. A week slipped by, then the old Fordson hove into view and he cut several strips around the next field – and vanished again. Returning later with a prehistoric aerator to turn it, but no sign of a baler. This performance went on for two or three weeks. The old boy would cut hay for two or three hours, miss a day or two, then return to cut another strip or so. It rained, the sun blazed, it rained again; nothing seemed to hurry his harvesting.
By now, the strips he had cut first had ‘greened up’, a lusher verdure than before. The old boy seemed to have recovered his strength, for now he worked longer hours, but with two vast water meadows to cut, he still only managed to make headway of four or five lengths each day. Finally he reached the middle of the field – and then we saw them – a line of Does rise up from their hiding places, stepping gracefully towards the green outer edge close to the brambles, followed by several heartbreakingly tiny kids.
The old man had known they were there all the time; prepared a ‘picnic’ spot for them close to the bramble cover. Never hurried them, just hinted to them every few days that it was time to move. He had risked his harvest time and again, as the rain had sheeted down, to ensure that those graceful animals weren’t frightened. Obediently, they had taken themselves off to the brambles; waited ’till he had baled and stacked his hay, and now we see them in the early morning haze, grazing the field as they did last year. They shepherd the kids back into the bushes as the day comes alive – ‘Sleep child!’ – but they never do. Within an hour or so, the field is full of kids, miniature bambis, jumping, balancing, skipping and chasing.
The banks of the dyke are so high that the holidaymakers pounding past at river level in search of the next pub to moor at can’t see what goes on in that meadow. It is my private world. Mine and the farmers. Turn left for computer; right for the easel and my fledgling attempts at water colouring – and in between, a window on a world that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
There is a lot of Norfolk that hasn’t changed. We had business the other side of the river a few days ago. A tiny village at the end of a network of lanes with the unmistakable central tinge of green that denotes rarely used tarmac. We found the boatyard, in the lea of an old mill, and whilst Mr G was occupied I started to wander. A long string of georgian houses, detached of course, but that was not their unusual feature. Many of them held businesses. An optician here, a funeral parlour there. Here a flower shop, there a grocer’s, the butcher, naturally. What was unusual was that all these business seemed to occupy but one downstairs room of each detached house – normally you see a row of shops, with flats above, jostled close together. These could only be long established businesses, owner occupiers, quietly providing everything the village needed in time honoured fashion. The optician still finding time to tend his garden in between customers – chickens pecking and scratching in the gravel drive of the funeral parlour looking for a quiet spot to lay down a new life.
So very ordinary, yet I can’t remember the last time I saw a village like that. An old man sitting on a wooden chair outside his front door; women stopping to talk to each other – it was as though I had wandered onto a film set. Tucked away was a tiny tea shop, but two seats outside.
Mr G had promised to take me for breakfast when he had finished his business; a cafe we knew we would pass on route. I had changed my mind I informed him; I wanted to have breakfast right there, in that tiny wee space.
It was cramped and claustrophobic; four tiny tables piled into a room no more than 8′ square. The tables were piled high with the detritus of a thousand generous customers who had thought the cafe could do with just one more plastic rose, yet another donated tea pot stand, surely there was room for this quirky mustard pot? We ordered tea; it arrived in a proper pot, with a proper tea cosy, to sit on its proper tea pot stand, until time to warm the mis-matched rose covered cups and saucers.
The walls were covered with the efforts of a dozen local artists; and clocks; and newspaper cuttings; and notices of long past horticultural society meetings; and plastic flowers; and plaster models of windmills; and a hundred other items that no one had known what to do with – other than ‘give it to the lady in the tea-room’. Even as we sat there – listening to the high pitched whistle from the hearing aid of the old boy in the corner, and the cheerful chatter of the ‘lady in the tea-room’ who seemed to know everyone and be loved by all – people arrived with gifts for her and her ‘collection’. A plastic monstrosity that she was so enthusiastically grateful for, you might have imagined it was the first kind deed ever shown to her. The walls told a different story.
So much time was taken up with enquiring after the health of various grandchildren belonging to people who hadn’t even stopped for tea, merely paused to wish her good day as they passed in the street, and the in depth conversation with the customers waiting patiently inside the cafe, that I wasn’t surprised to see wisps of smoke emerging from the kitchen.
In truth, breakfast was slightly charred around the edges. There is nothing better than toast made from proper bread, richly slathered in butter – and with a thinnest hint of blackened crust. When it arrives with real bacon, and proper field mushrooms, and a home grown tomato – who cares that the egg took a tumble on its way twixt pan and yet another example of mismatched china plate? When the plate has been properly warmed first, and is set down on a wonderful collection of table mats, the only surviving members of a set that someone got for Christmas, and there’s two pint of builder’s tea in that pot, and ‘can I get you some more hot water’. Who cares?
You won’t find that farmer or the lady in the tea-shop on Twitter, whinging about the lack of a woman on the five pound note. They don’t have Face-book accounts to hurl abuse or ‘like’ pictures of atrocities in far flung places.
Both of them well past retirement age; still grafting, still making life better for those around them. Neither of them newsworthy.
Which is why it is so easy to forget that they exist. The quiet ones. Getting on with life.