Legacy of Ted Ellis endures at Norfolk nature reserve

Wheatfen Nature Reserve

The beauty of Wheatfen - Credit: David Nobbs

Dick Meadows looks at how the wise words of the People’s Naturalist Ted Ellis have come to fruition amid the stress and confusion of this remarkable year of 2020

As he lay dying in his hospital bed, the patient’s only view of the world was through a tiny high window. “I have to be content now with the sky itself,” he wrote in his spidery hand. “I have glimpsed swifts darting darkly and minutely at the limit of visibility and the gold of the cornfields below is diffused in drifting wraiths against the sky’s azure ceiling.”
The patient, and the writer, was the renowned Norfolk naturalist Ted Ellis. For scores of years he had woven a golden net of words for the Eastern Daily Press. These would be among his very last. The man revered as the People’s Naturalist died a few weeks later in 1986.
All these years later his legacy endures at the Wheatfen Nature Reserve at Surlingham, Ted’s home for 40 years before his death. And now a remarkable piece of his writing has been re-discovered. It was for a speech given to the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society not long before he was taken to hospital.

“The hay meadows were alive with butterflies in summer. Hedges were tall and smothered with blossoms and berries in season. Field crops harboured curious weeds in wide variety and abundance and a rich assortment of other wildlife.” 
– Ted Ellis

Ted Ellis, left, with David Attenborough

Ted Ellis, left, with David Attenborough - Credit: Ellis Family

What no-one realised at the time was that Ted was telling the story of his own life from the cradle to a waiting hilltop grave. He called it an Elder Statesman’s View. And his story was Norfolk’s story and that of its radically changing countryside as he grew from boy to man. It is a re-creation of a lost world of nature’s Norfolk wonders and a quiet prophesy of the threats to its future. Today those words have a bell clear resonance. Some of those prophesies have come to pass.
Edward Augustine Ellis moved to Wheatfen in 1946. He had already been Keeper of Natural History at the Castle Museum in Norwich for 18 years. Wheatfen’s 140 acres of dykes, reed beds, woodland and broads form a rich and fragile ecology. It is one of the last tidal marshes of the Yare Valley and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Smee Loke, Old Mill Marsh, Deep Waters, Home Dyke, Thack Marsh. The paths and dykes of Wheatfen speak of a primitive intimacy born of days when countrymen were wed tight to the countryside itself and when people’s horizons were often governed by how far they could walk.

“Roads were often paved with stones and gravel and were very dusty in dry weather. One could follow the progress of the few motor cars for many miles by their smoke of dust. Every sandy hedge-bank was a haunt of lizards, snails and insects. Hedges were full of nesting linnets, greenfinches and hedge sparrows.” – Ted Ellis

I first met Ted in 1975. I was a young journalist working in the BBC newsroom in Norwich where Ted was already a well-known figure on radio and television as well to readers of this paper. His high pitched, fluted voice and bird-like features had made him an unlikely star. Letters and specimens in jam jars and beatles in match boxes would arrive at reception, sometimes simply addressed to The Nature Man at The BBC.
What he lovingly shared with his audiences was a life-time of experiences as a nationally known naturalist. And what he also shared was an ability to write beautifully. His mentor, Arthur Patterson, another celebrated Norfolk naturalist, had advised him: “Start writing and what is in your mind will flow out like a spring from the ground.” The spring became a flood. Words poured like water from Ted’s ancient upright typewriter for the EDP and also The Guardian, as well as for the definitive book on The Broads for the Collins New Naturalist series.
Life in a remote cottage at Wheatfen was hard for Ted, wife Phyllis and their five children. For a while there were earth floors and no electricity. Then an ancient generator supplied some light and offered relief from hand-pumping water from a well. Wood for the fires was cut by hand and there was a paraffin stove for cooking. And every day for nigh on those 40 years Ted walked the fen or navigated its waterways in what became a minute study of his beloved Wheatfen.
Don’t take my word for it. The broadcaster and environmentalist David Bellamy put it more expansively: “Wheatfen is in its way as important as Mount Everest…it is probably the most important bit of fenland we have (in the UK) because we know so much about it as one man has given his life trying to understand it.”

“During my own occupation of Wheatfen only moderate management (of the fen) has been exercised. There is great stress today on what can be called ‘gardening’ on nature reserves and in my view some of this is engaged in too hastily. -Ted Ellis


Ted Ellis as a young naturalist

Ted as a young naturalist - Credit: Ellis Family

But the storm clouds were gathering and with it Ted’s restless wish to communicate the wonders of the natural world tempered by environmental concerns long before they became fashionable in the TV programmes of national treasures such as David Attenborough. Back in the 70s Ted grew serious when he wrote in this newspaper: “Our main concern is the quality of human life as well as its bare survival. We stand at the crossroads where grim prospects can be seen. The more of nature we destroy and pollute, the sooner we shall destroy what makes our lives worth living.” That might have been written yesterday.
In that final talk to the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society he continued to juggle nature’s wonders with environmental damage. Pollution of the waterways by household detergents diffused through sewage effluents had lethal effects on plant-life and the enrichment and explosion of algae by phosphates and nitrates led to the destruction of aquatic insects and other invertebrates. And he ended with another clarion cry that is even more urgent today than it was 34 years ago :

“Today, when care of our wildlife and all that is beautiful in our landscape is the concern of millions, it will continue to be the role of all true naturalists to provide a solid backing for these efforts. The world over, we are friends with an interest and purpose in common which is not restricted by political barriers and religious prejudices-Ted Ellis

Boardwalk rebuilding at Wheatfen with warden Will Fitch, right, volunteers and boardwalk sponsor Tom Ellis, left

Boardwalk rebuilding at Wheatfen with warden Will Fitch, right, volunteers and boardwalk sponsor Tom Ellis, left - Credit: Submitted

The legacy of the People’s Nauralist lives on today at the Wheatfen Nature Reserve. It is the largest wholly independent reserve in Norfolk and Suffolk. His philosophy that the natural world was for everyone to enjoy is also enshrined in the principles of the Ted Ellis Trust which was established to preserve and protect this lovely landscape. There are no charges for entry or car parking and the site is open dawn to dusk throughout the year. The woodland is home to a forest school for children of all ages.
Crucially, it is a natural, calm place. It has not been stifled by over-organisation, ‘gardening’ as Ted called it, or by the sometimes claustrophobic strictness of the larger conservation bodies. It is a modern anomaly. A glistening gem half a dozen miles from the centre of Norwich and yet somehow hidden in full sight.

Ted Ellis working on a painting

Ted Ellis working on a painting - Credit: Ellis Family


Rooted in the recent past perhaps but Wheatfen has been vibrant with activity this year and last. The largest scrub clearance in the Broads for some years was followed by the pumping of thousands of tons of mud from the two small Broads. A new website (www.wheatfen.org ) has been designed and most recently, almost 200 metres of rotting boardwalk replaced with specially designed, recycled plastic by warden Will Fitch and a band of volunteers.
What’s interesting there is that the boardwalk was only made possible by local support which chimes with the ethos of the Trust. Grants from the Norwich-based Geoffrey Watling Charity and Norfolk Cottages, founded by Ted’s nephew Richard Ellis, were crucial. Norfolk Cottages, part of the Original (Holiday) Cottages Group, have been big supporters. They put up much of the money for Wheatfen’s Study Centre thanks to donations from holidaymakers.
But let’s leave the last word to Ted Ellis, who lays in a simple grave under the embrace of an English oak with a single, 
under-stated inscription, ‘Naturalist,’ alongside his name. To the day he died he remained forever jealous of the pastoral peace of the East Anglian countryside. And most famously of all perhaps, he described that countryside and the Broads as “a breathing space for the cure of souls.”
That’s why Wheatfen has remained carefully and quietly open to all during this year of Covid-19 to offer a welcoming and curative breathing space.

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