Simon Barnes: How a Cetti’s song sealed my move to Norfolk

Simon Barnes at his home in Norfolk. The song of a Cettis warbler sealed the deal.

Simon Barnes at his home in Norfolk. The song of a Cettis warbler sealed the deal. - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

It was a nice house, but we were still in two minds about buying it. Then a Cetti's warbler sang out in the shocking, sudden manner that Cettis specialise in.

A Cettis warbler is caught on camera at Minsmere Nature Reserve. Picture: Steve Plume

A Cettis warbler is caught on camera at Minsmere Nature Reserve. Picture: Steve Plume - Credit: Steve Plume

'We'll take it,' I said. Well, a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Certainly the Cetti settled our fate. And so we crossed the Waveney after 14 excellent years in Suffolk and settled down on the edge of the Broads.

Naturally there were plenty of jokes about 'going over to the dark side'.

I know a café not far from where we lived where the owner won't serve peas and sweetcorn on the same plate – apparently the colour combination upsets him. But my view is that we have become more deeply East Anglian. We made our move partly in search of a deeper wildness, and that's what we found on a generous floodplain spread out beneath a vast sky and not a dwelling-place in sight.

Because it's not just what a Cetti's warbler is.


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It's also what a Cetti's warbler means.

Cettis used to be pretty fancy birds; birds that gladdened the hearts of hard-core birders.

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But they're not climate-change sceptics: and as our winters have got milder they have prospered. These days you find them all over East Anglia, wherever it's wet and wild.

They hang about all year, though they shift about locally, and if you placed a live one in my hand I probably wouldn't recognise it. They are birds to know by ear: birds that have their being in their loud and shouty song.

They flaunt themselves in your ear and shrink from your sight: always keen to let you know they are there, but deeply reluctant to tell you exactly where. This is the Beau Geste Stratagem in action.

It is named for the foreign legionnaire who convinced the attackers that the fort was heavily defended, when it was nothing of the kind.

You can never really be sure how many Cettis are out there on the marsh and singing.

Sometimes I've fancied there were three on our bit, at other times quite certain there were two.

But now the frenzies of the spring are over – the time when a Cetti must give all his energies to the task of making more Cettis – I suspect there was just one.

They don't work this stratagem to tease birdwatchers. It's to fool rival males.

If a stranger drops in on a likely-looking bit of marsh, he'll wonder if there's a vacancy. But if he gets the idea that there are two, or even three strident and noisy cock-bids out there, he will fly on, reckoning the odds are against him. Beau Geste strikes again.

But for a human – a human tuned in to the sounds of the wild landscapes of East Anglia – the sound of a Cetti hands out an unequivocal message about wildness.

They tell you that you have moved on from the robins and blue tits and have penetrated a deeper layer of the wild world.

Here in our crazy bit of marsh anything might happen. On a still autumn night full of mysterious mistiness, the cry of a muntjac puts you in the middle of a horror film.

On a sunlit afternoon, the flash of a kingfisher takes you to Eden.

Norfolk can do these extremes and do them often – and the shout of the Cettis is the giveaway: the message that you have entered another dimension of wildness. I'm not here to knock Suffolk. I'm here to praise East Anglia.

Follow the Cetti and you won't go wrong.

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