OPINION: Norfolk's great writers have long documented nature's sad demise

Even a tree written off as bit of a wreck still manages to call out for close inspection 

Even a tree written off as bit of a wreck still manages to call out for close inspection - Credit: Trevor Allen

Frisky February certainly set a stiff sou’wester of a challenge to month-of-many-weathers March when it comes to blowing up a stormy passage into the blossoming beauties of springtime.

For all that, March can turn spiteful, mocking dreams of another cricket season, another summer, another tan to turn them green with envy at the office.

It can build up anticipation one day, with that sense of peaceful power in the world of reawakening nature, and then conjure stinging winds and sudden snowflakes out of nowhere to remind us winter has not yet disappeared over the headlands.

I recall how to alight on a clump of snowdrops, violets, primroses or cowslips in Norfolk of the late 20th century served only to underline how much we had lost. “Never go back!” they cry as you sneak towards childhood pastures, scramble over yesterday’s ditches in pursuit of summer’s messengers. But you go all the same still hoping, still wondering.

Rosemary Tilbrook, writing in the EDP in March 1984, didn’t mince her words after looking down her local lanes …”Today it is dangerous being alive in the natural history world at all. Dangerous to be a cowslip. Dangerous to be a little tree living in a hedgerow. Nothing is safe for tomorrow

“No-one would ever have believed it possible that in 50 years – the merest trickle of evolutionary time – the inexhaustible wealth of wildlife would have vanished to such an extent, that an awesome responsibility would exist for the future of everything left alive on the earth today”.

At the same time, Ted Ellis, doyen of local naturalists, was warning how industrial pollution and urban effluent were slowly killing the North Sea’s marine life … “The rivers of Europe are pouring filth into the North Sea and towns such as Yarmouth and Cromer are pumping pollution into it, and vast areas of the seabed are becoming sterile. Modern detergents are ruining the Norfolk Broads. I did suggest this might be happening but it was 15 years before anyone took the slightest notice. And they have spent millions since trying to put it right.”

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The following March brought a heartfelt cry from Whissonsett as cold winds of change prompted these lines in a letter to the EDP: “Ours is a small village halfway between Dereham and Fakenham. On reaching this point you turn left towards Horningtoft and approach the village I live in

“This road used to be a pleasure to see. Hedgerows with trees and bushes full of life, but during recent years the road has been transformed into a half-mile stretch of tarmac separating two vast areas of farmland without a tree or bush in sight. The other road to Stanfield is getting the same shameful treatment.”

Of course one of the biggest stand-out dates of an era when environmental concerns started pointing the way towards our current global climate change issues is October 16,1987 when unexpected hurricane winds spelt widespread devastation.

I wrote in my diary: “We are in mourning for the loss of countless old friends. Fallen soldiers across the Norfolk battlefields. Bemused starlings offering a ten-squawk salute in branches wearing autumn’s bridal colours in a shroud. Leaves picked up and scattered like so many good intentions left behind by summer’s sloth.

“ A puckish breeze after that mad dentist of a hurricane uprooted so many years of natural beauty in town and country. We are left to wonder how many ceremonies with spade and public spirit to make any impact and to dig into the past to find evidence that we might have got off lightly this time.”

Coincidentally, October 16, 1881 brought big problems. Vicar of East Dereham Rev Benjamin Armstrong jotted down in his diary:
“England was visited by a violent hurricane which did much damage on land and sea.”

Henry Rider Haggard drew a far more dramatic picture at end of the 19th century when he peered over his shoulder in A Farmer’s Year to sum up the tempest of March, 1895: “Everywhere trees were going down. They just bowed and vanished. One instant they were standing, the next they were gone.. But if it was rough Bungay way, other parts of the area, East Norfolk in particular, took the full blast.

“There the trees fell literally in the ten thousand and such a sight the woods presented after the hurricane was done with I never before witnessed. In some instances they were perfectly flat, a tangled heap of boughs and timber, and, here and there, standing above the debris, a deep-rooted oak with the top twisted out of it or a great Scotch fir snapped in two like a carrot.”

“A friend told me he stood in the middle of a little park, and watched the surrounding trees go down just as though they were being pressed to the earth by the power of some mighty hand. First, the outer trees would fall , then line by line those that stood within till little or nothing was left.

“ And the most curious feature of this marvellous spectacle was that no noise could be heard.”