I left the reserve car park in complete darkness, stars bright as diamonds in the ink black skies above me. The road had been closed but I had been let through by one of the Norfolk Constabulary’s finest, patrolling the flood zone in his 4×4 and now, a ruc-sac across my shoulders, I set off towards the coast, trusting my memory of the path and the growing acclimatisation of eyes to the darkness. Walking warmed the body quickly and I found a comfortable rhythm, still in the relative shelter of the deep shadowed hedgerows.
The path opened up and a group of geese lifted from the inland lagoon, honking in unison as they rose and peeled away. Up and along a flood bank and the strong and freshening breeze hit fully, sapping warmth immediately from exposed skin. With the rising of the wind, sound levels lifted too, overlaid now with the always heart-stopping sound of wild birds in their masses. The sound of geese, gulls, knots and a multitude of other waders calling in their thousands filled the air, buffeted to the ears by the pulsing wind. The south eastern sky was showing the first smear of light and seeing eyes now lifted upward to the lines of geese now visible, streaming away to all points of the compass, skeins layered at different altitudes that were mimicked by mechanical wings that filled these dawn skies 70 years before as they assembled and headed for the continent. I reached the shoreline now and sound and wind levels lifted further, the scudding white crests of the wave tops to my right whipped into spind-drift as wind and tide met to dance.
This destructive dance, it was said on reports across the media throughout the day, was predicted to rival the tide surges of the North Sea storm of 1953 and as I walked along the beach path I could see how high the water had reached the previous evening and that this particular walk would have been impossible those few hours earlier. It was still hard to see clearly but under foot sand and gravel were alternatively ripped from and deposited on the path, strewn patches of seaweed strung out like prayer flages on the scrub that lined the trail. I was approaching the Rotary hide now and a tall, well-wrapped figure appeared out of the gloom.
“Morning. How’s it looking?”
“It’s all flooded, there’s no way round to the hides” he said.
His plan he explained was to circuit round the other side of the inland lagoon and see what he could find round that side. I decided to push on. It was still dark and the lure of the tumultuous sound of bird and sea drew me onward. I paused to record it, sheltering close to a bush and then pressed on towards the saltmarsh.
Although I was still well ahead of the predicted high tide time, the mudflats already looked fully immersed and the surging water was pushing into the salt-marsh. The seaward horizon was picked with the occasional ship-light but as the sky grew gradually lighter, lines and swirls of birds coalesced and came into view.
Turning to the south-east and the sky was blushed in a wash of pink as sunlight touched the earth’s upper atmosphere; across it silhouetted clouds of knot and oystercatcher dashed in haphazard patterns, searching for respite from storm and tide. My attention switched back and forth from seaward to landward, from the rapidly changing biomorphic shapes of the waders forming above the grey maelstrom, to the sharp charcoaled stencils slicing through the dawn light against the inland horizon. Occasional small parties of knots flew head height past me across the land bar, too quick to be dodged, acknowledged with a gasp, flashes of black and white plumage caught in the golden glow of dawn.
More light illuminated the land with each passing minute, revealing a Snettisham reserve altered by the night’s events and the full height of the storm surge at the previous high tide. Small lakes prevented access to the Shore hide and further round, where access was equally impassable, the Sanctuary hide appeared up-turned and a serious casualty.
As the full force of the sun finally bathed the scene from low in the eastern sky I headed back along the beach, the sea still pushing inward, though the beach looked to be winning the battle of this tide at least. I threaded my way inland and back to the car-park, an exhilarating morning ready to be capped with a hearty breakfast back at Ashdene House, my B&B for the night (and thoroughly recommended).
The images gathered below can only hint at a night on the reserve of both natural and meteorological drama. It will take some time for the reserve and also for those homes caught by the flooding in various pockets along the eastern coast on Thursday night to recover.
The reserve is currently closed to assess the damage and affect repairs. For the latest reserve news, click here