Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hockham Mere


My friend Julia B and I met yesterday at Great Hockham for a wilderness expedition.

Julia is researching a book on Doggerland, the inhabitable land area in the North Sea basin which was drowned as sea levels rose at the end of the last glacial period, the Devensian. Its landscape changed from tundra to forest, then marsh and finally sea, in a process that spanned the transition from the Devensian into our own Flandrian warm period, roughly from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. This ancestral land is now out of reach of our exploration: we needed somewhere else to experience elements of its vanished wilderness.

Is it possible to talk of 'wilderness' in Norfolk? Other countries have tracts of land we can easily label wilderness - areas defined by the lack of human habitation or disturbance, graced with plant and animal communities and geomorphological processes that operate in ways unshaped by human agency. 'Tis true, we are hardly likely to encounter wolves or frost-shattered peaks in Norfolk - let Ansel Adams picture them for us - but I think the intertidal zone is implicitly wilderness. We have some 90 miles of coastline at the land/sea interface, where the fluxes of wind, waves and tides shape the sand and shingle without reference to humans, and plant and animal lifeworlds may create their biological meshes of meaning undisturbed.

Wind, sand and razor shells on Titchwell beach.

We also have wilderness at the micro-level: life with its processes, unmediated and raw, at the levels of cell and leaf, in every wood, field or garden, under every stone, in every lump of rotting wood. There are beings for whom this spatial level is their life's horizon, and I imagine it is pure wilderness down among the grass roots in my lawn - the selfsame lawn I walk or picnic on. Wilderness is the landscape that belongs to the Germanic vill or wild, the Latinate desierto, selvaggio or sauvage. The word enfolds, in English, a sense of the alien, empty and untamed. At its heart is wildness.

We carry wildness in ourselves, for instance in our blood flow, breathing, dreams and borborygmus which have their own strange, untameable life-logic, even though we know them to be truly and organically ourselves. There is also wildness we experience in others when we realise that they are simply 'not me'; they have their own life-logic which may overlap with our own but it is radically Other and different, perhaps alien. It could be a friend, a neighbour or a bird. We find they are partly 'me' - but mostly not.

Thus, our perception of wilderness may have its roots in the radical Otherness of a landscape: we are forced to meet it on its own terms and not ours. We may be able to find resources and affordances within it, places of identity, attachment and utility, but it remains - at its core - essentially 'other' and wild.

Tyresta forest, Sweden - beavers at work. Photo courtesy Lena Ohre.

Our expedition had prehistoric wilderness in mind - specifically any evocative traces of the lost life-world of Doggerland to be found in the Hockham area. Its task would be both dreamwork and a perceptive attention to the present landscape through which an imaginative experience of the late glacial and early post-glacial landscape might become possible. The result would be writing.
'A text of nature writing is a representational model of the meaning relations that a writer has perceived in the environment under specific conditions, determined by the time, location, and the biological and cultural abilities of the perceiver.' [1]

As a 'representational model', nature writing is a translation from the Otherness of nature, as we experience it, into the selfhood of words. We go outward into Otherness: we return to Ourselves. In the case of Doggerland we are dealing with a world of plants, animals and human life which can no longer be directly experienced. Translation may risk going awry and descending into ungrounded phantasmagoria that have the ring of fantasy but not of vital truth. What we need is eye-opening places where what is experienceable today and what was experienceable 10,000 years ago can come together and bear fruit: the fungi and berries of lifeworld visions.

Suppose we wanted to experience a Devensian environment today we'd need to go north, to the Arctic. The last ice age lingers there, clinging to the circumpolar zone in the face of the planet's encroaching hyper-warmth, along with its refugees the snow buntings and musk oxen, beetles and midges, pingos and permafrost. My studies tell me this part of Norfolk is awash with physical (and even some biological) evidence for life in the Devensian.

If we wanted to experience an early Flandrian environment we'd need to go north-east, to visit the low-lying landscapes around the Baltic, for example Soomaa in Estonia, where bogs and boreal forest go hand in hand; landscapes of birch and pine, beetle and midge, lake and moraine. The marshy, forested land at Frost's Common and Cranberry Rough, Hockham, has a similar aspect, though no longer inhabited by wolf, elk and lynx.

For Doggerland itself, scientific research has begun to lay bare the geography using remote sensing and sampling techniques[2].We are beginning to chart the layout of drowned estuaries and low hills, fens and plains, on the seafloor and beneath it. We know about the kinds of plants and animals present, and the timing of the submergence. We now have details of this lost, low-lying landscape available to us in words and maps. It probably looked rather like parts of Norfolk.

For understanding the people of Doggerland, we could draw on the experience of the hunting & gathering peoples of the northern forests, coasts and tundras. They are the ones who grappled in deed and myth, in actions, words and songs, with the realities of life in this kind of environment. This would complement the traces of local Mesolithic occupation. Perhaps some of the people settled at Hockham were refugees from Doggerland. What language, stories and skills did they bring with them?

A digital terrain map (DTM) of Frost's Common (right), with the eastern margin of Cranberry Rough (left).
A pattern of ditches can clearly be seen, evidence of 20th century drainage work.
Imagery © Forestry Research, courtesy Breaking New Ground data.

Hockham Mere

Our expedition was focused on the western side of Hockham parish. It included Frost's Common, an area pockmarked with a concentration of ponds. As a digital terrain map shows, the land slopes hence gently westward into a broad basin area, a shallow sump for water draining from the glacial sands, gravels and clays which underlie it. This is the area called Cranberry Rough, the site of an ancient lake known as Hockham Mere. Its muds were investigated by researchers in the 1940s, who cored down and recovered samples to a depth of 30 ft (9 m). They were able to show that the Mere holds a sedimentary sequence going back to the end of the last ice age, with a fossil pollen sequence to match[3]. 

The Mere
probably existed in some form until Tudor times before being drained with a network of ditches. 19th century maps show this reclaimed land as swamp woodland and rough pasture, with the eastern part set aside as a Poor's Fen allotment; altogether it covered some 190 acres (76 ha). Patches of worked flint near the western end and traces of charcoal in the lake muds are evidence of occupation by Mesolithic hunters & gatherers, more than 7,000 years ago. There is a Roman road, the Peddar's Way, tracking nearby, and the vestiges of a deserted railway line cutting across it. The southern half of the site is managed by the Forestry Commission, and so theoretically it is publicly- accessible. Until recently almost all Cranberry Rough was covered with woodland, but a programme of publicly funded works has now cleared trees and bushes from the southern half of the site, revealing a flat tract of boggy pasture. The oozing, privately-owned core of
its northern half is swamp carr, pristine and impenetrable.

Swamp carr at the heart of at Cranberry Rough, May 2015

We parked that car near the entrance to Fire Route 83, and entered the forest. We followed our own trackless path.

Frost's Common

'Maa iidse tiigid'
'The land of ancient ponds'

Deadened by crowding trees, the sounds of traffic on the A1075 are muffled and soon die away. Frost's Common has an extraordinary power of dépaysement, of taking one elsewhere - in this case somewhere boreal and strange. I have been in similarly odd, crumbly forests in Sweden where the delightful and the sinister are woven together equally. An attractive variety of broad-leaved and coniferous trees presides over a complex of brooding ponds; the tracks of deer (and some bigger animals) are woven here and there over the earth; in some places dense mats of dead bracken mask a jumble of rotten trunks. Mosses, lichens and fungi abound. Time passes and - pixie-led - one finds oneself going in green circles, for one cluster of ponds looks much like another. One steers by instinct - or the sun, if its position can be discerned.

A forest glade

Evergreens beside a periglacial pond.


Geologically speaking, the land at Frost's Common is a mosaic of sands and chalky clays, and the ponds are probably relict lithalsa or pingo landforms. Fourteen thousand years ago the ground here would have been swollen with permafrost ice. The surface layers would melt in summer then refreeze in winter. Patches of water-bearing sand in the subsoil would swell up and form large blisters of ice, with freezing and thawing happening on a seasonal basis. At the end of the ice age these active frost mounds became permanent ponds. There must be fifty such ponds and wet depressions surviving at the Common. It is a landscape ravaged by periglacial pox.

'Piirneva niiske luht'
'Bordering a damp meadow'

The hummocky terrain of Frost's Common gives way, on its western side, to an open area surrounded by forest. It is less a glade than a rough, tussocky, damp heath. The ground undulates with a few ground-ice depressions, and is sporadically studded with willow, hawthorn and gorse. It seems to be a tract of clear-felled forest that was not replanted. It is not attractive, but does have a very strong sense of place about it. Many years ago, in the Åland Islands of the Baltic, I waited at dusk for elk (Alces alces) to emerge in such a place as this. Stepping into the open here, one is aware that other eyes may be watching.

'Ja tume männimets'
'And a dark forest of pine trees'

The damp meadow gives way to patchy, mixed woodland of oak, pine, poplar and willow. This in turn gives way to regular pine plantation. Passing through it means treading underfoot a spongey carpet of dead needles; one's horizon is reduced to a brown world of spiky and straight-planted bole corridors; one's hearing is hushed and closeted. Vestiges of freedom still remain in the tree tops, however, where occasional titmice twitter and flit, and breezes may ruffle greenery in the topmost twigs. Our attention is mostly on the ground. We stumble over half-buried snags. We find a startling splash of chrome yellow slime, a creeping myxomycete. We notice the landscape's resources, its tracks, trails and signals. Deer droppings; scraps of egg shell; the tang of a fox; tufts of foxglove or fern. Overhead, away above the tree tops, passing pigeons and carrion crows. The trees are mostly young, perhaps 20 years old, but have none of the casual spontaneity of youth: they are already dry, serious characters. It seems a human body could lie here, in the silence at their feet, buried beneath a steady rain of needles for decades before being discovered. But I suspect my imagination is running away with me here: the foxes would soon make it their own and the crows would strip what remained, leaving just wreckage. The place is more populated than it seems, and there are large, fresh-looking animal tracks meandering among the pines, evidence of other-than-human wills contributing to making the place.

The myxomycete

Corridors of forestry brash

We navigate westwards through the forest, until the pines loosen as the ground becomes wetter. Birches and willows step in once more. They mark the eastern margin of the former Mere. We reach a gate from which, 1000 years ago, we might have surveyed wild water and fen.  

Cranberry Rough

'Siin on sissepääs suur raba'
'Then the entry to a large swamp'

We are walking across the old lake ground and its soggy, partly-drained successor. Dark, peat-rich soil has been mechanically stripped of encroaching trees to reveal a wetland in the remaking. Cattle have poached the ground into a black chaos of wet potholes which we step through to reach a balk of higher ground which runs westward across the site. This will be our only access route.

Like hunters, our senses take in the layout of woodland and water bodies, the direction of the wind, the evidence of bird and animal life. At each step we evaluate threats and resources, check our orientation, adjust our thoughts to the terrain and to each other. We find we are not alone.

This marsh is alive with living things that shy in our presence - the birds. They are signs in our wilderness, and we in theirs. Geese, ponderous and clamouring as they rise. Herons, craking. An explosion of teal in a whirr of wings that peels off the marsh, swings round then refocuses farther off, each bird dropping back with a white splash to water. And distant, about 800 yards away, the eye discerns what look like aurochsen - ochreous cattle, hairy and over-horned - pasturing on what the swamp has to offer by way of December's dying herbage. If we want to reach cross the Mere and find the place where the Mesolithic flints were found we shall have to pass them.

Courage fails me. I am unnerved by the aurochsen and the birds. We are standing exposed in a chilly emptiness. Is it wilderness or nature reserve; public or private space? It's only two o'clock but daylight seems already to be fading.

I notice that I have lost or misplaced my mobile 'phone. I want to retrace my steps - our steps - to look for it before the light fails, and Julia agrees. 
We turn back.

The return

'Suur raba,
Piirneb tume männimets,
Siis niiske luht,
Ja maa iidse tiigid'.

'A large swamp,
Bordered by dark pine forest, 
Then a damp meadow
And a land of ancient ponds'.

Walking back, our attention is on the ground, on little details, as we walk; they become the thread back through the labyrinth of our expedition: back across the great swamp - through the forest of pines - across the damp meadow - between the ancient ponds. We revisit our walk's geography in reverse, following my memory's representation (such as it is). I recognise my boot-prints. I remember where I stood to watch a pair of carrion crows. We cross the same beast paths; navigate between the same boles (or just about). I notice a patch of yellow slime. Here is the place among the damp pine needles where we picnicked on green olives, boiled eggs and black chocolate. I recall the crossing of a clearing or the skirting of a pond; the place where we doubled certain bushes, or stepped over a fallen trunk; a pile of droppings or a feather. It is extraordinary how vivid some memories are: I find myself able to retrace tracks and relocate localities we were at two hours earlier. The hunter/gatherer in me is impressed: I am an asset to the tribe.

Back at the car park I find my mobile phone buried safely in a bag, so all is well there. This story poses some awkward questions about the quality of my memory. Perhaps I'm not such an asset after all. However Julia has been discovering the landscape and taking notes about it, and I am pleased to have been her guide.

I have since learned that the yellow myxomycete is Fuligo septica, a species with a strange Fenno-Scandinavian mythology: said to be the vomit of troll cats or, in Estonia, the leavings of the demon Kratt. Each society in each age interprets natural phenomena in its own way. Today, in 2016, the texts books can tell me a lot about the biology of slime moulds, and I find the idea that troll cats may roam the Hockham Woods an appealing one. However, the most important thing seems to me that Julia and I encountered this strange organism together here – out in the heart of a Norfolk wilderness – much as our ancestors, some 9,000 years and perhaps 500 generations ago, might have found it on a pine forest floor in old Doggerland – a landscape now submerged by more than time.

Seal on heita pilku kulla kõnnumaal'.
'There is a glimpse of gold in the wilderness'.

How would our ancestors have named this thing?


[1] - Maran, Timo & Tüür, Kadri (2016): From birds and trees to texts: An ecosemiotic look at Estonian nature writing. In: Parham, John & Westling, Louise (Eds): A Global History of Literature and the Environment; Cambridge University Press.
[2] - Gaffney, V, Fitch, S, and Smith, D (2009): Europe's Lost World - The rediscovery of Doggerland; Council for British Archaeology.
[3] - Godwin, H & Tallentire, PA (1951): Hockham Mere, Norfolk; Journal of Ecology 39.

With acknowledgements to Google for Estonian translation, and apologies for the inevitable faults of grammar and meaning ...