But there aren’t any birds in Chelsea

I’ve just spent the day with a good man in a charming place called Cley-next-the-Sea, which is a picturesque village in north Norfolk. I’ve been there many times before – more than I could possibly remember actually – since my first visit in the early 1960s, although it’s been about twelve years since I was last there and that was just a drive-by.

If you take any interest in birds or birding then you’ll know about this place, but for any readers that don’t I can tell you that it’s perhaps the most significant of avian locations in England. Due to its location and the variety of surrounding habitats it receives an extraordinary number of rarities so, at one time or another, every birder who takes his or her craft seriously makes the pilgrimage to Cley. Many birders have even moved there.

Cley is a pretty village, with many houses constructed using the local flint cobbles, a fine medieval church and a famous windmill but it has changed a lot over the years. Although it was warm and sunny today the bittersweet scent of nostalgia hung in the air. Now whether or not that was nostalgia for a carefree youth spent wandering unrestricted in Britain’s wild places or sadness at the changes progress imposes on places one’s come to love I haven’t yet worked out. Nevertheless, there was something about the traffic queues, gourmet food, missing Post Office and improved properties – and in all fairness there were some beautifully renovated properties to see – that didn’t sit well with me.

Although Simon had given me directions, I drove into Cley from memory. The single-track lanes and hamlets became increasingly familiar the nearer I got to the sea and as I arrived I waived a hearty ‘Good morning’ to a lady walking her dogs. When I asked if I was on the correct road her response was more than helpful and provided me with a lot more information than I needed about the church, the village green and the lanes I should use. But she spoke to me in the friendly manner and singular Norfolk twang that told me she was local. Compare that to the couple further along. Despite their worldly appearance, tailored shorts and London accents, they could barely make eye contact to acknowledge my ‘morning’ as I eased past them beside the churchyard wall. These days Cley, like many of the surrounding villages, has a great many holiday or weekend homes and is often described as ‘Chelsea-on-sea’. Around half the properties in the village remain unoccupied for part of the year. The population of Cley remains at something around 380, less than half what it was in its heyday, but the village supports art and ceramic galleries, antique shops, restaurants, a smokehouse and a pretty robust delicatessen. Plenty of places to shop if you’re up from town, no? Not so interesting if you are a local kid and want a home.

In the days when I first made the journey north it was desolate, wild and informal. It was mostly cold, too and often really very cold. I loved the place. Information on what or who ‘was about’ was obtained from a hand-written notebook in Billy Bishop’s hut [actually the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s [NWT] hut; he was their warden for over forty years] above Arnold’s Marsh or pinned to the wall in The George Hotel, so those were essential ports of call at some time during the day depending on when you arrived there. Billy’s hut is now an ‘environmentally friendly’ visitors’ centre. If you’d arrived to ‘twitch’ a particular bird then you’d have received a telephone call and consequently had to know the area or know who to ask to get at it. It was a more innocent time, before personal communications took hold; free of e-mail, mobile phones, pagers and satnavs. Getting to see your bird then was more of a hit-and-miss affair than it is today, when GPS coordinates will pinpoint an exact tree for you. It was also more of an adventure. If the weather was fine you’d pause in the walk down the East Bank towards the sea and catch up with gossip through friends, acquaintances or anyone else in a bobble-hat and rubber boots carrying binoculars. Back then we just wanted to keep warm and our uniform was more or less standard; it would be a while before today’s efficient clothes and designer footwear offered us the opportunity to ‘twitch’ a Cream-coloured Courser and make a fashion statement. Access wasn’t that good but you could park fairly near to where you wanted to be and it was free. Now the High Street is a car park most of the time and if you don’t keep your windows shut as you creep along someone will try to take three quid off you. 

And you had to take your victuals with you then as there were no award-winning delis or organic vegetarian restaurants. That’s where I learned to like warmish soup from a thermos and dry cheese sandwiches even if my palette is a little more sophisticated these days. 

But the birds are there, the first rule of nostalgia still being that nothing is as good as it used to be. We didn’t do much birding but watched a resting Barn Owl from the garden, then Whimbrels and Little Egrets on the marsh. Four-wheel drives or not, Cley will still keep delivering.


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