The plateau areas of High Suffolk and South Norfolk are founded on the same sticky glacial clay. Their fields, lanes, farmsteads and settlements have a reassuring sameness that comes from a single geological heritage.
Like my friend Matt Williams, I think that geology determines so much more than we are aware of. 'Geology drives everything', he claims. He is a devotee of 'psychogeology', a branch of knowledge 'whereby we would study the specific effects of the subterranean city, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals and the development of culture' (ibid, p.148). Can we do the same for countryside?
This afternoon I needed to get out of the house. A month of illness has left me weak and light-deprived. I parked near Syleham Mill beside the River Waveney. I had an obscure intention of just walking along the damp meadows, then climbing the valley side and returning by a country lane on the plateau. This plan worked well until I realised that the sun was rapidly hiding itself in the trees and overgrown hedges of the valley bottom, though occasional shafts of light were still sneaking through. An old gate post was transfigured with a green-gold glow - the result of an alchemy between photons and algae. It reminded me how much I wanted the light. I had to escape the valley.
A well-used stile opened onto a rising footpath and offered the right opening. Within two minutes I was out into the sun's domain; I was part of the plateau scene. Cool wind was streaming from the south, and chilling my face. Light streamed from a golden sunwheel close to setting, lighting up the hawthorn hedgerow on my left-hand side, making me blink. Then I noticed something unusual: if I closed my right eye the bushes took on a reddish tint; if I closed my left they took on a yellowish one. Walking on, I repeated the experiment: the results were the same. Then opening both eyes together, the hedge became a beautiful orange colour. My painter friend Julia Sorrell would have noticed this too; she would certainly have known which pigments to reach for on her palette.
Out on the clay plateau, close to sunset, the land was shifting towards dusk. I had an hour at best
to complete my walker's circle, but I had a deep desire to keep sharing the sun's remnants. I needed to keep walking across open ground - out in the uplands of Syleham.
A public footpath was signposted across ploughland, but the waymark posts soon disappeared. Close to sunset, surrounded by an austere and unpeopled landscape, I wanted to range at will. I trudged past skimpy hedgelines and bare headlands; I circled a lonely pond. I harvested the last rays of sunlight. To the south, the darker mass of a large and ancient farmstead, Syleham Hall, about a half mile distant and surrounded by tall trees. Underfoot, the wintry, green turf and the ploughsoil itself, coloured something between brown and yellow and derived from a weathered matrix of blue-grey, glacial clay.
A mournful feeling began growing on me at sunset. Nothing to do with my state of general physical debilitation or sense of isolation in this lonely upland. It was that familiar sense of depression, common to anyone who understands the fate of the countryside in the last 60 years. Passing along a flail-mown hedgerow I looked into it for signs of old birds' nests but could see none. Modern intensive arable farming has left the plateau seedless, insectless and mostly treeless. A few grassy headlands and straggling hedges are remnants of a patchwork of fields that once gave character to the area and nourished a very diverse population of plants, birds and insects. We know this because we have old maps to go by, and accounts of the abundance of, for example, flocks of buntings and finches overwintering on partly gleaned stubble and the wealth of arable weed species that once infused the ground. Today, it's as though the claylands have fallen under a malign spell. Even though the elements of the earlier - in many places relict Mediaeval - pattern of fields, farms, woods, ponds and commons can still be discerned here and there on the claylands , the wider effect of 20th century agricultural change has been to erode and dissolve too much of this meaningful landscape and to coarsen its details. The monotonous, brown body of the boulder clay, deprived of its native biodiversity, has been turned into a sterile growing medium for high-yielding crop types. Nobody blames the farmers for doing that; I think that if Gramoxone had been available to the farmers of the Neolithic they would probably have used it on their fields (if not on each other). But the future is not looking good. The surface of the boulder clay is no longer a properly structured soil with humus and earthworms but a heavy, lifeless paste. Natural wealth of one kind, beneficial for all living things, has given way to wealth of another kind, stacked up in the bank accounts of chemical companies and supermarkets.
I reached the outskirts of Syleham Hall Farm, a cluster of large agricultural barns with bales of plastic-wrapped silage and a small, whirring wind turbine. The house itself was hidden, but the tall trees surrounding it were a reminder that not this landscape is treeless. Discretely skirting the site, I came across a waymarked stile and an old pasture containing a pond. Syleham Hall Farm evidently still practices mixed farming! This is rarer in the claylands than one might think, and has beneficial implications for landscape as well as wildlife conservation.
I have always liked old clayland ponds in pasture. My favourite example would be the one at Snape Green, Rickinghall. These sites have real character: they have beaches: a pot-holed and sticky terrain which is awkward to walk across in any season; they have cliffs: clayey steeps beneath grassy brows that strangely never seem to slump or crumble; their waters are almost always opaque with duckweed or suspended clay particles. Some may have begun life as sources of daub or clay lump for buildings, but all owe their formation to centuries-old interactions between water, clay and trampling feet. Like a cliffed coastline, their edges are fretted with promontories and embayments. They are a magnet for wildlife of all kinds.
|Pond at Hall Farm Meadow, Syleham.|
A windless dusk-fall can be a time for sharpened senses. Our pupils are open as an owl's to catch the last light. Facing the afterglow, everything is etched in black silhouette: trees, bushes, hillsides, blades of grass, all melting from three into two dimensions. Our hearing picks up distant detail: the sounds of a trickling field drain, a dog's bark or a human voice may carry a long way through still air.
- Rustling of water over bare flints in the floor of a ditch where the plateau was shrugging away recent rainfall.
- A ribbon of pale mist filling the ditch where air had been chilled to dew point, though invisible when reached.
- The blueing and eventual removal of all colours by night-fall.
- Granular optics of gloom: retinal cells pixilating vision.
Here, at the boundary between day and night on the edge of the High Suffolk clayland, the categories of Time and Place are neither one thing nor another to the human mind.
 - Williams, M. 'Subterranean Norwich. The grain of the city'. Lasse Press, Norwich, 2017.
 - Warner, P. 'Greens, Commons and Clayland Colonisation. The origins and development of green-side settlement in East Suffolk'. Leicester University Press, 1987.