Ham Wall


I wrote the piece below after a visit to the Ham Wall wetland reserve. When I read it through afterwards I felt ‘So what?’ Who wants to read a plain account of someone watching birds?

It makes me question the purpose of a blog. A diary or journal is a personal document that’s not intended for publication. The best are often random and fragmentary. A blog, however, is a more finished piece of writing, and intended for immediate public consumption.

In Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Antic Hay’ the art critic Mercaptan enjoys sitting at his writing table ‘polishing to its final and gem-like perfection one of his middle articles’. Herein lies the danger: blogs are not literature, and they can encourage self-indulgence. Most writers are guilty of spending time improving their words – me included – and only a few have the ability to create a final draft at the first go. There’s a temptation to hone and beautify, but the dilemma always is that the writing can become precious and affected. You can try too hard with a blog.

It’s vital, too, that you have something significant to say. Blogs are surely not meant to be an extended form of Twitter, where people feel a bizarre compulsion to inform the world that they have just made a pot of tea or cleaned the carpets.

I’m still pondering blogs! But, anyway, here’s my post about Ham Wall for what it’s worth.

Saturday morning. I’m at the Ham Wall wetland reserve on the Somerset Levels. What will I see? Marsh harrier, bittern, great white egret? It’s something I never worry about here. If I’m not guaranteed a jackpot of birds I am guaranteed a beautiful walk. The last time I was here I saw few birds, but simply walking the paths was hugely enjoyable and an experience never-to-be-forgotten.

It’s late autumn, the sun hidden behind a ragged blanket of cloud. I’m early – the RSPB volunteers are still arriving and decking out their stalls. Alongside the old railway line the reed beds are tashed and dishevelled, the paths sodden rugs of browning leaves.

A friendly birder draped in Swarovski jewellery tells me there are snipe visible from one of the hides opposite the first viewing platform. At first I see only mallard, coot and a sentinel heron, and I’m about to turn away. I give the broken reeds one last glance and there they are: four exquisite snipe, long beaks tucked into their chests, so perfectly camouflaged they seem part and parcel of the reed mould.

I head for the viewing platform and immediately see a great white egret at the far edge of the water, poised on a single stick leg. Or is it? At first glance it can be hard to distinguish the little egret from the great white, especially at a distance when there’s nothing around it to help determine size. But when it turns I see the long yellow beak. It’s bigger and stockier than its dainty cousin, and not so pure white. A bit of a brute. In the foreground squatting on the water are a scattering of teal, widgeon, gadwall and shoveller, the last with the bizarre flat, square-ended beaks that give them their name.

Time to make the trek alongside the rhine to the new Avalon hide. Reeds with their fluffy white plumes tower over me seven or eight feet tall. A streaky sun momentarily pierces the cloud cover and they are shot through with luminous light. An RSPB machine has been chopping up the reeds, leaving giant mounds of what look like unappetising breakfast cereal. Birch trees fringing the narrow skirts of woodland are in flame.

I climb the steps of the hide and immediately see a marsh harrier. He’s hunting, flying low over the clumps of blanched grass. Suddenly he arches his chest, draws himself up, and hangs poised in mid air, defying gravity, before dropping fast into the long grass. Time and again he fails to make a catch, circles the old iron wind pump two or three times, then drifts languidly away across the reeds and out of sight.

Back along the path I see a minute movement in the trees. Finding the bird in the binoculars proves almost impossible, the shifting and fluttering is so swift and sudden. But then a brief glimpse – a goldcrest. And that’s it. Goldcrests are always where they’re not.

A few yards further along a piercing call from the reed beds. A Cetti’s warbler. It’s so loud you’d think it would shake the bird’s tiny body apart. A group of birders gather around, peering into the trees, hoping for a sighting. We wait patiently for minutes on end, binoculars poised, before agreeing sagely that you hear the secretive Cetti’s, you don’t see him, and moving on.

Read also my earlier post about a visit to the Steart Wetland reserve.


About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends (www.friendsofcoleridge.com). My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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