Cliffe Marshes

The north easterly blows hard across the water of the flooded clay pit and whips the waves into a choppy mess. The sun is surprisingly warm out of the wind and insects work the few flowers, all of them yellow; including bristly ox-tongue that swamps every patch of waste ground and yellow-wort that peppers the rabbit-grazed turf.

Ducks and waders keep to the lee shore and only grebes bob unconcerned in the middle. Trips of black-headed gulls flutter over the water and repeatedly drop with trailing legs and a clumsy splash of a landing to pick items from the surface.  Other, larger gulls seem to do nothing but patrol on stiff wings and watch everything with an unwavering eye.

A flock of avocets is disturbed by some weekend walkers on the far bank and twist and wiffle in the air, brilliant white in the afternoon sun.  The backdrop to this aerobatic display, across the flat grazing marshes dotted with wool-rounded sheep, is of squat oil terminals and vast container ships laden with neatly stacked, containers tucked up beneath great grey cranes. The pastel shades and patterns of the tall stacks constantly draw the eye like an installation.

Mallard, shoveler and tufted ducks rise as well and are carried fast and direct on the wind to other pools to the west. A spotted redshank calls and disappears low behind a island; pairs of redshank shriek, rolling and twisting with a white wing flash becoming hard to follow against a background of lapwings that drift effortlessly to another distant bay. A male marsh harrier swings over the marsh carried on the wind but the flocks appear unconcerned, except for a few score of starlings that erupt but stay bunched before landing quickly to once again drill the rank grass for leatherjackets.

There are neither winter thrushes nor immigrant blackbirds from the east in the thorn bushes laden with haws and twists of old man’s beard next to the stony track that leads back to Cliffe and its fine, flint grey church; just a kestrel playing in the wind above the chalk escarpment that from time to time has to dodge the irritable pair of resident carrion crows with an insouciant twist of the tail. Rooks stream over and utter deep, soothing calls, heading to distant flat fields without a care.

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