Sunday, May 29, 2005

Walk 107 -- Theddlethorpe St Helen to Donna Nook

Ages: Colin was 63 years and 21 days. Rosemary was 60 years and 163 days.
Weather: Hot and sunny, but clouding over. A nice breeze.
Location: Theddlethorpe St Helen to Donna Nook.
Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 841 miles.
Terrain: Beach walking on fairly firm sand. Grassy paths in dunes and on sea banks.
Tide: Out.
Rivers: No.41, the Great Eau at Saltfleet Haven.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.How we got there and back: We were camping at Anderby. We drove, with bikes on the back of the car, to a car park (free!) at Stonebridge Cottages, just round the corner from Donna Nook. (We were amazed to find a properly tarmacked car park with marked bays in such a remote spot.) Then we cycled to the car park near Theddlethorpe St Helen (sandy) where we padlocked our bikes to a proper bike rack.
At the end, we had a couple of cups of tea. Then we drove back to the campsite, collecting the bikes on the way.

Today was a long lonely Walk along vast beaches where the tide goes out so far it disappears over the horizon. There were a few people about because it was bank holiday weekend, but we hardly met anyone at all. We did come across a few nude sunbathers though. As usual they were mostly overweight middle-aged men with enormous egos—yes, the word I used was ego, perhaps to make up for something else being undersize!!

Soon after we left the car park at Theddlethorpe St Helen we passed a couple of families playing cricket on the enormous empty beach. But after that we were on our own, walking along a desert of firm flat sand. We stayed next to the saltmarsh on the shore side because we thought we might get disorientated if we wandered nearer the sea. After about a mile a track led off between the saltmarsh and the fields. We thought we’d better take it, even though it looked as if it was leading us away from the beach, because the map showed patches of saltmarsh spreading further and further out towards the sea. It was quite confusing despite having a map and a compass—I think it was because it was all so flat so there were no features we could use to get our bearings.

We met a couple, who were about our age, as we started down the track and stopped to chat. They told us that late November to December is the best time to go to Donna Nook because, despite the RAF bombing the place to hell, hundreds of grey seals haul themselves right up the beach to pup. (In later months I read about this in two different wildlife magazines, yet I had never heard of Donna Nook before.) No seals at this time of year, but we were also spared the bombing because it was a bank holiday weekend — we were able to walk all over the ranges unhindered. We were in for a treat when we carried on down the track — hundreds of wild flowers in all their late-Spring glory! The wild irises and marsh orchids were particularly lovely.

It was quite hot, so we sat in the shade of a bush to eat our lunch. Further on we overtook some teenagers playing on one of the many Second World War ‘pillboxes’ we have passed along the way. Although these haven’t any cliffs to fall down in this area, they have moved considerably in the sixty-plus years since they were built. At one point we came across one that was upside-down, and could only have got that way by the action of the sea at exceptionally high tides — or perhaps in those dreadful floods in 1953. Who knows? One of the lads followed us along the path, and when Colin tried to take a photo of me he was standing behind me making silly faces. We took no notice, then I told him I would turn him into a bit of marsh on my computer — which I have done quite successfully, look! He grinned, it was all ‘tongue-in-cheek’ the way teenagers are.

We crossed the River Great Eau at Saltfleet. There were a number of fishermen on the seaward side of the bridge—including a heron—and looking inland we saw some teenagers jumping off another bridge for a dare. It was there we found a signpost pointing us to ‘Paradise’! It put me in mind of ‘Paradise Road’ in Aldershot which I knew as a kid—the most depressed area of that Army town in Hampshire and not a place I would visit after dark! We crossed a drain on the road bridge and followed a track to a car park on the beach—somehow we missed a public footpath which led along the actual river bank.

We sat at a picnic table to eat a second lunch. While we were there a van arrived full of people, and amongst them was an objectionable child called ‘Merlin’ who caused us some amusement. They made a terrible fuss and noise getting their stuff out of the van and on to the beach (Merlin refused to co-operate all the time) and regarded us as if we were invisible even though they were flapping around us while we were trying to peacefully eat our sarnies. Suddenly one of the teenage girls turned and said with a snarl, “Wot yer staring at?” I gave her my ‘Teacher Look’ so that her courage failed her part way through the question and she said it half to herself really—silly bitch! That is the way modern teenagers pick quarrels with each other, but she realised very quickly that I wasn’t going to play her juvenile ‘game’. She walked off, and I hadn’t said a word! The rest of the family were quite friendly—with the exception of dear little Merlin—and Colin chatted to them about the kite buggy that they were trying to set up on the huge expanse of sand.

We thought we would be clever and take a short-cut across the beach. Mistake! It looked as if the shore curved round concavely, but that turned out to be an optical illusion. We found we were getting too far away from the real shore with more and more saltmarsh between us and dry land. Then we came to a river with a ‘dead’ car in it—this showed us that it was too deep to ford. We looked towards the shore and saw that this creek forked further inland making it look as if we would have to return all the way to Saltfleet before we could cross it. A two-stroke motorbike that was buzzing about on the beach, driving us mad with its noise, did just that. Colin looked seaward through his binoculars and said he thought the river ‘disappeared’ a bit further out. This proved to be the case, and we were able to walk round the end without even getting our feet wet! We thought we had better get back to the proper footpath along the shore before we got into any more trouble, but that didn’t turn out to be as easy as it looked. We squelched across the marsh, narrowly missing holes full of water and had to jump across several little ditches and streams on the way. It was very difficult walking because most of these hazards were hidden under the tussock grass—but we made it in the end without spraining any ankles or getting water into our boots.

With relief we continued along the track we should have been on from Saltfleet. At the next car park we went up on to the seabank and stopped to eat our chocolate. We were in a Nature reserve by then, but that wretched two-stroke which had followed us from Saltfleet was buzzing up and down past us. No peace! I suppose we should have been grateful it wasn’t a ‘bombing’ day for we were well within the vast ‘Danger Zone’ along this shore.

We had long since lost sight of the sea, and the enormous beach. To the right of us (sea side) bushes and even small trees were growing along the marshes where pools had been dug out to accommodate wildlife. We saw shelducks, a reed bunting in the bushes, and a family of swans with their cygnets on the water. To the left of us (land side) the fields were flat with no distinguishing features and we found it difficult to assess how near to Donna Nook we were. If it wasn’t for the map, we would have thought we were nowhere near the sea, for it looked as if we were in the middle of the countryside. The track became a path and began to get quite overgrown, obviously not walked very much. One blessing of this was that the two-stroke returned to Saltfleet and didn’t bother us again. Another was the profusion of wild flowers to which we were treated.

According to the map our path should have taken us straight out on to the beach at the end of the saltmarsh, but when we came to the end of the last pool there was an impenetrable hedge in front of us. The path had practically disappeared, but a vestige of it rounded the end of the pool and returned along the other side. It was the only way we could go, and we kept looking across to where we knew the beach was to see if there was a gap in the prickly bushes. Eventually we found a place where we could scrabble up a bit of a dune, haul ourselves through a hedge and emerge on the beach—at last!

It was even bigger than before, if that was possible. It put us in mind of those Alfred Hitchcock horror stories where people walk out into the wilderness and never see anything again except sand, sand, sand and sand! We still had another mile or so to walk in this wasteland before we reached Donna Nook, and we kept very close to the dunes so that we didn’t lose sight of ‘land’. We passed a watch-tower (nobody in it) and then came to a couple of buildings with some children playing in the soft sand. We rounded a corner—almost there—and strange sights met our eyes. There were targets on the beach in the distance, and far away on the horizon were odd ‘gazebo’-type things. We couldn’t see the sea at all. There were some very strange objects on the beach, including this rusty aerosol can with foam extruding from it. We didn’t touch anything. The map told us in big letters that this was a DANGER ZONE, notices warned us we were on MOD property, but luckily no one was shooting or bombing us because it was a bank holiday! We found our car quite safe in the car park. Phew!

That ended Walk no.107, we shall pick up Walk no.108 next time on the beach at Donna Nook. We downed a couple of cups of tea, drove back to Theddlethorpe St Helen to pick up the bikes, and then back to the campsite at Anderby. No peace there—loads of barbecue smoke all around our tent and children rushing around. But it was all very good natured, and everyone bedded down at a reasonable hour so we can’t complain just because we are a pair of crusty old wrinklies who were tired after a hike. I expect our children were just as noisy when we used to take them camping when they were little. I know they used to play games like ‘Duffs on the Hill’ and dismantle dry-stone walls—it’s probably just as well that I didn’t know half of what else they got up to!
It was four and a half years before we found the time to return to Donna Nook in order to see the seals. In November 2009 we towed our newly acquired caravan across the country for a couple of days in the area, and spent a brilliantly sunny day on the beach at Donna Nook. The crowds are managed by volunteers from the local Wildlife Trust, and they try not to advertise it because hundreds of people turn up every day during the season as it is. If more people came it would get out of hand.The beach is huge, and very remote. It is used as an RAF bombing range, but as soon as the seals start to arrive in the middle of October, they take their bombs elsewhere until the seals have left. Even so, we had to put up with the noise of helicopters and low-flying jets all through the day we were there. A double fence has been erected for about half a mile along the bottom of the dunes, (it had to be double because people have been stupid enough to try and stroke the seals -- or even worse, encourage their children to stroke them!) and we were requested not to go on the actual beach while the seals were there. Apart from disturbing them, it would be highly dangerous. Dogs are completely banned because of the danger of spreading the disease distemper.The week we were there the Wildlife Trust had counted in excess of thirteen hundred seals on that beach!! The following week they expected there to be over two thousand. By the New Year they will all be gone....until next year.The females haul themselves out on to the beach to have their pups. They feed the single pup for three weeks (twins rarely survive), during which time it grows very fat and the Mum grows very thin! When she's had enough, she comes into season, mates and returns to the sea pregnant once again. (What a life!)The pup takes a few days to realise it has been abandoned, then it enters the sea for the first time and tries to catch some fish for itself. If it succeeds it lives, if it doesn't it dies. It's parents have nothing more to do with it.The males come ashore to fight with each other over the choicest females. The second to last picture shows a female fending off the attentions of two males whilst trying to protect her pup. Pups sometimes get suffocated in the scrum. Fighting males can often injure each other quite badly.I have included some pictures of the spectacle -- some of life in the raw and some to make you go "Aaahh!"
It is a wildlife spectacle like no other, it is in England and it is FREE!

1 comment:

newjustine said...

A great read about a familiar place for me - this is where I grew up. I'm now based in the Netherlands, which is equally flat but not half as charming. Thank you!