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Go on a nature walk around Saffron Walden, the Sunday Times' best place to live in the East of England





The Indie's Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford…

Whilst a week last Monday had been a glorious day - bright, clear and warm - the following day turned out to be grey and wet. Sadly, this was the day for my Nature Notes wander as I set off north to Saffron Walden.

The reason for this destination was to check the local wildlife in a town recently named the best place to live in the East of England region by The Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide.

Male chiffchaff (63262275)
Male chiffchaff (63262275)

I arrived in the town in steady drizzle and parked in Swan Meadow car park. The first thing I noticed was that six hours parking was £3 as I bought the ticket. This car park was alive with bird calls. A chiffchaff "zip zapped" nearby and I went off with the long lens to try for a few shots. Throughout the day, camera settings were too low for any really sharp shots, such was the quality of the light. I managed some average ones of this recently-arrived migrant before picking up a muddy footpath, signposted "World War Two Trail". Also singing in the car park were robins, a coal tit, blackbird and dunnock.

A row of yew trees was worth checking by a slow-running stream. Here, flitting constantly from branch to branch, were a pair of goldcrests, too fast for the slow camera settings but great to watch, nevertheless.

To my left, a recently-cultivated field upon which a colourful male chaffinch checked for leftover seeds. I always have a soft spot for this bird as it was on a summer holiday to Devon from our Liverpool home that I first asked my parents what a certain bird was. My parents were unsure so, as a holiday treat, bought me The Observer's Book of Birds whereupon I discovered my mystery bird was, indeed, a male chaffinch. Over the course of our two-week stay I devoured the contents of this splendid little bird guide and was hooked as a bird watcher. I was five years old, and 60 years later, I still get the same pleasure from this hobby as I did back in 1963!

Male chaffinch (63263219)
Male chaffinch (63263219)

I came to an open space where a large, long-dead tree towered over damp ground. Right at the top, a lone little egret surveyed the whole habitat, probably being able to see Audley End from such a high vantage point. I fired off a huge number of photos through the gloom and made many adjustments until I had a few that were vaguely acceptable.

By now, the drizzle was constant so I turned around, retraced my steps and sheltered in the yews, hoping the goldcrests would reappear. I was out of luck so set off for other green spaces near the town centre.

I checked a blue plaque mentioning the designer, illustrator, painter and printmaker Edward Bawden. A student and then teacher at the Royal College of Art, during the Second World War he was a war artist. Not a name I was familiar with, but a quick check online shows him to be very well respected and certainly talented. I enjoyed checking his work, particularly his pieces depicting London markets.

I wandered up towards the Six Bells and into Castle Street. Carrion crows argued from a rooftop as I noted a signpost pointing to Bridge End Garden. I followed down a path and entered a superbly laid out formal garden with tidily trimmed topiary. A very confiding robin popped up from an evergreen hedge as I photographed early-flowering bluebells. Not too much was in bloom, but I am sure this will be full of colour come late May and well worth a return visit.

Bridge End Garden (63262268)
Bridge End Garden (63262268)

I continued along Castle Street, admiring the architecture, and came to Walden Castle. Another small green space with red dead-nettle and common blue violets in flower. Boards gave the history of this ancient monument before I thought it was time for a coffee and an opportunity to dry out my camera equipment. I headed through the market square and down an alleyway adjacent to Boots. Here, the Tiptree preserves company has a splendid coffee shop where a helpful member of staff offered me tissues to dry the camera.

Having finished a fine cappuccino, I set off through the town to St Mary the Virgin parish church with its magnificent spire. Great tits, blue tits and a vociferous song thrush all caught the eye and ears before I headed back to the car park for another quick check on Swan Meadow. A grey squirrel stretched for leaf buds and a dunnock popped up onto the top of a car park hedge for, possibly, my best photo so far.

I had arranged to meet Peter Savic at nearby Noakes Grove Nature Reserve in the afternoon, so once I had completed another wander around the car park - where I came across a pond holding a pair of mallards and a pair of mute swans with a house sparrow community nearby - it was time to dry out again. I headed off along Church Street towards the King's Arms for a fine pint of Otter Ale.

Mute swan (63263242)
Mute swan (63263242)

Back to the car and off to Noakes Grove, which is found 800 yards along Redgates Lane in Sewards End. The lane is directly opposite the village hall on the road heading towards Radwinter.

I arrived early in what was now quite heavy rain and parked in the small car park. I decided to wait in the car and soon a lady, Nikki Salmons, came along for a helpful chat. She is a leader of wellbeing courses in the wood, run for both children and adults. Today, despite the rain, she was running two sessions, one for youngsters, who duly arrived as we chatted, and, later, for a group of women. A wonderful setting.

Great tit at Noakes Grove (63262316)
Great tit at Noakes Grove (63262316)

Noakes Grove is run as a not-for-profit business by a community interest company for the benefit of wildlife and has a board of trustees. It certainly looked of great interest and, with the drizzle having ceased, I was out for a wander. A fine selection of mature deciduous trees and a myriad of well-worn paths led to a small man-made pond where signs informed me that great crested newts were present. I spent a while here. A coal tit called as did several robins, another chiffchaff, great tit and blue tit. In a distant hedgerow the familiar call - sounding like "pitchooo" - of a marsh tit. Great to hear as this is a declining species.

Peter duly arrived and kindly took me on a tour to the sheep field. Here, seven sheep in an enclosure, Wiltshire horn breed, and all soon to be lambing. We checked out the classroom with a white board and electrical power, the tractor shed and a smaller pond before the rain reappeared. Peter is both a trustee of the reserve and shepherd to the flock and is clearly very passionate about this venture.

Wiltshire horn sheep at Noakes Grove (63263310)
Wiltshire horn sheep at Noakes Grove (63263310)

Once Peter had taken his leave I spent another half hour or so just following my nose around the paths of the nine-acre site. A pair of bullfinches darted for cover. As I mentioned in my last column, a rather secretive bird but always great to see with the male showing immaculately bright plumage.

I noted plenty of woodland crafts: coppicing aplenty with the brush wood being made up into dead hedges to enclose certain areas. Tracks from muntjac and badger were very evident, whilst slots (hoof prints) from fallow deer were to be seen in the mud. Looked like quite a large herd had wandered through recently and explained the reason for the dead hedging around the coppice, otherwise the two deer species, along with rabbits, would feed upon the new shoots growing from the tree stump.

Peter, the shepherd at Noakes Grove (63263298)
Peter, the shepherd at Noakes Grove (63263298)

A red kite drifted westwards and a male blackbird burst into song as a party of redwings flicked over the blackthorn. A flock of long-tailed tits wisped and called as they flew from one tree to another. Considering the grey and inclement weather, there was plenty to observe. On the ground, large clumps of Arum maculatum (lords-and-ladies) were in full leaf and will soon be forcing their flowers through, followed by the red berries that appear on top of a stem. I am sure many other wildflower species will soon be visible too.

A wonderful place, managed with professionalism and pride, Noakes Grove will continue to attract new wildlife due to the diversity of the habitat, be it jackdaws, pied wagtails etc to the sheep field, kestrels to the specially-placed nest box, robins or spotted flycatchers to another specifically designed box or common buzzards to the tall oaks. I plan to return on a warm summer's night to run a moth trap to find out what nocturnal life is present. It looks a good site for several bat species too, so I shall take along the bat detector as well.

Male blackbird (63263210)
Male blackbird (63263210)

The reserve's open day is on Sunday May 21 with free entry and a series of activities taking place.

So, to conclude, if sensible car parking charges, a plethora of open green spaces in the town centre, a wonderful nature reserve nearby and splendid historical architecture contribute to the quality of life - and I for one believe the final three most certainly do - then Saffron Walden is indeed a good place to live. Much to lift the spirits, even on such a grey day.

Another area of Bridge End Garden (63262250)
Another area of Bridge End Garden (63262250)
Common violets in bloom on the castle grassland (63262289)
Common violets in bloom on the castle grassland (63262289)
Dunnock (63262295)
Dunnock (63262295)
Early bluebells (63262303)
Early bluebells (63262303)
Grey squirrel feeding on leaf buds in Swan Meadow car park (63262325)
Grey squirrel feeding on leaf buds in Swan Meadow car park (63262325)
Grey willow in full flower on Swan Meadows (63262336)
Grey willow in full flower on Swan Meadows (63262336)
House sparrow (63262354)
House sparrow (63262354)
Little egret (63262447)
Little egret (63262447)
Looking into Bridge End Garden (63262461)
Looking into Bridge End Garden (63262461)
Spire of St Mary the Virgin parish church (63263300)
Spire of St Mary the Virgin parish church (63263300)
Walden Castle (63263308)
Walden Castle (63263308)

Got a story for the Stortford Indie? Email us at newsdesk@bishopsstortfordindependent.co.uk.



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