One of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smaller and less well known nature reserves can be found just south of the village of Narborough not far from the busy A47 Swaffham to Kings Lynn route. This narrow strip of flower-filled grassland and shady woodland offers fine views across the surrounding farmland from a path along the top of an embankment following the line of part of the disused Lynn and Dereham railway. Disused by industry perhaps but certainly not by wildlife!
I visited on a sunny weekend, but amazingly was the only visitor, and had a happy two hours exploring this reserve on my own. Thankfully there are still quiet and tranquil places like Narborough Railway Line waiting to be discovered; peace tranquillity, lots of wildlife to enjoyed and a lovely walk with both sunny and shady areas.
Never having been here before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and the small shady car park, alongside the remains of a former railway bridge, was to be honest a bit scruffy looking and didn’t give much clue as to the treasures beyond. The path from the car park runs for a hundred metres or so through a shady, green tunnel of trees, then passing through a gate alongside an NWT interpretation panel, I found myself blinking out in the bright sunshine and entering a different, and rather magical world, of colourful flowers, humming bees, myriad small insects and more butterflies than I have seen anywhere else this year.
So why is this disused railway such a good spot for flowers and butterflies? Areas of exposed chalk are rare in Norfolk but when this railway was constructed in the 1840s, locally extracted chalk rubble from nearby borrow pits was dug out to build the embankment. Now it’s disused, this has created a special area favoured by chalk-loving flowers, including several species uncommon elsewhere in Norfolk. The mix of calcareous scrub, woodland, and grassland habitats along the embankment’s steep slopes is also perfect for many butterflies, providing both sunny and shady areas and plenty of nectar sources.
On my walk the most obvious flowers were moon daisies or to give them their ‘proper’ name, ox-eye daisies. Blowing in the breeze, silhouetted against the day’s blue sky, they were a picture and one which I tried to capture with my camera. Some of the more unusual chalk-loving flowers were harder to find, being small, and sometimes difficult to spot hidden amongst taller grasses. One attractive flower which was common here was eyebright. It doesn’t take much guesswork to know that this plant must once have had a herbal use.
Plants are excellent indicators of their environment and a botanist, even without knowing anything of the history of this site, would soon know on finding carline thistle, rough hawkbit, wild thyme, marjoram, wild strawberry, rock-rose and kidney vetch, that this was a site with chalky soils. I was especially pleased to find many patches of one of our most beautiful and delicate grasses, quaking grass, so attractive that gardeners cultivate various forms of this plant. I didn’t find pyramidal orchids as they will be in flower later in June and early July. I felt privileged to be here on a perfect sunny day and my visit was made special by the sheer numbers of our original ‘butter-coloured’ butterfly – the one that puts the butter in butterfly, the brimstone. I lost count of how many I saw and spent a happy, but very frustrating, time trying to photograph them. Most were flying past and only settling for frustrating brief moments on bramble and guelder rose flowers. I nearly managed a photo of one on an especially attractive patch of large pink sanfoin flowers but as I pressed the shutter of course it flew away! Still with patience I did manage a few reasonable pictures of brimstones pretending to be just another leaf on the ground. In flight, the males look a gorgeous bright sunshine yellow but as soon as the land and close their wings they vanish looking for all the world like a soft, veined green leaf. Smaller, but equally showy, were orange-tip butterflies, again in profusion along the sunny parts of the embankment. The males are white with bright orange tips to their forewings whereas the undersides of the hind-wing are beautifully marked with greenish moss-like patterns. The butterflies I saw on my walk were all widespread species and as well as the plentiful brimstones, orange-tips and large whites, I also spotted holly blues, and ringlets. If you are lucky and visiting at the right time of year then also look out for dingy skipper, green hairstreak, purple hairstreak and brown argus. In fact, Narborough Railway line is one of the best butterfly sites in Norfolk with over 25 species of butterfly recorded here.
At the far end of the reserve you pass through another gate and enter a strip of woodland. Who turned the lights out? The contrast from brilliant sunshine to dappled shade took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to. However, the coolness under the trees was very welcome and the walk through this very different world of shadow and filtered green light also had its rewards. Along the edges of the woodland path grew patches of sanicle, showy at this time of year, their flowers creating mini-constellations of white globes shining under the trees.
To walk back to the car you simply retrace your steps following the same path along the top of the railway embankment. No chance of getting lost! Walking back, focusing less on the flowers beneath my feet, I was able to take in the views over still green wheat fields and an attractive landscape of small fields, hedgerows and woods that form the landscape of this part of Norfolk, my peace and quiet only occasionally broken by the roar of low-flying jets. I haven’t yet mentioned bird-life, and in truth birds were thin on the ground or should that be thin in the air? Perhaps because I was walking in the heat of late morning the birds were less active but I did hear chiffchaffs singing and skylarks serenading above the nearby fields.
I will certainly return to revisit Narborough Railway Line. Special places like this fortunately gain some legal protection by being designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but what really keeps this site special is the work of Norfolk Wildlife Trust in managing the chalk grassland areas. Without grazing, and sometimes the physical removal of encroaching scrub, the grassland of the freely draining chalk embankment would some be covered in scrub birch, buckthorn, sweet-briar, guelder rose and bramble, with the loss of the chalk flora and the abundance of butterflies. My walk through this reserve felt wild, peaceful and very special but without regular conservation work, including grazing areas with cattle at certain times of year, the rare species which make this place their home would soon be lost. If we value these special places, and wish them to have a future, then supporting the work of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which manages so many of these places, all unique but all rich in wildlife, is one of the best ways of helping.
Find out more about Narborough Railway Line and all the other special places managed by NWT by visiting www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk The website will give you directions and tops tips for what to look out for. Even better join as a member, receive a free copy of the reserves’ handbook and take pride in helping keep Norfolk special.