Norfolk is rich in ruins. No two Norfolk ruins of course are the same. Diverse in size, age, location and state of preservation they range from bronze age burial mounds, through iron age forts and Roman town sites to ruined medieval churches and the much more recent remains of First and Second World War defences. There is a romance in many of these wild ruins – the Victorians loved them so much they even created pretend ruins, their carefully constructed follies, to give the gardens and parks of the rich an air of mystery and the ‘picturesque’ views they craved.
If you love landscape and wildlife then you may already have explored and be familiar with some of Norfolk’s better known ruins. Among the better known and more easily visited is the iron age fort at Warham Camp overlooking the River Stiffkey. Its slopes and ditches are carpeted in a wonderful chalk grassland flora. Its flower studded grassland alive in summer with butterflies and grasshoppers. Closer to Norwich lie the remains of the Roman town at Caistor St Edmund. Here inside its now peaceful earth walls walkers are serenaded with the song of skylarks. In the Broads the much photographed remains of St Benets Abbey overlook marshland thronged by geese in winter and herons and harriers in the summer. Further east, but still in the Broads, lies Burgh Castle, once a busy Roman Fort. Now only its impressive boundary walls remain but it’s a wonderful vantage point to watch birds on the marshland below. A place where swallows and martins dance over lichen covered walls and the rare white letter hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs on surviving elms. In North Norfolk Bronze Age barrows, now covered in heathers and bracken, are found on both Kelling and Salthouse Heaths. Here, as the sun sets, nightjars start their strange, wild churrings and adders and lizards bask in the sunshine.
Visiting the sites of Norfolk ruins combines my love of landscape and wildlife. Wherever you live in Norfolk there will be sites to discover close by. A good starting point to find local sites is an OS map. One of the many things I love about these Norfolk landscapes, with their wild, romantic ruins, is the way they are different every time you visit. Landscapes are transformed by time, tide, nature and man but also have a depth and permanence in the layers of history they reveal. They are places where in imagination we can travel back in time to wonder at the ways life has changed and created the present we now live in. They are also places that can make us think about the future. Visiting ruins gives me hope for the future as one of the many stories these sites have to tell is the power of nature to reclaim and restore life to human follies. Each site is different but even on comparatively recent ruins, such as the concrete Second World War pill boxes that are dotted across Norfolk’s countryside, you will see the way lichens and mosses are beginning to reclaim these structures. The walls of ruined churches become habitats for uncommon plants like pellitory on the wall. Grasslands around ancient monuments have often escaped the plough and the worst excesses of modern agriculture so today can be among our richest wild flower and butterfly sites. Barn owls, kestrels and little owls are birds that often haunt ancient sites, such as at Baconsthorpe Castle, and every ivy covered ruin wall is a potential nest site for wrens, robins and many other small birds.
Discovering nature does not always mean a trip to a nature reserve. And discovering history, or landscape, does not depend on visiting special places. But there is something special about these ancient places and their ruins which remind us of times gone past but are also rich in the wildlife of today.
Header image: St Benets Abbey, by Elizabeth Dack