May marks National Walking Month, so there's never been a better time to get out exploring your local area under your own speed. Here, Chloe Webb, who is on a voluntary placement with NWT, takes us with her on her local walk, painting a picture of the nature that can be found even in the heart of Norwich.
I'm sure you already know that walking is good for you. As well as the physical benefits, such as decreased blood pressure, improved bone health and a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes, walking amidst nature has become a much-lauded approach to improving mental wellbeing. However, you don't need to live in the middle of the countryside to reap the rewards of gentle exercise in natural spaces. I live on the eastern edge of Norwich city centre, yet my daily walking route takes me through a stunningly varied landscape of heathland, ancient woods, riverside paths and wildlife-rich wetlands. I’ve written this blog to share my journey - I hope it inspires you to lace up your hiking boots and take a stroll this National Walking Month.
It's early. The morning is cool and bright, a light frost shining on the grass verges that line my suburban street in the hazy April sun. I greet the silhouette of Norwich's medieval skyline as I emerge from the alleyway into the openness of the dog exercise field servicing an estate of post-war low rises, and tread the path towards Mousehold Heath.
My presence disturbs a pair of young muntjacs, browsing on newly unfurled hawthorn leaves. They're unaccustomed to encountering humans at this hour and scuttle nervously back into the scrub. Though garnished with a smattering of coconut-scented yellow flowers, the gorse is not yet in the explosive full bloom of spring - the season so far has been cold and nature is exhibiting self-restraint. I pass the Victorian barracks that overlook gentle green inclines overhanging the cityscape, wood pigeons cooing from crags in the brickwork, and turn into a smart terraced street. Sparrows and goldfinches dart between the shrubs which delineate townhouse boundaries, while hungry bees scrutinise the dandelions protruding sunnily between decrepit paving slabs. Another corner turned, and another, and suddenly ancient oaks tower above me. Lion Wood. I amble, scouring the damp undergrowth. I am disappointed. No bluebells yet. Another week or so, perhaps. A jay craws in mutual despondence.
Stepping out of the wood, back into sunlight, I peer nosily into front gardens, admiring bright tulips and checkerboard bells of the snakes head fritillary as I approach the main road that leads towards the river. The overgrown hedgerow which runs alongside is carpeted with comfrey and nettles, housing clusters of seven-spotted ladybirds, roused from hibernation by the spring sunshine. I hope they find their way to my garden in a few weeks' time, when my tender broad bean tips are bound to be plagued with aphids.
The Yare comes into view and I inhale deeply, gentle spirals of woodsmoke from the moored houseboats adding to the morning haze. Mallards and greylag geese disrupt the quietude - they are habituated in the generosity of humans and so bold to approach, but I have no titbits for their breakfast. I continue to the iron bridge and climb the stairs to view NWT Thorpe Marshes from above, St Andrew's Broad glittering in the still-low sun, before descending to follow the path around this flooded gravel pit. A few weeks ago, the path was barely passable, the overflowing tributary filling my boots when I sanguinely waded through, but now the ground is dusty and dry, signalling the warmer seasons ahead.
A squeaky chattering above raises my gaze, and my heart soars as another sure sign of summer's approach swoops above my head - dozens of swallows, returned to share my little corner of Norfolk after a winter in warmer climes. I gain a spring in my step, buoyed by the company of my favourite migrants, as I skip, marsh to my left - favourite hunting ground of the barn owl I often revere on my evening strolls - reedbeds to my right, buntings skitting between the swaying culms. Reaching a clearing, I take a moment to observe the broad, countless waterfowl bobbing in the shimmering pool. My vision fails me - once again I left my binoculars on the table by the front door - and I can identify few from this distance, but a pair of elegant grebes are close enough to admire.
I begin to stroll back towards the bridge and come to the point in which the river opens up into a vast, still expanse. I always think of this spot, so tranquil and still in the early mornings, to be the perfect place to spot an otter - just blind optimism, I have never been so lucky. Instead, today, a lone kayaker is rowing slowly through the water, imbibing the serene ambience. For a moment I am envious, but then I remember the meditative satisfaction of putting one foot in front of the other, and I continue my walk in the direction of home.
Chloe Webb is a UEA student on a voluntary placement with NWT. You can follow Chloe's walking Instagram account at @chloegoeswalking.
Header image: Chloe Webb