Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Titchmarsh Nature Reserve

Churchyard lambs

Sign of spring
Twenty years ago the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve came into existence in order to create public involvement on our site and to support the relatively low level of staff time then available from Huntingdonshire District Council. Exciting times? You bet! Tough times? Those too.

Like Paxton Pits, Titchmarsh is a former gravel works and it is a Nature Reserve, but it is much more like Paxton was 20 years ago rather than now. For a start, it's not manned and it does not have a visitor centre. All the same, it is cherished by a handful of supports and volunteers who make the place special.

Hanna and I visited Titchmarsh to rceapture that sense of adventure you get when you viist a reserve that has lots of wildlife but very few visitors.

Derelict hide, soon to be replaced
Although at Paxton we have moved on to work on a much greater scale, with tractors, chain-saws, bigger budgets, more staff and a huge volunteer force, I don't think you can ever beat the absolute joy of those early barnstorming, pioneer days. It's hard to recapture them too. That's what we went after today. The first job was to find it!

Now that we are entering the Second Age of the Internet (that's the age after the brief period before we found out who was running the Internet and what they were using it for) we can just look up Titchmarsh Nature Reserve and be taken to the local Wildlife Trust's website. There we can find info and maps, and a colourful down-loadable guide to the reserve. It's not far from Corby and only 25 minutes from my house, but because it's in Northamptonshire and I live in Cambridgeshire, I've never been there.

I love the sound of running water
I must admit, I found the maps almost useless. As an ex-geography teacher, you might have thought that I could cope with a simple map but, no chance. I found the general location easily enough but finding a way in took quite a while.

There are several entrances to the reserve, but none of them are signed when you get there. To make matters worse, there are three lakes that look alike and they are all in the Nene Valley near Aldwincle; two of them are fisheries.

The main entrance is supposed to be in Aldwincle, so that's the destination I set on the Sat-Nav, rather than Titchmarsh. This tiny bit of research proved invaluable, because the reserve is nowhere near Titchmarsh!

We drove round the beautiful village of Aldwincle, making up jokes about how the village got its name. You have to remember that this trip was a 65th birthday present from my wife; a sort of pre-dementia bon-voyage. We left a lake behind us and no others came into view. Were we lost? Only briefly, because the village is tiny. We just kept going up people's front drives until we found the lake.

Poet's Corner
There is actually a car park, and it had one rather posh car in it apart from ours. The windows were not broken and it still had four wheels (well two on my side; I didn't really double-check) so I assumed that parking here was safe, in daylight hours at least. All the same, we hid our valuable leather shoes in the boot while we donned proletarian-looking wellies.

I hope you are getting the idea that this reserve is a bit more remote and a lot more quiet than Paxton Pits?

We tramped down a track towards the lake and searched in the margins of the ploughed fields. I was looking for arrow-heads and Hanna was looking for jewels, but we were both disappointed. What we did notice was that this rolling landscape is not very gravelly compared to the Ouse Valley. Mostly we saw limestone, which explains why all the houses around here are made from it. It's very pretty.

Time was against us from the start, so we made our objective the Peter Scott Memorial Hide. Both Hanna and I used to work at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust for Sir Peter Scott. In fact, that's how we met, so we made a 200 yard pilgrimage from the car to the hide.
The church in Titchmarsh

As soon as we entered the reserve we started to see birds; red kites swooped low over us, buzzards sat in trees and Cetti's warblers swore at us.

The first hide we found was very old and derelict. After many years of service, it had been vandalised during the winter. I can't see it being repaired, but a replacement would be nice because  it overlooks a little cove full of teal and widgeon. It should be a good place to see water rails too.

The village from the church.
We reached the Peter Scott hide and found that it too needed a bit of TLC. Inside we met a photographer who also turned out to be a volunteer on the reserve and a great source of information. He reminded me of just how valuable it is to have knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic people out there on the reserve where people can meet them. Do you fancy that job?

John Finlayson just happened to be in the hide on a Monday afternoon when we were there. He absolutely "made our day" and turned a relatively ordinary visit into something memorable. We learnt a great deal from John about the birds and about the management of the reserve. You can visit his blog at http://johnfinlaysonbirder.blogspot.co.uk His photos are excellent.

Alms houses in Titchmarsh
John found us a Cetti's warbler to watch and a few goosanders and goldeneye, but we missed the stonechats that had been there just before we arrived noisily into the hide.

My message to bring home was that there is nothing to replace the basics. You have to have the wildlife and you need have to have people to show it off to the public.

The Village:

For all of you non-birders I recommend a visit to the villages of Aldwincle and Titchmarsh.

Today we had a poke around Titchmarsh, intrigued by the fact that a bloke called Alan Titchmarsh opened the new village shop. The history of the village goes back an awful long time and you can see the medieval field system and the ruins of the old castle. (That's a bit of an exaggeration because all of the stones were nicked to build houses with.) Just across from the castle mound is Brookside Farm where the Elizabethan poet John Dryden lived for a time, but some sources say he was born in the Rectory in Aldwincle where his father was the rector at All Saints. Both villages are worth a stroll around.
Brookside Farm

The village has its own website that is much better than most, see Titchmarsh. Have a look!

Exploring this part of Northamptonshire has been a revelation, though it is right on my doorstep.

(Note: I referred to the lack of signs at Titchmarsh. We have a lack of signs at Paxton too because a previous Councillor did not want traffic through the village and we are not allowed to sign traffic along the quarry road. We will make progress on this, though probably not for several years.)