Holkham Pinewoods is a National Nature Reserve, managed by Natural England, almost dead centre of the North Norfolk coastline. It is essentially a band of managed sand dune & plantation sandwiched between a vast line of open exposed beach and farm land barely reclaimed from the salt marshes, a process which began in the seventeenth century. For such a small nature reserve, it is impressively biodiverse, with many internationally important species of wading birds. This arrangement of land management is fairly common for this part of the world.
The plantation of holm oak and fragrant pines was planted in the nineteenth century to stabilise the dune, provide a wind break from the beach (winds can be violently excoriating when whipping up the sand), and to prevent inrush of sand onto farms. The plantation has gracefully reached maturity and adds an exotic horticultural sense of curiosity to the reserve, with hollows, hides, quiet contemplative corners and occasionally gnarled features or grotesquely deformed trees amongst the regularity of the military stands.
I did an East- West clockwise circular walk of the plantation, recommended by David North in his book Wilderness Walks. This provided a very pleasant start to the walk, walking into gentle afternoon sunshine, with dappled glades and impressive pine in silhouette, and then rounded the path to walk along the beach and strandline for the big views of the finale, which was pleasantly devoid of people for long stretches. I also took a detour from the book to visit the highest dune promontory on the range, which afforded stunning panoramic views of miles of coast and farmland. It only added a mile or so to the walk, and made an interesting panopticon from which to eat a late lunch. The weather was sunny, kindly breezy, with high altitude ice providing a fresh, ozone imbued haze.
The most engaging feature I discovered was a pond called Salt Hole. It had previously been an inlet for sea water prior to the earthworks of human reclamation when the untamed dunes were mobile and only occasionally gave way to marshes, but the pond eventually became cut off from the sea. Now moribund, with the darkness of the plantation between it and its mother, Mor, it still drew up salt water from the water table; an ancient longing for the succour of saline like a foetus extending its umbilicus into the Earth. Still brackish, Salt Hole demonstrates a remarkably constant pH, temperature, and salinity in a defiance of homeostasis. It supports life, but sea dwellers like anemones and gobies. water rail and little grebes, fringed by a crown of reeds. Although I didn’t see any water rail, I could hear them as I walked by, making indignant calls like startled piglets to my footfall.
“Where the wings of the sea- wind slacken,
Green lawns to the landward thrive,
Fields brighten and pine-woods blacken,
And the heat in their heart is alive;
A land that is thirstier than ruin;
A sea that is hungrier than death;
Heaped hills that a tree never grew in;
Wide sands where the wave draws breath…”
By South Utsire