A riot of colour: enjoying azaleas and rhododendrons in Norfolk

Although we’ve been to Norfolk many times we normally go in early spring, before azaleas and rhododendrons come into bloom. This year, however, we delayed our visit by a few weeks and were rewarded with a riot of colour at Stody Lodge and Sheringham Park, two sites famed for their azalea and rhododendron collections.

Over 1,000 species of rhododendrons and azaleas occur naturally across the globe. Most come from eastern Asia and the Himalayan region, but smaller numbers occur elsewhere in North America, Australia and Europe. None are native to the UK.

Sheringham Park boasts an eye-watering array of azaleas and rhododendrons

The first rhododendron to be introduced to Britain was from the Swiss Alps, and is believed to have been brought to England by Huguenot refugees in the 16th century. Other species were introduced from America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, while many Himalayan varieties found their way here courtesy of the botanist Sir Joseph Hooker’s expedition to the region between 1847 and 1851.

Today, most of the species seen here in collections at Sheringham, Stody and similar gardens across the country are hybrids, the creations of man rather than nature. And perhaps because they are the work of humans rather than natural evolution, subtlety is not the name of the game. To be blunt, I think we’re talking gaudy. Sheringham Park, for example, showcases an eye-watering array of bushes clustered amongst the trees and lining the paths, all sporting vividly coloured blossoms that seem to shout “look at me, look at me!”

Stody Lodge Gardens at the height of the season – like an explosion in a paint factory

Sheringham Park is a landscape park and garden surrounding a Hall that bears the same name. While the Hall is privately owned, the Park, which dates from the early 19th century, is run on behalf of us all by the National Trust. A variety of attractive plants can be seen in the grounds , but the undoubted star of the show is the large collection of rhododendrons and azaleas.

The approach to Stody Hall is lined with rhododendrons

As well as horticultural types, Sheringham Park attracts dog walkers, fun runners and lovers of the countryside. It’s open every day from dawn until dusk, and was busy with visitors when we were there. Stody Lodge Garden was even busier, unsurprising given that it’s open just a few days every year, at the height of the rhododendron and azalea season. The people running Stody have identified their main asset, and are exploiting it vigorously.

Stody Lodge Garden has been home to a stunning collection of rhododendrons and azaleas since at least the late 19th century. It belonged to Daily Mail magnate and controversial press baron Harold Sidney Harmsworth (1st Viscount Rothermere, 1868-1940), for most of the 1930s, but unlike Sheringham, it remains in private ownership to this day. We discovered Stody to be a great place to visit during the flowering season, but do remember to take your sunglasses: an explosion in a paint factory would be less colourful!

Stody’s famous water garden

However, all things must pass, so by the time you read this the rhododendron and azalea flowering season will be over, the riot of colours simply a distant memory. No worries, though, they’ll be back next year, as bright, bold and riotous as ever.

Back to nature – a day at Pensthorpe Natural Park

Finally, after more than two years confined to barracks by the pandemic, we’re back on the road again. Not overseas: the timing still doesn’t seem right, and in any case the burning desire to visit far off foreign parts has cooled a bit. Maybe the passion will return in due course, maybe not, but unless and until our outlook changes there’s plenty to keep us occupied here in the UK.

Created by the gravel extraction industry, the lakes at Pensthorpe are now managed for wildlife. This shot shows only a small section of one of the reserve’s lakes.

The county of Norfolk is one of our favourite English destinations, and it was the obvious place for us to take our first proper UK holiday (that’s “vacation” to you guys in North America!) since summer 2019. And every time we visit Norfolk we make a point of spending a day at the wonderful Pensthorpe Natural Park.

Mandarin ducks are one of the more exotic species found at Pensthorpe

Pensthorpe started out as a large gravel extraction enterprise, with over 1 million tonnes being dug out and carted off to who-knows-where. But instead of becoming a permanent scar on the landscape the site has been sensitively transformed into something of real value to the local community, and to visitors from further afield like Mrs P and I. Today it’s a bit of an oddball mixture, part old-fashioned waterfowl exhibit, part nature reserve, part conservation hub, part sculpture park, part kids’ activity centre. There’s something for just about everyone at Pensthorpe Natural Park.

We were pleased to get good views of this Four Spotted Chaser

The Park is run as a business, which in principle sits a little uncomfortably with me. In practice, however, the owners – Bill and Deb Jordan, top dogs in a family-owned breakfast cereal company – appear genuinely committed to the restoration and protection of the natural world. There’s nothing to suggest they put profit ahead of sound conservation practice, and I’m therefore relaxed in saying that they get my vote.

“Wild Boar” by George Hider (2014), one of the eye-catching sculptural pieces dotted around the Park.

Bill and Deb win further brownie points from me for setting up a charitable trust, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, to work with their commercial operation. Established in 2003, the Trust aims “to establish a centre of excellence, habitat management and restoration alongside conservation of wetland and farmland bird species through captive breeding programmes in national conservation partnerships.” Corncrakes, cranes, red squirrels and turtle doves are amongst the species currently benefitting from the Trust’s activities.

Pensthorpe is a partner in a captive-breeding conservation project to boost numbers of wild corncrakes

Our return visit to Pensthorpe last month did not disappoint, even though the management has yet to erect a commemorative plaque at the spot where I broke my ankle in a fall on a snowy winter’s day in 2013! The lakes and woods teemed with wildlife, and although there was nothing exceptionally rare to be seen on this occasion it was great to get back into natural world after the miseries of Covid.

Lucky visitors to Pensthorpe may stumble across a muntjac deer

It was also great to bump into a former work colleague, albeit totally unexpected given that we were around 120 miles (nearly 200 km) from the office and had not seen each other since she moved on some eight or nine years ago! Amanda is a lovely lady, passionate about sport, physical fitness and wellbeing, and – as I now discovered – birdwatching too.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, an unexpected Pensthorpe bonus

Amanda explained that she is currently working on the government’s Green Social Prescribing project. The initiative enables doctors to help improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities amongst suitable patients by prescribing “nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.”

Families of Egyptian Geese wander the Park, helping to keep the grass short!

I was previously only vaguely aware of Green Social Prescribing. But hearing Amanda talk about the initiative as we sat together in a bird hide, gazing out over a tranquil lake where ducks, geese, and swans were going about their daily business and squadrons of swallows whizzed happily overhead, it now made perfect sense.

A large walk-through aviary allows visitors to get close to Bearded Tits (aka Bearded Reedlings), birds that are tricky to see in the wild

I felt more at peace on our day at Pensthorpe, and during the visits we made the same week to several other Norfolk nature reserves, than at any time since Covid hit. For me there is no doubt that getting back to nature – close to wildlife and wild places, distant from the stresses and strains of 21st century urban life – revives the spirit and nurtures the soul.

“Stag” by George Hider (2017)

Before our visit last month it had been around three years since our last trip to Pensthorpe. But guess what – we’ll be going back real soon!

So, follow our example and get back to nature, guys. You know it makes sense!

The goose that never was

Here’s a question that I know has been on your mind for ages: when is a goose not a goose? The answer is, quite simply, “When it’s an Egyptian Goose.” Despite its name and goose-like appearance this bird is actually a type of duck, most closely related to the Shelducks. And to complicate matters even further it’s not strictly Egyptian either, being native to large swathes of Africa and not just the land of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Goose is plainly a bird suffering a full-scale identity crisis!

This non-goose species appears to have got the first part of its name because it featured in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred. It was first brought to the UK in the late 17th century, when its pale brown and grey plumage, with distinctive dark brown eye-patches, made a striking addition to ornamental wildfowl collections.  Some of the captive birds soon made an understandable bid for freedom, and the escapees established a small feral population in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England.

Numbers remained tiny for centuries, the British climate proving to be a bit of a challenge for a species that is native to sub-tropical regions and habitually breeds in January. The bird remained stubbornly confined to Norfolk, so when we encountered one at Rutland Water – just 50 miles (80km) from Platypus Towers – around 20 years ago I refused to believe that the creature in front of us could possibly be an Egyptian Goose. Mrs P stuck to her guns, however, and was eventually proved correct, something I am never allowed to forget!

Indeed, this sighting was a sign of things to come. After being static for so long, numbers of Egyptian Geese in the UK have expanded rapidly in the last three or four decades. The reason for this sudden change is uncertain, although the finger of suspicion inevitably points at climate change.

While Norfolk remains the Egyptian Goose’s UK stronghold, it has now spread widely – and is breeding successfully – across eastern and southern England. We regularly see them at the nearby Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire, and have encountered them at several other wetland habitats in our region. The RSPB tells us there are now around 1,100 breeding pairs in the UK, with an overwintering population of around 3,400 birds.

Plainly, the Egyptian Goose – the goose that never was – is here to stay.