Fingringhoe Wick - a visit to Ann's Reeds

Twenty-two group members and past members visited Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve on Sunday 21st April 2024, to see Ann Lowther’s bench and the area named Ann’s Reeds in her memory, and to remember Ann and Duncan.

Ann and Duncan Lowther were long-time members of the Epping Forest Outdoor Group – both Ann and Duncan joining in the very early days of the group at the beginning of the 1960s. At the time that Ann died in March 2014, the Essex Wildlife Trust was running a campaign to raise money to add a considerable amount of land to their nature reserve at Fingringhoe Wick, on the River Colne south of Colchester. The plan was to purchase farmland adjacent to the reserve, and breach the sea wall to enable the river and the sea to reclaim the land and create a large area of shallow water, suitable for a wide range of birds and other creatures to use the habitat.

Ann and Duncan had put some money aside to do some travelling in their later life, but Duncan decided after Ann’s death that he would prefer to donate some of it to enhancing the environment, something that both he and Ann were passionate about.

fingringhoe discussion 170507 artDuncan talking with the CEO in 2017fingringhoe group 240421 80594artThe group's visit to the same location in 2024During 2014, I went with Duncan to the headquarters of the Essex Wildlife Trust at Abbotts Hall Farm to meet with the then CEO to discuss a possible donation and what it would mean for the campaign. The donation would make a big difference to the cost of the work involved, and Duncan asked that perhaps an aspect of the new area of reserve might be named after Ann, in commemoration. It was agreed that a bed of reeds (Phragmites), fed by a stream running near the edge of the reserve could be called Ann’s Reeds. This could be a habitat for birds such as sedge and reed warblers, Savi’s warblers and perhaps bittern.

The sea wall was breached in September 2015, and members of the group were invited to go along to see this take place. A 22-hectare area was flooded, creating a new area of saltmarsh and mudflats. Because of the stream, a saline environment was created in one corner, enabling the growth of reeds – Ann’s Reeds.

Duncan and I then went back to Essex Wildlife Trust to discuss the provision of a commemorative bench, paid for by donation from the Epping Forest Outdoor Group.

On Sunday 21st, group members met at the visitor’s centre and then set out to visit the reed bed and bench, and of course see something of the rest of the reserve.

fingringhoe bee fly artA bee-fly (Bombylius major)My own experience of the day was of being given a lift there by Christine and Peter of Wanstead, group members who knew Duncan and Ann well. The lift from Wanstead was much appreciated as the reserve is otherwise very difficult to get to by public transport, necessitating probably a cab from Colchester. I had been introduced to Fingringhoe Wick in 2002, by a friend whose favourite place it was. It became a favourite of mine, too, so apart from the association with Duncan and Ann, the place holds special memories for me.

As I got out of the car, almost the first thing I was aware of was the sound of a cuckoo – the first I had heard this year. They are not nearly as common as they used to be, so good to hear that. The three of us joined other EFOG members in the visitor centre before we set out under Fergus’ guidance to walk to Ann’s Reeds. He did ask me if I remembered how to get there, and I thought that I did. However, I haven’t been there for some years, my memory was faulty, and we didn’t exactly get there by a direct route. Well, it was a direct route, but we had to backtrack a couple of times to reach it.

The cuckoo wasn’t calling any more, but I was aware of chiffchaffs and blackcaps singing, amongst other bird song and sounds. And of course, a lot of the other sounds were coming from the chatting of people who perhaps hadn’t seen each other for some time. Always when there are large-ish groups of people – even on nature walks, which this wasn’t – it is sometimes difficult to point out aspects which some might be interested in. But I did spot one of my favourite creatures – a bee fly – and managed to at least show a few people this lovely little thing. There were lots of ‘felts’ by the track-ways: squares of material left down on the ground to enable reptiles such as adders and grass snakes, and lizards such as slow worms, to have shelter and get warm in the early sunshine. They are best not disturbed to see if there is anything sheltering, and I don’t think any of the group did. The reserve is a favourite of badgers, and we saw numerous signs of their diggings as we walked around.

fingringhoe bench 170507 artAnn's bench in 2017fingringhoe bench 240421 80589art...and the bench in 2024We reached Ann’s Reeds, where part of the sea wall gives views over the reed-bed and lagoon on one side, and over salt-marsh on the other. It is on the sea wall that Ann’s bench is located, looking decidedly aged, with lichens growing on it. The ageing, and the lichens, are not surprising given the open exposed environment here. Below the sea wall, by the reed bed, is a really nice information board about the reeds, complete with a reference to the donation that made it possible. Nearby is the Kingfisher bird hide, but from a viewpoint adjacent to this there was the wonderful sight of large numbers of knot in the distance, their colours going from light to dark as they flew in a murmuration similar to that of starlings.

To see more of the reserve we walked northwards towards the distant Margaret Hide on the edge of the lagoon. From this large hide we were able to see an avocet, oystercatchers, shelduck and Canada geese. Organiser Sue Stirling gave a little talk to remind us of why we had come here, and to thank Edwina Simpson for helping her to arrange the two days of memorial visits. Indeed, there were thanks all round.

fingringhoe board 240421 80592artAnn's Reeds information boardSome of us continued the walk a bit further north, whilst others returned to the visitor centre. At one point, the sound of a lesser whitethroat was heard. They are not that common, so was an appreciated sound. There were skylarks, too – again a bird that is getting less common with declining habitat.

Returning southwards along higher ground, we reached a point where there is more scrub and woodland, and through which the stream that feeds the reed bed flows. The group that I was with was smaller now, so it gave me an opportunity to suggest that there was a particularly nice path that one could take to the west, between woods and fields, which eventually would lead to the access road to the visitor centre to return there. The reserve was created on the site of gravel quarries, so in fact had been very industrial at one time, and the suggested path snaked through these. This area had been used by the reserve, but hadn’t belong to it. Duncan’s donation helped the campaign to over-top the amount required for the creation of the lagoon habitat, and the Trust had been able to buy this woodland.

fingringhoe nightingale 170507 artA not-very-good photograph of a nightingale at Fingringhoe WickThe industrial aspect of the site is not so visible any more: nature has taken over. And because we had assembled to talk about this, I was also able to point out that one of the bird songs that we were hearing was that of a nightingale. Nightingales are so scarce in Britain now that you can’t even hear them in Berkeley Square. Not that you ever could, of course, and the song is really saying that. But Fingringhoe Wick is one of the few places where you can still hear them. I’d heard a few as we set out, and there were a couple of others less evident than the one nearby to us, but it’s such an unfamiliar sound these days I suspect that few of the group realised what it was.

I stayed behind to listen, and make a recording, as the others moved on towards the nearby visitor centre. As I walked back, listening to nightingales, blackcaps, chiffchaffs and other species, I noted orange-tip butterflies and spring beauty flowers, as well as some insects that looked new to my experience. The visitor centre was busy – mainly with EFOG people queueing for various long-to-process varieties of coffee, I suspect, and the usual carrot cake. Chats and reminiscences later, group members began to depart, until Christine and Peter asked if I was ready, and we left with goodbyes.

My thanks particularly to Sue Stirling and Edwina Simpson for doing so much work in organising the weekend, and to Fergus for leading us on the tour of the reserve. And also to Christine and Peter for giving me the opportunity to get there and catch up with my friends from the group.

Paul Ferris   23rd April 2024