Discovering A Norfolk Chalk River

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Discovering the River Babingley, one of Norfolk’s nine chalk rivers, was today’s assignment for 30 Days Wild.

The two-mile circular walk took us via some beautiful countryside to one of the river’s springheads close to Abbey Farm in the West Norfolk village of Flitcham, and was organised by the Norfolk Rivers Trust.

As we gathered for the start of the morning’s walk, we were entertained by housemartins swooping overhead and we could hear the piping of oystercatchers and the song of a chaffinch.

There are only about 200 chalk rivers throughout the world, so Norfolk’s nine make up some internationally important habitat.

The 19.6km course of the Babingley takes it from its source to the east of the village of Flitcham, through the Royal estate of Sandringham, across Wootton Marsh and finally into the Great Ouse at King’s Lynn. The only remaining part of the village of Babingley is the ruined church of  St Felix. The River Babingley also passes under the disused railway that ran from King’s Lynn to Wolferton and carried members of the Royal family and their household to Sandringham. It is joined by a small tributary, the River Cong, in Congham.

Abbey Farm is one of the few places where the Babingley can be accessed.Mr Edward Cross farms the land where the river rises and he explained to our 35-strong group that the farm lies on the chalky escarpment formed many years ago by glaciers. The escarpment runs north to south through West Norfolk.

For about 30 years, the farm has been trying to work the land in an environmentally friendly way and to help wildlife. Mr Cross also told us how he tries to prevent agricultural run-off into the river by constructing retaining walls, known as bunding, round areas where fuel and agro-chemicals are stored and handled.

He also uses a variety of methods to reduce soil erosion into the river and the wetland grasslands on the farm have not had any fertilisers or sprays on them for over 20 years, partly thanks to funding from the Environmental Stewardship scheme.

Improvements to the farm’s wildlife habitats over the last 30 years have included increasing wild plant diversity, providing winter feeding resources for wild birds, adopting rotational hedge trimming and establishing new hedges and wildlife corridors. Efforts have been made to improve the wetland areas for the wildlife. Of course, the work is on-going.

While walking round, we saw several ponds. Using them were oyster catchers, shelduck and a pair of tufted duck. I  also saw lapwings and a red-legged partridge. The public has access to meadow-land with a pond and streams near the farm  and Mr Cross has constructed a hide for visitors to use. A large range of birds have been spotted on the farm, including kingfishers, little owls and tree sparrows – I must return soon to see what I can find! Species of bat have also been recorded. During the walk, we saw two brimstone butterflies, it was possibly too windy for more species to fly. Among the wildflowers in the fields were marsh orchids.

A marsh orchid in a field at Abbey Farm.
A marsh orchid in a field at Abbey Farm.

It’s certainly a beautiful area to have a farm, on undulating ground surrounded by the famous big sky of the region.

In earlier times, the Babingley would have powered several mills. However, it has not been modified by man as much as some of Norfolk’s rivers and thus remains ecologically rich.Water voles, otters,  buzzards, osprey, barn owls and kingfishers have been seen along its length. Fish spotted in its clear waters have included trout, carp and brook lamprey. It is also recognised as providing habitat for several species of damselflies and dragonflies.

Other spots where the public may get a glimpse of the river are along a right of way beside the Babingley Bridge near Castle Rising and at a small reserve looked after by Natural England where the Babingley joins the Great Ouse at Point Green, King’s Lynn.

The Babingley River, along with Norfolk’s other chalk rivers, has recently been the subject of a three-year enhancement programme run by the Norfolk Rivers’ Trust. The Trust also aimed to get the public to take more interest in their local rivers: this type of attachment had probably dwindled over the years as rivers had been altered or become inaccessible due to changes in land ownership and development.

Personally, after taking part in some of the events organised throughout the three-year project, I feel I have come to know and appreciate my local rivers much more. They are indeed an invaluable asset to the area and its ecology and I shall have to make the time to improve  my acquaintance with them.

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