May day at Askham Bog

Guest writer Daphne Pleace describes how a spring morning at Askham Bog can do wonders for your wellbeing...

It’s Beltane today, an ancient pagan festival of fertility and growth, celebrated on the 1st May. What a lovely time of year to be out in the fresh air, and wandering around ancient fenland… the Trust’s wonderful Askham Bog, one of my ‘luckiest’ reserves.

Lucky because in my many visits over the years I’ve had some fabulous sightings there: willow tits, bullfinches, treecreepers, roe deer, water shrew, several different dragonfly species, and many more. You do have to actually visit places (and now we can a bit more, yay!) where the birds and beasties hang out, but you sometimes need a little luck too to be in the right place at the right time. Although you don’t need luck to see - as I do this morning - fresh green burgeoning spirals of the Royal Fern, cheerful little cuckoo flowers, and in-your-face kingcups, glowing yellow-bright in the morning sunshine. Unlike things with legs and wings, plants and flowers obligingly stay in one place!

This visit however I’m here as part of my work on well-being via the natural world; facilitating a small group having some quiet time in nature, interspersed with questions and discussion on how nature impacts on our sense of well-being. With picnic time afterwards, of course: even the most mundane lunchtime sandwich tastes better when eaten outside in the spring sunshine.

I arrive before our agreed meet up time so I can prepare myself, mentally, and just be alone to breathe in the delicious air: and, to use that standard birding and wildlifing phrase - to see what’s about. 

What’s about first up is a perky robin. Someone has left some dried mealworms on a fence post - it’s a favourite spot for photographers, I know, so perhaps one was here even earlier than me. In which case, the early photographer caught the bird… with the worm.  ‘My’ robin whips in, picks one up and whips out again as I pass very close by. Although I really enjoy more isolated nature reserves, one of the lovely things about more populated ones is that the birds become very used to people being about, and are less timid. Or, to use another birding word: more confiding. Though I’ve yet to have a robin whisper his secrets in my ear.

Askham is a great reserve for anyone with mobility issues, or who uses a wheelchair or scooter, because you can stay on the boardwalk, safe and dry, and still experience plenty of nature’s bounty. I have to admit though that I love going ‘off-piste’, and there are wonderful wilder (and wetter!) parts of the reserve to explore. 

I step over a stile, and move away from the designated walk. Within seconds, there’s the feeling I have so often in the natural world: I lose that sense of I, that sense of who and what I am; of what’s going on in my little life, and sort of meld in with everything around me. What the poet Wordsworth describes as “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. This notion of ‘becoming one’ with nature, or ‘communing’ with it, can seem a bit strange to many people, but for others (and more of us have experienced this during our enforced local lockdown walks) it can be a calming and healing process. As well as the intellectual joys of just getting to learn more about our own natural environment. 

One of my group today, for example, is surprised to discover that catkins are not just from one kind of tree! They had a vague notion from childhood of them being called ‘pussy willows’ and they’re fascinated to find out there are hazel, alder, oak, and a variety of willows all present at Askham, each with their distinctive catkins. They enjoy the experience of touching and smelling the different catkins - though perhaps not the best activity for those sensitive to tree pollen!

In the ‘highlights of the morning’ discussion before our picnic lunch, people talk about the species they enjoyed seeing, especially for the first time. Wren - “how can such a small bird make such a big noise??” - was one surprise; treecreeper - “should be tree-spiraller” - was another; and a pair of very close-up roe deer was exciting for someone else who’d only ever seen them from a train.  

They comment too on less tangible aspects: being soothed by the sound of breezes in the reeds; feeling more alert and in-the-moment; more respectful of surroundings; experiencing more acutely different sensory inputs; and so on. For me, much as I love my lone wanderings in nature, it’s such a joy to be with others experiencing nature in a deeper way than they have before, whether from a cognitive or an emotional perspective.

But nature does have its little irritating behaviours and, just as we settle on the bench at the dragonfly pond for lunch, the rain descends. And in the proverbial bucketsful. So no picnic in the spring sunshine after all, but otherwise a most satisfying excursion.