An Olympic Legacy

Fingringhoe WickThe 2012 Olympics have already created a legacy on the Essex coast. As a battering sou’easterly scudded clouds from the North Sea, I returned to one of the finest nature reserves in the region where in spring come many nightingales. Fifty years ago, Fingringhoe Wick was a series of scarred landscapes ripped and scoured for sands and gravels, clanking conveyor belts pouring them from the land into cavernous barges on the Colne River. Once this was Britain’s greatest political river, for Camulodunum was the Roman capital from ad50 to ad80, when the administration shifted south to a small settlement called Londinium a couple of miles from today’s Olympic site. The Trinovantes founded the first capital and built a 16 square km oppida on the hill. Tacitus came, as did Claudius. And then famously, Boudicca of the Iceni.

But what now, exactly 1950 years after Boudicca’s razing of the Colonia? Fingringhoe was Essex Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, and now it is a glorious mix of dense woodland, sandy grassland, grazing marsh and mudflats. Come in late April and early May for the performance of 30 pairs of nightingales, returning to the same scrubby bushes year after year. I began one walk for This Luminous Coast from here on a still dawn three years ago, a night that turned purple and pink as the sun rose over Arlesford creek.

Fingringhoe WickToday, I had come to see the avocets – breeding on the scrape by Geedon Marshes, where red flags snapped on white poles, indicating danger on the firing ranges. I walked down humid rides, birds singing from deep in vegetation, the oaks swaying and tearing inside out in the wind, Brown butterflies skipping from brambles to burdock, and come to the hide. I sit alone and watch. The hide creaks and rattles. Inside are puddles from heavy rain. A black-headed gulls beats across the muds scattered with bladder wrack and zos grass. Then I see a porcelain and black adult, the stuttering flight across the marsh. Avocets walk on stilts, high-heeled beauties, absent from here for so long. But sadly, the celebrations these past few days are over. The fledglings on the nest are gone. All that protection, secrecy, then a predator takes them. A fox perhaps, or marsh harrier or gull. Dozens of egrets hunker down on the marsh, common birds of the coast now, yet only arrivers 20 years ago. Nearby in the village are famed pigeon-fanciers, and I see a pigeon, perhaps just a wilder, scoot across marsh, mud and river in a blink. They can fly long distances at 60 mph, more in this wind.

Elsewhere on the reserve, a pond with skating boatmen, a moorhen with two youngsters all fluff and feather and bright beaks. Gulls circle above. In the sandbanks are nesting sand martins, and still the oaks issue a gentle roar. And so to the legacy: on the way in and out of the reserve is a newly scalped land: some 200,000 tonnes of sand and gravel have been taken annually to be processed at Ballast Quay, and shipped to the Olympics site. The land will be nine metres lower when they are done. Perhaps in 50 years it will be the recovered site that the reserve is now.