So the big day has been and gone for another year. In the Welly house it was a nice chance to relax after the previous busy days of preparation. Gardening featured heavily as a theme for presents. I was delighted to get some wooden seed trays which will look perfect in the greenhouse, there was Richard Mabey’s excellent Flora Britannica, membership of the RHS and 2 mugs which will keep me supplied with tea throughout the growing year.
Then Boxing Day arrives and we enter ‘Chrimbo Limbo’ as I heard it rather aptly referred to on the radio the other day. For some reason, I do seem to have spent a lot of time over the last week asleep. I even nodded off one afternoon whilst reading my new book, although that is no reflection on Richard Mabey’s writing, I hasten to add. I think the dark, gloomy days are getting to me and my body clock. We like to get out over the Christmas period and get some fresh air and exercise but this year the weather has done its best to put a halt to this idea. It has officially been declared the wettest year on record in England; as for Wales, well if there has been a wetter year I’m just glad I wasn’t there to experience it. The incessant rain has made most of our favourite places to walk no-go areas turning them into muddy quagmires with huge puddles. We’re hardy folk though and we’ve donned waterproofs and wellies and squelched our way around the appropriately named local RSPB Wetlands Reserve, despite lashing rain and howling gales.
The reserve was created in 2000 to compensate for the loss of mudflats further up the coast at Cardiff. The Cardiff Bay project constructed a barrage to make a freshwater lake with the idea of regenerating the old city docks by creating a marina. Mud flats are an incredibly important habitat but unfortunately a muddy tidal estuary doesn’t look that attractive when you want to build penthouses and bars, so it had to go.
The Wetlands Centre at Newport used to be a dumping ground for waste from the nearby power station but it has been transformed into 145 acres of reed beds and lagoons. Situated on the Gwent Levels, an area of ancient marshland grazing and reen systems (drainage ditches), and looking out onto the Severn Estuary, it is a flat, bleak landscape. I like walking here. It isn’t what you would call beautiful in the way that a Cornish beach is or the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales are but there is something about the place. For one, I love being by water and, whilst there is no sandy beach or stunning cliffs, I still find it incredibly soothing and good for the soul.
There is also something about somewhere that is bleak. You have to try that little bit harder to find the beauty but it is possible, even with a power station not too far away. On a frosty day, with the bluest of skies the weather bleached reeds glisten, golden in the light. Even on a gloomy winter’s day feint shafts of sunlight appear from the heavily laden clouds and there is enough light to create a silvery, shimmering effect on the muddy beach as the tide goes out. Dotted about the mud are hundreds of footprints of the birds that have been here seeking out food buried below and flocks of birds scoot along only a few feet above the water.
We’ve seen the lagoons frozen, creating duck ice rinks and, at the other extreme, some of the ponds almost dry after month upon month of drought. We’ve stood transfixed by murmurations of starlings and watched agog as a heron swallowed a duckling whole. In summer, the place is a teeming with dragonflies and damselflies, moths and butterflies, and stunning orchids appear alongside the paths. We’re ever hopeful that one day we’ll spot the magnificent bearded tit or hear the boom of a bittern, both inhabitants of the site. Fellow visitors taunt us, their sightings written on a board in the visitors centre. One day we’ll be lucky too.