Feint sounds of merriment and energetic music occasionally drift down the bank from the West Midlands Safari Park at Bewdley, a few miles to the west. Water tumbling over the Middle Marsh weir, 50 metres away, sounds like a stiff breeze when the river is not in flood and is not at all an assault on the ears; in fact, I rarely hear it – my brain accepts the weir and it’s sounds as normal marsh noises. Now and again, though, eerie noises wax and wane somewhere on the marsh, and my brain immediately recognises them as abnormal.
I’m standing on the east bank of the River Stour – the quietest spot on the Reserve. My head torch is lighting up Pratt’s Wharf on the opposite bank of the river, a relic of a bygone industrial age. Water is pounding the base of a brick built pier at the end of one of the lock walls, and a red modern brick-built humpback bridge straddles the lock that once gave horse pulled river barges access to the Worcester and Staffordshire Canal.
A second light beam suddenly cuts through the darkness. A cyclist speeds along the canal towpath and over humpbacked bridge. The light beam shines up into air as the cyclist climbs the hump, giving an impression of the cycle and it’s rider lifting off into the night sky, only to mysteriously disappear in an instant.
I hear something and look behind. The cattle are standing in a tight semicircle around me. I can’t help wondering if the cattle have formed a protective wall for me, or a prison; they are inching closer. We are standing in the Tenant Farmer’s Field, most of the cattle chewing the cud. A coughing cow breaks my train of thought, so I’m moving off across the field and further into the darkness. I think the herd find Pratt’s Wharf interesting, too. I look behind again and twelve pairs of sinister steely blue eyes stare back at me, bobbing up and down and sway gently to the left and right as they swagger along with me.
It’s cold along the riverside. A ghostly mist, no more than a foot thick, hovers a couple of feet above the river. It’s a loose mist that can’t makeup its mind whether to form a dense layer or disperse, but it’s moving slowly down stream and I know from experience that it will get much thicker and spill over the marsh before too long. With the mist comes a biting coldness. I wonder if the calves are feeling the cold too, and when the mist does sweep onto the marsh, will they be able to see a hoof I front of them. I guess the calves have a genetic strategy/instinct for finding their way in thick mist.
When the marsh mist forms in a thick white layer up to my knees, the cattle seem to float along on top of it. I can’t see my feet or legs, but both are noticeably colder. I’ve seen a fox’s tail slice though a marsh mist, that’s as transparent as a cotton wool blanket, as if it were a knife cutting through butter. I expect the fox was following its nose. The marsh can be a very intimidating place when the mist breaks from the river bank, and it can happen very quickly, too. Sometimes my head is just above the mist, and this is a very disorienting experience at night; it deflects the beam of any torch. I can easily lose my bearings, and I have no idea what I am walking into: maybe the river at worst, or a water-filled drainage ditch at best. On the rare occasions when the marsh mists rises above my head it’s not the time to panic, but it is the time to use my phone’s digital compass and my local knowledge – I feel my way out. I’m a wiser man these days and make my way to the marsh exits when I see mist rolling down the Lower Stour Valley