The day is starting well. I am standing perfectly still with my binoculars glued on a Little Owl. The owl is sitting in the lower limb of an oak tree just a few metres away. It’s a small round bundle of speckled brown feathers, perfectly camouflaged against the tree, colour matching a mosaic of lichen, moss and bark. The owl’s body is motionless whilst its head pivots. It stares right at me, its penetrating piecing eyes large below a sharp, black furrowed brow. We outstare each other. I inch forward to get a closer look. It allows me this privilege for just a few seconds and then, silently, drops from the branch to float across the field and out of sight.
I’m at National Trusts Ickworth Estate, 900 acres of impressive parkland. The estate is full of surprises, intrigue and wonderful magic moments. The walk I’m following is the red route, a 7-mile Grand Tour. Promoted as a 2-hour walk, it really needs more time; on a walk like this you need to linger and marvel at vintage trees, spot birds and just simply soak up the landscape.
Leaving a steady stream of vehicles that ply the driveway, and the smiling happy faces of visitors and staff, the walk heads along a wide farm track. It passes Tea Party Oak, a tree over 700 years old and once a picnic site for the locals of Horringer. The open fields are littered with vintage trees, impressive horse chestnuts and contorted oaks, all magnificent against a backdrop of blue sky and white, fluffy clouds. A murder of crows circles menacingly overhead, squawking at all below.
The track passes the Dower House, Carpenter’s Cottage and Keepers Cottage before heading downhill to meet a small brick bridge spanning the gently trickling River Linnet. Before a thatched house secreted behind a yew hedge, the path leaves the farm track passing through a gate to follow the river. The Linnet is set in a deep meandering channel within a wide, open valley full of twisted pines. Sheep roam the valley sides. Families, couples and dog walking, smile as they pass by.
Meeting a firm track I pass over a cattle grid before heading uphill. A bench at the top of the hill provides a welcome respite and fine views over the estate. A nuthatch skims up a tree. It’s got deep black eyes set under a slate grey cap with a pastel rosy chest. Ubiquitous blue tits and wrens fly in and out of the scene. A skylark sings a pretty tune whilst hovering frantically. And a kestrel perches on a telegraph wire before gliding off in search of prey. It’s when you stop and watch you see so much.
The sun breaks out from behind cloud and the land shines, dappled in shadows and light, its contours clearly defined. From the brow of the hill, the path heads deep into Lownde Wood. The going becomes heavy, the path muddy and braided. I pass a monument to the 4th Earl of Bristol, a gift from the people of Derry where he was Bishop. Frequent information boards, imaginatively shaped panels of cut wood, tell the story of the estate, past and present.
On the edge of the wood the view opens up to reveal the dome of Ickworth’s Rotunda. It lies in the near distance, rising against the wide, open sky. It is a scene of beauty. The path enters Lady Katherine’s Wood, a pleasant shaded stroll towards Fairy Lake. Once a boating lake, the waters here have steadily silted up over the years to become a wildlife haven. It has a magical atmosphere and another bench offers a chance for more bird watching.
Beyond Fairy Lake the path makes its way through beech woodland and the evocatively named Fontainebleau Grove. A cracking of twigs announces a muntjac deer. It bounces out of the woods heading rapidly across an open field, all the time laughed at by a green woodpecker. Now on a wide track I sudden upon the estate driveway, it’s brilliant white gatehouse perfectly placed. I turn left, and end my walk treading a firm surface to arrive back at the car park and the sight of more smiling staff and cheerful faces. This is a happy place.