Before Christmas I attended a meeting in Aviva’s Marble Hall in Norwich. Neither meetings nor marble halls are exactly my habitat, but I was happy to be there, at the first public airing of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s plans for Sweet Briar Marshes, our new nature reserve in Norwich.

In its quiet way, Sweet Briar Marshes is revolutionary. Make no mistake, all of our Norfolk Wildlife Trust nature reserves are remarkable, and all have come into our care through the dedication, generosity and drive of Norfolk people. But Sweet Briar Marshes represents the start of something new, the start of something very special.

Let’s begin with the river, which runs along the south edge of the reserve, marking its boundary. The Wensum rises from springs in the chalk in the northwest of Norfolk and flows over chalk the whole length of its journey from west of Fakenham to southeast of Norwich, where it is joined by the Yare and changes its name. This chalk itself is extraordinary, though in Norfolk we take it as everyday and ordinary. It was laid down in the Late Cretaceous, a little shy of a hundred million years ago, built of tiny flakes of calcium raining – over tens of millions of years – onto the seabed from photosynthetic plankton known as coccolithophores. This alone is startling.

Great British Life: Bullfinch resting in a tree at Sculthorpe Moor. Bullfinch resting in a tree at Sculthorpe Moor. (Image: Elizabeth Dack)

But the story of Sweet Briar Marshes has layer upon layer of wonder, building upwards from the chalk. The Wensum is one of fewer than 250 chalk rivers in the world, 85 per cent of them in England, and the majority in East Anglia. Our River Wensum, flowing through the county’s heart, and right by Sweet Briar Marshes, is among the most important chalk rivers in the world.

The river, of course, is also the reason our great city of Norwich has grown and flourished where it has. Local people have loved and used the river for a thousand years and more. And it is local people who have helped us to purchase Sweet Briar Marshes, beside the river, and who – crucially – have helped develop our plans for it.

When Sweet Briar Marshes came up for sale in 2021, we were approached by local community groups with the idea of Norfolk Wildlife Trust buying these 90 acres of unspoiled land and making them into an urban nature reserve for Norwich. Next on board was historic Norwich business Aviva, which most generously offered to match every pound raised for the purchase and development of Sweet Briar Marshes up to the value of £300,000. Coupled with the generosity of countless others, this donation meant we could buy the reserve in record time. Aviva’s support has continued ever since and will be fundamental to our delivery of a thriving Norwich nature reserve.

With the land secured, the next thing to do was watch and listen, both to wildlife and to people. In the past eighteen months we have searched the marshes high and low (well, mostly low, considering they’re marshes in a river valley, scarcely above sea level) to document their wonderful wildlife. In spring, the hawthorn scrub of the reserve was clamorous with whitethroats, lesser whitethroats, bullfinches and cuckoos. From the meadows by the river, the dry purr of grasshopper warblers could be heard. Sparrowhawks hunted through the woods along Marriott’s Way and kestrels hovered after voles.

We got to know the flora too: the meadowsweet and tubular water-dropwort in the marsh, the musk mallow and perforate St-John’s-wort in the sandy meadows by Marriott’s Way. Species by species, one wild life at a time, our new reserve was letting us in, telling us how to care for it, how to safeguard its precious inhabitants.

Most importantly, we have listened to people too. More than listening, we have placed local people at the heart of our plans for Sweet Briar Marshes, including local schools, community groups and interest groups at every stage, through workshops, visits, walks and other activities. Our evolving plans for Sweet Briar Marshes reflect what local people have told us that they want from their reserve.

Great British Life: A landscape architect family workshop. A landscape architect family workshop. (Image: Denzil Dean)

Overwhelmingly you have told us that you want Sweet Briar Marshes to retain its wildness: that feeling of stepping out of the city and into a world of wildlife and of wild lives. You have also told us – at every stage – that you want Sweet Briar Marshes to be everyone’s nature reserve, welcoming and accessible to the whole community of Norwich. We have kept these aspirations at the heart of our plans. This will be a nature reserve for all of Norwich, reflecting the ideas and lives of local people.

We are only at the start of our multi-year vision for Sweet Briar Marshes, but already exciting developments are underway. Thanks to a grant from Biffa Award, as part of the Landfill Communities Fund, we are fencing the reserve this winter, to allow six British white cattle to live there. These hardy, traditional cattle will graze extensively, creating a range of microhabitats and favouring some of the scarcest wildlife on the site. In spring 2024 the reserve will blossom further, as the first paths are officially opened for the public to explore and enjoy.

I flush with happiness every time I think about Sweet Briar Marshes; every time I think about the wonderful people who are working there to deliver our collective vision; every time I think about the hundreds of people who have shared with us their time, their passion and their ideas, including a young lad whose model of a treetop walkway has inspired us to propose just such a structure at the entrance to the reserve.

Sweet Briar Marshes represents a new way for us to conserve nature in Norfolk, with urban people at its very heart. It represents a new beginning for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, built on a hundred years of passion, commitment and achievement but looking forward to a wild and bright future. We are grateful to everyone who has helped so far at Sweet Briar Marshes and we are excited to share our wonderful urban nature reserve with you this spring.