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Pensthorpe legend Bill Makins was gateway into birdwatching

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The recent death of Bill Makins at the ripe old age of 90, had me racing back to the time when I first met him after my wife and I moved to Fakenham in late 1979.

We had somehow discovered a pick-your-own fruit farm down a track off the A1067 road to Norwich just outside the town. The fruit we were mainly interested in was strawberries and we invariably helped ourselves every summer, latterly with the assistance of our first two sons who could hardly believe their luck.

Being curious, I wandered further down the track to discover an area of wilderness which contained big holes dug into the ground.

Bill Makins, Chris Knight and Ed Pope joined forces to protect turtle doves in Norfolk.
Bill Makins, Chris Knight and Ed Pope joined forces to protect turtle doves in Norfolk.

These were part of an extensive excavation to extract tonnes of gravel.

In time, thanks to the vision of Bill who already had his own collection of wildfowl, the holes were transformed into landscaped lakes and ponds to form the basis of what was to become Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park. Delightfully, our very own River Wensum also ran through the area.

As a relative newcomer to the district, I later wrote a Wensum column for the Lynn News describing my pleasure at what was happening almost on our doorstep.

Bill read my column and was kind enough to send a letter of appreciation to the editor who sent it on to me. This was just prior to the official opening of the park by the Duke of Edinburgh in March, 1988.

One paragraph in my piece seems worthy of repetition: “The collection of waterfowl here comprises some 120 species, making it one of the largest such accumulations anywhere.

“Having already spent some pleasurable hours observing the antics of such rare creatures as the Torrent Duck from the Andean mountains of South America and the Long-Tailed Duck from the Arctic, I can personally vouch for the delights which are in store here. You are unlikely to see such birds elsewhere in Britain.”

Bill lived on site in Pensthorpe Hall with his wife Francesca and was very much a ‘hands-on’ manager.

I met him from time to time over subsequent years and valued his expertise.

He remained very much in the driving seat until he decided to retire, selling the park to its current owners, Bill and Deb Jordan in 2003.

The fruit farm is now long gone and the reserve has become known as Pensthorpe Natural Park.

The Jordans have introduced a number of popular innovations, including investment in play areas for younger visitors.

Their primary passion, however, has been to continue promoting the invaluable template set by Bill Makins all those years ago in protecting and fostering wildfowl and wildlife for thousands of people of all ages to enjoy.

My interest in birdwatching has been given a new lease of life ever since we came to live in Norfolk.

April has always been the month in which I have spotted my first arriving migrant in the shape of swallow or house martin, usually down by the river south of the chocolate factory.

But not this year when I had to wait until May 1 to fix my binoculars on the familiar outline of a swallow on the wing.

There could be multiple reasons for this delay which I will avoid discussing.

The great thing is that these amazing birds will now be with us for the coming summer months, building their nests in barns and eaves to produce a crop of youngsters who will join them on the great flight south come September.


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