Cley Marshes is a Nature reserve in Norfolk looked after by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT). The reserve it’s self is a good mix of shingle beach and saline lagoons, marshland and reed beds complete with a number of wildlife hides and viewpoints. I first visited in January and I went there again last week.
Cley has a lovely visitors centre complete with outdoor and indoor view points that over look the marshes. The visitors features push button doors for easy access and although the main area is upstairs they do have a platform lift for those with mobility impairments, unfortunately it’s the kind where you have to push and hold the button to go up or down.
Once upstairs the main reception area is straight ahead and is staffed throughout the opening times. There is a large open plan area with a gift shop and cafe (serving both gluten and dairy free food and a variety of hot and cold options). When I visited they had no less than 3 different gluten-free desserts! There are lots of tables and chairs but they can all be moved to make access easier if needed.
While you sip your coffee and eat your cake you have the option of engaging in some birdwatching, there is a long seating area along the side overlooking the marsh and NWT have installed binoculars and bird identification books along it. This area has benches along it but there are gaps at either end of the bench so wheelchair users or those requiring a proper seat can still make use of the windows.
The visitors centre continues on through an internal door (also with push button access) to an external viewing area, this is mainly wooden decking and is also complete with binoculars and birding guides are displayed on the walls. This bit is open air and lovely in warm weather.
Across the courtyard you come to the toilet facilities including an accessible bathroom (I didn’t measure the dimensions but I was in my manual wheelchair with a rucksack on the back and I had plenty of room). The door handle was easy to operate and the sink (although quite low for walking folks) does have automatic taps.
The visitors centre also has a gallery, both times I’ve visited there have been different displays on but I was eager to get out onto the reserve so I didn’t visit.
Once you leave the visitors centre there’s a hard packed gravel path down to a road crossing. The road is signposted and does have tactile paving but the gravel rather interferes with the tactile-ness and there is no push-button or electronic crossing so you have to wait for a break in the traffic.
After crossing the road you’re straight into the reserve, the paths are natural dirt or gravel, it is hard packed and there are edges to it so it’s easy to follow. You can either turn left towards the accessible hides or right towards to the salt marshes and East bank. I turned Left. In dry weather the paths are fine but unfortunately for me, the day prior to my visit had been intensely rainy. Some of the puddles I had to wheel through were easily 3 inches deep, by the end of the day I had mud all the way up to the foot plate on my wheelchair. The walking birders had left the path in favour of the grass verges but the edging to the path prevents wheelies from making the same escape. I soaked through my leather push gloves and my compression gloves pretty quickly.
After a the mud you reach the more accessible part of the reserve, there are wooden paths taking you out into the marshes. The paths are on stilts to keep you out of the swampy bits and are lined with chicken wire to give added grip. The paths were easily wide enough for my manual chair and they have passing places built-in too.
At the end of the path you come to 3 bird hides, each one facing in a different direction so you have a variety of views and can move based on nature activity or where the sun is shining.
The hides are pretty chilly and dark (as most hides are) but they are also pretty accessible, the door handles were chunky and easy to grip and each has a small low-level window to let light in so that once the door is shut you’re not immediately plunged into darkness. This was great for me since I arrived first and that meant all the view windows were shut and it was pretty dark inside.
Once you are inside the hides have windows facing outwards and benches all the way along, at either end and in the middle the bench folds up to allow either space for a wheelchair or room for someone to step in without having to swing their legs over the bench. There is plenty of room for your knees under the edge and the lower view windows can be opened easily from a seated position. I spend most of the day in Daukes Hide (the middle one) with a fabulous view out over the water.
After freezing inside the hide for a while I decided it was time for an adventure. I had been told that the right hand path towards East band was not wheelchair friendly and that is true.. it wasn’t friendly but is possible if you’re feeling adventurous and aren’t afraid of mud. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it without some kind of power assist. I made it the entire way to East Bank which is a raised walkway between the salt lagoons and marshes leading up to the shingle spit. There is a car park at the end of East bank so if you’ve got a car it would be much easier to park there.
The car park at east bank was gravel (not great for wheelies) but it is possible, once you’re onto the actual walkway it gets a bit easier. Although the ground is ‘natural’ and a bit rough it was fairly easy-going for me with my power assist manual chair, I found out later in the day that NWT had it re-surfaced the bank to help wheelchair users and those with limited mobility but the chap at the visitors center was fairly sure I was the first wheelie to attempt it!
The views out over the salt pools are lovely and there is loads of wildlife to see. About half way down the bank there is a seating area and view-point which is a great place to shelter from the wind and take a break. After the half way point the path gets a little less accessible.
The path is rough going but with frequent breaks and a bit of help it is possible for active wheelchair users or those with funky off-road scooters. The only issue I had was the high winds and my lack of hair-band.
By the end of the day I was exhausted and very muddy but it was totally worth it. With nature reserves there’s a difficult balance between providing access and maintaining the natural environment to support conservation efforts. I think Cley is a good example of that. I could sit here and demand concrete paths to make it easier for wheelchair users but that would have a detrimental impact on the environment and in all honesty when visiting a wetland/marsh you have to expect a bit of mud.
I think some of the paths could do with patching and I do think an access statement on the website would a be a good start. Hopefully I’ve helped provide the missing access info here.
I’ll finish with a few of my best photos from the day..
As always questions and comments are welcome and to see the rest of my photos please check out my flickr account.