Broaden your horizons in the Fens

Nobody ever wants to visit the Fens in Eastern England. They think that the area is dull, flat and covered in murky fog in the winter. They are wrong because there is much concealed behind the net curtains of this lonely bit of British landscape. I know because I live there.

Wicken Fen during the floodsThe Fens extend from the Wash in the north down to about as far as Huntingdon to the south west. Most of the land lies just below sea level and became a swamp as it was invaded by the sea in the 13th century. Four hundred years later, a hard working Dutchman called Cornelius Vermuyden was engaged to engineer defences against the flooding. He brought his large band of labourers to construct two parallel embankments running from Denver in the north to Earith in the south to contain all the water. This was a very labour intensive task and Vermuyden’s men sustained themselves with vast quantities of local beer as they wielded their shovels. There is a sluice gate or dam at the Denver end to regulate the flow of the North Sea in and out of the area. The embankments run as straight as a die for about 22 miles and are roughly a mile and a half apart.

The vast area contained between the embankments can be clearly seen on a map. During most winters the region is flooded with two or three feet of water. When it is very cold, the water freezes and all that vast space becomes a skating rink. If the ice breaks it doesn’t matter, the water is so shallow. During the occasional frozen winters, everyman and his dog and his children are out there with all their old wooden ice skates enjoying the fun. When they get cold, they can nip off to the Anchor Inn at Sutton Gault and fill themselves up with lashings of warming food washed down with something a little stronger. The sight of so many people skating during one of the really cold winters is somehow mysterious.

Ely CathedralOne of the major towns in the Fens is the City of Ely. Ely stands on what used to be an independent ‘Isle of Ely’ completely surrounded by water before the drainage came. Ely has a great and breathtaking Cathedral. The French began its construction sometime after the invasion nearly 1000 years ago. Many regard the Cathedral as the most stunning piece of ecclesiastical architecture in all of Europe. You should see it for yourself. When the Reformation came under Henry the eighth in the 16th century, all religious buildings were rampaged. The heads of all statues thought to be idolatrous were chopped away by the soldiers. They missed just one in Ely Cathedral and it is still intact. See if you can find it. You will have to search carefully but the clue is that it is not in the main body of the structure.

Ely also has the house of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was born in Huntingdon and headed the civil war against Charles 1st in 1642. Cromwell became the self appointed Lord Protector and lived in the city for about ten years. His Tudor residence is maintained as a museum just across the park from the Cathedral.

Oliver Cromwell's house in ElyA few miles to the south east of Ely you can find Wicken Fen. This is a preserved area of natural wetland that fosters much scientific research into the rarest wildlife species in Britain. There are examples of fauna and insects that only exist at Wicken. It belongs to the National Trust and is open to the public. You can walk around the many acres trampling all across the duckboards protecting your feet from the surface swamp. Wicken Fen is wide open and peaceful and you can park your car there. They have a new 12 passenger electric boat called ‘Mayfly’. You can take a relaxing trip in it across the fen waterways and stop off at the Five Miles from Anywhere No Hurry Inn at Upware on the edge of the estate for some lunch.

Spinney Abbey is an old priory close to Wicken Fen. Locals will tell you about all the associated hauntings. There can be heard, apparently, sounds of Monks chanting and strange lights at night. They will talk of the strange demonic dog with eyes like bicycle lamps coming out of the darkness. If you look into his red and orange eyes you will be surely doomed, the locals warn. The murky fog keeps much under cover.

Church of Mary the Great and the Market, CambridgeAt the southern end of the Fens you will find Cambridge. Cambridge University is arguably the best such institution in the whole world and acts as an intellectual oasis amongst the ancient Fenland wetlands.  Cambridge University has fostered more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution on the planet; more than the whole of France. There have been 88 winners since 1904 and Trinity College alone has produced 32 winners. Visit the town of Cambridge and admire the medieval architecture and envy the youthful, eager and enthusiastic culture all around you.

There are many wide open spaces where you can walk with complete freedom in the Fens without encountering anybody else if you want. The vast tracts of flat ground allow you to see such wide horizons without interruption. To observe an autumn sunset on a clear night towards the horizon is a poignant experience. As you survey the sight you can really sense the earth as a separate planet alone in space with just yourself on the surface. The impression of isolation in the solar system can be a little scary. Sir Isaac Newton, as he was becoming aware of gravity during his days at Cambridge University, would surely have shared this experience.

Wicken FenTry and visit the Fens sometime and feel a true sense of nature at the basic level. Admire the wide horizons and visualise the planet along with its solar friends alone in the universe. The City of Ely is very well served by train and Cambridge is connected nationally by coach. And, by the way, parking is free in the market City of Ely.

Read about the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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