The Welney Wetland Centre in Norfolk

I, like just about everybody else, am confined to my own country during this period of lockdown. I thought that I should write about a place really close to my home in the Cambridgeshire Fens. It is a secluded and difficult site to locate but holds many fascinating secrets deep within the countryside. Take the A1101 towards the Hundred Foot Drain close to Welney across the county border in Norfolk. You can easily miss it if you are not careful as you head towards the hamlet of Gold Hill. The postal address is Hundred Foot Bank, Welney, Norfolk, PE14 9TN. Telephone 01353 860711. I had only visited this space once before so briefly many years ago. It is peaceful, scientific and functions as a great oasis from all our problems in life. Second time around, I stayed much longer on my recent visit.

Lady FenThe Welney Wetland Centre is essentially a wild bird reserve. Different breeds of aerial creatures come here to feed and to breed and to nest from foreign parts extending as far away as Senegal in West Africa. They arrive during the chosen season that suits them. They can be viewed and photographed all year round as they pass through. Visitors can stay as long as they like and really enjoy the green peacefulness and calm that surrounds them in such a modern and clean observatory and hide environment.

The centre was founded by Sir Peter Scott during the early seventies. It carries his prestige and is run and financially supported by the Wetlands Charity Trust.

The most prominent birds there I suppose are the swans. The most common breeds are whooper and Bewick birds. They appear to dominate the graceful streams and water courses throughout the trust. The best time to visit them is October through until March. This is their breeding and nesting season and they are fed on a regular basis with specialised food during their day by the staff. They are such graceful and perhaps seemingly superior creatures.

Spot the numerous other birds too from many countries. There are so many types of ducks including pintail, mallard and shelduck. They quack away loudly and share their lives with each other. Look out for the wading birds too. There is much information about all the different breeds posted around the observation points.

Black-tailed godwit by Andreas Trepte / CC BY-SA Wikimedia CommonsDuring the spring and summer, hunt out the godwits with their chicks and the swallows too. The godwits with their families head out back to south Europe in the autumn. They will be back in the spring. No scientist is yet really sure how they navigate but many birds even return to a single familiar twig on the same tree from whence they left.

If you feel like it, take the three and half kilometre summer walk that runs around the periphery of the Centre. It transits the boggy lowland between the Old and New Bedford rivers. This landscape is sometimes difficult to cross in the winter months due to heavy flooding but then provides dramatic vistas of the terrain. Along the pathway visitors will find a couple of ‘pond dipping’ points that children will love. They can use equipment provided by the trust to find newts, nymphs and beetles. There is also a pond where dragonflies, chaser, skimmer and damselflies live too. The Wetland Centre is a homeland for absolute raw nature.

Lady Fen is on the south side of the Trust property. Guided walking tours are available across this gentle area. Look out for boxing hares and the lowing beef cattle wading into the cooling water courses. Local farmers pay the Wetland Charity Trust rent to graze their cattle in this perfectly safe environment. Lady Fen is also a point where numerous ducks and other assorted birds, crunch away on hanging food in baskets put out by the staff. Many of us do the same at our homes in our gardens.

There are also barn owl and bat evenings conducted in the summer and ‘swan awake’ mornings in the winter to participate in. Details of all these events are available from the Centre on wwt.org.uk/welney

ObservatoryObserve all that goes on from the main observatory or comfort of the Widgeon café. Hot food is available all year round from noon until 2.30pm. Hot drinks, buns and cakes can be bought from 9.30am until 5pm. The café is a perfect lookout location for all of the Centre whilst you eat and drink.

The entrance point visitor centre is home to a shop selling binoculars and other optical equipment. The prices I thought were very reasonable and devices can be tried out from the centre here to see if they are suitable for your needs. There were a number of people attending the Trust with quite the most sophisticated photographic equipment. They seemed to have just taken root for the whole day.

Three other hides for observation are accessible along the summer path route. They are signposted and easily found on foot.

Many original paintings abound in the main observatory and visitor centre and also along the adjoining bridge. They, with other exhibitions, describe the Ouse washes and the birdlife along with the principle of wetlands in general.

Welney Wetland CentreFind the introduction brochure when you arrive. Read the mild warnings about feeding and other instructions. If you live nearby, Welney Wetland Centre is in constant need of volunteers. The wetland park in my opinion was quite the most peaceful environment that I have ever visited. It is a certain temporary escape from the ordinary pressures of real life. Parking is secluded and free and entry prices are inexpensive. They let me in for free but standard entrance is about a fiver I think.

Disabled facilities for anyone using a wheelchair are available across the whole of the Trust. The whole experience will make for a fascinating, creative and wonderfully peaceful experience.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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