There is a broad area of flat landscape in eastern England, much of it at sea level, that stretches from roughly south of the Wash down to almost Cambridge. It is called the Fens and has been inhabited and exploited since Roman times. It is an area of very rich agricultural land and harbours many ecological secrets and clues. In recent centuries this very wet area has been drained by mechanical pumping to exploit the fertile peat soil. There are many local farmers that have grown rich from this productive countryside.
A small portion of the Fens has been preserved in its original, un-drained condition. Its past and ecology is being constantly studied and recorded. This portion of the terrain lies just to the north of Cambridge and has the generic name, Wicken Fen. It was bought by the National Trust just over a century ago and maintained as a public nature reserve. It is used for scientific and climatic research. It is the Trust’s largest natural park in Britain and is regarded as the most ecologically important reserve in Europe.
Wicken Fen supports over 9000 recorded species of rare fauna and wildlife species. Many of them are unique to this reserve. It presents itself as ‘The Widest of Skies and the Tiniest of Creatures’. It is open to the public all year round to admire its barren and coarse beauty. Visitors can tramp around the squidgy droves and grass pathways at will. Wicken Fen is rarely crowded with visitors.
The title ‘Wicken Fen’ encompasses a collection of areas that lie all together but have their own characteristics. Find the map at the entrance that indicates the differences. The whole area covers about six square miles of flat landscape.
Sedge Fen is locally unique in that it is kept as a completely un-drained space. Sedge reed growth defines the character of this area. Earliest records date back to 1419 and Sedge Fen today is pretty much the same as it was then.
Sedge reed is still cut by the Fen rangers today. The carefully timed harvesting preserves the rare habitats and micro wildlife just as it did all those centuries ago. Visitors can search for Fen Harriers, Barn Owls and Snipe. Look out for the Yellow loosestrife, Devil’s bit scabious and Marsh thistle. The ancient agricultural practice functions on to this day and contemporary ecological science benefits so much. Many original water dependent fauna and insects are able to survive. Other plant rarities include marsh pea and milk parsley.
St. Edmunds Fen is crossed by the man-made Monk’s Lode. This waterway is used to capture the drained water from much of Wicken Fen and provides a navigable route through the often saturated low lying terrain.
St. Edmunds Fen is harvestable and provides security for the Fen Cottage that is open to visitors. This is a rural and olden day house that was inhabited by a family to exploit the profit that came from the surrounding Fenland. It is preserved just as the last occupants had left it. It remains as a permanent exhibition of the agricultural culture.
Adventurer’s Fen is a larger space on the southern edge of Wicken Fen. It was an area that was invested in by a variety of wealthy agricultural businessmen in the eighteenth century. They wanted to drain the land and profit from the fertile, drained peat that lies under the boggy surface.
The commercial exploitation largely failed however, and this partition now remains as a wide open, woodland and sedge covered area that provides unrestricted open views of the whole of the fen. Adventurer’s Fen nowadays provides a secure home for many other rare species of fauna, insects, bird life and wild creatures. It is a scientific Pandora’s Box of modern day ecological and climate change research. Lapwings, Widgeons , Cormorants and Bittern live among the wet grassland.
Close to the public entrance to Wicken Fen, visitors will discover the wooden windmill. This is the only preserved pumping mill from the earlier days of wind drainage of the Fens. It is particularly fragile to the elements but is used nowadays to pump water in rather that out. It sustains the habitat of surviving species of tiny life that contribute so much knowledge to current climate change physics.
Wicken Fen is an important area of scientific importance. The modern day research concerning atmospheric and climatic change and the impact left on society is led by the nearby Cambridge University. The science goes on constantly amongst the freedom given to visitors to walk at will.
The fen is crossed by man-made lodes and droves that provide complete access to all of the partly drained spaces for scientists and visitors. Many of the walking routes are surfaced by boardwalks constructed of re-cycled plastic planks protecting ramblers from the often wet and soggy ground beneath their feet.
The vast Fenland area in eastern England was once completely un-drained and exploited in such primeval and basic ways. Modern Britain found ways of draining the land with contemporary pumping methods to create some of the most fertile agricultural land in present times. Wicken Fen is preserved just as it was before this technology came about and now reveals so much ecological data for scientific society to benefit us all.
Long walks in this Fenland reserve provide a real sense of peaceful freedom. There are occasional tall ‘hides’ along the grassy droves. They are available to everyone to observe the rare and distinctly local birdlife. The spacious views across the wide and flat landscape from a really lofty perch can be remarkable.
The ‘lodes’ or narrow waterways are home to many unusual breeds of fish. These creatures are listed and pictured and described on coloured signposts along the way. The waterways can be intimately explored from a small boat called the ‘Mayfly’. This boat is electrically powered and silent. The batteries are regularly charged by the contemporary wind powered mill station close to its moorings. The boat excursion in the summer months stops by at the local ‘Five Miles from Anywhere’ pub for lunch on the edge of the Fen.
The natural peat and plant life remains energetic and useful. There are many examples of very ancient trees that have been preserved by the protection of the peat. They lay at rest where they have been discovered in an almost perfect condition after hundreds of years since they were devoured by the terrain. Locally they are referred to as ‘Bog Oaks’.
The fenland sedge is cut to provide roof thatching material and the grass is cut for hay. Much of it is sent to nearby Newmarket to nourish and provide comfort for many of England’s finest racehorses.
The sedge and grass is harvested at varying intervals in order to preserve a natural breeding ground for the rare and ancient bird and insect wildlife. They are all studied in minute detail by the scientists. Many ecological change secrets are being constantly un-earthed.
There is a compact water Mere on the edge of Baker’s Fen. It is home now to many unusual wetland birds and creatures that use it as their seasonal breeding ground. It was opened by the celebrated Sir Peter Scott in the nineteen sixties. Water from the Mere is also used to preserve much of the un-drained fen spaces around it.
Verrall’s Fen is also a department of Wicken Fen. Konik ponies were brought here in 2001. They are able to graze freely and consume the vegetation in such a way as to preserve the centuries old environment. A herd of fascinating highland cattle were brought to the same location in 2012 to operate as a further guardian of the timeless eco system. They walk without restriction but are completely harmless to people. These creatures provide additional and poignant scientific inputs into all of the studies that take place within Wicken Fen.
Wicken Fen is open all year round and provides a visitor car park at a cost of three pounds. Entrance to the fen costs five pounds and all of the modest income is ploughed back into the preservation costs of the reserve.
The entrance building is contemporary and spacious. It was opened in 1969 and is called the ‘William Thorpe Building’ to commemorate one of the earlier scientific researchers. The ground floor is used to provide much literature as a fund of information for guidance around the fen. The upper level now operates as a scientific laboratory to study and record all the research that takes place. Further work takes place here to devise futuristic methods of anti- carbon pollution policy and modern day ecological planning.
Wicken Fen is a standalone ecological oasis amongst what is a vibrant and commercial agricultural region. It is always open for all to visit and is never crowded. Take a long stroll around the extensive droves and walkways and enjoy the freshness and the sight of the wide skies and landscape. Don’t forget your Wellington boots though, you might need them.
Read Broaden your horizons in the Fens