‘Weirder than another landscape’: a wild walk within the Fens

Feathery reeds rise from dikes, bullrush heads flip to candyfloss inside the spring and pink kites bounce high on thermals in a blue sky. The most effective sounds are a skylark’s track, the amorous grunting of hidden toads and the occasional distant drum-drum of a high-speed teach.

Beyond stretches a significant plain of hedgeless fields, inexperienced and then black, in which the plow reveals darkish peat soil. There is not any sign of the sea, however, Britain’s most modern footpath is a coast direction of the destiny – and the beyond.

The Fen Edge Trail is an illuminating new route thru an ignored panorama this is older than another, and turning into wilder once again. The course is being devised by means of a band of fans from Cambridge Geological Society to comply with the 5-meter contour on maps around the awesome flatlands of the Fens. Three thousand years ago, this wiggly line becomes the coast; it is able to grow to be coast once more as a substitute sooner, as weather warming brings further rises in sea tiers.

Patrick Barkham taking walks in The Great Fen.
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Patrick Barkham on foot within the Great Fen
The path is a grassroots mission related to neighborhood background and flora and fauna businesses. Downloadable guides to the first sections are posted this spring, with Peterborough to St Ives in Cambridgeshire available by way of the summer season. It will take a touch longer to map (or stroll) the whole 280-mile semi-circle of fen facet from the Suffolk border to Lincolnshire.

I set out from Horsey Bridge, south-east Peterborough (where Whittlesey Road meets Milk and Water Drove) to discover the fun part to Ramsey (approximately 10 miles south because the crow flies, but 22 miles at the wriggly contour route), with diversions into Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen. These historic nature reserves – Woodwalton was saved by the banker and naturalist Charles Rothschild, one of the founders of the “nature reserve” idea a century ago – are being related by way of the Great Fen mission task, an ambitious project to repair a swath of misplaced wetlands that were drained for agriculture inside the nineteenth century.

 

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The Great Fen assignment aims to keep historical marshland, including Woodwalton
Facebook Twitter Pinterest The Great Fen task pursuits to shopping historical marshland, together with Woodwalton
My lengthy day’s walk takes within the lowest land in Britain (2.7 meters beneath sea level), a misplaced lake and our largest lowland birch wooded area. The discombobulating Fenland landscape of crooked telegraph poles, lumpy lanes and wonky homes – a consistent unevenness due to the rapidly shrinking peat soils – appears to guarantee out-of-the-regular experiences: at one factor, ponies-and-traps trot past driven by means of primary faculty-age boys; later, I’m requested if I can assist carry a washing-system by using a bloke who seems to be an acclaimed actor.

Six of Britain’s nice ‘spring heartland’ walks
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Leaving the suburbs of Peterborough behind, the footpath follows the antique path of the River Nene to the village of Farcet (said Fasset). A 15-minute diversion takes me to a past due-Victorian chapel in Facet’s vintage cemetery. This is the Fenland Trust’s Fen View Heritage Centre, which opens this spring. It’s wealthy in nearby records and homes the final leg irons from Britain’s first motive-constructed prisoner-of-battle camp, which held 6,000 French soldiers from the Napoleonic wars of 1797–1815. Outside, the cemetery may be most effective 19 meters above sea degree but a bit elevation is going a long manner in a landscape of horizontals, and the views south are magnificent.

The Rothschild bungalow at Woodwalton Fen.
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The Rothschild bungalow at Woodwalton Fen
This expanse of flat land brings to mind an inland sea, which it was until a whole lot more current than the bronze age. Much of those fields had been once Whittlesey Mere, until 1851 the biggest lake in lowland Britain. This lake had ports, became a source of fish, reeds for thatch and wildfowl for fashionable London eating places. It was additionally a playground for pleasure boats and, when the brutal Fenland frosts froze its waters, an arena for speed-skating and ice yachting – sailing boats on skates.

The 50-yr Great Fen challenge became released in 2001, aiming to revive three,seven-hundred hectares of drying, loss of life fens
The lake disappeared shortly after the Great Exhibition of 1851, whilst a neighborhood landowner acquired a powerful new pump from the mechanical marvels on the show, added it domestically and drained the lake. This panorama revolution saw the impressive massive copper butterfly grow to be extinct and ushered in a century-and-a-1/2 of more and more in-depth farming, exploiting the fertility of the lakebed and the surrounding Fenland peat.

An epicenter for onion farming – root crops develop nicely on the mild soil – would possibly appear like the nadir of a wild adventure but these fens are getting wilder yet again. South of Yaxley is the countrywide nature reserve of Holme Fen. Here stand the Holme Fen posts: one is an iron column apparently taken from the Great Exhibition and driven into the ground by using the engineers draining Whittlesey Mere. They guessed that the peaty soil might dry out and cut back and they have been accurate: within the first decade after draining the lake, the ground dropped away from the posts through 1.Forty four meters. Today, the top of the posts – 1851 ground degree – stand 4 meters above wherein I stand.

Fens
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A bullrush in spring
The Fens are losing as much as 2cm of soil every yr, especially in spring whilst plowed fields dry out and winds reason the infamous “Fen blow” – a bizarre black miasma of airborne peat. In many locations, its fertile peat layer is only a meter or two deep. “It’s a finite useful resource,” says Henry Stanier of the Great Fen project. “Farming it inside the contemporary manner will result in its disappearance.”

The direction skirts quite forest edges filled with bridal white blackthorn and bumblebees from Riddy Wood to Lady’s Wood
Stanier suggests me round Holme and Woodwalton fens. For a century, those two nature reserves had been tiny islands of wetland surrounded by means of drained fens. As the peat shrank, so those wetlands dried out, and Woodwalton Fen lost its populations of uncommon butterflies, dragonflies, and marshland birds. I’m amazed to analyze that the high flood banks around Woodwalton don’t hold the water out, however, preserve it in – preventing the fen from absolutely drying out.

The 50-yr Great Fen challenge changed into released in 2001, aiming to restore 3,700 hectares of drying, loss of life fens, and reconnect the two nature reserves in a “residing panorama” that would deliver lower back wildlife and provide get admission to for people too. The partnership of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, and different groups have to this point secured fifty-five % of their goal region.

The first step on this epic restoration assignment includes turning arable fields to grassland, which locks within the ultimate peat. On the former bed of Whittlesey Mere, new small meres are being created, scraped into the earth or “rewetted” from under – slowly allowing extra water in thru sluices and drains. Reedbeds are forming naturally, and uncommon marshland birds, from the bearded tit to the bittern, are recolonizing the vicinity. “It’s simply attending to a truly interesting level,” says Stanier. “We’ve got the water ranges up and matters are starting to appear.” Last summer time, seven cuckoos referred to as at Engine Farm – named after the pump which first removed the water – even as 16 brief-eared owls patrolled the vicinity. But the remarkable lake will never return. Ironically, Whittlesey Mere cannot be recreated because, in many places, its bed is now higher than the encompassing farmland: the lake’s silt has shriveled much less than the peat on surrounding farmland.