The ongoing travel restrictions have left us, like many people, looking for alternative plans for the school holidays. We couldn’t hop over the Channel with our trusty bell tent this year, but instead have taken the opportunity to visit a few old haunts and relatives around the country whom we haven’t seen for a while.
So this week we took our first proper trip to East Anglia. We had been here before fleetingly a couple of decades ago but we didn’t remember much about it, and it was probably about time we went back. Many of the cliches about the area seem to have some grounding in fact. The countryside is indeed flat, though the sat nav took us up some short sharp hills outside Norwich that would have been an enjoyable challenge on the road bike. The skies are indeed big, though undeniably because they have fewer lumps of land poking up into them. The sights are few and sparse, though on a summers day the coastal villages were as bright, colourful and busy as I guess they are monochrome and austere in the winter, and Wells-by-the-Sea was packed with second home owners and day trippers from London. We stayed on a campsite near Thetford, and, as a landscape guy, although the countryside was pleasant enough I missed the rolling hills and vistas of the south west.
What is interesting about the landscape though is that it is completely man-made, and very recent in origin. Until the mid-18th century, most of East Anglia was fenland, low-lying freshwater wetlands. It was largely uninhabited, except for a few areas that poked up high enough about the water. Ely’s cathedral is just a few metres above the levels of the fens, yet is high enough to dominate the surrounding landscape, and Norwich sprang up in a dry area just close enough to the sea for international trade. But most of the land was unproductive until Dutch engineers drained the fens of water and turned it into the good arable land that we see today.
Ecologically, then, those few areas of fenland that survive are highly valued. To get a flavour of the ancient landscape, we travelled to Wicken Fen. This is a patch of fen that became England’s first nature reserve when a group of Victorian conservationists donated it to the National Trust. It covers 250 hectares, which is huge in the context of nature reserves but tiny in the context of the pre-1750 extent of the fens. We are very lucky to have it.
We were met by a cheerful and enthusiastic warden who gave us a potted introduction to the site. He told us that the best bit of the reserve was Sedge Fen, but we couldn’t go in this area as we didn’t have pre-booked tickets. Instead we chose to explore the Adventurers Trail, a 2.8 mile route where the boys could do a ‘Meet the Trees’ hunt and we could stroll along and enjoy the fenland.
It was certainly a very different landscape and got a bit of getting used to. We walked along an artificial dam with a deep waterway cut into the right hand side of it; on this side, the fens were about 2-3m higher than the ‘mere’ on our left. The mere was more varied but to our right the fen stretched on far as far as the eye could see, where a ridge of low hills rose up out of them perhaps 5-10km away. We passed an apple tree that supposedly grew from a discarded apple from a boatman on the waterway, and was now seeding progeny of its own. The sunny spells that we had at the start of our walk soon blew away and drizzle came in, and we trudged along in the bleakness of a damp fenland day. Our mood didn’t improve much when we realised we’d missed a turn, but as we got back to the junction the drizzle stopped and a packet of fig rolls revived our spirits.
The path now dropped down to the level of the mere, and walking surrounded by fen was suddenly more interesting. You could get a real sense of what it much have been like to be on the only path through the fens, surrounded by marsh, reeds and water, and how difficult life must have been before the fens were drained. If you had lost your way, you would have been really lost. It struck me that, simultaneously, you can see a very long way in the fens but also not very far at all. You could catch glimpses of hillocks 10km away but couldn’t see over the reeds to the next field. Presumably, if you could control the few routes from settlement to settlement and dominate a high spot or two, you could wield real power here.
There are a few trees on Wicken Fen, though most are introductions. Most of the willows are apparently relics of the Victorian era, when ecologists would mark our study areas with willow wands that would then occasionally take route and flourish. There is also a stunning art installation called Mother, which is a high heyrick built into the landscape to provide a space for contemplation, reading or writing (and was apparently partly influenced by the Idles song of the same name). The boys were delighted that they found all six of the Meet The Trees and wee fed our walk with some fair substantial baguettes, the uneaten portions of which were rapidly snapped up by some overeager sparrows. It was actually a really lovely day out.
I’ll always be a mountains and hills kind of guy, I think. I prefer the drama to the quiet contemplativeness of the flatter landscapes, and variation itself provides endless interest to geologists. Visiting Wicken Fen definitely gave me a different perspective though and when we do return (hopefully not in another 20 years) I’d like to explore the fens a bit more. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!