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Fens and their ship

12 December 2014

By Sue Dobson

OFF the A10, within easy reach of Cambridge, and yet a world away from its tourist honeypots. Steeped in history and hidden backwaters, the Fenland attracts walkers, cyclists, and back-roads drivers.

When the sun is low and mist drifts across long fields of rich, dark, peaty earth, the Fenland has a mysterious, haunting quality. Isolated farmhouses, bold-towered churches, and the occasional solitary windmill become landmarks, visible for miles around in this flat land of wide skies and far horizons.

There is a strange but compulsive silence here in the wide open spaces that separate plain-housed, close-knit villages.

What to see
Before the great drainage projects of the 17th century, when the fens were still a vast, malarial swamp of reed and sedge, this was the stamping ground of Hereward the Wake and Oliver Cromwell. Then locals lived in isolated island settlements, relying on the reed, peat, wildfowl, and fish (especially eels) for their livelihood. Today, only Wicken Fen preserves a true sense of wetland wilderness to show how most of East Anglia looked before the fens were finally tamed and drained.

The National Trust's oldest nature reserve, Wicken Fen, is a haven for wildlife and rare plants. Amid scenes unchanged for centuries, traditional wide droves and lush paths afford long walks among myriad wildflowers and habitats. Here are tree-lined dykes and lodes (ancient, navigable waterways) where dragonflies hover; sedge fields and reed beds, bulrush-fringed pools, dense carr (bushes and small trees), fen fields where herds of Konik ponies and Highland cattle roam free, and hides for watching the multitude of visiting birds.

Woodpeckers nest in birch trees, herons pick their way through flooded fields, redshank and lapwing breed in the wet grassland, marsh harriers, bitterns, and bearded tits frequent the reedbeds. Wigeon, mallard, and hen harrier winter at Wicken; in spring, great crested grebe court on the water, while snipe and woodcock display overhead.

Where to eat and drink
Wicken Fen has a café serving warming soups, sandwiches, and comforting cakes. Five miles away, at Reach, the suitably named Dyke's End is a friendly village pub noted for good seasonal food. Book in advance for Sunday lunch.

Near by
Visible for miles, Ely Cathedral lies anchored on its ridge above some of the richest, flattest, most bountiful farmland in England. The Farmland Museum and Denny Abbey, at Waterbeach, tell of rural life in days past. Newmarket has its racecourse, the National Stud, and National Horseracing Museum; and, for cheering harbingers of spring, visit Anglesey Abbey - not an abbey but a Jacobean-style house - when its gorgeous gardens and parkland are carpeted with snowdrops.

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