Home to England’s lowest point, the country’s biggest washland and some of the richest farmland in the world, there’s nowhere quite like the Cambridgeshire Fens. With vast fields, straightened rivers and a grid pattern of drainage channels, almost every inch of this landscape has been engineered to prevent it from flooding. Despite this, the Fens can feel wild in their remoteness, with huge flocks of birds and enormous skies where sunsets sizzle in cinematic intensity.
To understand the Fens, it’s essential to delve into the past – this was once the largest wetland in England, alive with croaking frogs, whispering reeds and screeching wildfowl. Rising a few feet above the swamps were low-lying islands where early settlers built villages on stilts, hermits sought solitude and towns like Ramsey grew around some of the wealthiest abbeys in England. The Cambridgeshire Fens also had a coastline – a ridge of higher ground to the west and south where settlements like Peterborough and Waterbeach developed along the fen edge.
The people of the Fens lived in tune with their drowned world. They travelled using boats, stilts and ice skates; they built homes from reeds and mud; and they lived off eels, fish and wildfowl, using fertile patches of fen that dried out in summer to graze their livestock. But it was this fertile land, which lay submerged in water for much of the year, that sealed the fate of the wild fens. The great drainage operation began in the 17th century and hasn’t stopped since, transforming the swamps into vast swathes of productive agricultural land.
West of Ramsey is a collection of nature reserves that belong to one of the most ambitious conservation projects in Europe: Great Fen. This 50-year habitat restoration initiative aims to connect two of the UK’s last fragments of wild fen – Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen – by restoring the degraded land between and around them. Once a watery world on the edge of Whittlesey Mere, this area was, along with the rest of the Fens, drained and transformed into an intensive agricultural landscape.
Although Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen provide safe havens for fragile species, it is difficult for wildlife to thrive in such small and isolated reserves. Great Fen hopes to change this – the plan, which launched in 2001, is to link the two reserves by restoring 14 square miles of land between them.
Over the coming years, Great Fen will become a mosaic of wetland habitats that mimic the pre-drained fens. This restoration will also help to reduce peat loss, capture carbon, mitigate flood risks and encourage new economic opportunities that focus on tourism and the environment.
There are several different sites where you can experience Great Fen, all of which have mapped walking trails that you can download on greatfen.org.uk. You could also experience the Great Fen area at night – it’s a designated Dark Skies reserve, meaning low levels of light pollution often give clear views of the Milky Way.
The richest fragment of Great Fen, and one of England’s first-ever nature reserves, Woodwalton Fen gives a glimpse into the landscapes of the past. Bordered by drains and flood banks, it sits at the end of a lonely road and is surrounded by farmland that will, one day, become part of Great Fen. The reserve has an information stand and three marked trails but no other facilities. It’s worth mentioning that dogs are not allowed, even on leads.
Driving or cycling is the easiest way to get to this remote reserve, which has a small parking area beside Great Raveley Drain. Find a quiet spot within the reserve and you’ll be immersed in ancient fenland sounds – the whisper of grasses, buzzing of dragonflies and calls of waterbirds. Grassy paths lead around the site, and there are three meres with raised bird hides that beckon you to sit patiently and wait for the wildlife to emerge. Among the highlights are marsh harriers and common cranes, which disappeared from the Fens 400 years ago but recently returned. There’s also a chance of seeing water voles and Chinese water deer.
Holme Fen is unlike anywhere else you’ll find in the Fens, or in Cambridgeshire for that matter. It’s the lowest point in Great Britain (around 9ft below sea level) and, according to Natural England, the ‘finest example of birch woodland in natural Britain’. There’s something utterly magical about the slender trunks and silvery bark of the trees, and the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy to the forest floor, which boasts 500 species of fungi. And all this in the least-wooded area in the UK.
How then, did this 657-acre woodland come to be? It’s a story of natural succession: Holme Fen was once an area of reedy wetlands at the edge of Whittlesey Mere but as the lake was drained some of the surrounding land transformed into a raised bog, which became colonised by birch trees – the seeds of which are easily spread by the wind.
Within the woodland are the Holme Posts, which look like two big lamp posts sticking 13ft above the ground. These were the brainchild of William Wells – a local landowner who spearheaded the drainage of Whittlesey Mere. In 1848, Wells predicted that, when the lake was drained, the peat-rich soil left behind would shrink. To test his theory, he drove a timber post deep into the earth and cut the top off at ground level. Sure enough, the soil shrank away and the top few inches of the post were revealed – in these early years, the ground shrank as much as nine inches a year.
The National Trust’s oldest nature reserve, the initial two acres were bought from Charles Rothschild in 1899. Now spanning more than 1,975 acres, this is one of the few places where you can see, hear and feel what the pre-drained Fens may have been like – a landscape so rare that it’s internationally protected.
A mosaic of fenland, meadows, reed beds, waterways, meres and ditches, the reserve claims to have more species of flora and fauna than anywhere else in the UK. More than 9,300 different species have been documented here, from cranes, kingfishers, nightingales, bitterns, butterflies and otters to great crested newts, fen violets and the rare reed leopard moth. Some species are considered new to science or have never before been recorded in the UK, like the Silvanus recticollis beetle. To safeguard the survival of the reserve’s precious wildlife, plans are afoot to expand the reserve and extend the wildlife habitats towards the fringes of Cambridge.
A network of boardwalks leads through the wetlands and reed beds, with elevated bird hides gazing over a sea of golden grasses. Helping to sustain this landscape are herds of highland cattle and Konik ponies, plus a restored windpump, which was originally used for drainage. Ironically, it now pumps water back into the land to stop it drying out.
Southern Fen Edge
Before the Fens were drained, the fen edge was, in effect, the coastline of mainland England, with fenland swamps and islands to the northeast, and the uplands of Huntingdonshire to the southwest. The southwest edge sees the last of the River Great Ouse in full flow, before it diverts along the Bedford rivers. Here, the Great Ouse is flanked by birdlife-rich wetlands that form the southern extremity of the Ouse Washes – a chain of internationally important wetlands that stretches 25 miles northeast to Norfolk.
RSBP Fen Drayton Lakes
On the southern bank of the River Great Ouse, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes is a master of the unexpected – don’t be surprised if a heron bursts out of the reeds, an orb of starlings performs a mesmerising dusk display, or a bus on rails glides past while you’re birdwatching. The reserve, with its network of lakes, sits at the far southwest end of the Ouse Washes wetland system. Habitats like this once covered vast areas of East Anglia, but by the mid 20th century the landscape had become an industrial one of sand and gravel pits.
It is now being returned to nature, with weed-dancing grebes, raft-nesting terns and acrobatic hobbies (small falcons) that dart above the water. Dragonflies and damselflies are prolific, with almost half of all UK species found here – to distinguish them, notice how dragonflies rest with their wings open, while smaller damselflies tend to close them.