Feathery reeds rise from dykes, bullrush heads flip to candyfloss within the spring and two crimson kites soar excessive on thermals in a blue sky. The solely sounds are a skylark’s music, the amorous grunting of hidden toads and the occasional distant drum-drum of a high-speed practice.
Beyond stretches an enormous plain of hedgeless fields, inexperienced after which black, the place the plough reveals darkish peat soil. There isn’t any signal of the ocean however Britain’s latest footpath is a coast path of the long run – and the previous.
The Fen Edge Trail is an illuminating new route by way of an ignored panorama that’s weirder than every other, and changing into wilder as soon as once more. The path is being devised by a band of lovers from Cambridge Geological Society to observe the five-metre contour on maps across the nice flatlands of the Fens. Three thousand years in the past, this wiggly line was the coast; it might change into coast once more quite sooner, as local weather warming brings additional rises in sea ranges.
Patrick Barkham strolling within the Great Fen
The path is a grassroots mission involving native heritage and wildlife teams. Downloadable guides to the primary sections are revealed this spring, with Peterborough to St Ives in Cambridgeshire out there by the summer season. It will take slightly longer to map (or stroll) the entire 280-mile semi-circle of fen edge from the Suffolk border to Lincolnshire.
I set out from Horsey Bridge, south-east Peterborough (the place Whittlesey Road meets Milk and Water Drove) to discover the fen edge to Ramsey (about 10 miles south because the crow flies, however 22 miles on the wriggly contour path), with diversions into Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen. These historic nature reserves – Woodwalton was saved by the banker and naturalist Charles Rothschild, one of many founders of the “nature reserve” idea a century in the past – are being related by the Great Fen mission mission, an formidable mission to revive a swath of lost wetlands that had been drained for agriculture within the 19th century.
The Great Fen mission goals to avoid wasting historic marshland, akin to Woodwalton
My lengthy day’s stroll takes within the lowest land in Britain (2.7 metres under sea stage), a lost lake and our largest lowland birch woodland. The discombobulating Fenland panorama of crooked telegraph poles, lumpy lanes and wonky homes – a constant unevenness brought on by the quickly shrinking peat soils – appears to ensure out-of-the-ordinary experiences: at one level, two ponies-and-traps trot previous pushed by major school-age boys; later, I’m requested if I will help carry a washing-machine by a bloke who seems to be an acclaimed actor.
Leaving the suburbs of Peterborough behind, the footpath follows the previous course of the River Nene to the village of Farcet (pronounced Fasset). A 15-minute diversion takes me to a late-Victorian chapel in Farcet’s previous cemetery. This is the Fenland Trust’s Fen View Heritage Centre, which opens this spring. It’s wealthy in native historical past and homes the final remaining leg irons from Britain’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp, which held 6,000 French troopers from the Napoleonic wars of 1797–1815. Outside, the cemetery could also be solely 19 metres above sea stage however slightly elevation goes a good distance in a panorama of horizontals, and the views south are spectacular.
The Rothschild bungalow at Woodwalton Fen
This expanse of flat land brings to thoughts an inland sea, which it was till far more just lately than the bronze age. Much of those fields had been as soon as Whittlesey Mere, till 1851 the biggest lake in lowland Britain. This lake had two ports, was a supply of fish, reeds for thatch and wildfowl for trendy London eating places. It was additionally a playground for pleasure boats and, when the brutal Fenland frosts froze its waters, an enviornment for speed-skating and ice yachting – crusing boats on skates.
The 50-year Great Fen mission was launched in 2001, aiming to revive three,700 hectares of drying, dying fens
The lake disappeared shortly after the Great Exhibition of 1851, when an area landowner acquired a robust new pump from the mechanical marvels on present, introduced it home and drained the lake. This panorama revolution noticed the spectacular massive copper butterfly change into extinct and ushered in a century-and-a-half of more and more intensive farming, exploiting the fertility of the lakebed and the encompassing Fenland peat.
An epicentre for onion farming – root crops develop properly on the sunshine soil – would possibly look like the nadir of a wild journey however these fens have gotten wilder as soon as once more. South of Yaxley is the nationwide nature reserve of Holme Fen. Here stand the Holme Fen posts: one is an iron column apparently taken from the Great Exhibition and pushed into the bottom by the engineers draining Whittlesey Mere. They guessed that the peaty soil would dry out and shrink they usually had been right: within the first decade after draining the lake, the bottom dropped away from the posts by 1.44 metres. Today, the highest of the posts – 1851 floor stage – stand four metres above the place I stand.
A bullrush in spring
The Fens are dropping as much as 2cm of soil annually, significantly in spring when ploughed fields dry out and winds trigger the notorious “Fen blow” – a weird black miasma of airborne peat. In many locations its fertile peat layer is barely a metre or two deep. “It’s a finite resource,” says Henry Stanier of the Great Fen mission. “Farming it in the current way will result in its disappearance.”
The route skirts fairly woodland edges crammed with bridal white blackthorn and bumblebees from Riddy Wood to Lady’s Wood
Stanier reveals me round Holme and Woodwalton fens. For a century, these two nature reserves had been tiny islands of wetland surrounded by drained fens. As the peat shrank, so these wetlands dried out, and Woodwalton Fen lost its populations of uncommon butterflies, dragonflies and marshland birds. I’m stunned to study that the excessive floodbanks round Woodwalton don’t hold the water out however hold it in – stopping the fen from utterly drying out.
The 50-year Great Fen mission was launched in 2001, aiming to revive three,700 hectares of drying, dying fens, and reconnect the 2 nature reserves in a “living landscape” that might carry again wildlife and supply entry for individuals too. The partnership of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and different teams has to date secured 55% of their goal space.
The first step on this epic restoration mission entails turning arable fields to grassland, which locks within the remaining peat. On the previous mattress of Whittlesey Mere, new small meres are being created, scraped into the earth or “rewetted” from beneath – slowly permitting extra water in through sluices and drains. Reedbeds are forming naturally, and uncommon marshland birds, from the bearded tit to the bittern, are recolonising the area. “It’s just getting to a really exciting stage,” says Stanier. “We’ve got the water levels up and things are starting to appear.” Last summer season, seven cuckoos referred to as at Engine Farm – named after the pump which first eliminated the water – whereas 16 short-eared owls patrolled the world. But the nice lake won’t ever return. Ironically, Whittlesey Mere can’t be recreated as a result of, in lots of locations, its mattress is now increased than the encompassing farmland: the lake’s silt has shrunk lower than the peat on surrounding farmland.
The largest silver birch woodland in lowland England is at Holme Fen – it was created when Whittlesea Mere was drained within the 1850s
The new meres shine good blue beneath a cloudless spring sky, and Stanier factors out a number of Chinese water deer, dainty, fanged animals with bat-like ears which dwell in wetlands and made their home on this a part of the world within the 1970s, after escaping captivity. Before lunch within the Admiral Wells, Britain’s lowest pub, we go to Engine Farm, the place lie enormous sq. hunks of the native Barnack limestone. These nice blocks had been destined to construct Ely Cathedral or Ramsey Abbey however fell to the underside of Whittlesey Mere when the boat that was transporting them bumped into difficulties.
After lunch, I take the lanes previous fairly Conington church and stroll into what Christine Donnelly of Cambridge Geological Society calls “the uplands”. Donnelly is among the lovers creating the Fen Edge Trail and a fantastic advocate for the area’s delicate geology: the fen edge is surprisingly undulating, due to deposits of oxford clay. Usually a characteristic of valley bottoms, right here the clay types the hills. It’s the explanation for Peterborough’s historic brickworks, and a wealthy supply of Jurassic fossils.
The route skirts fairly woodland edges crammed with bridal white blackthorn and bumblebees from Riddy Wood to Lady’s Wood, identified for its spectacular carpet of bluebells in spring. I observe deer tracks within the clay because the chiffchaffs sing, admiring the purple-and-silver of Woodwalton Fen’s birch woodland within the distance.
Unfortunately, it’s not straightforward to dip into Woodwalton Fen on foot (the one route there’s a quick street), so the Fen Edge Trail meanders from the village of Upwood east to the historic city of Ramsey, constructed on what was as soon as a shingle island. I get a carry to Woodwalton Fen, the place I finish the day watching toads grappling with one another in a dyke, as extra crimson kites sail overhead. Somewhere within the reedbeds, there’s a male bittern; his blowing-on-a-milk-bottle name is a spring sound simply as wealthy and unusual as this consistently stunning panorama.
• More particulars of the routes at fenedgetrail.org. Various routes, akin to Peterborough to Ramsey, Whittlesey Island and Ramsey to St Ives, have been revealed already. Others, within the Wicken Fen space will likely be revealed later this spring/summer season. Also, seek advice from Ordnance Survey Explorer 227. Slepe Hall Hotel & Restaurant in St Ives has doubles from £125 room-only