23 April 2021
Welcome back to a new series of ACE Stories for the Culturally Curious! As the days lengthen and our horizons begin to expand once again, over the following weeks we invite you to ‘take a walk’ with us in different parts of the UK, as we profile the natural history and cultural legacies of a diverse array of landscapes – including nature reserves, different parts of the coastline and some Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This week, we explore the fascinating past, present and future of Wicken Fen in ACE’s home county of Cambridgeshire.
Wicken Fen, located close to the cathedral city of Ely – the ‘ship of the Fens’ – is one of Europe’s most important wetlands, and the oldest nature reserve in the care of the National Trust. It provides a window into East Anglia’s past, being one of the last remaining areas of un-drained fenland – the landscape that once covered the region’s expansive lowlands.
Arriving at the site, visitors have the option to explore the reserve in different ways. Taking the Boardwalk trail leads you to the ancient Sedge Fen, with its iconic wind pump. Old brick kilns are also visible, and as you walk further, layers of flora and fauna reveal themselves – the reserve is home to a staggering 9000 species.
In spring, these include bitterns, which can be spotted in the reedbeds, and in summer, marsh harriers, emperor dragonflies and migrant birds populate the site. The autumn skies can see starling murmurations and hen harriers returning south, while the winter months reveal flocks of wigeon, teal and shoveler on the wet grasslands, as well as barn, short-eared, little and tawny owls. The reserve features nine wildlife hides, two of which, overlooking Baker’s Fen and Tubney Fen, are equipped for wheelchair users.
"Already home to more than 9000 species of plants, animals, birds and insects, the reserve has seen overwintering birds, short-eared owls and lapwing return since it started rewilding.”
- The Guardian
For the past 20 years, the National Trust has been engaged in a large conservation project – the ‘Wicken Fen Vision’ – which aims to extend the reserve southwards towards Cambridge, creating more space in which wildlife can thrive and for visitors to enjoy. The site – which is designated as a National Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar Site (an international wetland designation) – is carefully managed by the Trust, which employs a blend of traditional principles and modern techniques to look after the sedge and scrub.
Grazing animals, including free-roaming konik ponies and highland cattle, are key players in sustainably helping to create new habitats for wildlife and rare wetland plants to thrive. The plantlife here is remarkable, with a vast array of wildflowers visible during the summer months – including orchid, yellow rattle, ragged robin, the rare marsh pea and devil’s-bit scabious.
Wicken Fen is without doubt one of the best examples of conservation in action in the Fens, but there are other fantastic sites across Cambridgeshire to visit. At Ouse Fen, a project is underway to transform a sand and gravel quarry into a nature reserve that will in time boast the UK’s largest reedbed, while Fen Drayton Lakes also began as quarries, close to riverside meadows, and now attracts otters, swans, dragonflies and geese. These important reserves demonstrate just how important it is to conserve the fen landscapes for wildlife.
Sunset at Wicken Fen
Over the years, many artists have been inspired by this natural landscape – and lamented the draining that has taken place over the centuries, often resulting in a monotony of flat, low-lying agricultural land. Allowing areas of the Fens to be returned to their pre-agricultural state, as at Wicken Fen, has created new havens for wildlife and inspiration for poets and painters alike.
John Clare wrote about the landscape in his 1824 poem The Fens, and the unique and sometimes mysterious scenery has provided fertile ground for many writers and novelists since.
Wandering by the river’s edge,
I love to rustle through the sedge
And through the woods of reed to tear
Almost as high as bushes are…
John Clare, The Fens, 1824
The contemporary painter and printmaker Carry Akroyd, renowned for her use of colour and composition, has illustrated many of Clare’s poems, and her works share a similar concern with the relationships between humans, wildlife, agriculture and the natural landscape. Her book Natures Powers & Spells responded to Clare’s poetry through a series of artworks and essays exploring the natural history and ecological impact of agricultural ‘improvements’ in areas such as the Fens.
“More and more I was trying to visualise just how the local landscape looked during the lifetime of John Clare. I visited wetland places like Minsmere, Wicken and Woodwalton, all places that still do have rushes and reeds and swamps and sedges… I have always liked the fens, the stretching openness of flat land going on for ever”
- Carry Akroyd, Natures Powers & Spells
Fred Ingrams artwork at Stapleford Granary
Another contemporary artist inspired by the landscape is Fred Ingrams, who exhibited a series of works exploring A Year in the Fens at Stapleford Granary, the home of the ACE Foundation, in 2018.
We hope this blog post has inspired you to explore and understand the unique landscape of the Fens further – whether through art, poetry, in person or even virtually. You can enjoy a virtual 360 degree view of Wicken Fen here.
“Windmill in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire” by Valerian Guillot is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"Reed Warbler holding food" by Furrfu is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. / Crop from original.
"Sunset at Wicken Fen" by Andy Mabbett is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Fred Ingrams artwork photograph © Stapleford Granary