Land of the Marsh-Wiggles: Wicken Fen

I stood at the till at the visitor’s centre at Anglesey Abbey for the fourth time about to pay my entrance fee when I decided enough was enough. I couldn’t just stand there — again, waiting in a long line to pay the entrance fee for a fourth time. I had to do it. It was time. Time to make the commitment to becoming a full-fledged National Trust member. I requested a membership form, paid my annual fee, and that was that. I was now a member of a ruthless gang of tea drinkers and scone consumers; a gang of picnickers and walkers; a gang of tourists to historic houses and areas of natural beauty.

When I think about it, it could be much worse.

In all seriousness, I was quite happy to fill out the paperwork and receive my welcome pack. I had been considering getting a membership for about a year. Traveling to National Trust properties is a bit of a staple of Jeremy’s family holidays and since I moved to Cambridge, Angelsey Abbey has become a favourite day trip of mine especially when we have visitors.

My membership card arrived in the post two days before Jeremy’s sister was due to come on a visit. I already knew that we would likely head out to Angelsey at some point and there were a few other National Trust properties I had been eyeing up in my membership guide.

One property was Wicken Fen. On one of our outings to Anglesey, Jeremy and I spotted a cycle trail leading from there to Wicken Fen, the oldest nature reserve in Britain. Both of us decided it was a cycling day trip we should plan to do over the summer. It would be a substantial day on the bikes, cycling first to Anglesey and then to Wicken Fen but the route looked beautiful and on a lovely warm, sunny summer’s day what could be better than a long bike ride and a picnic in a beautiful nature reserve?

We haven’t made that trip yet, but when we do I’ll be sure to write about it. Instead, with Jeremy’s sister visiting us and bringing her car, we decided to pile in and drive out to Wicken Fen one afternoon and have a good long walk along some of the trails. I sort of fell in love with the place as soon as we got there.

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So perhaps I should start off by explaining what a fen is. I actually didn’t really know even though I had been to the Norfolk Coast last summer. Basically, a fen is marshland. The internet very helpfully says, that fens are the flat low-lying area of eastern England, mainly in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk which were formerly marshland but over time have been drained for agriculture. Fens tend to have layers of peat from decaying plants. You might have heard about amazingly preserved archaeological finds from peat bogs like the Lindow man. Historically, fens like Wicken Fen have been used by humans for a number of reasons. This is what the unofficial Wicken Fen website says:

The nature of the Fen has been shaped by topography, hydrology, and in particular, by centuries of use by man. The wetland has played an important role in the social and economic life of the area. It provided materials for thatching local houses, bedding and feed for animals, fish and fowl for food, and peat for fuel. Such uses have all left their mark – ecologically, in the plant and animal communities that have developed over time, and physically, in the peat diggings, paths, ditches and dykes which were created for the ancient exploitation of natural resources. The result is a landscape where centuries of rural culture are stamped on the Fen. This historical resource has been well utilised in the study of the cultural importance of wetlands.

One of the really amazing things about this site though is that they have a fen which has been untouched by humans, Sedge Fen. That’s pretty amazing to think about when you consider that the majority of the area there has been changed so much by human agriculture. Sedge Fen along with the rest of the reserve is home to thousands of different species of birds, insects, animals, and plants. It’s a pretty remarkable place for biodiversity.

When we got there, we started off by visiting the Fen Cottage and Workshop. Now, just a word of warning if you plan to visit, the cottage isn’t terribly accessible if you have mobility issues nor if you are absurdly tall — i.e. over 5’0″. Jeremy comes in at a whopping 6’4″ and you can just see the result.

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You must be at least this short to enjoy Fen Cottage.

Honestly though, the cottage is a pretty cool site. I tend to get fairly tired of the grand, aristocratic stately homes the National Trust is mostly known for and to visit a more modest dwelling and to see where people lived and worked who were not part of the landed gentry was really refreshing and eye-opening. You could kind of imagine living out there in the fens in a community of about twenty other families where you had everything you needed to subsist. The nearest “big” city, Ely was as far removed from daily life as London was. It struck me as a probably lonely, insular, but cozy, warm existence. Such is the nature of romanticising the past, but that’s what we all do.

The true gem of Wicken Fen is of course the landscape complete with all the species of plants and animals that make it their home. It really is a striking place to visit and there are a number of walking and cycling trails that you can take through it. There’s also a boat that takes you out and about as well.

We walked a couple of the trails on our visit. They’re over fairly even terrain though there are a few spots that you do need to watch your step. There’s a great Boardwalk trail which is the most accessible one for people in wheelchairs. We took a turn around the Butterfly Trail where we did manage to see three or four species of butterflies (though I wasn’t fast enough to get photos of them). We also did the Boardwalk and Nature Trail going around Sedge Fen. We saw the two wind pumps and visited the three bird hides along the trails as well.

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It was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon. I couldn’t help thinking about The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. I mean, this just had to be where Puddleglum lived. I could imagine him (looking suspiciously like Tom Baker of course), making his way through the soggy wetlands and back to his Marsh-Wiggle teepee which I knew had to be tucked away, just out of sight somewhere.

Honestly, I’m look forward to returning to Wicken Fen really soon. I want to explore the other walking trails and take the bikes out along the cycle paths. I’d kind of like to take a turn about in the boat at some point. I think the real charm of places like Wicken Fen are the way they excite the imagination; the way I kept imagining the land of the Marsh-Wiggles. These sorts of places have this amazing ability to stay as they are but not as they are, if that makes any sort of sense. No matter how many times you visit them, they retain the capacity to surprise and delight you. They tickle your fancy, excite your senses, and soothe your soul.

 

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