Archive for the ‘The Fens’ Category

Visiting Woodwalton Fen Nature reserve

Wood Walton Fen

This probably as close to how the fens were before they were drained

My wife and I visited Woodwalton Fen Nature reserve recently, it has been a number of years since our last short visit. We parked alongside the Great Raveley drain that forms part of what is in effect a moat that surrounds the reserve. The reserve needs these surrounding and network of internal waterways to keep the ground moist and maintain its height above the surrounding land. The land roundabout has been drained and is as a consequence lower.

We crossed the bridge into the reserve walking to the thatched information shelter where we picked up three leaflets, each a guide to a different walk around the reserve. We decided on the waterfowl trail and set off.

Woodwalton Fen information Centre

Woodwalton Fen information Centre

The Great Fen Project of which Woodwalton Fen is part is returning the area to the fen wetlands that existed before their drainage. The ground is boggy and wet nearly everywhere, apart from some wooden walkways, in many places, there are ponds of dark peaty water. The landscape gives some indication of how difficult travel must have been in centuries past when most journeys in the fens were made on either foot, horseback or by boat.

The Bungalow Woodwalton Fen Nature Reserve

The Bungalow Woodwalton Fen Nature Reserve

For a while we saw little in the way of wildlife save for a few swans and an odd duck, then after coming across the bungalow and a beautifully carved memorial bench beside it, we spotted a dear in the distance. Surprisingly for this early in the season there were a number of butterflies around we spotted Brimstone and Peacock for certain.

Carved Memorial Bench

Carved Memorial Bench

 

A deer in the distance

A deer in the distance

A sleeping Swan

A sleeping Swan

We gingerly edged around a sleeping swan then came across a ditch full of frogs apparently mating and the biggest ball of frogspawn I have seen. I cannot remember seeing so many frogs in one place they all seemed to be thriving looking at their size.

Frog spawn

Frog spawn

Frogs

Frogs just two of a huge cast

We rambled on finding the winding footway to Gordon’s hide. The hide is elevated roughly ten feet above the level of the mere sharing the same name, it gives a good panoramic view of the open water and the surrounding fen. We will bring binoculars on our next visit.

We continued on the trail until we found ourselves back alongside the Great Raveley Drain. We followed this until we reached the bridge at the entrance and crossed to collect our car. As we walked alongside the drain we encountered a tree obviously hollow, home to wild bees. These little fellows seem to have an aerial motorway across the drain, the bee traffic seemed heavy and continuous.

Bee hive in a tree

Bee hive in a tree

We reckoned that we had spent the best part of two hours wandering around this beautiful, tranquil place and are determined to return sooner rather than l

England’s Lost Lake a Review

 

 

Englands Lost Lake

England’s Lost Lake, The story of Whittlesea Mere.

 

 

The fen country was for centuries, millennia even, a vast expanse of open water fen and bog that stretched from the Wash inland to the higher ground to the North and West. It has been described as a vast sump soaking up and holding the water flows from those surrounding counties on higher ground. A map of Huntingdonshire dated 1645 shows towns and villages as islands amongst the bogs fens and open water. Although drainage had been started in Roman times it was not until the seventeenth century that the serious work began with Van Vermuyden as the chief engineer. Eventually the last mere left undrained was Whittlesea Mere; Paul Middleton’s  England’s Lost Lake tells the story of that nineteenth-century project updating an earlier work produced by the WEA in 1986.

It is an interesting read, detailing not only the draining of the Mere itself and the methodology but also describing some of the players involved. The way of life of those that had earned a living from the mere is explored too. We learn of the Reed Cutters, Wild Fowlers and those that fished the Mere. We are informed of how the different seasons provided other means of earning a living for those whose livelihood depended on this vast lake. Details are given of the wildlife, insects, flora and fauna that occupied the area. The species that have survived and those that were lost, some completely unique to the area.

One is left with the feeling that the project was not the overwhelming success envisaged and returning a good proportion of the fen to its past state was partly an act of expediency. This though is purely my own personal view. Whatever the reasons the Great Fen Project is something that those of us that love this landscape, welcome, a view I share with the author.

If you have an interest in the Fens and its history this is a book you should own.

One last point Paul if you are reading this can you tell me about the Shelerode?

This book was sponsored by the Fenland Trust.

 

 

The Great Fen project and Fen Ague

Fenland sky 

The Great Fen Project is an attempt to restore and return some of our natural fen heritage to an earlier state. The objective is to facilitate the regeneration of an ecosystem encouraging the return of greater wildlife diversity and habitat.

Having the oppportunity to watch flocks of waterfowl as they return to roost in a panoramic Fenland sunset is something I look forward to. Even aged 67, after spending my life in the fens, the limitless skies, the beauty of spectacular sunsets and sunrises, on a grand scale continue to fill me with awe.

One aspect of the regeneration of the fens seemingly neglected concerns me. Fen Ague or The Ague was a form of malaria once prevalent in the fens. Those that survived the infection were often revisited with its symptoms. Samuel Pepys was a famous sufferer as was Oliver Cromwell. He died at the relatively young age of 59 from Tertian Ague.

Starting with the seventeenth century and since large scale drainage has removed the stagnant pools of water – the breeding grounds for the mosquito disease carriers. Records were kept during the nineteenth century by county of the incidence of Ague or Malaria. Records have been correlated together with rainfall and temperature variation  Rates of Malaria infection were found to have fluctuated with temperature and rainfall. Warmer and wetter summer weather coincided with increases in the number of recorded cases. (1.)

Since the referenced article’s publication in 2003, evidence for climate change has become even stronger.  The assumption is that as a consequence the UK will become wetter and warmer. As the Great Fen Project develops, pools of stagnant water will grow in size and number.

Greater numbers of people from the UK are visiting areas abroad where Malaria is prevalent. This increases the probability that some travellers may return infected with the disease. These factors: increasing climate temperature and more abundent mosquito breeding grounds could see a return of a disease that had left these shores. Another concern is that warm air flows could bring mosquitoes infected with the parasite into the fens. I have expressed concerns about Fen Ague to those setting up the Great Fen Project.

Rex Sly on his blog post “Malaria in the Fens” (October 2007) believes that the extinction in the fens of the disease has been comprehensive.  He states that the disease-carrying mosquito species responsible has become extinct and there would need to be a pool of infection existing within the local human population. These factors he feels sure should be sufficient to prevent re-emergence of Malaria. Hopefully, Rex is right but the areas of concern I have outlined may outweigh this optimism. Increased international travel, disease evolution, larger bodies of stagnant water and a warmer climate could in the none-too-distant future provide a means for Malaria to return to these shores.

Hopefully, Malaria or Fen Ague is gone for good. However, at the very least, contingency plans to deal with the problem, should it arise, ought to be in place. The guardians of our welfare should, in my view, give this matter serious consideration.  Often in the past, the unthinkable and unexpected, have found us as a nation unprepared, even though, many timely warnings were given.

 

(1) 2003 article. (Malaria in Britain: Past, Present and Future, 2003. Katrin Gaardbo Kuhn, Diarmid  Campbell-Lendrum, Ben Armstrong and Clive R Davies).

 

More Sunsets

Probably the two most obvious features of the Fens leaving aside their flatness are the skies and water. Although everywhere has sky, like the seas and oceans the Fens have an abundance of sky. When as we so often are, blessed with a spectacular sunset, it is as if some one has painted an ever-changing vast canvass for us to view. These sunsets were photographed between August and October this year.

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Sunset over Whittlesey

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Orton Mere

Sunset Orton Mere3

Orton Mere

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Kings Dyke

 

The following shots were from North Bank all taken the same evening the hot air balloon was descending as it came into land intending to land in what light remained. The photos were taken over a distance of approximately one and a half miles and a time peiod of about fifteen minutes.

 

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Sunrises and sunsets

I have lived and worked in Cambridgeshire just about all of my life I did work for a while on the outskirts of Peterborough, a matter of just a few months but that is all. I like the fens because of their openess and the skies, the skies are an everchanging picture, each second unique and different unemcumbered by the clutter of buildings they allow the really big picture of the sky to be seen.These are just a few of the photos I have, not every day brings skies as spectacular as these but we get plenty of them and there are plenty of days of sunshine.DSCN0238

Sunrise

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Sunrise same day

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Sunrise behind the wind turbines

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A bit further along the road

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Sunset looking towards Ramsey from the bridge at Bodsey

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From Bodsey again

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Near Bodsey

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Remains of an old wind pump at Ramsey St Marys.

I have wanted to photograph this old wind pump at sunset for some time but never had the opportunity, I intend to return for some more pictures in the future. It has a certain beauty for me mingled with a sadness that it is no longer needed and just left to rot. So much of that which is built on the fens has about it a feeling impermanence, of borrowing its’ existence from the waters that have been drained away and one day may return. Many buildings built on drained land have foundations that move with the shifting fen beneath them very few walls remain plumb even only after a few years. The most immediate effected by the shifting ground under our feet are the roads. Many fen roads move on a seemingly daily basis until after a short time dips and ridges form that can throw unwary vehicles in any direction.

 

 

Wind powered drainage in the fens

 

 I have lived and worked near, in and around the fens all my life. The battle to reclaim the land from the waters has had a fascination for me ever since I have known about it. In reality to describe it as a battle is to diminish what has really been a war, at times the waters have taken back with ease, that which was won with much hard physical work.

The most honest evaluation is probably that which has been taken is held; mammoth and innovative engineering maintain the status quo.

I have in my lounge a reproduction of a 1645 map of Huntingdonshire, with the Isle of Ely and part of Cambridgeshire. A good portion of Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely are shown as under water with a few towns and villages as islands within the waters, I have another map of about a similar age titled Inumdatum which gives an indication of the extent of the waters.

The drainage of the fens has been achieved over many centuries the long straight waterways (drains), dug mainly by hand. A truly spectacular sight to me is to drive along a road with the river above me on one side above the height of the van and ten twenty feet or more below me on the other side are the fields with crops growing in them.

Hundred Foot Bank, Sutton, Cambs The B1381 road to Earith runs below the New Bedford River level.© Copyright Rodney Burton

 

The photograph shows in an instant the monumental achievement in reclamation of land from the water the land below the road has to be drained by emptying it into a river or drain above it rather than below it. When you realise a cubic metre of water weighs a tonne the colossal scale of the feat becomes more apparent. Every drop of water in that and many drains and rivers in the fens that has been run off from the fields, has to be physically lifted considerable heights to keep the ground dry and usable.

To start with wind was used to power pumps and giant scoop wheels to lift the water then steam, diesel and now electric pumps do the work. With the appearance of wind turbines in the fens, ultimately they are now to a degree being drained again by wind power.

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