First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cool damp afternoon in the flat river country of the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Pale sprigs of mugwort and purple-flowered teasels grew with royal blue viper’s bugloss in the verges of Moor Drove East, and the banks of the Little Ouse River and its tributary drains were bright yellow with ragwort and lady’s bedstraw. This is not all soulless prairie farming country, but a complex maze of water channels and lush grassy banks.
Beyond the tall twin gates of Little Ouse sluices and a brief roaring strip of road, we turned aside into the ‘otherworld’ of the RSPB’s nature reserve at Lakenheath Fen. Ditches lay spread with waterweed, marsh woundwort raised stout pink flowerheads, and outside the picture window of the visitor centre a kingfisher perched in all its bronze and cerulean glory beside a pond that plopped with fish.
‘Used to be carrot fields,’ said the warden, ‘very intensively farmed. We dug it out, replanted it with fen species and let the water in – controlled it carefully. Now we’ve otters, bitterns, water voles, marsh orchids, even nesting cranes – just about everything that was here before the Dutch drained the Fens nearly 400 years ago. Isn’t that something special?’
Lakenheath Fen is special, all right. We followed the main trail west on paths of grass and gravel, ducking aside into strategically placed hides to watch great crested grebes preening themselves and swallows zipping low over the meres. With ping and a whistle a flock of bearded tits came skimming through the reed heads – endearing little birds with fine black Fu Manchu moustaches.
From the viewing point at Joist Fen we saw a male marsh harrier pounce into the reedbed in a flurry of large pale wings, while his dark-hued mate perched in an elder bush, turning her gold-crowned head from side to side.
Following the flood banks of the Little River Ouse back to Hockwold, we passed scattered herds of cattle, surely the most contented beasts in Fenland, up to their hocks in the green swamp and chewing lush grass with all the appreciative deliberation of connoisseurs.
Start: Red Lion, Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk IP26 4NB (OS ref TL 735880)
Getting there: Bus 40 (Thetford-King’s Lynn)
Road: Hockwold-cum-Wilton is on B1112 between Lakenheath and Feltwell (A11 to Mildenhall)
Walk (7¾ miles, easy, OS Explorer 228): Pass church; on down Church Lane. In 500m fork right (734876) along Moor Drove East. At river bank, left (729873); right across sluice (731870); bear right along riverbank to B1112 (724868). Left (grass verge – take care!); in 300m, right into Lakenheath Fen nature reserve (724866). Roadway to Visitor Centre (718863). Follow Main Circular Trail/MCT (white arrows/WA). In 900m fork right (712860, 2 WAs), following MCT. In 50m detour right to New Fen viewpoint and back; in 650m, left (704861) to Mere Hide and back. In 200m take left fork (702861) on gravel, not grassy path; in another 500m, right (697860) past Joist Fen viewpoint. At T-junction with fingerpost (698861), left for 100m; right up river bank, through kissing gate; right along river bank (Hereward Way) for 2 miles back to B1112 (724866). Left (take care!); retrace steps to Hockwold.
Conditions: Paths can be wet and muddy
Lunch: Red Lion, Hockwold-cum-Wilton (01842-829728) – decent village pub
Accommodation: Bridge Hotel, 79 High Street, Brandon, Suffolk IP27 0AX (01842-338228, bridgehotelbrandon.com)
Lakenheath Fen nature reserve, IP27 9AD (01842-863400, rspb.org.uk) – RSPB members park free, others £4. Very helpful staff
The Times Britain’s Best Walks by Christopher Somerville (£16.99, HarperCollins) is now out in paperback