Bright sun slanted across the Cambridgeshire flatlands, silvering the tree trunks of Holme Fen as we stepped from a bumpy old drove road into the green heart of the nature reserve.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
‘The largest silver birch wood in lowland Britain,’ said Carry Akroyd, leading the way. ‘I just love this place.’
The East Anglian fens have a passionate champion in Carry, an artist with sharp eyes who works in vivid colours and bold, decisive shapes. I’d long admired the observant realism of her fenland paintings – straight dykes running to the skyline, square arable fields sinuating with tractor tracks, tangled marshes where lapwings flicker in black and white, and level horizons pierced by wind turbines and smoking brickfield chimneys. It was a huge pleasure to be walking with Carry through the landscape that has inspired such striking images.
Holme Fen is a lush place, as damp as a sponge. Yet the land that the trees and plants stand on has been shrinking, its level dropping, ever since drainage for agriculture began to suck the black peat dry. Beside a drove road we came to the cast-iron columns of the Holme Posts that mark Britain’s lowest point, nine feet below sea level. In 1852 the older of the two posts was rammed into the peat until its top was flush with the ground. Today it stands 13 feet tall, a measure of how far the dried-out land has shrunk around it.
The path led on beside an insect-riddled dyke. A beautiful little falcon came dancing down the ditch – a hobby with spotted chest and yellow talons, snatching dragonflies to dismember and eat on the wing. At the corner of Trundle Mere we climbed into a bird hide and looked out from on high across the broad empty fens to a skyline of far-off wind turbines and silos – a Carry Akroyd scene, stretching before us. ‘I try to make a portrait of a place,’ she said, ‘that’s more than the sum of what you can see. But it has to be honest.’
There’s an ongoing scheme, the Great Fen project, to return all this countryside, nearly 15 square miles of intensively farmed land, to native fenland once again, managed for wildlife. What a superb vision, magnificent in its ambition.
We turned back through the silver birches of Stilton Roughs, the willows of Caldecote Fen and the great oaks of Home Lode Covert, to reach open flatlands once more. Cattle were chomping rich grass where wheat had grown only three years ago. ‘It’s happening, the Great Fen,’ said Carry, looking over the new meadows, ‘and it’s so exciting to see it coming alive.’
Start & finish: Layby on New Long Drove (OS ref TL 214885)
Getting there: A1(M) Jct 16; A15 to Yaxley; minor road to Holme; B660 towards Ramsey St Mary’s. In 1 mile, left up New Long Drove; layby on right in ¼ mile, by reserve barrier. NB – limited space!
Walk (6 miles, level, OS Explorer 227):
Continue along road for 100m; left over footbridge, right on path, first left through wood for ½ mile. At T-junction on Short Drove, right (208890); in 150m, left across footbridge (209891); path bends right to T-junction; left on grass path. In 450m by ‘Discovery Trail’ post (206895), bear left. In 250m, at big patch of rhododendrons, bear right; in 50m, right on unmarked path between trees (204893) for 200m to reach Holme Posts (203894).
Cross road; left along fenced path to bird hide on Burnham’s Mere (202895). Return to road; left for 250m. Where trees end just before Holme Lode Farm (204896), left past NNR sign along path. In 300m, just before T-junction of drains, left (203898). In 250m, right over footbridge across Caldicote Dyke (201898). Right for 20m; left into trees; fork immediately right, and in 30m right again, to continue parallel with Caldicote Dyke for 300m to south-east corner of wood (203899). Left on grass ride to Trundle Mere Hide (201903), where you turn left along wood edge. In 250m (199902), left into wood. At T-junction, right; in 100m, left; at 200899 fork right to T-junction with Caldicote Dyke (201898 – hidden by bank ahead). Right for 350m to T-junction with railway just ahead (197896). Left across Caldicote Dyke (footbridge) for ½ mile to gate onto road (198889).
Left along road; in 300m, right across Holme Lode (200891), past NNR sign and on, south-east along grass path. In 300m path widens into clearing; pass crooked oak on right, then in 70m turn right by pine tree with ‘withered arm’ branch (203889). Follow grass track which winds for over ½ mile to south-west corner of wood near railway (199884). Turn left along grass track; follow wood edge. In 700m, pass footbridge across drain on right (204886); keep ahead along Short Drove into wood. In 250m, right (206887) on track south-east for ½ mile to ditch with cottage on your right (212883). Left for 10m; right across ditch onto New Long Drove; left to car.
Accommodation: Stilton Cheese PH, Stilton, PE7 3RP (01733-240546; stiltonsheesepublichouse.co.uk) – NB Pub’s bar and kitchens are closed on Sunday evenings, but accommodation stays open; you can eat at the welcoming Bell Inn (01733-241066; the bellstilton.co.uk) just down the road.
Great Fen Project: greatfen.org.uk
Holme Fen NNR: naturalengland.org.uk
Carry Akroyd: carryakroyd.co.uk
Exhibitions – Mall Galleries, London till 10 Nov; Robert Fogell Gallery, Stamford, Lincs till 23 Nov; Wildlife Art Gallery, Lavenham, Suffolk till 30 Nov.
Carry’s 2014 Calendar now on sale, 3 for £20, via her website!