First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cuckoo was calling, faint and far, across Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve. Unlike the rest of these Cambridgeshire flatlands, Wicken Fen has never been drained for agriculture. Under the National Trust’s expert care for the past hundred years, it remains a juicy, sodden, teeming green jungle, supporting wildlife that has died out or greatly diminished everywhere else.
In front of one hide greenfinches cavorted, vivid in their spring jackets of intense green; from another we watched a beautiful chocolate and red marsh harrier swooping and quartering the reedbeds on long, feather-fingered wings. Then we set out to follow a cycleway across Adventurers’ Fen. What a contrast! On the east of the path, intensive agriculture in drilled green rows to the flat horizon; to the west, the lush pastures of the reserve where Highland cattle and springy little muntjac deer grazed, sedgy pools stood full of geese and egrets, and swallows and hobbies zipped about the sky.
We crossed the long silver finger of Burwell Lode, a manmade drainage channel, and followed Reach Lode west to Upware on a high green embankment with grandstand views across both wild fen and intensively farmed fields. The National Trust’s hundred-year plan, stirringly named ‘Wicken Fen Vision’, would see the nature reserve stretch all the way from Wicken to Cambridge – a restoration of the landscape so beloved of Richard Fielder, King of Upware and copper-bottomed eccentric, who ruled this fenland realm with his fists and foul (but classically trained) tongue in the 1860s.
Fielder, a Cambridge undergraduate and black sheep of a well-heeled family, would smoke, drink, rhyme and fight with anyone who came to his ‘court’ at Upware’s riverside pub, the charmingly titled ‘Five Miles From Anywhere – No Hurry!’ He pitched bargees into the river, blackened friends’ eyes and dispensed punch from his private seven-gallon gotch, a giant jug.
When the railways brought the outside world to Fenland, Fielder and his wild courtiers melted away into oblivion. But at Wicken Fen – these days extending across Adventurers’ Fen and beyond – a corner of the ancient fenland environment in which the King of Upware once reigned as Lord of Misrule has survived, and is prospering.
Start: Wicken Fen NNR, Wicken, Cambs CB7 5XP (OS ref TL 565706)
Getting there: National Cycle Route 11 from Ely.
Road – Wicken Fen is signed from Wicken village, on A1123 between A142 (Newmarket) and A10 (Cambridge). Park in NT car park (£2.50/day, NT members free)
Walk (8 miles – 7 excluding NT Wicken Fen; easy; OS Explorer 226.
Walk circuit of Wicken Fen NNR Boardwalk Trail (optional). From Visitor Centre, right along left bank of Wicken Lode. In 500m bear left, then right across footbridge (560701, ‘Adventurers’ Fen’); left along right bank of Monk’s Lode. In ½ mile, right (539700, Cycleway post 11). Pass Priory Farm (565693) and cross Burwell Lode (564690); left along south bank of lode. Track bends south to cross Cycleway 51 (564684); on to cross Reach Lode (557678). Right along its left bank for 1¾ miles to turn right across lode at Upware sluice (537699). Back along north bank of lode. In 600m cross mouth of Wicken Lode (542696); left (yellow arrow, ‘Wicken Fen’) up its south bank for over a mile. Left across Monk’s Lode footbridge (560701); return to car park.