In autumn and winter huge numbers of birds gather together at WWT Martin Mere ready for feeding time. When the warden scatters seed on the ground, the great rush and natural spectacle begins. Particularly prominent are the shelducks, greylag geese, mallards and Icelandic whooper swans. But there are quite a few species there in the mêlée. The challenge is to make any sense of it all photographically.
Here are just a few individuals I managed to isolate with a reasonable shot, albeit in rather poor light.
The Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire/Norfolk Fens all drain into and were flooded by the sea of The Wash. A potted history: they were first drained by the Romans, reverted to a natural state after the fall of the Empire, and were again drained around 12C by monks, falling into disrepair around 16C after the Dissolution, and drained in on a larger scale in 17C, the period focused on in James Boyce’s book.
The Fens and their drainage machines are an ongoing enterprise to maintain a balance between sea and land, in this most fertile part of England. No wonder this part of Lincolnshire is called New Holland.
The Wash is now a major natural asset for migrating and indigenous birds. As a last hurrah for our explorations, we go close to the mouth of the River Witham at RSPB Freiston Shore. Again we stand on the sea wall looking out over The Wash – salt marsh on one side and fresh water lake on the other.
A solitary cormorant stands in typical pose, amid black headed gulls and ducks.
On the landward side Boston Stump stands out proud (featured image), seaward there appears to be almost endless salt marsh, beach and then sea, with a misty Norfolk in the far distance.
I reflect that some of my ancestors played a part in this great drainage enterprise; the Fens are part of my own roots.
The dog was not impressed; there were cows on the sea wall. He dashed back towards the van.
Continuing the story of our exploration of the Fens.
Our second base was another Premier Park – Long Acres, near Boston. Unexpectedly, the satnav takes us there via Crowland, zig-zagging northwards – using the major east-west cross-fen highways between Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Boston. These seem to be the only decently surfaced roads in the area, and they are busy with lorries, tansporting the products of this fertile area to the rest of England.
We arrive at RSPB Frampton Marsh (featured image) and enjoy lunch overlooking freshwater marsh with a smattering of birds. The dog is more interested in the cows munching away at the grass, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
There are many more birds on the freshwater lakes we pass by to reach the raised barrier that constitutes the seawall. From this seawall we look out over huge salt marshes out into the Wash. This barrier is all that stops these Lincolnshire fens from being regularly inundated with seawater.
We are lucky that avocets are reasonably close to this side of the lake.
But we see rain approaching across the Fens, so make haste back to the van and on to our next base at Long Acres.
Out in the Fens, the sun slips slowly below the horizon.
Next day we wend our bumpy way back up to Whittlesey (Whittlesea – it was once coastal), a place of conflict in the Fen wars described in Boyce’s book. Locals all over the Fens did not like their land being drained and given away to outsiders, just like indigenous peoples all over the world. There were many battles and acts of sabotage before the resistance was tamed. Even after that, the great lake at Whittlesey remained at around 8 square miles, but it was eventually drained in 19C. Sadly, there is little evidence of all this in today’s slightly depressed looking town.
We went north to from Whittlesey to Thorney, once one of the five great abbeys that effectively ruled this area before the great Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 (Peterborough, Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney). All the is left of the once-great abbey is a rather large parish church for such a small village, quite striking nevertheless.
More striking is our next stop, Crowland Abbey. I recall stopping here for a break many years ago on my cycle ride from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Abbey of memory is more delapidated than today’s impressive remains.
We are made enormously welcome by enthusiastic volunteers. All that remains of this once-great Abbey is the north aisle of the former church, now an impressive building in its own right. And with evocative ruined features attached. We are guided by the volunteers to see the highlights of the interior, including a striking Green Man, and then the exterior.
It is quite evident that the Dissolution in this area led to Fen drainage falling into disrepair – this job had been done by the monks. This was one factor setting up the situation where new forms of drainage were perceived as being necessary, and hence the new major drainage schemes less than a century later.
At the centre of Crowland is a unique 3-way bridge that once spanned the River Welland and a tributary. The waterways were diverted long ago, leaving this unusual structure high and dry.
Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.
The first large scale work on draining the Fens was completed in 17C by the Duke of Bedford and a Dutch engineer Nicholas van der Muyden. We drive along by one of the main drainage channels, called the New Bedford River (featured image), although it’s not actually a river but an extraction of some of the waters from the Great Ouse River.
The waterway is long and dead straight, with a high bank separating it from the surrounding lower ground. Nearby is an earlier parallel channel, the Old Bedford River. The land between these two channels, the Ouse Washes, is used as a flood relief area when the old River Ouse would have flooded. It’s also good for wetland bird conservation and bird watching, hence our visit here to WWT Welney, where hides that look out over the wetland.
We take turns to visit the hides as there is no provision for dog walking here. There is a fair bit of birdlife around, notably martins, avocets, lapwings. I also see a single black tailed godwit in the distance – evidence that the WWT project to establish a viable population here may be working. The avocets are particularly photogenic.
Following the channel towards the sea, via circuitous Fen roads, we arrive at our second destination, the Denver Sluice Gates near the Norfolk town of Downing Market.
These sluice gates manage water flows both ways from here up to the coast near King’s Lynn – and specifically prevent the Fens from being inundated by high tides. It is salutary to realise that without these gates this whole area of the Fens would be under water at high tide.
Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.
Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.
We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.
The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.
Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.
The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.
In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.
Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.
I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.
I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.
We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!
Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.
It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.
The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.
The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).
The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.
Those ducks looked oh so familiar, lurking under weeping willow trees by Knutsford’s Moor Pool. But something felt wrong. Then I realised. These were black bellied whistling ducks, very familiar from our visits to Houston, Texas. And this was Knutsford, Cheshire, far away from the homelands of these American sub/tropical birds (see Wikipedia entry).
How did they find their way to Knutsford? A mistaken migration across the Atlantic? Unlikely, as this is not a migratory species. More likely, they are escapees from somewhere like WWT Martin Mere? Anybody know?
It seems I have reached the magic number of 1000 posts, since I first started this blog in 2016. So many words and pictures. What was it all about? The issues that seem important to me, mostly well away from the mainstream. The photographs I took with my various cameras, mostly very portable travel zooms.
The important thing to me is that I did it, made the effort, tried to do something creative 1000 times, tried to reflect on important issues hundreds of times, went through that publication process 1000 times – that’s all I have to say here, publish and be damned.
It’s helped me to refine my thinking and my photography. Alas, I’m not sure what the benefit might have been for you, dear reader. And special thanks to those of you who have commented, helping me along the way. Great to touch another mind, even if briefly. And great to know blogging friends from all over the world.
I had this bright idea at the beginning to index the posts (using the display-posts shortcode) so that I and others could see what I’d posted on any particular subject. For example: in my passion for the natural world and photography – birds , and in my passion for raising of human consciousness – New Renaissance. I don’t look at these indexes often, but they can be quite useful. See top of page, if you’re interested. [Since WordPress has a limit of 100 display-posts entries, the alphabetically-ordered lists of posts are no longer complete. Anyone know a solution?]
At such a milestone, it’s appropriate to ask, whither now? The blogging habit is now ingrained, so I’m unlikely to stop anytime soon. Salutary to realise that to become an expert blogger would probably require 10000 posts – that’s about another 50 years at the present rate. So, amateur I will remain. And I celebrate the grace that has allowed me the time, health and resources to continue with this process.
To close, I’ve included my current favourite photograph, from Barmouth last year. Thanks for reading!
Red-winged blackbirds are pretty common in Texas, although it’s not that easy to get a good shot of the red patch on the wings. These were reasonably obliging at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
If you don’t see the red patch, they’re easily confused with grackles. If you look at the wikipedia entry, the females are rather different, with fairly dull marking. We saw some hiding in the trees, separate from the males.