Wicken Fen – the place sounds a bit like some sort of prison from a Sherlock Holmes novel – at least that was my initial feelings. But it’s actually worse. It is in fact, a watery field in the East of England, which the National Trust tries to charge you seven quid to enter.
It was a warm day at the end of summer when I decided to visit. I brought some family, and a camera, and hoped the place was as riveting as the write-up on their website sounded. Of course, the pictures looked a bit dull on Google-images, but I knew that in these flat areas finding beauty sometimes relied upon adopting a new perspective. This flat landscape was all about the interaction between ground and sky. About sitting amongst the reeds and listening.
I imagined the Fens to be a verdant playground of rushes and rivers. The water black and glossy. I would peer into rivulets and watch small fish move in formation. Deeper still, in the mud, might be eels: long and full of sinew and eggs.
I was promised an encyclopedia of birds. Kingfishers, cranes and herons that would peer with beady eyes across the gloomy water. I imagined the crouched tiger stance of bitterns with their houndstooth undercarriages and sturdy Roman noses, as they stalked through the undergrowth. They would have pale green talons held underneath plump bodies and they’d feast on frogs and fish and insects. I’d hear their strangely futuristic, yet pulsing cries (akin to that of a thick woodwind instrument) hoot across the way. I’d see great crested newts waving their tails in the air and slinking through the pondweed. Their shiny, globular bodies covered in brown and beige scales arranged like a reverse piano. Cranes, with plush burgundy crowns, would have grey silken bodies perched upon twiglet-like legs. And they would surprise me in a moment of particular zen by rustling dinosaur-like out of the verbena. So much to see apparently, but what did I actually observe of the 9000 species recorded here?
Of all these fearsome beasts; I mostly just saw dragonflies, grass, some fish, and a few finches. And plenty of prams, children, retirees and people who like to talk with booming voices in a nature reserves. Plenty of those that like to sit in hides and discourse at volume – their phones bleeping out with pips and whistles and the occasional Nokia dirge – seemed greatly enamoured with the place. I don’t think the term ‘Nature-reserve’ was fully understood or respected by many. Which is why the National Trust obviously hid all the good stuff.
99% of fenlands, as mapped in the 17th century, have been draining for farming and building. This environment is, therefore, rare, and causes endangered species to flourish. There are marsh-harriers, soprano pipistrelle bats, Konik ponies, cattle, otters, water voles and many more interesting creatures besides the multitudes already mentioned in this article. The Nation Trust’s official vision is to create a ‘diverse landscape for wildlife and people stretching from Wicken Fen to the edge of Cambridge.’ It is a 100-year plan to cover 53 square kilometres in restored fen and ensure it’s ‘thriving’ with animals. It hopes to promote ‘Ecosystem services’ which have the key aims of locking carbon in the soil, providing recreational activities and habitats for animals. Call it an eco-social project.
Mark Harold, from the National Trust says, ”Wicken is a real illustration of our strategy and desire to create a healthy, natural and beautiful environment that is bigger, better and more joined-up for both wildlife and people.” I found it less wildlife emporium and more field with paths. Maybe there’s a good reason they charge people £7 to enter – it must put a lot of people off. Although considering that public footpaths run through the place, I think you could probably see a lot of it for free by merely circumnavigating the visitors’ centre. As a member, I can’t feel too cheated.
Would I visit again? Maybe on a Monday morning, during school time, in the spring. The ponies and the fish were pretty good and I’d like to see them again. I would also like to find myself a newt. I would only look, of course, but I would imagine putting it into a jar and using it to prank my enemies (of which, as a grown woman, I have plenty). With my supernatural powers, I may, or may not, cause said newt to spring into action and attach itself to the ribcage of a terrified person (of whom I am wreaking revenge upon). Fear is a simple minded pleasure. Except, to all those who understand my reference, I am much more likely to sympathise with the Trunchbull these days.