Saturday, 11 February 2017

Wicken Fen

I was extremely excited about going to Wicken Fen near Cambridge today, mainly because it has a windmill. I suspect that anyone born in the UK in the 1970s loves a windmill, thanks to legendary TV show Camberwick Green and its triangular-haired hero, Windy Miller. 

Wicken Fen wind pump

But two problems cropped up very early on:

1. The 'windmill' at Wicken is actually a wind pump - more on this later

2. Wicken Fen is renowned and revered for being home to 9,000 species of fauna, flora and wildlife, but you'll struggle to spot 8,999 of them if you visit on a sleet-ridden day in February (we saw a robin). That's a heinous exaggeration, before anyone complains, but to get the best out of Wicken you probably need take your binoculars on a spring or summer or autumn day, which I will do when I return.


Wicken Fen

Before we set off for Wicken, I knew what The Fens were, but I didn't know what they were, if that makes sense. Luckily they have a really good visitor centre and a very helpful guide book that explains it all, even if the guide book does contain about 20 words that I have never heard before in my life - "lode" anyone? "Carr"?

As you can tell, the guide book had its work cut out and this is what it taught me:
  • The Fens were created as a result of peat bogs, laid millennia ago, in the lowlands of East Anglia - because the of peat bogs, the area was part land, part water
  • Humans originally settled on the land areas - nearby Ely being one - and lived off the fish, the fuel (peat and sedge), and the building materials that were available in abundance
  • Efforts to drain the fens to make them usable for agriculture have been going on for years - the Romans tried to do it and so did just about everybody else since then
  • It was the Victorians that saved Wicken Fen from being drained - local naturalists had bought up parcels of the fen to protect the wildlife, and the National Trust stepped in as early as 1899 to take on the role of protector
  • The wind pump is the only one left - there used to be 1000s of them in the area, pumping water out of the turf pits so that the peat could be dug. Amazingly, it's still in working order.
Fen
*proudly* This plant is called sedge and it saved Wicken Fen -
it was too valuable to lose to drainage in the 19th century
and then, as the sedge market collapsed, the Victorians recognised
the value of the insects and wildlife that it attracted. Well done, sedge.
I read later that there are boat trips you can do on the fen from Easter to October - read about them here, as they sound fantastic and you should try and go on one.

But while the Victorians might have come to Wicken looking for a long-winged conehead cricket, or a marsh dagger moth, my sights were firmly set on finding a tasty scone. 

I was accompanied to Wicken by my trainee sconeologist mum and sister. There was only one fruit scone left on the counter when we arrived in the tea room and we all looked at it, them presumably wondering how we were going to cut it into three and me wondering how I was going to break the bad news to them.

However, the lovely assistant checked the oven and said more scones would be available in 5 minutes' time, so a fist fight was averted.

The delivery of three hot scones to our table meant that Wicken Fen walks away with the award for Freshest National Trust Scone EVER. It was tasty as anything and it looked fantastic - a big chunk of a golden scone befitting a cold and gloomy day. I've always said that it's hard to ruin a fresh scone but even when I tried really hard to find something wrong with it, I couldn't. A triumph. 


Wicken Fen scone

So there you have it - if you head to Wicken Fen on a nice day, you could see everything from a water vole or an otter to a hairy dragon-fly AND you'll get a fantastic scone.

WICKEN FEN: 3 out of 5 in winter but I'll be BAAAAACK
SCONE: 5 out of 5
Wind pump making that "pum-eerrk-er-pah-dum" noise that Windy Miller's windmill made (oh, just watch it here from 0.20 seconds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyz_jv_xiB80 out of 5 as it wasn't making any noise