Thursday, 17 January 2019

January's Garden

It's always been a matter of some contention - for me at least - as to whether the The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is singular or plural. For years I've called it the Botanic Gardens, though recently I've noticed that all the signs say "Garden" (singular). However any visitor will see that it contains within it many differently themed gardens, beds and walks. My plan this year is to investigate one of these distinct areas each month in 2019, starting with the Winter Garden, which I leave to introduce itself...

As you can see it was a gloomy, overcast and sometimes drizzly day, though perhaps that's the kind of weather that the Winter Garden is designed to cheer up.

Take care.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019


We're starting our walk today in the tiny village of Upware. It has a farm called "Far Away Farm" and a pub bearing the name of "Five Miles From Anywhere No Hurry Inn". For a crowded place like Cambridgeshire it's about as remote as you can get.

As you've probably worked out from the title we're in the Fens, that flat, low-lying area in the north of the county which was once mostly under water. And, as you can see from the photo, small parts of it still are. This is Cam Washes - and "washes" is the local name for riverside land left to flood and absorb any excess water.

Another regional term is "lode" and that's Reach Lode above. It's a straight, man-made canal, which may date from Roman times, that's been cut to allow boats to travel to the village and one-time inland port of Reach, as well as drain the surrounding fields. Nowadays it's only used by leisure craft and it's this trade that keeps the riverside pubs in business during the summer. The water is controlled by sluices and locks.

Many of the lodes have paths or tracks running alongside which make good, flat, though sometimes muddy, walking routes. This is Wicken Lode which branches off from Reach Lode and leads up towards Wicken Sedge Fen.

The fen just to the south of Wicken is unique in that it was never drained for agriculture, but was used by the villagers to cut sedge (for thatching) and dig peat (for fuel). Its special qualities have long been realised by biologists from Cambridge University who came to investigate. A young Charles Darwin ventured here collecting beetles, for example.

When sedge cutting and peat-digging ceased, the entomologist Charles Rothschild bought part of the ancient fen and gave it to the National Trust who have managed it as a nature reserve ever since. That crazy building in the above photo is actually a bird-watching hide that gives views out over much of the modern reserve.

And it was birds that I was looking out for too and today's star performer was a beautiful, silver-grey male Hen Harrier that drifted effortlessly over the fen hunting for his lunch. I'll add a complete list of birds seen at the end of the post.

Since 1999 the National Trust as been engaged in an ambitious plan to re-create a huge area of wetland habitat by snapping up any arable land that comes up for sale and "re-wilding" it. The fens are slowly becoming less and less viable as agricultural land anyway; the fertile peat has shrunk as it's dried out which has resulted in the level of the fields falling below that of the rivers and therefore becoming more expensive to drain. Even more troubling is that the dry, dusty peat is blowing away in places making the land not only lower but also less fertile.

Agriculture's loss has been nature's gain however and many birds are re-establishing themselves here including Short-Eared Owls which hunt here in winter (though I didn't see any). This ever-increasing wetland area is maintained by hard-working teams of Highland Cattle and Konik Ponies which graze the land throughout the year. I saw both on my walk but rather too distant to successfully photograph. 

Though I did see this cute trio observing me as I walked through a farmyard.

This is Cockup Bridge which allows farm vehicles to cross Burwell Lode.

And so we make our way back to Upware to complete a circular walk of around six miles.

Birds seen: Canada Goose, Greylag Goose, Wigeon, Teal, Snipe, Egyptian Goose, Rook, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Jackdaw, Blackbird, Collared Dove, Wood Pigeon, Black-Headed Gull, Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Cormorant, Little Grebe, Blue Tit, Robin, Grey Heron, Mallard, Gadwall, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Starling, Stonechat, Reed Bunting, Pied Wagtail, Chaffinch, Red Legged Partridge, Little Egret, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Pheasant, Kestrel, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Lapwing. 

Take care.