Walking below sea level for mile after mile is a strange experience.
March across any of our local fens and you find yourself trapped between two great expanses. You’re sandwiched between a never ending sky that threatens to engulf you and flat horizonless, featureless – almost unrelenting- landscape; between the heavens and the solid. Your senses play tricks on you. Sound travels further and clearer. The slightly acrid smell of the peat rich soil reaches your nostrils like a summer garden scent drifting on the breeze. Your eyesight plays ocular tricks. In the mist, tall eloquent parades of plane trees could be a mile or two away or it could be small stunted trees only a few hundred metres near you. It reminds me of something I read once. A member of a Polar expedition in the early years of the twentieth century commented on how it was impossible to tell if a black object in front of him was just a large pebble or whether it was a mountain in the distance; the ice clad landscape making it difficult for him to judge the space around him. I find the same with the fens. Distance is confusing without reference points. The sky becomes one big body of light touching down on a flat coloured contrasting land, disorientating, making you feel like you are always walking into a landscape, rather than through it. Stand in front of Mark Rothko’s giant abstract paintings displayed in the Tate Modern in London and you can capture that same hypnotic, almost vertigo inducing sensation. Most people go to the hills to touch the sky and get their heads in the clouds. Moving through the fens the reverse is true. The sky comes down to you, enclosing you, maybe to some, in a claustrophobic way while at the same time leaving you feeling naked against the elements. It’s as if it’s all upside down in a strange beautiful but surreal way.
Of course to someone who has always lived in the fens, this all will sound like a load of whimsical nonsense. But to me, who grew up in the fells and dales of the north, this landscape is so different, so alien to anything I had experienced before I moved here. I always find the fens a disorientating yet fascinating place to explore. With its dykes, canals, drains – not the type of drains I had known before - and its Dutch sounding names, it’s one of the few places in England that feels truly unique, almost foreign, as if you have gone abroad to one of the Low Countries. Face one way and you’re looking into Holland. Turn round back to Bourne and you find the familiar sloping pastoral vales of England. One of the best places to visit in the fens is a fabulous nature reserve called Willow Tree Fen. It is a few miles away from Bourne, just off Tongue End. It’s nearly three hundred acres of wild fen country, what the fens would have looked like long ago in the distant past before the advent of draining and intensive farming. Before then, the fens were little more than groups of islands in a tidal creek. Irrigation, wholesale drainage and pumping, carrying on since Roman times till now, has given us the flat fertile arable familiar fields we know today but at a cost to wildlife habitats. Willow Tree Fen is a positive attempt by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust to readdress this balance. The fields have been allowed to flood again. Nature has returned.
The reserve has everything: a diverse array of animal and bird life, interesting plants and even toilets! A recent survey there found over 450 species and counting, with a probable new insect to Lincolnshire found.
There is a small visitor centre, which has information boards on the walls explaining what wildlife you can expect to see. Bring your binoculars as there are lots of hides dotted around the reserve (great when it’s raining), each with lots of information and simple ID charts in them which help makes everybody feel included. It is that sort of place. It’s not a private fiefdom for the serious naturalist. Some reserves I have been on (and worked on), have been very elitist; if you don’t subscribe to some obscure beetle internet discussion forum, you’re looked down on in a very sniffy way. Not here at Willow Tree Fen. Dog walkers, families who want a short jaunt around the reserve, or just locals trying to see a bit of nature, no one feels out of place. It doesn’t matter what time of year you go, there is always something to see and experience. At the moment you might be able to watch marsh harriers, kestrels, sparrowhawks or red kites. You could even catch sight of the vivid turquoise of a kingfisher or if you are really fortunate, as I was last year, an otter.
The reserve is a recreation of something lost, maybe even, like any nature reserve, a living museum. However it’s still an oasis for wildlife in a desert of intensively farmed flatland. It’s a shame we have to provide separate areas for nature to flourish, beautiful as these reserves are. A visit to Willow Tree Fen reminds us of what we could have.
Our local fenland is really a special place. A walk through it reinvigorates the mind, body and maybe our imagination.
Who knows you might even see an otter too!
Stuart Bullen, of Bourne, trained as a biologist at the University of Sheffield and has worked in the media. He is passionate about nature and the environment and he has worked on various conservation projects with Natural England and other organisations. When possible he likes to tramp around the local nature reserves and woods doing a spot of botany. He has recently qualified as a master gardener with Garden Organic.