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Fenland's Big Skies

An enigmatic landscape links remote Manea with an historic drainage cut.

Distance 6.3 miles (10.1km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Lanes and hard farm tracks

Landscape Wide, flat fields separated by ditches and drainage channels

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 228 March & Ely

Start/finish TL 478893

Dog friendliness Very good, but no dogs on Ouse Washes Nature Reserve

Parking Roadside parking in centre of Manea

Public toilets Off Park Road, Manea, and at Ouse Washes Nature Reserve

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Walk eastwards along the High Street (which becomes Station Road), past the post office and fish and chip shop, then turn right for the public footpath alongside the primary school. At the football pitch at the far end turn right and go past Manea Wood, planted in 1997 for the local community with ash, oak, white willow, birch and common alder. Continue along the path as it bears right and approaches Bearts Farm.

2 Turn left by the old barns and sheds for the wide track out into the fields, with the farm on your right, to reach an attractive reedy lake known locally as 'the Pit'. This was originally dug for clay, which was then transported across the fields on a light railway to shore up the banks of the nearby Old and New Bedford Rivers. The Pit is now a popular place for fishermen and wildlife alike.

3 At the end of the track turn right on to a lane, with the lake still on your right, then when you reach the junction at the corner of the road turn left, on to the appropriately named Straight Road, and follow this through the fields to the end.

4 Turn left on to Purl's Bridge Drove, signposted 'Welches Dam and RSPB reserve'. Follow this open lane all the way to Purl's Bridge, by the Old Bedford River. Continue along the bank to reach the Ouse Washes Nature Reserve, where there's a visitor centre and public toilets.

5 Return along the lane for 440yds (402m) and turn left for the signposted public bridleway by some dark wooden sheds. Known as Old Mill Drove, this runs directly across the open fields as far as the rusting farm machinery and outbuildings of Boon's Farm. Turn right and walk along the dead-straight Barnes's Drove for 1¼ miles (2km) until you reach the road at the far end.

6 Turn left and after 80yds (73m) turn off right over a stile for a public footpath across fields back into Manea (aim for the fire station tower). The route veers one way then the other as it skirts a series of pig enclosures - just follow the clear yellow waymarks past the enormous porkers which, depending on the conditions, might be wallowing in mud pools. At the far side cross successive stiles and turn right, past the village stores, to follow the main road back to the centre.

A landscape that is as flat and bare as the Fens may seem a dull and uninteresting prospect for a walk, but in fact there is much more to this unique place than first meets the eye, and what you see now isn't the way it looked in the distant past. Ancient tree trunks known as bog oaks are periodically uncovered from the peaty soil, proving that this apparently tree-less country once presented a totally different scene.

Until 400 years ago the Fens remained an unwelcoming swampy and impenetrable landscape which local outlaws and tribesmen such as Hereward the Wake, who led his rebels against the invading Normans, could make their own. Small communities such as Manea developed on the pockets of higher ground - the 'ea' suffix is derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'ig' meaning island.

Systematic draining did not begin until the 17th century, when the 4th Earl of Bedford turned to Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to repeat his successful work in the Netherlands. The result was a direct, 20-mile (32km) cut known as the Old Bedford River, which sliced through the lands south and east of Manea taking the winter floodwaters out to the Wash. A rapidly expanding series of drains and dykes followed, gradually turning the ancient bog and swamp into fertile agricultural land, with many of these artificial rivers named after their original width (the New Bedford River is also known as the Hundred Foot Drain, for instance).

But not everyone agreed with the draining of the Fens, however, and there was determined opposition from the 'Fen Tigers', those wildfowlers and marshmen whose livelihoods depended on the traditional Fenland way of life. Even after the drains and dykes became permanent fixtures there were still, until quite recently, occasional throwbacks to another era. When transport and communication proved difficult, particularly for remote communities during the winter floods, the so-called Floating Church would go from hamlet to village providing religious services. The converted barge was still in use into the early years of the 20th century, when it spent two years tied up at Welches Dam, near Manea, which you visit on this walk.

An early supporter of the ambitious drainage scheme was King Charles I, who owned 12,000 acres (4,860ha) of wetland surrounding Manea. He backed the enterprise of the early speculators to such an extent that he even took the lead in designing a new capital for the Fens. Complete with a royal palace for himself, it was to be sited near Manea and would be called Charlemont. Alas, he lost his head before the dream was realised.

Where to eat and drink

The Rose and Crown pub on Manea's High Street generally serves food lunchtime and evening, and there's a fish and chip shop on Station Road. At the time of writing the Ship Inn at Purls Bridge was up for sale and its opening times subject to change. Beer connoisseurs should visit the Rose and Crown in nearby March, which has sold over 800 different real ales to date.

What to look for

The area around Manea is sometimes known as the Black Fens, because of its dark-coloured soils which are chiefly derived from peat. The high-yielding land means that intensive arable farming dominates, with very little livestock. As you walk through the vast, hedgeless fields look about you - depending on the time of year you may see huge fields of onions, potatoes, cereals, sugar beet, carrots or oilseed rape.

While you're there

The Wisbech and Fenland Museum in the centre of Wisbech has a fascinating display exploring the landscape and history of the Fens. The museum, housed in a purpose-built Victorian building with many of its period fixtures and fittings, has other wide-ranging displays and exhibits that include the original manuscript of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and an ivory chess set that once belonged to Louis XIV.

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