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Wicken - the Last Survivor

Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Mostly river banks and farm tracks, potentially slippery

Landscape Low-lying fenland of dykes, scrub and open fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 226 Ely & Newmarket

Start/finish TL 564706

Dog friendliness Under close control owing to livestock and nesting wildlife

Parking Wicken Fen nature reserve car park if visiting the reserve, otherwise off Wicken High Street

Public toilets At nature reserve car park

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1 From the nature reserve walk up Lode Lane towards the village of Wicken. Before you meet the main road turn right on to Back Lane and follow this route, behind the houses (including the windmill), which soon becomes a pleasant track. When you reach the far end of the lane, turn right on to a wide track through the fields. (If you have parked in the centre of the village take the signposted public footpath via Cross Green, just along from and opposite the pub, out to the fields.)

2 Follow this wide route down to cross two footbridges. Don't take the path off to the left but continue walking ahead straight on (beyond the green-painted second footbridge) along the bank of Monk's Lode, with St Edmund's Fen opposite. A lode, incidentally, is another name for an artificially cut waterway.

3 After 550yds (503m) branch left by a newly constructed fence and gate for a long and straight track, known in these parts as a drove, out across the fields to Priory Farm. Join the surfaced lane and continue all the way to the end.

4 By the Environment Agency's private raised bridge turn right and walk along the bank of the Burwell Lode (don't be tempted by the footbridge). Continue for 1½ miles (2.4km) past Adventurers' Fen, named after the 17th-century 'Gentlemen Adventurers' who first started draining the fens in earnest.

5 At a high-arched footbridge over Wicken Lode turn right and, once over a stile, walk along this bank back towards Wicken Fen past a National Trust sign. If you continue across the footbridge and walk for another ¼ mile (400m) you come to Upware, with a pub and picnic area. Ignoring paths off into the open fen and fields on your right, continue along the bank until its junction with Monk's Lode.

6 Cross the short bridge by Goba Moorings and continue alongside Wicken Lode, not along Monk's Lode (to the right). The lush vegetation of Wicken Fen is now either side, and across the water you will pass the lofty tower hide, one of several dotted around the reserve.

7 When you get to the end turn left to explore the visitor centre (open Tuesday to Sunday). There is a small admission charge to the reserve itself, which is open daily from dawn to dusk. Near by is the restored Fen Cottage, and a lovely thatched boathouse where the reserve's traditional working fen boat is kept. To return to the car park and village, simply walk back up the lane past the houses.

Wicken Fen is one of the oldest nature reserves in the country and, as the last surviving remnant of original fenland left in Britain, one of the most important, too. Over the last 400 years over 99 per cent of East Anglia's ancient Great Fen has been drained and converted into farmland, richly productive for agriculture but largely sterile for wildlife.

Not surprisingly the National Trust's 1,330 acres (539ha) at Wicken have assumed a critical importance. Since they purchased their first tiny piece of land here in 1899, the Trust has made 56 separate acquisitions at Wicken, and the plan is to continue to add to their holdings by acquiring farmland to the south of the reserve and restoring it to its original wetland state. The latest was in October 2001 when the Trust bought 415 acres (168ha) at Burwell Fen Farm for £1.7m, and a display at the visitor centre describes the 'Wicken Vision' in more detail.

The nature reserve itself includes a short boardwalk (¾ miles/1.2km) and a longer nature trail (2¼ miles/3.6km), while eight hides allow close-up views over the many ponds and ditches which, depending on the time of year, are often teeming with wildlife. For instance, Wicken Fen hosts over 1,000 types of beetle, and visiting coleopterists (that's beetle-lovers to you and me) once included the young Charles Darwin who came here to collect specimens while studying at Cambridge.

As well as 212 species of spider, Wicken Fen also supports nearly 300 different types of plant. In the summer the ponds and pools buzz with dragonflies and damselflies, and are full of yellow and white water lilies, water mint and water violets, plus the greater bladderwort, a carnivorous plant with small yellow flowers and virtually no roots that feasts on small aquatic life forms. Away from the water the uncultivated grassland features early marsh and southern marsh orchids, usually flowering in June, while in the areas of sedge you can find milk parsley and the light purple flowers of the rare marsh pea. A visit to the reserve is a must, and you should allow the bare minimum of an hour to explore.

An on-going programme of management is essential to maintain the distinctive character of the land. For generations Wicken peat has been cut for burning, and sedge (a grass-like plant that grows on wet ground) has been harvested for thatching. The peat is now untouched, but sedge is still cut every three years in the summer - just as it has been at Wicken ever since 1419.

Meanwhile konig ponies, already used in the Norfolk Broads, have been introduced to Verrall's Fen to stop cleared scrub from reinvading; and ditches are periodically dredged of choking vegetation by a process with the splendid name of 'slubbing'.

Where to eat and drink

Ice creams and hot drinks are available at the visitor centre, or for a pub meal visit the thatched Maid's Head on the green in the centre of Wicken village. Food and drink are also available at the pub in the village of Upware, just off the route, which is situated at the end of Old School Lane and whose full name is apparently Five Miles from Anywhere Riverside Inn.

What to look for

The windmill on Back Lane is known as a 12-sided Cambridgeshire smock mill, and was built in 1813 to grind flour, unlike the windpump on Wicken Fen, near the visitor centre, which was used to keep peat diggings drained. Carefully restored and retaining much of its original machinery, Wicken Windmill is generally open to the public on the first weekend of every month and summer bank holidays.

While you're there

To the west of Wicken (off the A10) is Denny Abbey, founded in 1159 by Benedictine monks as a dependent priory to Ely Cathedral. The site is now owned by English Heritage and includes the Farmland Museum, with a traditional farm-worker's cottage, 17th-century stone barn and workshops. It's open daily between April and October.

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