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The history of Wicken Fen

Sunset over the windpump at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
Wicken Fen has a fascinating history dating back centuries | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

Wicken Fen is the National Trust's first nature reserve, with 2 acres bought in 1899. Over the years since then, many acquisitions later, the reserve has expanded to over 2000 acres. Before 1899, the Sedge Fen area was home to a thriving sedge-harvesting community, and was frequented by naturalists who delighted in this remnant of undrained fenland.

In the 19th century, Wicken Fen became popular with Victorian naturalists - while there isn't evidence that Charles Darwin actually visited Wicken, he is known to have collected beetles in the fens in 1820. Later, during the first half of the 20th century, Cambridge botanists Sir Harry Godwin and Dr Arthur Tansley - recognised as the fathers of modern ecology and conservation - carried out cutting-dge studies in the area.

The National Trust acquires Wicken Fen

In the late 19th century, with the local sedge and peat industries collapsing, naturalists paid villagers to assist with collecting trips on the Fen, and also bought up land from them. Distinguished entomologist Herbert Goss suggested the National Trust should consider saving Wicken Fen as early as 1898, as it was 'the haunt of much wildlife'. These naturalists then sold or gifted their land at Wicken to the newly-formed National Trust, including J C Moberley whose two acres were sold to the organisation for £10. Other notable donors included George Verrall, MP for Newmarket, who bequesthed 239 acres, on his death in 1911. Banker Charles Rothschild, an early influential figure in nature conservation donated parts of St Edmunds and Adventurers' Fens in 1901.

In 1999 - to mark the 100th anniversary of the first acquisition - the Wicken Fen Vision was launched, a 100-year project that will see the nature reserve expanded from Wicken Fen to the edge of Cambridge. Since 1999, the size of the reserve has more than doubled, for the benefit of wildlife, and for access into green space for people

Wicken Fen: early history

The fens were formed after sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. Drainage of the fenland basin deteriorated as ice moved northwards, and the remains of dead plants accumulated in the waterlogged ground as peat.

Human settlement in this marshy landscape was limited to 'isles' of clay, such as Ely. Very little is known about Wicken Fen's early history; however, we do know that there was activity in the area, as Stone Age flint tools, Bronze Age weapons and Roman coin hoards have all been found here over the years.

Sedge harvesting and peat digging

While most of the fens was drained, by outside investors, the Adventurers, in the 17th century, employing Dutch engineers and prisoners of war as labour, Wicken Fen was saved by the villagers rioting to protect their way of life. (Other fen inhabitants across the regions were less successful...) Sedge was cut for use as a thatching material, peat dug for fuel. Fish and fowl provided a steady source of food.

The earliest recorded sedge harvest at Wicken Fen was in 1419, and it has been regularly removed from the area ever since. Undoubtedly, it was cut prior to 1419, but there's no written record. As Great Fen Saw Sedge is cut every three to four years, a patchwork of field strips allows for a variety of plant and wildlife species to thrive. These include rarities like milk parsley and marsh pea.

Peat – or turf as it was known locally – digging expanded to an industrial level in the 19th century, on Burwell Fen, but declined as coal and bricks became dominant. The wind pump was used to drain peat diggings originally on Adventurers' Fen.

Fen cottage exterior at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire
Fen Cottage has been fully restored | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Fen Cottage

Fully restored Fen Cottage, opposite the entrance to Wicken Fen visitor centre, is all that remains of the once-thriving community of fen-men and their families who lived in this area. In 1890, there were 14 cottages of a similar style and construction, some of which housed families of up to 10 people.

A typical cottage plot

These cottages were constructed largely with local materials. To accommodate everyone, the older children slept in the loft whilst their parents and the very youngest in the family slept downstairs in the living room. Most cottages had outbuildings that served as workshops, a stable, storage sheds and a toilet. There might also have been a vegetable patch, an osier whips bed, a chicken run, and possibly an eel tank.

The working year

A key member of some families was their pony or donkey. For those who had boats to shift goods in and out of the Wicken community, their four-legged worker was a highly valued friend.

The working year for most fen-men and their families was broken down into different roles, depending on the season. From late spring through to August, they would be digging, stacking and hauling turf (peat blocks). For centuries, this was the favoured fuel for cooking and heating by the local villagers and townsfolk in the absence of suitable timber and other fuels.

In the winter, they would likely harvest and haul reeds, which were used extensively for thatching and hurdle making. In early spring, sedge was harvested and dried for use in thatching, but also as a fuel and for kindling.

Other activities

In the gaps in their year, most fen-men worked as boatmen in the hauling gangs taking loads of turf, reeds and sedge for drying, to customers in nearby towns and villages. The lodes serving the fen-side communities and the local rivers were critically important as they provided the means to move cargo – particularly heavy items – in or out of the villages.

Ongoing activities through the year were eel catching, wildfowling, mole catching, and hurdle and basket making. Working in the fen was a hard life for the fen families but, compared to their agricultural worker counterparts, they were considered reasonably well off.

Sedge cutting machine at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
Sedge cutting enables many animal species to set up colonies on the Fen | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman
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