Redgrave and Lopham Fen, East Anglia

A large open-water area at the fens. This rare and sadly significantly declined habitat supports an abundance of life. (Credit: John Went CC-BY-SA-2.0)

I have a history with East Anglia. I have previously lived in the region, worked in the region and studied in the region. I’ve sat on struggling old single-carriage diesel trains commuting from home to university across the flat lands. I learned to drive on the somewhat perilous lanes of the region.

Sadly my personal life during that time led to many negative memories and yet my love for this part of the UK transcends that memory. I’ve visited places like Colchester and Southend in recent times but that isn’t quite the middle-of-nowhere, flatland fields that I associate with East Anglia. Sorry Essex. So spending a few days chilling near the Norfolk/Suffolk border, only a short drive away from places I used to live, places I used to visit and places I used to raid the car boot sales of for retro videogames, is absolutely amazing.

There are conflicting maps and discussions as to what, exactly, comprises East Anglia but I generally perceive it as roughly the area in and around the red ring. Definitely the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are included. I also put Essex in there, and some people also add Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. It’s an area rich in quite unique habitats and ecosystems as well a significant portion of British history – at one time being an exceptionally wealthy area and thus being absolutely full-to-bursting with gorgeous churches and stunning historic market towns. (Credit: Google Maps)

There was, oddly, a sensation of ‘coming home’.

I have always talked up the bio credentials of East Anglia. As one of only a few places in the UK with no major motorway and one of the last places to give up traditional farming and land management methods for more modern, intensive ones, it has habitats few other places in the UK can match up to. Hanging like the builder’s-bum of Britain jutting out into the North Sea it gets some remarkable migratory birds and insects, too. It all adds up. You might think you know East Anglia, but there is a stark contrast between the Southern coast of Essex and the North Norfolk Coast. It is not a place with one important habitat, but rather it is a patchwork of them and I happened to visit one. The Redgrave and Lopham Fen, around the Norfolk/Suffolk border near Diss.

So what the hell is a ‘fen’? It sounds like some kind of hip-hop slang. Well it isn’t.

A fen is a sort of boggy wetland habitat generally characterised by the growth of tall wetland grasses and sedges. A natural fit for the near-sea-level soggy flatlands of East Anglia. If we were able to cultivate rice in the UK we would probably have left the fens as they are. Unfortunately our agricultural staples do not grow well in flooded fields! As a result the natural fen lands were mostly drained for crops. Drainage ditches, canals, dykes, drains and even pumping stations all maintain a drier land ripe for farming (particularly so since the fens produced very fertile, peaty soil) but they also decimated this unique habitat.

A windmill on Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, another incredible area for fenlands. (Credit: Valerian Guillot, CC-BY-2.0)

This wasn’t a modern practice. Draining land for agriculture in Britain likely dates back to the Roman era (considering Rome was once a mosquito infested bog itself they were good at draining wetlands!) or possibly earlier. But the practice didn’t stop! As time went on, the population of Britain grew, and farming practices changed, so more and more of the fens were drained.

Sadly there were two consequences of this. For one, those who relied heavily upon the fens for their trades, especially thatchers who would gather and use the sedges and reeds, were basically put out of work. Secondly, this was a unique habitat, a water-rich patchwork of soggy soils and small pools. There were a remarkable number of species that relied upon these unique habitats that now didn’t have it. Thirdly, of course, there’s flooding, always a potential problem.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is a valley-fen on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near the Waveney and Little Ouse Rivers. It is the largest river valley fen in England and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is because of the remarkable numbers of plants, invertebrates, birds and other species it supports.

Now, this might be unusual for an arachnophobe like me but I went in the hopes of seeing the great fen raft spider (Dolomedes plantarius). As far as I am aware Redgrave and Lopham fen is one of only three areas in the UK that they can be seen – There’s this fen, there’s the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and there’s the old Neath and Tennant Canal in South Wales.

The Great Raft Spider (or fen raft spider, or great fen raft spider – it has lots of names!), Dolomedes Plantarius, in the water pools at Redgrave and Lopham Fen. There is a special ‘spider trail’ there if you specifically want to see these awesome arachnids. (Credit: Helen Smith, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Besides rarity though, what makes these spiders so special? Well, they’re semi aquatic, reasonably large (a female can be 70-80mm in legspan) and known to eat fish – what more do you want to know about them!? If you’re not impressed by a near 10cm spider that goes fishing We Lack Discipline is not for you!

Unfortunately the fen raft spiders do prefer a warm, baskable day with little wind. Whilst we had the still air, we did not have the sunshine and so they escaped my ever-ready camera.

But, if an environment is perfect for rare invertebrates it is often a haven for others and there was a blessing of butterflies, a bombardment of bumblebees, a draught of dragonflies and a furious flurry of flies (both regular and hover). A few wasps were spotted, too. Vespids were particularly active but I saw one or two shy ichneumonids and there was certainly evidence, small holes in the sandy soil, of solitary bees and wasps.

Despite there not being the mind-boggling number of species that other invertebrates have I’m still not really studied up on my dragonfly IDs. I would say this is definitely a hawker, and to me it looks most like a female common hawker (Aeshna juncea) but I wouldn’t quote me on that! (Credit: Me)

Deeper in the reeds there were visible waterfowl, ducks and coots and the like, as well as audible signs, calls, from warblers, woodpeckers and even the incredible, low-pitched “Boom!” of a bittern, a bird I have only ever heard (and seen) once before.

Only permanently resident in about 7 areas of the UK, with the East and Southeast having 5 of those, the bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is a true gem for British birdwatching and sadly one of the rarest birds. Effectively a buff heron, in both colour and body shape, they patrol the reeds looking for fish, amphibians and invertebrates to eat. They also have a low, distinctive booming call. (Credit: Nick Goodrum, CC-BY-2.0)

All four of the widely dispersed native UK reptiles are alleged to be breeding there, common lizards (of which we saw one), slow worms, adders and grass snakes. Aside from the amazing raft spider I had hoped to see a grass snake. I didn’t, but mercifully I’m versed enough in the perils of looking for particular species to know you should make the most of looking at everything rather than be disappointed you didn’t see one thing.

This is not the little lizard seen on the day at Redgrave and Lopham Fen but it was one very similar, perhaps just a little smaller. The UK’s common lizards are awesome and one of my favourites to see. You can read my article about them here. (Credit: Me)

In terms of the other life, within the waters themselves water voles and otters are not uncommon. There are also a few grazers used to manage the more untameable plants and grasses and make management of the whole ecosystem a bit easier. It was cattle and Konik ponies (a Polish breed of very hardy pony better suited to grazing in soggier places) but apparently sometimes the hardy Hebridean sheep are used as well.

The European water vole (Arvicola amphibius), the inspiration for ‘The Wind in the Willows’ character Ratty. Sadly another very rare and elusive species in the UK this shot was taken in Arundel in West Sussex. They can be seen at Redgrave and Lopham fen as well as other fenlands and riverbanks in East Anglia. (Credit: Peter Trimming, CC-BY-2.0)

It’s not just the fen environment there, though. There are areas of scrub, larger open-water areas, woodlands and heathlands.

It makes for an exceptionally diverse habitat in a relatively condensed area and that just means bustling biodiversity everywhere you look. There were definitely buzzards in the sky, dragonflies fighting (and/or fucking) and I did get to watch a gorgeous spider perform the rotisserie-fly manoeuvre. I’ve no idea what the spider species was but they were gorgeous and there were many of them about.

These were the gorgeous spiders which were numerous among the sides of the paths through the fen. Absolutely stunning and with the air thick with flies, moths, bees and other bugs, they were very active. If anyone has an ID for this please let me know on Twitter @WLDiscipline. I have looked, a lot (and as an arachnophobe googling for spiders can freak me out!) but I cannot find any clue. (Credit: Me)

I could spew superlatives for hundreds more words but honestly, enjoy some photos and consider paying a visit if you’re in the area. The trails were relatively accessible such that some of them could probably even take a wheelchair. There was a lovely little coffee place there, as well as toilets and a visitor centre where I understand they put on regular activities and guided walks for the kiddos. It’s very definitely worth a visit if you like a good walk in nature.

There’s nothing quite like the magical feeling of gazing across the tops of reeds and sedge and it seeming to go on forever into the horizon. I have often heard people say that they do not like East Anglia because it is ‘flat’ or ‘featureless’.

Almost certainly a boy dragonfly (females of species with bright red males tend to be orange) I suspect this is a ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) one of the most common and the one that most resembles this. However, again I could be wrong and there are 4-5 other red dragonfly species in the UK. Sadly this was as close as he’d let me get so I couldn’t see any more detail. (Credit: Me)

Much of East Anglia may be flat, but a visit to the incredibly special habitats; the fens, the woodlands and the coastal dunes and beaches, will very quickly teach you what utter tosh the supposed ‘featurelessness’ is. It doesn’t have rolling hills or snow-capped mountains but it has something far more impressive and far less inert.

It has life.

Want to read more tales of my travels?

Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman

Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum

Or check out how AMAZING Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, is!

Folkestone Museum, full of details of the town’s maritime, wartime and ancient past!

Dungeness – Nuclear engineering nestled in Lovecraftian natural beauty.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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