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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!