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Today I'm on a journey across the watery world
of the East Anglian Fens, beginning here on Wicken Fen
and ending up in the ancient university city of Cambridge.
From Wicken Fen I'll travel to Outwell, then on to Welney.
We'll hear from Stephen Fry about his passion for the area.
Then I'll take a plunge into a creek near Upware.
Finally, I'll end my journey punting on the River Cam in Cambridge.
Along the way I'll be looking back at some of the best
of the BBC's rural programmes from this part of the country.
This is Country Tracks.
You may be wondering what these sticks are I'm carrying.
These are in fact stilts and it's what ancient communities
from this part of the world used to get around this watery landscape.
Chris Soans manages this fen for the National Trust.
-How are you?
-Not too bad.
So this is basically a traditional pair of stilts?
I've got images of whole communities being out wearing these with whole families.
Would they really have worn them?
Yeah. In the winter the Fens flooded and it was a few inches deep
in water and so if you wanted to get from A to B
you would get very wet. Obviously they had no Wellingtons.
They had very simple leather footwear, so these were the only way of keeping dry.
I'm going to attempt to walk across the Fens in these.
-Have you worn them before?
I've given it a try, but it's... It's a skill!
Putting them on here is quite a good idea.
Yeah, if you sit on the edge there.
And then, presumably...
-So the foot goes on there.
-Yeah, they need to be quite tight.
What about their communities? How would they build those on the water?
There are pockets of higher ground.
Where the clay came out of the peat there was higher ground,
so they would build their small, basic settlements on the clay in the high ground
and then they would use the low-lying fen around them
for their food and other materials they needed.
The Fens are much drier now that they've been drained for agriculture,
so they're not as wet as they would be, so it's not so much of an issue.
-How do you think that looks?
-I think they're fairly tight.
You'll also need a staff.
This is sort of the third that gives you a tripod and without this you'll go flat on your face.
-So are you ready?
-Well, as ready as I'll ever be!
-There we go.
Keep putting that in front of you as you go and then walk slowly.
-Do you think I can walk through all this?
-Give it a go.
Leg's slightly apart, that's it. There you are, a natural!
There we go.
Well, I don't know that natural comes to mind, but...
Apart from just navigating through the Fens like this, would they have...
Would they have been doing things at the same time?
Amazingly, apparently when they were doing some of the peat digging
when they dug the peat for fuel
and they were in standing water,
they could actually dig the peat out wearing stilts.
With a spade in front of them? With a very long handle, I imagine.
It was called a becket, a traditional spade, but they said they could do that.
It's a skill that came through years of practice.
-I'm making some progress.
-You're doing very well.
I don't think it looks very gainly, does it?
It might take you some time to get to Cambridge.
I could be out here for quite a long time!
This is a rather clumsy interpretation of what it must have been like
negotiating this watery landscape in years gone by.
In more recent times, as the seasons changed and the waters froze,
these flooded plains became a winter playground.
Ice skating has been a feature of the Fens for hundreds of years.
When the flooded winter wetlands froze they became giant ice rinks
and fenlanders flocked from miles around to take to the ice,
and in the 1800s the ice skating championship of the Fens was born.
Earlier this year I took part in an ice skating marathon in Sweden
and, not wanting my wife here to feel left out,
I invited Marina to join me. You enjoyed it, didn't you?
I did. Especially beating you!
Yes. And that's why I've invited Marina here to the home of ice-skating in the UK, Welney.
Skaters traditionally gather at the Lamb And Flag pub in Welney
before heading to the frozen lakes.
Chairman of the Welney And District Skating Club Melton Morris is going to give us the low down.
And am I right in thinking that here was the birth of ice-skating in the UK?
We can't be sure, but we'd like to think it is.
This was the place that most people looked to skate in the '30s
when there was any frost because it was the safest place to skate.
But they were also skating as far back as the 1800s.
-Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes.
-And was it a big pastime sport at that...?
Not being here at the time, but I would...
-I would assume it was!
-So we've got here a selection of Melton's ice skates through the decades, have we?
These are the ones that I fen-skated on right until I was 16.
The reason I skated on those was because we couldn't get anything else
and it wasn't until my father found me a pair of this type, of Hagan's...
What period is this from? When did these date?
These were in the early '30s.
-Oh, really? So, these are pre-war?
-Oh, yes. Yes.
They look quite sophisticated.
-Well, they are.
-Were they the envy of all your friends?
To own a pair of Hagan's was... You had the bee's knees.
-You were very proud of them?
And then moving on, presumably...
-Where are the slightly more contemporary ones?
So when was the last time that you donned a pair of these?
Well, my grandson skated on those last ten years ago.
-And how did he fare in these?
-He won the Fen Championship.
-Yes, he did, on those.
It's been several years since the Fens froze
to allow skaters on to the ice, but they haven't rested on their blades.
A few miles up the road is Melton's farm.
He built an asphalt track 12 years ago so that he could skate throughout the year.
Now it's a hub for the fenland skaters keen to practice in the absence of frozen lakes,
and having brought my wife all this way we thought we'd give it a go.
-How are you feeling? Excited?
-Nervous, seeing how good they are!
I know! A bit different to the ice.
-This is Marina, my wife.
-OK. So we're going to have a go on the track here.
-OK, which are the smaller ones?
-These ones are the smaller ones.
They're for you, Marina.
-These are presumably mine?
-I hope so.
Looking at these, the first thing I am particularly aware of is there's no brake
that I know that most rollerblades have.
With us, we all go the same way around the track.
And we're purely interested in the speed side of stuff, not stopping.
Just for speed, OK. How are you planning on stopping, Marina?
Well, there's a grassy bank over there, it goes slightly uphill,
and a bush at the end if things get really bad, so...
It's slightly daunting seeing all these guys going zooming past.
And children, that's the worst! Can't we get rid of them?
And apart from the bush that we've both got our eye on at the back,
how should we go about stopping?
What we do is what we call a duck walk which is where you turn your foot slightly to the side.
And then you just put a bit of weight on.
Oh, I'm off, I'm off!
You want to be going this way!
-Push slightly to the side.
And then let the other foot go forward.
So how are you getting on, then?
Not too badly. Actually, I think Marina is doing slightly better than I am.
-I think the best way to really find out would be have a race, wouldn't it?
Sounds good to me.
How far is this race going to be?
Well, I've had my tuition and now it's time to race!
And I mean business.
What do you think my chances are of even finishing vaguely at the same time as you guys?
-None! I don't know if I'm going to dispute that.
Marina, how are you set?
-I've been practising, so I'm confident.
-Do you think you're going to beat me?
-Yeah, definitely. Prepare to die!
-Ready, steady, go!
And right from the beginning, despite my advantage start,
I slip towards the back at an early stage of the race.
Malcolm forged an early lead, while Melton's great grandsons Joseph and Harry streaked past me.
Even Marina left me virtually standing!
But through the skaters' generosity, Marina and I were able
to cross the finish line in first place.
I tell you what, where's...
Where's Harry and...
Harry and Joseph?
I think I did have a little bit of help there winning.
What do you think, boys? Did you wait for me?
-Yeah, you did! There you go,
but it's boys like this who are going to keep this tradition alive.
I spent a lot of my childhood racing around the Fens,
but in those days it was for fishing rather than rollerblading.
I've left the cumbersome stilts behind and I'm continuing my journey
hoping to learn more about this watery world.
-Have the Fens changed a lot over the years?
Traditionally they were a very wild, wet landscape.
They have been gradually drained by man for agriculture.
Now, we're on a lode now, so a lode is an artificial canal.
How does that differ from the rest of the fen?
Traditionally there would have been natural waterways
throughout the Fens and as part of the drainage process, man-made waterways,
lodes were dug, all by hand,
which seems quite incredible now when you look at the scale of this. It was dug manually.
-And are there lakes as well out in the fen?
We call lakes "meres",
and that's a particularly low-lying area
where a lake could sit and that's what we call a mere.
And this must be a real haven for wildlife around here.
Wicken Fen has got more species recorded on it than any other site in England,
over 8,000 species now, and a lot of those are small insects, invertebrates,
butterflies, dragonflies, but a wide variety of birds as well.
So how big is Wicken Fen?
Wicken Fen now is just under 2,000 acres in size and it's quite an interesting history
to why Wicken remains one of the last few remaining fragments of undrained fen in the Great Fen basin.
Charles Darwin and the Cambridge academics, those early naturalists,
were coming out from Cambridge and avidly collecting here
and they realised that if they didn't step in, then their hunting grounds would be gone.
In 1896, Sir Hubert Gough recommended to the National Trust
in one of the National Trust's first meetings that they should purchase Wicken Fen.
Happily, four years later the National Trust bought the first two acres for just £10.
So environmental conservation was going on in the 1800s, really?
We could almost say this was one of the very first birthplaces of that movement,
the recognition that unless people stepped in to do something they could lose these valuable habitats.
The Fens is an area rich in wildlife, not least of the feathered variety.
Huge flocks of birds travel thousands of miles to the Fens each year. Among them are swans.
In winter the resident population of mute swans are joined
by their migrating cousins, creating a spectacular annual event
that can be enjoyed both day and night.
Well, that's quite a sight, isn't it? A field full of swans!
-How many do you reckon there are?
Probably about 600 or 700 out there at the moment.
-Yeah, mostly whoopers, looking at them now.
There are a few Bewicks mixed in there but, yeah, it's mostly whooper swans.
And they come here to feed, do they?
Yeah, they come out from the washes during the daytime,
they feed out on the fields and they're feeding on sugar beet tops here,
which is generally their favourite food during the daytime.
The beet's been harvested and it's just the top left?
Yeah, the beets have all been lifted and the machine mulches up the tops
and lays it on the top of the field, like you can see out there at moment, and the swans absolutely love it.
Yeah, yeah. Really, really high in carbohydrates, the beet tops,
and that's what the swans need most.
And do the farmers mind whole flocks of swans descending on their fields?
When it's just the beet tops like this, no, the farmers are quite OK with it,
but you can get some problems
when the swans go and feed out on the winter wheat, things like that.
They have great big feet.
They paddle across the wet mud and they can trample the winter wheat,
so it can be a bit of crop damage there, unfortunately, yeah.
And is this a typical daily pattern for the birds,
that they will take off in the early morning,
land in the fields, feed, and then go back at night?
Yeah, that's pretty much what they do.
They're on the reserve during the evening time,
roosting on the water is a safe place,
and then daytimes, they're out on the field, out on the sugar beet tops
and harvested potatoes and also the winter wheat,
and that's where they spend their days
and then they come back again in the evenings.
And it's in the evenings that birdwatchers young and old come to Welney from all over the nation
to witness one of the best wildlife displays of the year.
Swans gathering in their thousands under the floodlights of the observatory for a free handout.
So a free supper before bedtime and the perfect habitat.
No wonder that every winter, this vast lagoon is turned into Swan Lake.
From the beauty of Wicken Fen,
I'm travelling on to Well Creek, near Outwell.
I'm walking along Well Creek, one of the many waterways that criss-cross this whole area.
I'm here to meet Peter Carter.
He's a willow maker, a mole catcher and an eel trapper.
As a child I used to come eel fishing here,
but with numbers dwindling, things certainly aren't like they used to be.
You must be Peter. I'm Ben.
-Nice to meet you.
-So am I OK to step aboard?
Yeah, by all means.
So we're looking for some eel traps, are we, Peter?
We are. Known as eel hives.
How long have you been doing this?
Most of my life, to be honest. Old family trade.
The family have been doing it, well, we know over 200 years,
but they've been on the fen 500, so the chances are they've always done it.
-So for 500 years they've been catching eels along here?
So they're obviously really significant to the local area.
Oh, yes. Yeah, eels were the fen's gold.
All the old churches and chapels and villages
had to pay all their rates in eels at one time.
Ely Cathedral was built,
the stonework was paid for in eels.
So, I'm assuming then that a river like this was absolutely teeming with eels.
Oh, yeah. Even when we were kids, you could see them pouring up the rivers, but you don't see that now.
So, how many people in this area still do what you do and catch eels?
I'm the last in this part.
-I can see... There, that's the first one.
-Where, over here somewhere?
There it is, in front of you. The willow stick.
-Which one? I can't even see...
-Ah, see, that's the secret.
-Ah, the crossed willows. I do see that now.
-There we go.
-So, there's a pot somewhere on the end of this, is there?
-Here it comes.
-Oh, wow! Look at that!
-Oh, yeah. Made the same way, the family way.
Is there anything in it?
-No, nothing in there.
So, is this made of willow?
It is willow, yeah. Split willow
and it's the same style of trap they've made for thousands of years.
-They haven't changed it.
-So, how does it work? Do you bait it?
-Yeah, we put bait in this end.
-And what do you use?
-Roadkill, worms. Something smelly really is the best bait.
One of the old favourites used to be an old dead cat because nothing stinks like an old dead cat.
And what they say is, if you put it in the garden and bury it,
when the neighbours start moaning you know it's ripe enough to use it.
-Then the eels go into the trap and can't get out
because the hole's too small in the end?
Yeah, you've got a "chair" in there, it's an old fenland word.
They have a fantastic migration route, don't they?
They start off in the Sargasso Sea and they're like a little flat fish
when they start off. It takes...
It's 4,000 miles to get here and they follow the sea currents
and they come up round the Wash and come into the fen.
They'll live here up to 20, 30 years and while they're here they grow,
but they're not sexed until they head back.
So, it's not until they head back they become sexed.
-So they're neither male nor female?
No. And they reckon most of the ones coming off the Fens seemed to be male.
On the other side of the country, they're mostly females, so it must be something to do with the food.
And then they turn and head back.
And it takes six years to get back
and they literally eat their own stomachs,
they don't feed for the whole trip.
-They lay their eggs and then die.
-What an extraordinary creature.
It's a fantastic creature, really.
So, if we go back to the sort of '80s or something, would this have been absolutely brimming?
Oh, you could have a dozen eels in one of these in the 80s, easy.
Even more so, you know? But we don't see that at all now.
As I say, some days we don't get anything.
-That's how sad it's getting.
-So, the trap goes back in...
-For another day.
There's no definitive reason for why eel numbers have plummeted,
but research suggests a combination of overfishing, water pollution
and the construction of dams and weirs on rivers is behind the decline.
The traditional methods of eel catching, like the eels themselves, are in danger of disappearing.
Fortunately, the human spirit is nothing if not adaptable.
The farming industry has had to flex with economic and social trends
and the fenland farmers are no different.
At first glance, this looks like a field
of dog daisies, but it's Britain's latest and perhaps
sweetest smelling crop.
It is in fact chamomile.
As garden plant, chamomile has been around for centuries.
Renowned for its soothing and healing properties, it was a favourite in medieval herb gardens.
In more recent times, the writer Mary Wesley brought its new fame
in the title of her bestseller The Chamomile Lawn.
But here it's being grown for its oil.
In this part of Norfolk it might soon be replacing the traditional fields of wheat.
So, what do you make of this crop then, Ken?
Well, it's... It's very...
It smells very nice and we get a pretty good ground cover, but it's certainly different!
-You've only got, what, three quarters of an acre this year?
Do you plan to expand?
Oh, yes. If we get the right oil content in this chamomile,
yes, we shall increase our acreage.
-Is it doing well so far?
-Yes, we're told by the experts
that we've got a very high oil content in the flower heads.
The flower heads are rather large and we're quite hopeful.
This first harvest of chamomile could be crucial.
Ken has joined a consortium of small farmers in Norfolk
looking to new alternative crops to keep them in business.
They're being helped by special funding from Brussels and the Ministry Of Agriculture
under a scheme designed to strengthen the local economy while protecting the environment.
On a small corner of his 98 acres Ken is also experimenting with other aromatic plants,
such as yarrow, which is widely used in herbal medicine.
He's even trying out angelica, whose stems are crystallised and used in cake making.
What do your friends in the pub think when they hear about this aromatic crop?
We've had a few leg pulls and a few jokes about how beautiful we smell
and how we should be at ease with ourselves,
but I think, all in all, there's a little bit of interest now,
especially with cereal prices which are at quite a low now.
In this shed is the prototype chamomile distillery.
The plants go into the top there and then steam is used to vaporise the oil from the plants.
Everything goes through this condenser,
then out the bottom there we get water with the oil floating on top.
Mick Gahagan, this is your project, isn't it?
An awful lot of chamomile is needed for just a bit of oil, isn't it?
It certainly is, yes. But that's part of the charm of this crop,
that a whole crop can be reduced down into a small bottle
and be stored away until you want to actually sell it.
It's better than growing tomatoes where you have to sell them there and then.
-It's a beautiful colour. I wouldn't have expected it to be blue somehow.
That's the chamazulene in the oil,
which is one of the main ingredients that is used therapeutically.
It's an anti-inflammatory and things like that. It's actually caused...
The blue is caused during the process of distillation.
-Can you use it to make chamomile tea?
-No, not chamomile tea.
It has a bitter taste, this stuff, it's the wrong kind of chamomile.
Ken Goodyear's three quarters of an acre will produce just four litres of oil,
but if it's used for aromatherapy it could be worth up to £5,000.
Do you think it is going to be a success?
I hope so, yeah.
The farmers themselves will have control over the distillation part,
which is the value added part, which is the important aspect.
It's not often they can keep control of their product right to the shelf.
This area of North Norfolk has hundreds of small farms struggling to make a profit.
Many of them are run by tenants of the county council,
which is leading the project to develop aromatic crops.
Julian Hepburn is the council's land agent and he believes it's vital for the farmers to diversify.
The future for grain crops and sugar beet isn't very bright,
especially with Eastern Europe coming into the European Community,
and we've got to look to other crops to provide extra cash for sales.
But it's started on a very small scale, hasn't it?
Well, we've got to do our trials to make sure things are right,
to get our markets and everything else and make lots of mistakes,
which we hope we'll get right this year,
then we're going to progress it up to the millennium
where we hope we'll really get going and provide some real results.
Is it just going to be growing the stuff here or will you process it as well?
We will process it with our own distillation plants, perhaps two plants,
then go on and we may have an aromatherapy centre to attract tourism into the area.
And how much involvement will the growers have in the whole thing?
In the longer term a great deal of involvement.
We are going to set up a limited company were the farmers will be
directors and shareholders in the company because we want them to participate in the financial side,
because we think from the county council, that if you've got your own money in it,
something's going to be much more successful.
So, an old favourite flower could soon be bringing, dare I said, the sweet smell of success.
It's taken an awful lot of chamomile to produce this tiny amount of oil,
but I'm told it only takes two or three drops of it
to give you a really relaxing bath.
John Craven, as ever, immersed in his subject.
I'm back on Ken's farm to find out how the business is faring,
while helping plant out a new crop of chamomile.
It's been about 12 years then, since...
since we first visited you here.
-It was a brand new idea...
Oh, gosh! Look, I'm already getting behind.
-Are you keeping up with it?
-Yeah, here we go.
A lot's changed?
A lot's changed, yes.
We were diversifying into more crops for the oils.
Right. What other crops have you diversified into?
-I think yarrow was one of the ones we first tried.
We were also doing peppermint, melissa and hyssop.
-We've also tried clary sage and we've also now this year doing again hemp for essential oil production.
We're probably the only people in the UK doing hemp essential oil.
Apart from diversifying into other essential oil crops, have you expanded the farm?
Yes, the farm... The acreage into herbs has expanded
-along with the volume of material sold as well.
How has the farm changed in size, then?
I think about 12 years ago the farm was about 125, 150 acres
and we've been very lucky that we've been able to expand on that acreage.
We're farming just over 500 acres now.
-Although it's not all herbs.
I'd say about 10%, 15% is herbs and the rest is in the normal arable crops
of potatoes, wheat, onions and sugar beet, which is pretty traditional for this area.
So, you must be very proud when you look out on these fields and see how the farm's changed?
I think we are. There are moments when we tear our hair out
because there are difficulties with weed control
and keeping certain weeds out of the herbs, but it's still a bit of a challenge, but we're...
I think we change techniques every year and along comes something else,
we try a different technique and if it's successful we carry it through to the next year.
Have you noticed a change in the wildlife on the farm, as well?
Yes, I think because this particular... We grow two chamomiles on the farm.
One's an annual and is the chamomile people would know in chamomile tea,
then there's this one, the Roman chamomile and this is a perennial.
-So, what we're planting here today...
-Provided we can keep the weeds out it's probably in the ground for five or six years.
-So, there's not much interference with the soil, then?
But because it's in for five or six years,
there's good ground cover during the winter months for wildlife.
And we've noticed a great increase in, well, birds
-and the brown hare population on this farm has also increased.
-Has it really?
Yeah. Last year in fact, just across the way here,
-I actually saw five hares, five brown hares all boxing in a circle.
Now, I hadn't seen that since I was about 12 or 14 years old,
so that's due to the chamomile.
Do you feel proud when you look out onto the field
and see what you've achieved over the years?
Oh, yes. You sort of...
It gives you satisfaction when you see the plants growing, you think,
we put those in and it looks good and especially when they come to the distillery
to be harvested and put into...
-make into the oils.
-So, this I have to say, is very therapeutic.
I wouldn't mind spending my day doing this.
So, a really successful family story here?
Yeah, it's been a real family sort of operation.
A real success story there.
Ken, his family and his team completely transformed
the way they managed their land
to respond to new business opportunities.
My journey today through the watery world of the Fens has taken me
from Wicken Fen to Outwell
and across the agricultural land of Welney.
Now I've arrived at Burwell Lode in Upware.
This book is by the late, great Roger Deakin, the writer and famous environmentalist.
Back in 1996 he set out to swim across the British Isles.
He swam across aqueducts, moats, rivers, lochs, lakes, the ocean, swimming pools, spas.
You name it, he swam it.
And what's more, he also swam in the Fens and I'm feeling rather inspired.
Today the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of the UK are cleaner, safer and more accessible than
at any time in living memory and, thanks in no small part to the work
of Roger Deakin, people are starting to rediscover the thrill of what has become known as wild swimming.
OK. I don't really know how deep it is, so I'll do a nice shallow...
Well, I'll take it nice and slowly.
A bit chilly.
A bit gooey under foot.
OK, here we go.
There's actually something rather special about...
being so close to nature,
swimming in the Fens in one of these lodes.
I like to think that
hundreds of years ago small boys would have been swimming around these...
little rivers, enjoying themselves.
The legality behind the right to wild swim is a complex issue.
It's best to check with local people before taking the plunge in unknown waters.
They'll also know if the water's safe for swimming.
This is the same area where I was eel fishing the other day
and Roger Deakin writes in his book about swimming
in rivers teeming with eels and how as you stepped
through the mud you could feel them wriggling under your toes.
No sign of them today, though.
My tips for wild swimming, research your swimming spot, always go with a friend,
a film crew in my case, and take some warm, dry clothes and a hot drink.
It can be rather chilly when you get out!
but strangely enjoyable.
I think I'd like to do that again sometime.
Maybe on a warmer day, though!
Over the centuries, the Fens and lodes have been drained of water, particularly for agriculture.
In fact, since the 1600s, more than 99% of the Fens have been lost.
The definition of fen is low lying wetland.
East Anglia was once covered with such swamps, but in the 17th century
work began to drain them, creating some of the richest soil in the UK.
But now there are plans to bring the marshlands back to 20,000 acres of Cambridgeshire.
The biggest scheme is centred on Wicken Fen, which could expand from 1,600 acres to 10,000.
The old part of the fen is very much an island of conservation in a sea of arable
and as such it's vulnerable and we don't think very sustainable
and by expanding it and giving the reserve and wildlife much more room
it'll be more sustainable into the future.
And how are you going to flood this whole vast area of countryside?
It's not as difficult as you might think.
Hydrology in this area, or the water levels if you like, are governed by the Internal Drainage Board.
They pump water out and constantly pumping water out.
We feel that, if we can reduce that amount of drainage,
we can get the water in. The water is already there, we just won't remove quite as much of it.
So, if the National Trust plan comes off, over the next century
all the land in a straight line
between here and Cambridge, which is 17 miles away,
will be bought up and turned back into fenland,
but not all the local farmers are keen on the idea.
This is one of the farms that, in the long term, the National Trust would like to include in its plans.
John Robinson's family have lived and worked round here since the place was first drained.
So, John, what's your reaction then to this plan to flood the farmland, to bring the water back again?
Well, I think it's an absolute disaster.
If it was set aside, you could bring the land back into production
within a year or two, but if it's flooded
it'll take years to get back to the conditions it is now.
But I don't think it's part of the scenario ever to return the land to agriculture again.
They want wetlands here, they say.
That's what they say, but we don't accept that.
All of us have made a good living out of agriculture here for over 300 years
and I can't see why they should take this away from us.
Farmers like John who don't want the land to be flooded
say the scheme will have no benefits for local people.
I cannot understand why they need to expand any further
because it is really a museum of natural history.
We have no compulsory purchase.
The farmers don't have to sell us the land.
Now, it just so happens that in the five years since the project was conceived
we have had three landowners come to us to sell land to us.
It isn't a sprint this project, it's a marathon
and we're in no rush to make sure we get all the land in one go.
Opponents argue that such piecemeal purchases will bring a blight to the area
and they don't agree with the Trust that the soil is deteriorating,
they say crops are better than ever.
So who will be the winners as the water level rises?
I think the tourists might win.
I can't see where anybody who gets a living from the Fens will win.
-And what about wildlife?
-I can't see where they'll improve that much, to be honest with you.
We'll find a few more water birds because, obviously,
they like to dabble in the grass in the wintertime.
Of course, it'll bring people into the area and it will benefit tourism locally,
but as far as the benefits for wildlife, I would argue
that a hole in the ground filled with water has wildlife benefits.
What we're planning is something a great deal grander than that
and it'll be, I sincerely hope, a good deal better than just benefiting a few ducks.
Wicken Fen is not the only restoration happening in the fenlands.
The Great Fen Project is another high-profile scheme
aiming to reinstate this unique wetland habitat.
The idea of restoring the fenland habitat has grown in momentum
with some high profile supporters.
Stephen Fry is the president of the Great Fen Project
and as part of their campaign they recently held a concert in Cambridge to celebrate the natural world.
Ellie Harrison went to meet Stephen to find out just why he's so passionate about the Fens.
King's College Chapel in Cambridge is a beautiful setting
and there's a real buzz in the atmosphere this evening
because one of Europe's finest orchestras, the Britten Sinfonia,
is here to play works by Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten,
but tonight isn't just about music.
It's also about an ambitious project to transform rural land north of the city
and I'm about to meet the public face of that project, a certain Stephen Fry.
When did the idea for the music concert come about to connect with the Great Fen Project?
One of the natural things we always wanted to do was to show
that in the same way that a habitat is connected to people, animals,
food, business, the whole community in the 21st century,
it is also connected to other forms of human expression, including painting and music,
and there's a great tradition in Britain of landscape going together with poetry.
I mean, in a sense you may argue the great jewels of our poets were all poets of the countryside.
So, the idea of connecting it altogether seems a very natural one.
-And was it moving?
-It was. What I liked was it was dramatic and full of life and excitement.
The joke you might say is if you commissioned a piece about the Fens I suppose it'll be flat!
But in fact, when you go to the living fen, with the trees
and the extraordinary wildlife and the flowers and the sedge
and the reeds and things, you don't get a sense of flatness at all. You get an incredible sense of life.
It's an ongoing process to...
bring back the parts of the fenland, 9,000 acres of the fenland,
to what you might call pristine state, which you may be tempted to say, what, under water?
Famously of course the fenland was very, very wet and marshy and was drained in the 18th...
17th and 18th centuries and is now some of the most valuable farmland in the world, and that's a good thing.
We're not trying to say that all the farmland must be returned to wildlife,
but it's so beautiful and so little known how lovely the landscape is here.
How have farmers reacted? Reclaiming the Fens means it isn't suitable
for agriculture any more. Hasn't it been all right for farmers?
People have made the point, and it's a very good point to make.
We're not trying to take over the whole thing.
-There's 1% of original fenland left in Britain. 1%!
And we've got our little 9,000 acres, much of which can be farmed, actually.
So, it's not about either farming or just a lot of wildflowers and people
skipping around them saying, "Oh, isn't it lovely!" People have to eat.
Walking the Fens, it's not hard to see why Stephen Fry is so passionate about this special place.
The Great Fen Project is an example of what happens when very committed people become very organised.
And there are few people more committed and organised than the ladies of the Women's Institute.
That is more my style of cooking!
The WI has long been dismissed as cakes, jam and Jerusalem, but it has surprisingly radical roots.
A group linked with the suffragist movement which helped rural women
cope with everyday challenges, like cooking.
Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out!
# And did those feet in ancient... #
The WI's rousing anthem, sung to mark its commitment to
improving rural life, starting with sisterly support for those in need.
I don't know whether to hold it or just run away!
The WI is still thriving.
This used to be a pigsty,
but it's been converted into a new headquarters
for the Cambridge Federation and all generations use it.
Which may come as a surprise as the WI's often seen as an aging organisation
struggling for new members among working woman.
Today we'll meet three generations of WIers who say it's modern, but true to its heritage.
I think we're very fortunate at the beginning of the year to welcome fresh blood into the Institute
and I hope you'll find it enjoyable and not too full of business and rather uninteresting features.
When you came to an Institute meeting,
one of the early organisers said,
whether you were countess or the sweeper's wife,
when you came through the Institute door, you were on the same footing.
And one of the things which was important was that every meeting had
refreshments, either tea or coffee,
and there was a strict rota for making the tea and for serving it
and so you could be in a position
where the lady of the manor was actually making and serving tea to her parlour maid.
..Was stolen away on a fine summer's day.
By the '50s drama had become an important part of the WI,
giving women who'd never spoken in public a chance to perform.
This is one of the first productions I took part in.
We used to write our own pantomimes,
or one of the members would write the pantomime.
Again, we had a membership of about 100 here.
Yes, I would say about 100, and...
-So, where are you?
-I was only in the chorus.
-The back row of the chorus, there.
-Oh, nice tiara!
That's more what you'd expect from a WI photo -
lots of women and three very large cakes!
Yes, absolutely. Yes, and why not?
That was fun in those days, and those women in the village here
when we had an Institute of about 140, 150 members.
-Gosh, it was huge.
-It was huge.
In its heyday the WI had half a million members and launched a variety of high-profile campaigns
from improving rural housing to the drive to keep Britain tidy.
The WI still campaigns and still helps rural women cope,
offering friendship and courses, from fitness to baking, thank goodness!
Now, earlier on I was making a cake, admittedly in a rather inexpert way,
but it seemed a fitting thing to do for the WI
and it is something you still do, but now with a bit of a twist.
Yes, the cake that we have there is to depict
our hazardous chemicals campaign.
We have a toxic symbol on the top of it.
And we've been lobbying MEPs to vote stringently so that hazardous chemicals will be phased out
-and substitutes put where we have to have them.
-I want one of those.
For most, the WI is about making friends in the village.
That's true of the newest recruits I met over tea and cake.
What's been the reaction from your other friends when you say, I can't do that, I'm going to my WI meeting?
Family and friends?
Absolute derision, I have to say! It's been pretty...
Some serious ribbing. But, you know, I think there's a whole new movement
of people that just want to meet others in their community and you have to create the forum for that.
And within two months, we've now got speakers lined up
for the next 12 months
and if it had just been informal friends getting together
that wouldn't have happened.
The other thing I think though is that it appeals to a wide range of people. If we just started...
We're all young with kids, if we'd just started a normal group
it would be like a coffee morning.
The kids would all play and it would be very odd for us to be able
to knock on somebody older than us and say, come to our meeting.
It would have been a playgroup,
so having it under the WI means that across the community, people could come and join.
Leaving the ladies of the Women's Institute behind,
my journey has brought me to the banks of the River Cam.
My plan is to punt into Cambridge,
and Ed Woodhouse, a punt chauffeur, is going to be my mentor.
-Nice to meet you. How are you?
-Nice to meet you, Ben.
-This is mine, is it?
-This is all yours, yes.
-So, you're going to give me a lesson today?
-I am, yeah.
Do you want to jump over here?
OK. What, shall I just hop in over here?
Right in the middle, there.
Right, so where do we begin, then?
-First of all, what's this?
-This is a pole or a quant.
-And it's what powers the boat.
-And this is a punt and we are punting.
And punting is presumably most useful where there's shallow water.
Yeah, they're flat-bottomed boats.
They haven't got keels which is why they've been really popular
in the Fens because they're very shallow water,
so they're the perfect boat for this part of the world.
So, what do I need to know then to become a punter?
You need to know that this pole powers the boat.
I mean, it's the pole hitting the riverbed which powers this along.
-So, in order to punt, what you do is you pull the pole all the way out of the water.
You drop it to the bottom, let it run through your hands, push and then afterwards use the pole as a rudder.
-So, if I push out to the right the boast will go right.
If I push behind myself to the left the boat turns left.
That's it, really. Do you fancy a go?
-Absolutely. Do you need much stability back here?
These bigger boats are much easier.
Yeah, the smaller boats, like this one here,
you do need some balance, but these are pretty easy.
So, just pull this up, all the way up?
-Pull it all the way out, drop it to the bottom.
-Yeah. Like that?
-Open your hands and let it run through.
-Just let it tumble down.
-All the way to the end.
-We're moving to the right, so now I presumably...
-Push behind yourself. That's it, there we go!
-Clever, isn't it? It's a rudder as well as...
-Yeah, it's a multipurpose tool.
-Your engine, as such.
-Exactly. That's it. Yeah.
Right. So, again, bring this up.
-Drop that in the water like that. Oh, nearly, yeah.
And then presumably with bridges like this you... You have to...
You have to duck, I tragically don't have to duck, but there we go!
There we go. Before I lose my head.
Is this the speed we'd go at or would you be looking at a slightly faster speed?
I might go a little bit faster, but not much though.
You're doing really well. There are racing punts.
-Yeah, on the Thames, which go pretty fast, but these aren't built for speed.
They're more strawberries and champagne.
I like that.
-Where's our strawberries and champagne?
-I don't know, I was counting on you, Ben.
-If you trust me, have a seat and take it easy.
-That sounds fantastic.
And...I'll punt us along.
-You're doing really well, you know?
-I think you're just saying that.
No, no. A couple more hours you to give up on this TV lark and be a punt chauffeur!
Today, I've been on a journey through the East Anglian Fens.
I started walking on stilts at Wicken Fen,
hunted for eels at Outwell, visited a farm at Welney
and swam wild in the creek at Upware.
I'm finishing my travels punting into Cambridge
with Ed Woodhouse as my guide.
-And what's that bridge I can see now on the other side?
-That's called the Mathematical Bridge.
-That's the one rumoured to have been designed by Isaac Newton.
-Rumoured? You mean it wasn't?
No. He died about 30 years before it was even conceived of.
-I doubt he had anything to do with it.
-But it's still a beautiful iconic bridge.
No, it's very, very famous. That is the oldest building on the river.
-It's called the President's Lodge.
It's part of Queen's College. This is all Queen's College round here. And so it dates from about 1460.
-There or thereabouts.
Very lovely. Yeah, this part over here is where the boss of
Queens's lives, which is kind of a perk of the job, isn't it, really?
To live somewhere like that. But, yeah, it's a lovely old thing.
So, obviously punting is absolutely integral to Cambridge, isn't it?
Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?
But, I mean, pleasure punting has only been around for just over 100 years.
It first appeared in about 1904 and it... Obviously it's been sort of booming ever since.
Now, there's a lot more punts on the river than there ever have been.
For pleasure. Were the ever used for a genuine...
-Yeah, they were.
-..Mode of transport or for moving products?
Both. And out in the Fens they were used a lot to go out and do your fishing and shooting from.
But there's all sorts of places you can punt in England, as well.
Is there a great rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford punters?
There's a huge argument about whether or not... Because you're punting from the Cambridge end at the moment.
This is Cambridge style. You're standing on the deck of the boat.
-So, if I was doing Oxford punting, where would I be?
-You'd be at the other end.
That's the original way of punting. Annoyingly, Oxford have got the authentic method.
-You're admitting that, as well!
I know, it's disgraceful! I'll be driven out of town.
Yeah, originally they didn't have seats here.
The seats were up at this end in front of us and the idea was you walked the punt,
so you'd start at that end and get a really good head of steam up,
a big push, walk all the way down and turn around and do it again
and then slowly, people started to put more seats in so it was more comfortable
and the Oxford people ended up staying at that end
and for some reason Cambridge people have always punted here.
It's a bit of a mystery why they ended up... It's probably just to be different more than anything else.
You don't want to ape your enemy, do you?
So, Cambridge people have always,
since it was recorded that people punted in Cambridge, punted from this end.
SHOUTING AND JEERING
-Look who it is with that.
Poser, they're calling me?
-It seems a bit unfair, doesn't it?
-That's mean, isn't it?
They're all just enjoying it, I'm doing the hard work here!
-That seems very unfair.
-I'm glad I made someone's day, Ed.
Presumably, it's done all over the world?
Absolutely. It's an idea that would occur to you or me,
-quite quickly if we were in shallow water...
-And we needed to power a boat, you'd think of a long stick, wouldn't you?
-Nearly lost it, nearly lost it!
-It's lovely and peaceful again now.
-We've got past all the hordes.
-So, how do you think I've done?
-You've done really well, you know?
Very good. You had to weave through all those obstacles and stuff. Very good. Well done.
How do you fancy taking over again while I have a little rest?
There you go, Ed, all yours. I won't complain about you taking over.
Well, I began this journey in the wilds of the East Anglian Fens
and I'm ending it here in the beautiful historic centre of Cambridge
with Ed punting me down the River Cam just as people would have done 100 years ago.
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