Fenland Country Tracks


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Today I'm on a journey across the watery world

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of the East Anglian Fens, beginning here on Wicken Fen

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and ending up in the ancient university city of Cambridge.

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From Wicken Fen I'll travel to Outwell, then on to Welney.

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We'll hear from Stephen Fry about his passion for the area.

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Then I'll take a plunge into a creek near Upware.

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Finally, I'll end my journey punting on the River Cam in Cambridge.

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Along the way I'll be looking back at some of the best

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of the BBC's rural programmes from this part of the country.

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This is Country Tracks.

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You may be wondering what these sticks are I'm carrying.

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These are in fact stilts and it's what ancient communities

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from this part of the world used to get around this watery landscape.

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Chris Soans manages this fen for the National Trust.

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-Hi, Chris.

-Hi, Ben.

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-How are you?

-Not too bad.

-So...

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So this is basically a traditional pair of stilts?

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I've got images of whole communities being out wearing these with whole families.

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Would they really have worn them?

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Yeah. In the winter the Fens flooded and it was a few inches deep

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in water and so if you wanted to get from A to B

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you would get very wet. Obviously they had no Wellingtons.

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They had very simple leather footwear, so these were the only way of keeping dry.

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I'm going to attempt to walk across the Fens in these.

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-Good luck.

-Have you worn them before?

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I've given it a try, but it's... It's a skill!

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Putting them on here is quite a good idea.

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Yeah, if you sit on the edge there.

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And then, presumably...

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-So the foot goes on there.

-Yeah, they need to be quite tight.

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What about their communities? How would they build those on the water?

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There are pockets of higher ground.

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Where the clay came out of the peat there was higher ground,

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so they would build their small, basic settlements on the clay in the high ground

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and then they would use the low-lying fen around them

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for their food and other materials they needed.

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The Fens are much drier now that they've been drained for agriculture,

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so they're not as wet as they would be, so it's not so much of an issue.

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-How do you think that looks?

-I think they're fairly tight.

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You'll also need a staff.

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This is sort of the third that gives you a tripod and without this you'll go flat on your face.

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-So are you ready?

-Well, as ready as I'll ever be!

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-OK.

-There we go.

-Right.

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Keep putting that in front of you as you go and then walk slowly.

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-Do you think I can walk through all this?

-Give it a go.

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Leg's slightly apart, that's it. There you are, a natural!

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There we go.

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Well, I don't know that natural comes to mind, but...

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Apart from just navigating through the Fens like this, would they have...

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Would they have been doing things at the same time?

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Amazingly, apparently when they were doing some of the peat digging

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when they dug the peat for fuel

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and they were in standing water,

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they could actually dig the peat out wearing stilts.

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With a spade in front of them? With a very long handle, I imagine.

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It was called a becket, a traditional spade, but they said they could do that.

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It's a skill that came through years of practice.

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-I'm making some progress.

-You're doing very well.

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I don't think it looks very gainly, does it?

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It might take you some time to get to Cambridge.

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I could be out here for quite a long time!

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This is a rather clumsy interpretation of what it must have been like

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negotiating this watery landscape in years gone by.

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In more recent times, as the seasons changed and the waters froze,

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these flooded plains became a winter playground.

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Ice skating has been a feature of the Fens for hundreds of years.

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When the flooded winter wetlands froze they became giant ice rinks

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and fenlanders flocked from miles around to take to the ice,

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and in the 1800s the ice skating championship of the Fens was born.

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Earlier this year I took part in an ice skating marathon in Sweden

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and, not wanting my wife here to feel left out,

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I invited Marina to join me. You enjoyed it, didn't you?

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I did. Especially beating you!

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Yes. And that's why I've invited Marina here to the home of ice-skating in the UK, Welney.

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Skaters traditionally gather at the Lamb And Flag pub in Welney

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before heading to the frozen lakes.

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Chairman of the Welney And District Skating Club Melton Morris is going to give us the low down.

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And am I right in thinking that here was the birth of ice-skating in the UK?

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We can't be sure, but we'd like to think it is.

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This was the place that most people looked to skate in the '30s

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when there was any frost because it was the safest place to skate.

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But they were also skating as far back as the 1800s.

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-Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes.

-And was it a big pastime sport at that...?

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Not being here at the time, but I would...

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-I would assume it was!

-So we've got here a selection of Melton's ice skates through the decades, have we?

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These are the ones that I fen-skated on right until I was 16.

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The reason I skated on those was because we couldn't get anything else

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and it wasn't until my father found me a pair of this type, of Hagan's...

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What period is this from? When did these date?

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These were in the early '30s.

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-Oh, really? So, these are pre-war?

-Oh, yes. Yes.

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They look quite sophisticated.

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-Well, they are.

-Were they the envy of all your friends?

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To own a pair of Hagan's was... You had the bee's knees.

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-You were very proud of them?

-Oh, yes.

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And then moving on, presumably...

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-Where are the slightly more contemporary ones?

-These.

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So when was the last time that you donned a pair of these?

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Well, my grandson skated on those last ten years ago.

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-And how did he fare in these?

-He won the Fen Championship.

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-Did he?

-Yes, he did, on those.

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It's been several years since the Fens froze

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to allow skaters on to the ice, but they haven't rested on their blades.

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A few miles up the road is Melton's farm.

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He built an asphalt track 12 years ago so that he could skate throughout the year.

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Now it's a hub for the fenland skaters keen to practice in the absence of frozen lakes,

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and having brought my wife all this way we thought we'd give it a go.

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-How are you feeling? Excited?

-Nervous, seeing how good they are!

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I know! A bit different to the ice.

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-Malcolm!

-Hiya.

-I'm Ben.

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-Hiya.

-This is Marina, my wife.

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-Yeah.

-OK. So we're going to have a go on the track here.

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-OK, which are the smaller ones?

-These ones are the smaller ones.

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They're for you, Marina.

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-These are presumably mine?

-I hope so.

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Looking at these, the first thing I am particularly aware of is there's no brake

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that I know that most rollerblades have.

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With us, we all go the same way around the track.

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And we're purely interested in the speed side of stuff, not stopping.

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Just for speed, OK. How are you planning on stopping, Marina?

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Well, there's a grassy bank over there, it goes slightly uphill,

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and a bush at the end if things get really bad, so...

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It's slightly daunting seeing all these guys going zooming past.

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And children, that's the worst! Can't we get rid of them?

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And apart from the bush that we've both got our eye on at the back,

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how should we go about stopping?

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What we do is what we call a duck walk which is where you turn your foot slightly to the side.

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And then you just put a bit of weight on.

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Oh, I'm off, I'm off!

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You want to be going this way!

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-Push slightly to the side.

-Yeah.

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And then let the other foot go forward.

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So how are you getting on, then?

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Not too badly. Actually, I think Marina is doing slightly better than I am.

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-I think the best way to really find out would be have a race, wouldn't it?

-A race?

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Sounds good to me.

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How far is this race going to be?

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Well, I've had my tuition and now it's time to race!

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And I mean business.

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What do you think my chances are of even finishing vaguely at the same time as you guys?

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-None.

-None! I don't know if I'm going to dispute that.

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Marina, how are you set?

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-I've been practising, so I'm confident.

-Do you think you're going to beat me?

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-Yeah, definitely. Prepare to die!

-Ready, steady, go!

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And right from the beginning, despite my advantage start,

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I slip towards the back at an early stage of the race.

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Malcolm forged an early lead, while Melton's great grandsons Joseph and Harry streaked past me.

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Even Marina left me virtually standing!

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But through the skaters' generosity, Marina and I were able

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to cross the finish line in first place.

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I tell you what, where's...

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Where's Harry and...

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Harry and Joseph?

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I think I did have a little bit of help there winning.

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What do you think, boys? Did you wait for me?

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-Yeah.

-Yeah, you did! There you go,

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but it's boys like this who are going to keep this tradition alive.

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I spent a lot of my childhood racing around the Fens,

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but in those days it was for fishing rather than rollerblading.

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I've left the cumbersome stilts behind and I'm continuing my journey

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hoping to learn more about this watery world.

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-Have the Fens changed a lot over the years?

-Yes.

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Traditionally they were a very wild, wet landscape.

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They have been gradually drained by man for agriculture.

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Now, we're on a lode now, so a lode is an artificial canal.

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How does that differ from the rest of the fen?

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Traditionally there would have been natural waterways

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throughout the Fens and as part of the drainage process, man-made waterways,

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lodes were dug, all by hand,

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which seems quite incredible now when you look at the scale of this. It was dug manually.

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-And are there lakes as well out in the fen?

-Yes.

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We call lakes "meres",

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and that's a particularly low-lying area

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where a lake could sit and that's what we call a mere.

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And this must be a real haven for wildlife around here.

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Wicken Fen has got more species recorded on it than any other site in England,

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over 8,000 species now, and a lot of those are small insects, invertebrates,

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butterflies, dragonflies, but a wide variety of birds as well.

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So how big is Wicken Fen?

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Wicken Fen now is just under 2,000 acres in size and it's quite an interesting history

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to why Wicken remains one of the last few remaining fragments of undrained fen in the Great Fen basin.

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Charles Darwin and the Cambridge academics, those early naturalists,

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were coming out from Cambridge and avidly collecting here

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and they realised that if they didn't step in, then their hunting grounds would be gone.

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In 1896, Sir Hubert Gough recommended to the National Trust

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in one of the National Trust's first meetings that they should purchase Wicken Fen.

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Happily, four years later the National Trust bought the first two acres for just £10.

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So environmental conservation was going on in the 1800s, really?

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We could almost say this was one of the very first birthplaces of that movement,

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the recognition that unless people stepped in to do something they could lose these valuable habitats.

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The Fens is an area rich in wildlife, not least of the feathered variety.

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Huge flocks of birds travel thousands of miles to the Fens each year. Among them are swans.

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In winter the resident population of mute swans are joined

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by their migrating cousins, creating a spectacular annual event

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that can be enjoyed both day and night.

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Well, that's quite a sight, isn't it? A field full of swans!

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-Absolutely fantastic.

-How many do you reckon there are?

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Probably about 600 or 700 out there at the moment.

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What sort?

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-Whoopers?

-Yeah, mostly whoopers, looking at them now.

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There are a few Bewicks mixed in there but, yeah, it's mostly whooper swans.

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And they come here to feed, do they?

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Yeah, they come out from the washes during the daytime,

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they feed out on the fields and they're feeding on sugar beet tops here,

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which is generally their favourite food during the daytime.

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The beet's been harvested and it's just the top left?

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Yeah, the beets have all been lifted and the machine mulches up the tops

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and lays it on the top of the field, like you can see out there at moment, and the swans absolutely love it.

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Good carbohydrates.

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Yeah, yeah. Really, really high in carbohydrates, the beet tops,

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and that's what the swans need most.

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And do the farmers mind whole flocks of swans descending on their fields?

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When it's just the beet tops like this, no, the farmers are quite OK with it,

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but you can get some problems

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when the swans go and feed out on the winter wheat, things like that.

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They have great big feet.

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They paddle across the wet mud and they can trample the winter wheat,

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so it can be a bit of crop damage there, unfortunately, yeah.

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And is this a typical daily pattern for the birds,

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that they will take off in the early morning,

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land in the fields, feed, and then go back at night?

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Yeah, that's pretty much what they do.

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They're on the reserve during the evening time,

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roosting on the water is a safe place,

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and then daytimes, they're out on the field, out on the sugar beet tops

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and harvested potatoes and also the winter wheat,

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and that's where they spend their days

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and then they come back again in the evenings.

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And it's in the evenings that birdwatchers young and old come to Welney from all over the nation

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to witness one of the best wildlife displays of the year.

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Swans gathering in their thousands under the floodlights of the observatory for a free handout.

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So a free supper before bedtime and the perfect habitat.

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No wonder that every winter, this vast lagoon is turned into Swan Lake.

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From the beauty of Wicken Fen,

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I'm travelling on to Well Creek, near Outwell.

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I'm walking along Well Creek, one of the many waterways that criss-cross this whole area.

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I'm here to meet Peter Carter.

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He's a willow maker, a mole catcher and an eel trapper.

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As a child I used to come eel fishing here,

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but with numbers dwindling, things certainly aren't like they used to be.

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-Hi there.

-Hello.

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You must be Peter. I'm Ben.

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-Nice to meet you.

-So am I OK to step aboard?

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Yeah, by all means.

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So we're looking for some eel traps, are we, Peter?

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We are. Known as eel hives.

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How long have you been doing this?

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Most of my life, to be honest. Old family trade.

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The family have been doing it, well, we know over 200 years,

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but they've been on the fen 500, so the chances are they've always done it.

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-So for 500 years they've been catching eels along here?

-Or trying!

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So they're obviously really significant to the local area.

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Oh, yes. Yeah, eels were the fen's gold.

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All the old churches and chapels and villages

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had to pay all their rates in eels at one time.

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Ely Cathedral was built,

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the stonework was paid for in eels.

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So, I'm assuming then that a river like this was absolutely teeming with eels.

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Oh, yeah. Even when we were kids, you could see them pouring up the rivers, but you don't see that now.

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So, how many people in this area still do what you do and catch eels?

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I'm the last in this part.

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-I can see... There, that's the first one.

-Where, over here somewhere?

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There it is, in front of you. The willow stick.

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-Which one? I can't even see...

-Ah, see, that's the secret.

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-Ah, the crossed willows. I do see that now.

-There we go.

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-So, there's a pot somewhere on the end of this, is there?

-Yeah.

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-Here it comes.

-Oh, wow! Look at that!

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-Handmade, obviously.

-Oh, yeah. Made the same way, the family way.

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Is there anything in it?

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-No, nothing in there.

-No eels.

-No.

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So, is this made of willow?

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It is willow, yeah. Split willow

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and it's the same style of trap they've made for thousands of years.

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-They haven't changed it.

-So, how does it work? Do you bait it?

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-Yeah, we put bait in this end.

-And what do you use?

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-Roadkill, worms. Something smelly really is the best bait.

-Um-hm.

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One of the old favourites used to be an old dead cat because nothing stinks like an old dead cat.

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And what they say is, if you put it in the garden and bury it,

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when the neighbours start moaning you know it's ripe enough to use it.

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-For eels.

-Yeah.

-Then the eels go into the trap and can't get out

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because the hole's too small in the end?

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Yeah, you've got a "chair" in there, it's an old fenland word.

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They have a fantastic migration route, don't they?

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They start off in the Sargasso Sea and they're like a little flat fish

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when they start off. It takes...

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It's 4,000 miles to get here and they follow the sea currents

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and they come up round the Wash and come into the fen.

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They'll live here up to 20, 30 years and while they're here they grow,

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but they're not sexed until they head back.

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So, it's not until they head back they become sexed.

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-Really?

-Yeah.

-So they're neither male nor female?

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No. And they reckon most of the ones coming off the Fens seemed to be male.

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On the other side of the country, they're mostly females, so it must be something to do with the food.

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And then they turn and head back.

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And it takes six years to get back

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and they literally eat their own stomachs,

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they don't feed for the whole trip.

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-They lay their eggs and then die.

-What an extraordinary creature.

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It's a fantastic creature, really.

0:19:060:19:08

So, if we go back to the sort of '80s or something, would this have been absolutely brimming?

0:19:080:19:14

Oh, you could have a dozen eels in one of these in the 80s, easy.

0:19:140:19:18

Even more so, you know? But we don't see that at all now.

0:19:180:19:22

As I say, some days we don't get anything.

0:19:220:19:24

-That's how sad it's getting.

-So, the trap goes back in...

0:19:240:19:27

-Yeah.

-For another day.

0:19:270:19:29

There's no definitive reason for why eel numbers have plummeted,

0:19:340:19:38

but research suggests a combination of overfishing, water pollution

0:19:380:19:43

and the construction of dams and weirs on rivers is behind the decline.

0:19:430:19:47

The traditional methods of eel catching, like the eels themselves, are in danger of disappearing.

0:19:470:19:53

Fortunately, the human spirit is nothing if not adaptable.

0:19:530:19:57

The farming industry has had to flex with economic and social trends

0:19:570:20:01

and the fenland farmers are no different.

0:20:010:20:05

At first glance, this looks like a field

0:20:130:20:16

of dog daisies, but it's Britain's latest and perhaps

0:20:160:20:20

sweetest smelling crop.

0:20:200:20:22

It is in fact chamomile.

0:20:220:20:24

As garden plant, chamomile has been around for centuries.

0:20:250:20:29

Renowned for its soothing and healing properties, it was a favourite in medieval herb gardens.

0:20:290:20:35

In more recent times, the writer Mary Wesley brought its new fame

0:20:350:20:38

in the title of her bestseller The Chamomile Lawn.

0:20:380:20:41

But here it's being grown for its oil.

0:20:410:20:44

In this part of Norfolk it might soon be replacing the traditional fields of wheat.

0:20:450:20:50

So, what do you make of this crop then, Ken?

0:20:500:20:54

Well, it's... It's very...

0:20:540:20:56

It smells very nice and we get a pretty good ground cover, but it's certainly different!

0:20:560:21:01

-You've only got, what, three quarters of an acre this year?

-Yeah.

0:21:010:21:05

Do you plan to expand?

0:21:050:21:06

Oh, yes. If we get the right oil content in this chamomile,

0:21:060:21:09

yes, we shall increase our acreage.

0:21:090:21:12

-Is it doing well so far?

-Yes, we're told by the experts

0:21:120:21:16

that we've got a very high oil content in the flower heads.

0:21:160:21:19

The flower heads are rather large and we're quite hopeful.

0:21:190:21:22

This first harvest of chamomile could be crucial.

0:21:220:21:26

Ken has joined a consortium of small farmers in Norfolk

0:21:260:21:29

looking to new alternative crops to keep them in business.

0:21:290:21:33

They're being helped by special funding from Brussels and the Ministry Of Agriculture

0:21:330:21:38

under a scheme designed to strengthen the local economy while protecting the environment.

0:21:380:21:42

On a small corner of his 98 acres Ken is also experimenting with other aromatic plants,

0:21:420:21:49

such as yarrow, which is widely used in herbal medicine.

0:21:490:21:52

He's even trying out angelica, whose stems are crystallised and used in cake making.

0:21:520:21:58

What do your friends in the pub think when they hear about this aromatic crop?

0:21:580:22:02

We've had a few leg pulls and a few jokes about how beautiful we smell

0:22:020:22:06

and how we should be at ease with ourselves,

0:22:060:22:09

but I think, all in all, there's a little bit of interest now,

0:22:090:22:13

especially with cereal prices which are at quite a low now.

0:22:130:22:17

In this shed is the prototype chamomile distillery.

0:22:180:22:22

The plants go into the top there and then steam is used to vaporise the oil from the plants.

0:22:220:22:28

Everything goes through this condenser,

0:22:280:22:30

then out the bottom there we get water with the oil floating on top.

0:22:300:22:35

Mick Gahagan, this is your project, isn't it?

0:22:350:22:37

An awful lot of chamomile is needed for just a bit of oil, isn't it?

0:22:370:22:40

It certainly is, yes. But that's part of the charm of this crop,

0:22:400:22:45

that a whole crop can be reduced down into a small bottle

0:22:450:22:48

and be stored away until you want to actually sell it.

0:22:480:22:51

It's better than growing tomatoes where you have to sell them there and then.

0:22:510:22:55

-It's a beautiful colour. I wouldn't have expected it to be blue somehow.

-That's right.

0:22:550:23:00

That's the chamazulene in the oil,

0:23:000:23:02

which is one of the main ingredients that is used therapeutically.

0:23:020:23:07

It's an anti-inflammatory and things like that. It's actually caused...

0:23:070:23:14

The blue is caused during the process of distillation.

0:23:140:23:16

-Can you use it to make chamomile tea?

-No, not chamomile tea.

0:23:160:23:20

It has a bitter taste, this stuff, it's the wrong kind of chamomile.

0:23:200:23:24

Ken Goodyear's three quarters of an acre will produce just four litres of oil,

0:23:240:23:29

but if it's used for aromatherapy it could be worth up to £5,000.

0:23:290:23:34

Do you think it is going to be a success?

0:23:340:23:36

I hope so, yeah.

0:23:360:23:37

The farmers themselves will have control over the distillation part,

0:23:370:23:41

which is the value added part, which is the important aspect.

0:23:410:23:45

It's not often they can keep control of their product right to the shelf.

0:23:450:23:50

This area of North Norfolk has hundreds of small farms struggling to make a profit.

0:23:500:23:55

Many of them are run by tenants of the county council,

0:23:550:23:58

which is leading the project to develop aromatic crops.

0:23:580:24:02

Julian Hepburn is the council's land agent and he believes it's vital for the farmers to diversify.

0:24:020:24:07

The future for grain crops and sugar beet isn't very bright,

0:24:070:24:11

especially with Eastern Europe coming into the European Community,

0:24:110:24:15

and we've got to look to other crops to provide extra cash for sales.

0:24:150:24:18

But it's started on a very small scale, hasn't it?

0:24:180:24:21

Well, we've got to do our trials to make sure things are right,

0:24:210:24:24

to get our markets and everything else and make lots of mistakes,

0:24:240:24:27

which we hope we'll get right this year,

0:24:270:24:30

then we're going to progress it up to the millennium

0:24:300:24:33

where we hope we'll really get going and provide some real results.

0:24:330:24:37

Is it just going to be growing the stuff here or will you process it as well?

0:24:370:24:41

We will process it with our own distillation plants, perhaps two plants,

0:24:410:24:45

then go on and we may have an aromatherapy centre to attract tourism into the area.

0:24:450:24:51

And how much involvement will the growers have in the whole thing?

0:24:510:24:55

In the longer term a great deal of involvement.

0:24:550:24:57

We are going to set up a limited company were the farmers will be

0:24:570:25:01

directors and shareholders in the company because we want them to participate in the financial side,

0:25:010:25:06

because we think from the county council, that if you've got your own money in it,

0:25:060:25:10

something's going to be much more successful.

0:25:100:25:12

So, an old favourite flower could soon be bringing, dare I said, the sweet smell of success.

0:25:120:25:19

It's taken an awful lot of chamomile to produce this tiny amount of oil,

0:25:190:25:24

but I'm told it only takes two or three drops of it

0:25:240:25:27

to give you a really relaxing bath.

0:25:270:25:32

Mmm!

0:25:320:25:34

John Craven, as ever, immersed in his subject.

0:25:340:25:38

I'm back on Ken's farm to find out how the business is faring,

0:25:380:25:42

while helping plant out a new crop of chamomile.

0:25:420:25:46

It's been about 12 years then, since...

0:25:470:25:49

since we first visited you here.

0:25:490:25:51

-Yes.

-It was a brand new idea...

0:25:510:25:53

Oh, gosh! Look, I'm already getting behind.

0:25:530:25:56

-Are you keeping up with it?

-Yeah, here we go.

0:25:560:26:00

A lot's changed?

0:26:000:26:01

A lot's changed, yes.

0:26:010:26:03

We were diversifying into more crops for the oils.

0:26:030:26:06

Right. What other crops have you diversified into?

0:26:060:26:09

-I think yarrow was one of the ones we first tried.

-Yeah.

0:26:090:26:13

We were also doing peppermint, melissa and hyssop.

0:26:130:26:17

-We've also tried clary sage and we've also now this year doing again hemp for essential oil production.

-Right.

0:26:170:26:23

We're probably the only people in the UK doing hemp essential oil.

0:26:230:26:27

Apart from diversifying into other essential oil crops, have you expanded the farm?

0:26:270:26:32

Yes, the farm... The acreage into herbs has expanded

0:26:320:26:36

-along with the volume of material sold as well.

-Yeah.

0:26:360:26:40

How has the farm changed in size, then?

0:26:400:26:43

I think about 12 years ago the farm was about 125, 150 acres

0:26:430:26:49

and we've been very lucky that we've been able to expand on that acreage.

0:26:490:26:53

We're farming just over 500 acres now.

0:26:530:26:56

-Wow!

-Although it's not all herbs.

-Yeah.

0:26:560:26:59

I'd say about 10%, 15% is herbs and the rest is in the normal arable crops

0:26:590:27:06

of potatoes, wheat, onions and sugar beet, which is pretty traditional for this area.

0:27:060:27:11

So, you must be very proud when you look out on these fields and see how the farm's changed?

0:27:110:27:16

I think we are. There are moments when we tear our hair out

0:27:160:27:19

because there are difficulties with weed control

0:27:190:27:22

and keeping certain weeds out of the herbs, but it's still a bit of a challenge, but we're...

0:27:220:27:27

I think we change techniques every year and along comes something else,

0:27:270:27:30

we try a different technique and if it's successful we carry it through to the next year.

0:27:300:27:35

Have you noticed a change in the wildlife on the farm, as well?

0:27:350:27:38

Yes, I think because this particular... We grow two chamomiles on the farm.

0:27:380:27:42

One's an annual and is the chamomile people would know in chamomile tea,

0:27:420:27:47

then there's this one, the Roman chamomile and this is a perennial.

0:27:470:27:51

-Right.

-So, what we're planting here today...

0:27:510:27:53

-Yeah.

-Provided we can keep the weeds out it's probably in the ground for five or six years.

0:27:530:27:58

-So, there's not much interference with the soil, then?

-No.

0:27:580:28:00

But because it's in for five or six years,

0:28:000:28:03

there's good ground cover during the winter months for wildlife.

0:28:030:28:06

And we've noticed a great increase in, well, birds

0:28:060:28:09

-and the brown hare population on this farm has also increased.

-Has it really?

0:28:090:28:14

Yeah. Last year in fact, just across the way here,

0:28:140:28:17

-I actually saw five hares, five brown hares all boxing in a circle.

-Really?

0:28:170:28:23

Now, I hadn't seen that since I was about 12 or 14 years old,

0:28:230:28:27

so that's due to the chamomile.

0:28:270:28:29

Do you feel proud when you look out onto the field

0:28:410:28:44

and see what you've achieved over the years?

0:28:440:28:46

Oh, yes. You sort of...

0:28:460:28:48

It gives you satisfaction when you see the plants growing, you think,

0:28:480:28:53

we put those in and it looks good and especially when they come to the distillery

0:28:530:28:57

to be harvested and put into...

0:28:570:28:59

-make into the oils.

-So, this I have to say, is very therapeutic.

0:28:590:29:04

I wouldn't mind spending my day doing this.

0:29:040:29:07

So, a really successful family story here?

0:29:130:29:15

Yeah, it's been a real family sort of operation.

0:29:150:29:18

A real success story there.

0:29:260:29:28

Ken, his family and his team completely transformed

0:29:280:29:32

the way they managed their land

0:29:320:29:35

to respond to new business opportunities.

0:29:350:29:38

My journey today through the watery world of the Fens has taken me

0:29:400:29:44

from Wicken Fen to Outwell

0:29:440:29:46

and across the agricultural land of Welney.

0:29:460:29:49

Now I've arrived at Burwell Lode in Upware.

0:29:490:29:52

This book is by the late, great Roger Deakin, the writer and famous environmentalist.

0:30:270:30:32

Back in 1996 he set out to swim across the British Isles.

0:30:320:30:37

He swam across aqueducts, moats, rivers, lochs, lakes, the ocean, swimming pools, spas.

0:30:370:30:44

You name it, he swam it.

0:30:440:30:46

And what's more, he also swam in the Fens and I'm feeling rather inspired.

0:30:460:30:51

Today the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of the UK are cleaner, safer and more accessible than

0:30:560:31:03

at any time in living memory and, thanks in no small part to the work

0:31:030:31:07

of Roger Deakin, people are starting to rediscover the thrill of what has become known as wild swimming.

0:31:070:31:15

OK. I don't really know how deep it is, so I'll do a nice shallow...

0:31:230:31:27

Well, I'll take it nice and slowly.

0:31:270:31:30

A bit chilly.

0:31:300:31:33

A bit gooey under foot.

0:31:330:31:36

OK, here we go.

0:31:360:31:37

There's actually something rather special about...

0:31:580:32:01

being so close to nature,

0:32:010:32:04

swimming in the Fens in one of these lodes.

0:32:040:32:09

I like to think that

0:32:090:32:11

hundreds of years ago small boys would have been swimming around these...

0:32:110:32:16

little rivers, enjoying themselves.

0:32:160:32:19

The legality behind the right to wild swim is a complex issue.

0:32:290:32:34

It's best to check with local people before taking the plunge in unknown waters.

0:32:340:32:38

They'll also know if the water's safe for swimming.

0:32:380:32:41

This is the same area where I was eel fishing the other day

0:32:430:32:48

and Roger Deakin writes in his book about swimming

0:32:480:32:52

in rivers teeming with eels and how as you stepped

0:32:520:32:56

through the mud you could feel them wriggling under your toes.

0:32:560:33:01

No sign of them today, though.

0:33:010:33:03

My tips for wild swimming, research your swimming spot, always go with a friend,

0:33:110:33:17

a film crew in my case, and take some warm, dry clothes and a hot drink.

0:33:170:33:22

It can be rather chilly when you get out!

0:33:220:33:24

That was...

0:33:290:33:31

bracing...

0:33:310:33:33

but strangely enjoyable.

0:33:330:33:36

I think I'd like to do that again sometime.

0:33:360:33:39

Maybe on a warmer day, though!

0:33:390:33:41

Over the centuries, the Fens and lodes have been drained of water, particularly for agriculture.

0:33:500:33:57

In fact, since the 1600s, more than 99% of the Fens have been lost.

0:33:570:34:03

The definition of fen is low lying wetland.

0:34:100:34:14

East Anglia was once covered with such swamps, but in the 17th century

0:34:140:34:19

work began to drain them, creating some of the richest soil in the UK.

0:34:190:34:23

But now there are plans to bring the marshlands back to 20,000 acres of Cambridgeshire.

0:34:230:34:30

The biggest scheme is centred on Wicken Fen, which could expand from 1,600 acres to 10,000.

0:34:300:34:36

The old part of the fen is very much an island of conservation in a sea of arable

0:34:360:34:41

and as such it's vulnerable and we don't think very sustainable

0:34:410:34:44

and by expanding it and giving the reserve and wildlife much more room

0:34:440:34:48

it'll be more sustainable into the future.

0:34:480:34:51

And how are you going to flood this whole vast area of countryside?

0:34:510:34:55

It's not as difficult as you might think.

0:34:550:34:57

Hydrology in this area, or the water levels if you like, are governed by the Internal Drainage Board.

0:34:570:35:02

They pump water out and constantly pumping water out.

0:35:020:35:06

We feel that, if we can reduce that amount of drainage,

0:35:060:35:09

we can get the water in. The water is already there, we just won't remove quite as much of it.

0:35:090:35:14

So, if the National Trust plan comes off, over the next century

0:35:140:35:18

all the land in a straight line

0:35:180:35:21

between here and Cambridge, which is 17 miles away,

0:35:210:35:24

will be bought up and turned back into fenland,

0:35:240:35:27

but not all the local farmers are keen on the idea.

0:35:270:35:29

This is one of the farms that, in the long term, the National Trust would like to include in its plans.

0:35:290:35:35

John Robinson's family have lived and worked round here since the place was first drained.

0:35:350:35:39

So, John, what's your reaction then to this plan to flood the farmland, to bring the water back again?

0:35:390:35:45

Well, I think it's an absolute disaster.

0:35:450:35:47

If it was set aside, you could bring the land back into production

0:35:470:35:51

within a year or two, but if it's flooded

0:35:510:35:54

it'll take years to get back to the conditions it is now.

0:35:540:35:56

But I don't think it's part of the scenario ever to return the land to agriculture again.

0:35:560:36:01

They want wetlands here, they say.

0:36:010:36:03

That's what they say, but we don't accept that.

0:36:030:36:05

All of us have made a good living out of agriculture here for over 300 years

0:36:050:36:10

and I can't see why they should take this away from us.

0:36:100:36:14

Farmers like John who don't want the land to be flooded

0:36:140:36:17

say the scheme will have no benefits for local people.

0:36:170:36:21

I cannot understand why they need to expand any further

0:36:210:36:26

because it is really a museum of natural history.

0:36:260:36:30

We have no compulsory purchase.

0:36:300:36:32

The farmers don't have to sell us the land.

0:36:320:36:34

Now, it just so happens that in the five years since the project was conceived

0:36:340:36:39

we have had three landowners come to us to sell land to us.

0:36:390:36:41

It isn't a sprint this project, it's a marathon

0:36:410:36:44

and we're in no rush to make sure we get all the land in one go.

0:36:440:36:47

Opponents argue that such piecemeal purchases will bring a blight to the area

0:36:470:36:51

and they don't agree with the Trust that the soil is deteriorating,

0:36:510:36:55

they say crops are better than ever.

0:36:550:36:58

So who will be the winners as the water level rises?

0:36:580:37:01

I think the tourists might win.

0:37:010:37:03

I can't see where anybody who gets a living from the Fens will win.

0:37:030:37:08

-And what about wildlife?

-I can't see where they'll improve that much, to be honest with you.

0:37:080:37:13

We'll find a few more water birds because, obviously,

0:37:130:37:16

they like to dabble in the grass in the wintertime.

0:37:160:37:20

Of course, it'll bring people into the area and it will benefit tourism locally,

0:37:200:37:24

but as far as the benefits for wildlife, I would argue

0:37:240:37:27

that a hole in the ground filled with water has wildlife benefits.

0:37:270:37:30

What we're planning is something a great deal grander than that

0:37:300:37:34

and it'll be, I sincerely hope, a good deal better than just benefiting a few ducks.

0:37:340:37:40

Wicken Fen is not the only restoration happening in the fenlands.

0:37:400:37:44

The Great Fen Project is another high-profile scheme

0:37:440:37:47

aiming to reinstate this unique wetland habitat.

0:37:470:37:51

The idea of restoring the fenland habitat has grown in momentum

0:37:520:37:56

with some high profile supporters.

0:37:560:37:59

Stephen Fry is the president of the Great Fen Project

0:37:590:38:02

and as part of their campaign they recently held a concert in Cambridge to celebrate the natural world.

0:38:020:38:09

Ellie Harrison went to meet Stephen to find out just why he's so passionate about the Fens.

0:38:090:38:15

King's College Chapel in Cambridge is a beautiful setting

0:38:260:38:29

and there's a real buzz in the atmosphere this evening

0:38:290:38:32

because one of Europe's finest orchestras, the Britten Sinfonia,

0:38:320:38:36

is here to play works by Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten,

0:38:360:38:40

but tonight isn't just about music.

0:38:400:38:42

It's also about an ambitious project to transform rural land north of the city

0:38:420:38:47

and I'm about to meet the public face of that project, a certain Stephen Fry.

0:38:470:38:52

When did the idea for the music concert come about to connect with the Great Fen Project?

0:38:560:39:02

One of the natural things we always wanted to do was to show

0:39:020:39:05

that in the same way that a habitat is connected to people, animals,

0:39:050:39:09

food, business, the whole community in the 21st century,

0:39:090:39:13

it is also connected to other forms of human expression, including painting and music,

0:39:130:39:19

and there's a great tradition in Britain of landscape going together with poetry.

0:39:190:39:24

I mean, in a sense you may argue the great jewels of our poets were all poets of the countryside.

0:39:240:39:29

So, the idea of connecting it altogether seems a very natural one.

0:39:290:39:33

-And was it moving?

-It was. What I liked was it was dramatic and full of life and excitement.

0:39:330:39:38

The joke you might say is if you commissioned a piece about the Fens I suppose it'll be flat!

0:39:380:39:44

But in fact, when you go to the living fen, with the trees

0:39:440:39:48

and the extraordinary wildlife and the flowers and the sedge

0:39:480:39:52

and the reeds and things, you don't get a sense of flatness at all. You get an incredible sense of life.

0:39:520:39:57

It's an ongoing process to...

0:40:010:40:03

bring back the parts of the fenland, 9,000 acres of the fenland,

0:40:030:40:07

to what you might call pristine state, which you may be tempted to say, what, under water?

0:40:070:40:12

Famously of course the fenland was very, very wet and marshy and was drained in the 18th...

0:40:120:40:17

17th and 18th centuries and is now some of the most valuable farmland in the world, and that's a good thing.

0:40:170:40:22

We're not trying to say that all the farmland must be returned to wildlife,

0:40:220:40:27

but it's so beautiful and so little known how lovely the landscape is here.

0:40:270:40:32

How have farmers reacted? Reclaiming the Fens means it isn't suitable

0:40:320:40:36

for agriculture any more. Hasn't it been all right for farmers?

0:40:360:40:39

People have made the point, and it's a very good point to make.

0:40:390:40:42

We're not trying to take over the whole thing.

0:40:420:40:44

-No.

-There's 1% of original fenland left in Britain. 1%!

0:40:440:40:49

And we've got our little 9,000 acres, much of which can be farmed, actually.

0:40:490:40:54

So, it's not about either farming or just a lot of wildflowers and people

0:40:540:40:58

skipping around them saying, "Oh, isn't it lovely!" People have to eat.

0:40:580:41:02

Walking the Fens, it's not hard to see why Stephen Fry is so passionate about this special place.

0:41:070:41:14

The Great Fen Project is an example of what happens when very committed people become very organised.

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And there are few people more committed and organised than the ladies of the Women's Institute.

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That is more my style of cooking!

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The WI has long been dismissed as cakes, jam and Jerusalem, but it has surprisingly radical roots.

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A group linked with the suffragist movement which helped rural women

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cope with everyday challenges, like cooking.

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Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out!

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# And did those feet in ancient... #

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The WI's rousing anthem, sung to mark its commitment to

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improving rural life, starting with sisterly support for those in need.

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I don't know whether to hold it or just run away!

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The WI is still thriving.

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This used to be a pigsty,

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but it's been converted into a new headquarters

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for the Cambridge Federation and all generations use it.

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Which may come as a surprise as the WI's often seen as an aging organisation

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struggling for new members among working woman.

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Today we'll meet three generations of WIers who say it's modern, but true to its heritage.

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I think we're very fortunate at the beginning of the year to welcome fresh blood into the Institute

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and I hope you'll find it enjoyable and not too full of business and rather uninteresting features.

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When you came to an Institute meeting,

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one of the early organisers said,

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whether you were countess or the sweeper's wife,

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when you came through the Institute door, you were on the same footing.

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And one of the things which was important was that every meeting had

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refreshments, either tea or coffee,

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and there was a strict rota for making the tea and for serving it

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and so you could be in a position

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where the lady of the manor was actually making and serving tea to her parlour maid.

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..Was stolen away on a fine summer's day.

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By the '50s drama had become an important part of the WI,

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giving women who'd never spoken in public a chance to perform.

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This is one of the first productions I took part in.

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We used to write our own pantomimes,

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or one of the members would write the pantomime.

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Again, we had a membership of about 100 here.

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Yes, I would say about 100, and...

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-So, where are you?

-I was only in the chorus.

-Oh, right.

0:43:380:43:42

-The back row of the chorus, there.

-Oh, nice tiara!

-Yes.

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That's more what you'd expect from a WI photo -

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lots of women and three very large cakes!

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Yes, absolutely. Yes, and why not?

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That was fun in those days, and those women in the village here

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when we had an Institute of about 140, 150 members.

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-Gosh, it was huge.

-It was huge.

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In its heyday the WI had half a million members and launched a variety of high-profile campaigns

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from improving rural housing to the drive to keep Britain tidy.

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The WI still campaigns and still helps rural women cope,

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offering friendship and courses, from fitness to baking, thank goodness!

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Now, earlier on I was making a cake, admittedly in a rather inexpert way,

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but it seemed a fitting thing to do for the WI

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and it is something you still do, but now with a bit of a twist.

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Yes, the cake that we have there is to depict

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our hazardous chemicals campaign.

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We have a toxic symbol on the top of it.

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And we've been lobbying MEPs to vote stringently so that hazardous chemicals will be phased out

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-and substitutes put where we have to have them.

-I want one of those.

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For most, the WI is about making friends in the village.

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That's true of the newest recruits I met over tea and cake.

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What's been the reaction from your other friends when you say, I can't do that, I'm going to my WI meeting?

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Family and friends?

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Absolute derision, I have to say! It's been pretty...

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Some serious ribbing. But, you know, I think there's a whole new movement

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of people that just want to meet others in their community and you have to create the forum for that.

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And within two months, we've now got speakers lined up

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for the next 12 months

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and if it had just been informal friends getting together

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that wouldn't have happened.

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The other thing I think though is that it appeals to a wide range of people. If we just started...

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We're all young with kids, if we'd just started a normal group

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it would be like a coffee morning.

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The kids would all play and it would be very odd for us to be able

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to knock on somebody older than us and say, come to our meeting.

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It would have been a playgroup,

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so having it under the WI means that across the community, people could come and join.

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Leaving the ladies of the Women's Institute behind,

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my journey has brought me to the banks of the River Cam.

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My plan is to punt into Cambridge,

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and Ed Woodhouse, a punt chauffeur, is going to be my mentor.

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-Hello.

-Nice to meet you. How are you?

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-Nice to meet you, Ben.

-This is mine, is it?

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-This is all yours, yes.

-Perfect.

0:46:170:46:18

-So, you're going to give me a lesson today?

-I am, yeah.

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Do you want to jump over here?

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Perfect.

0:46:240:46:27

OK. What, shall I just hop in over here?

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Right in the middle, there.

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Right, so where do we begin, then?

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-First of all, what's this?

-This is a pole or a quant.

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-OK.

-And it's what powers the boat.

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-Right.

-And this is a punt and we are punting.

-Right.

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And punting is presumably most useful where there's shallow water.

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Yeah, they're flat-bottomed boats.

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They haven't got keels which is why they've been really popular

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in the Fens because they're very shallow water,

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so they're the perfect boat for this part of the world.

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So, what do I need to know then to become a punter?

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You need to know that this pole powers the boat.

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I mean, it's the pole hitting the riverbed which powers this along.

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-So, in order to punt, what you do is you pull the pole all the way out of the water.

-Yeah.

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You drop it to the bottom, let it run through your hands, push and then afterwards use the pole as a rudder.

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-Right.

-So, if I push out to the right the boast will go right.

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If I push behind myself to the left the boat turns left.

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That's it, really. Do you fancy a go?

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-Absolutely. Do you need much stability back here?

-No, no.

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These bigger boats are much easier.

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Yeah, the smaller boats, like this one here,

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you do need some balance, but these are pretty easy.

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So, just pull this up, all the way up?

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-Pull it all the way out, drop it to the bottom.

-Yeah. Like that?

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-Open your hands and let it run through.

-Just let it tumble down.

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-Then push...

-All the way to the end.

-We're moving to the right, so now I presumably...

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-Push behind yourself. That's it, there we go!

-Clever, isn't it? It's a rudder as well as...

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-Yeah, it's a multipurpose tool.

-Your engine, as such.

-Exactly. That's it. Yeah.

0:48:000:48:05

Right. So, again, bring this up.

0:48:050:48:07

-Yep.

-Drop that in the water like that. Oh, nearly, yeah.

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And then presumably with bridges like this you... You have to...

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You have to duck, I tragically don't have to duck, but there we go!

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There we go. Before I lose my head.

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Is this the speed we'd go at or would you be looking at a slightly faster speed?

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I might go a little bit faster, but not much though.

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You're doing really well. There are racing punts.

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-Are there?

-Yeah, on the Thames, which go pretty fast, but these aren't built for speed.

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They're more strawberries and champagne.

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I like that.

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-Where's our strawberries and champagne?

-I don't know, I was counting on you, Ben.

0:48:420:48:47

-If you trust me, have a seat and take it easy.

-That sounds fantastic.

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And...I'll punt us along.

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-You're doing really well, you know?

-I think you're just saying that.

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No, no. A couple more hours you to give up on this TV lark and be a punt chauffeur!

0:49:010:49:07

Today, I've been on a journey through the East Anglian Fens.

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I started walking on stilts at Wicken Fen,

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hunted for eels at Outwell, visited a farm at Welney

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and swam wild in the creek at Upware.

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I'm finishing my travels punting into Cambridge

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with Ed Woodhouse as my guide.

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-And what's that bridge I can see now on the other side?

-That's called the Mathematical Bridge.

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-That's the one rumoured to have been designed by Isaac Newton.

-Rumoured? You mean it wasn't?

0:49:410:49:45

No. He died about 30 years before it was even conceived of.

0:49:450:49:49

-I doubt he had anything to do with it.

-But it's still a beautiful iconic bridge.

-Yeah.

0:49:490:49:53

No, it's very, very famous. That is the oldest building on the river.

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-Right.

-It's called the President's Lodge.

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It's part of Queen's College. This is all Queen's College round here. And so it dates from about 1460.

0:49:590:50:04

-Right.

-There or thereabouts.

0:50:040:50:06

Very lovely. Yeah, this part over here is where the boss of

0:50:060:50:09

Queens's lives, which is kind of a perk of the job, isn't it, really?

0:50:090:50:12

To live somewhere like that. But, yeah, it's a lovely old thing.

0:50:120:50:15

So, obviously punting is absolutely integral to Cambridge, isn't it?

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Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?

0:50:190:50:20

But, I mean, pleasure punting has only been around for just over 100 years.

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It first appeared in about 1904 and it... Obviously it's been sort of booming ever since.

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Now, there's a lot more punts on the river than there ever have been.

0:50:300:50:34

For pleasure. Were the ever used for a genuine...

0:50:340:50:36

-Yeah, they were.

-..Mode of transport or for moving products?

0:50:360:50:39

Both. And out in the Fens they were used a lot to go out and do your fishing and shooting from.

0:50:390:50:44

But there's all sorts of places you can punt in England, as well.

0:50:440:50:49

Is there a great rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford punters?

0:50:490:50:52

There's a huge argument about whether or not... Because you're punting from the Cambridge end at the moment.

0:50:520:50:57

This is Cambridge style. You're standing on the deck of the boat.

0:50:570:51:00

-So, if I was doing Oxford punting, where would I be?

-You'd be at the other end.

-OK.

0:51:000:51:04

That's the original way of punting. Annoyingly, Oxford have got the authentic method.

0:51:040:51:10

-You're admitting that, as well!

-On camera!

0:51:100:51:12

I know, it's disgraceful! I'll be driven out of town.

0:51:120:51:15

Yeah, originally they didn't have seats here.

0:51:150:51:17

The seats were up at this end in front of us and the idea was you walked the punt,

0:51:170:51:21

so you'd start at that end and get a really good head of steam up,

0:51:210:51:24

a big push, walk all the way down and turn around and do it again

0:51:240:51:28

and then slowly, people started to put more seats in so it was more comfortable

0:51:280:51:32

and the Oxford people ended up staying at that end

0:51:320:51:34

and for some reason Cambridge people have always punted here.

0:51:340:51:37

It's a bit of a mystery why they ended up... It's probably just to be different more than anything else.

0:51:370:51:42

You don't want to ape your enemy, do you?

0:51:420:51:44

So, Cambridge people have always,

0:51:440:51:46

since it was recorded that people punted in Cambridge, punted from this end.

0:51:460:51:49

SHOUTING AND JEERING

0:51:530:51:56

-Look who it is with that.

-Poser!

0:51:560:52:00

Poser!

0:52:000:52:02

Poser, they're calling me?

0:52:020:52:05

-It seems a bit unfair, doesn't it?

-That's mean, isn't it?

0:52:050:52:08

They're all just enjoying it, I'm doing the hard work here!

0:52:080:52:11

-That seems very unfair.

-I'm glad I made someone's day, Ed.

0:52:110:52:15

Presumably, it's done all over the world?

0:52:200:52:22

Absolutely. It's an idea that would occur to you or me,

0:52:220:52:25

-quite quickly if we were in shallow water...

-Yeah.

0:52:250:52:28

-And we needed to power a boat, you'd think of a long stick, wouldn't you?

-Nearly lost it, nearly lost it!

0:52:280:52:33

-It's lovely and peaceful again now.

-Absolutely.

0:52:360:52:39

-We've got past all the hordes.

-Yeah, exactly.

0:52:390:52:42

-So, how do you think I've done?

-You've done really well, you know?

0:52:450:52:50

Very good. You had to weave through all those obstacles and stuff. Very good. Well done.

0:52:500:52:54

How do you fancy taking over again while I have a little rest?

0:52:540:52:58

There you go, Ed, all yours. I won't complain about you taking over.

0:52:580:53:01

Well, I began this journey in the wilds of the East Anglian Fens

0:53:250:53:30

and I'm ending it here in the beautiful historic centre of Cambridge

0:53:300:53:34

with Ed punting me down the River Cam just as people would have done 100 years ago.

0:53:340:53:39

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