Thursday, November 24, 2016

Holme Fen - autumn colour & sunset lake

Silver birch trees stand among red ferns at Holme Fen nature reserve

I have recently been rather taken with a quiet patch of woodland named Holme Fen, and have visited it several times. It’s a very atmospheric place which, based on my sojourns, attracts very little in the way of visitors. This is surprising as this 660 acre plot contains, among other things, the largest, and some say the finest, silver birch woodland in lowland Britain, an impressive cornucopia of fungi, around 500 species, and at 9 foot below sea level, the lowest point in the UK.

It has also been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Nature Conservation Review Site, plus, it is home to a variety of birdlife. But I’m sure there are times when I’ve been there and I had the place entirely to myself.

Natural England nature reserve at Holme Fen in the autumn
I originally visited to see if I could find any autumn colours, thankfully I could.

If I had visited several centuries ago, which would have been impressive to say the least, I would have found the largest lake in England south of the Lake District, namely Whittlesea Mere, which was home to wildlife found nowhere else. Some of these species, including the large copper butterfly, became extinct when the mere was drained to create farmland in the 1850s.

Cambridgeshire nature reserve of Holme Fen in the autumn season
The jumble of silver birches, that in some places, stretch as far as the eye can see, lends the woodland a
slightly surreal ambience.

Boasting a diameter of three miles across, the mere was vast. In the summer, sailing regattas were held, in winter, ice skating races. People travelled from London to sail on the mere, and some skated there all the way from Cambridge and Ely. It was both a livelihood for local people and a tourist destination.

Seventeenth century travel writer Celia Fiennes described it as: "a great water…which looked like some sea it being so high and of a great length…when you enter the mouth of the mere it looks formidable"

The area now is a monotonous patchwork of identical looking fields, and it’s nigh on impossible to imagine how it would have looked in those days.

Silver birch trees behind red autumn colours at Holme Fen in Cambridgeshire
In autumn, the flaming vibrancy of the dead ferns complement the colours of the glamorously draped trees.

Once the area had been drained, the southwestern shore of the Mere was still too wet for farming, and this became Holme Fen, it is one of the only fragments left in the country of ancient, wild fen. I can certainly attest to its previous damp nature, walking through the woodland is like ambulating across a firm sponge, the peat gives slightly with every step, which actually makes it a very comfortable surface to walk on.

Myths arose that the local Fenmen had webbed feet – in reality they used stilts, punts and ice skates to make their way across the watery Fens.

Silver birches at Holme Fen, the largest collection in the UK
Such are the shades of colour on display, it almost looks like a painting.

But on the plus side, all this drainage did allow the striking stands of silver birch to develop and become the impressive sight that they are. The towering, pearly trunks can first be glimpsed from a choppy, rugged drove road that traverses the site, and which provides several car parking spots for visitors.

Holme Fen autumn colours at the Natural England nature reserve
A showy display of hues across the floor of the woodland.

Driving along the old road, the remote atmosphere of the place begins to reveal itself, as already everywhere else seems a long way away. I stopped opposite the cast iron columns (believed to have been part of the Crystal Palace) of Holme Posts, which mark Britain’s lowest point. In 1852 the older of the two posts was rammed into the peat until its top was flush with the ground. Today it stands 13 feet tall, a measure of how far the dried-out land has shrunk around it.

Holme fen the largest collection of silvver birch trees in the uk
Looking up to the tangerine canopy of these towering birches.

The English Fens once stretched from Cambridge to North Yorkshire. It was roughly the size of three quarters of a million football pitches. The Fens were a truly wild place, a vast wetland of swamps, reed beds, meandering rivers and damp forests. Beavers and boars hunted amongst its marshes. Eels, freshwater fish, rare frogs, insects, butterflies and plants all thrived in the lush forests and lagoons. In fact eels were so common they were used as local currency.

Magnificent silver birch woodland at Holme Fen in the Cambridgeshire Fens
One of the many pathways that meanders through the colourful groves, and where you're quite unlikely to
meet anyone coming the other way.

Between 1750 and 1850 a population explosion almost tripled the number of people in Britain. Food was scarce, many faced starvation. The Fens were identified as unproductive land which could be improved, and put under the plough. A large-scale plan of land reclamation was put in place to drain the Fens for agriculture. Dykes and water channels were dug and windpumps erected to drain and pump the water off the land, towards the North Sea at the Wash. 

But these ‘improvements’ weren’t without consequence. As the water levels in the ground dropped, so the light peaty Fenland soils dried out. Trees and hedges were grubbed out for large-scale mechanised farming and so in dry spells, when the winds blew across the unbroken fields, the soil was literally blown away. All this resulted in a loss of more than 99% of the habitat, with many rare species of plants and animals completely disappearing from the Fens, and in the cases of some endemic species, from the planet.

Natural England nature reserve at Holme Fen with country lane at sunset
Looking along one of the old drove roads as the sun begins to set. To the left of the road, and unseen
below the vegetation is Holme Fen Engine Drain, one of the many channels cut into the landscape to take
water away from this area.

After all that effort, it was not until the introduction of efficient land drains in the 1960s that the whole of Holme Fen could be said to be completely drained successfully. Less than 50 years later though, thanks to our relatively recent dedication to preservation, this has now been reversed, and Holme Fen is in the process of being flooded once again as part of the Great Fen project. 

Clouds form at sunset at Holme Fen and are reflected in the water
Looking over a small section of Burnham's Mere as evening began to take shape, and with it, I hoped a decent
sunset. The lakes that bookend the site are man made, and were the result of peat cutting in the early 20th
century, and then more recently the area being re-flooded.

Beautiful red clouds drift over Holme Fen nature reserve at sunset
A different aspect of Burnham's Mere and the sunset was in full swing. Unfortunately I couldn't get into a
position to exclude the reeds lining the bank, so I had to include them.

Lake ringed by trees in autumn under a fiery sunset sky at Holme Fen
A similar shot as above, but the breeze had died down and the surface of the lake was a lot calmer. The
reflection of the clouds looks like some boiling, fiery cauldron. 

Natural England nature reserve at Holme Fen under a fiery sunset sky
A final shot as the clouds dispersed and caught the last of the evening light.

I shall be posting more shots of this atmospheric place from my subsequent visits soon.

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