These are the most beautiful days, chilly sunshine, frosty grass, blue skies, and gorgeous sunsets. Walpole and I have been visiting some friends in the Fens, now there’s the place to experience the most stunning sunsets. It is said you can still see the sun after it has gone down in this part of the country, it being so far below sea level and so incredibly flat. Wicken Fen is one of my favourite parts of the East of England; inhabited by Konik ponies and roe deer, it is the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve and home to more than 8,500 species of wildlife.
The history of the Fens is fascinating, and still so very tangible. One passes roads and tracks called First Cut or Second Drove, all names hailing back to the draining of the land in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. Before they were drained the Fens were fields of dark water, with habitable islands poking out of the murky mist. Inhabited by water-people; eel catchers, husbandmen, duck shooters, who travelled in punts and used
phenomenally large punt guns to fell their prey. A quiet people, they kept themselves to themselves, adding a layer of mystery to the area. Fen people adapted their style of life easily to the marshland upon which they lived. Fen Tigers used stilts to propel themselves across the boggy ground, leading to tales of tall terrifying monsters inhabiting the murky fields. Mists rose regularly as on moorland, losing your way was easily done. One 18th Century Captain of the Peterborough Volunteer Corps, Matthew Wyldbore, told the story of how he lost his bearings in the marshlands, and was only able to retrace his steps home by following the sound of the bells of St John’s Church in the town’s marketplace.
Another famous Fen figure is St Guthlac of Croyland. Guthlac chose to live the life of a hermit at the age of 26 after fighting in the army of Æthelred of Mercia and subsequently becoming a monk. He lived in a barrow on the island of Croyland and suffered, quite horribly from ague and marsh fever. Famous for his holy and pious life he became a source of spiritual guidance to many. He gave sanctuary to a fleeing Æthelbald, future king of Mercia, and Guthlac predicted his rise to the throne. Æthelbald promised to build him an abbey if his prophecy came true, and upon his ascension Æthelbald commissioned the construction of Crowland Abbey in memoriam to Guthlac, who had died two years previously. Crowland Abbey is well worth a visit; although some of the original nave has been destroyed a large part of the original structure remains and is a breathtaking sight.
The towns of the Fens have some wonderful offerings. The fen bordering town of Oundle boasts three treasures nearby; Elton Hall is a grand building with an eclectic mix of styles ranging from the 15th Century tower and chapel on the South Front to the Victorian revival of a mid-18th Century style Marble Hall and main staircase, designed by Henry Ashton. Southwick Hall comprising architecture from the 14th, 16th, 18th and 19th centuries boasts a crypt and a gothic room and a courtyard dominated by a circular turret which dates from part of the medieval house built about 1300. Finally the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Fotheringhay is an awe inspiring addition to the landscape, the distinctive tower dominates the skyline and can be seen from afar, towering majestically over the village and river. Godmanchester is home to the mid 18th Century mansion Island Hall, another treasure in the crown of the flatlands, featuring formal gardens and an ornamental island. Further towards the Wash and the mouth of the River Nene, Wisbech is home to both the childhood home of Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust and also the grand Peckover House, a beautiful Georgian merchant’s townhouse. Peckover House which stands proudly on the bank of the river Nene, was lived in by the Quaker Peckover family for over 150 years and is open over three floors, also boasting two acres of outstanding gardens.
Eastwards again the Fens stretch beautifully into Norfolk bringing us to Oxburgh Hall in Kings Lynn, a moated manor house built in the 15th Century and proudly displaying needlework by Mary Queen of Scots. Houghton Hall, one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in England, was built by Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and offers something for all the family from a model soldier museum, to a contemporary sculpture park and five acre garden. Castle Rising Castle is one of the finest and best preserved mid-12th Century Keeps in England, surrounded by an incredible 20 acres of earthworks, this was a favourite with Walpole! Rising is a castle of national importance with a fascinating history; it has been a hunting lodge, royal residence and even once housed a mental patient. This fabulous history is clear to see as soon as you enter the keep. The final stop on our journey is Holkham Hall, a wonderful Palladian House on the North Norfolk coast. The hall commands incredible views and boasts ownership of possibly the best beach in the country. The state rooms at Holkham are some my favourite, the house is lived in by the Coke family and retains a lovely family feel despite the gorgeous grandeur. A real must-see!
I love the East of England, and I do hope you will too!
Don’t forget to tweet me your pictures @HudsonsHeritage