The path may be flat but there are plenty of high points for walkers, from riverside villages and pubs to abundant wildlife, fascinating history and landscape – and that huge epic sky
Bleak, desolate and exceedingly flat: like most people, this was my passing impression of the East Anglian Fens. So I wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn as I follow the winding river Cam. Water-lilies sprout shiny wet balls of yellow flowers, pollarded willows creak in the breeze, and cattle graze in dinky water meadows. This bucolic scene isn’t even that flat: beyond the riverbank is a gentle rise, where villages are sensibly situated. Only their names – Horningsea, Waterbeach – betray that this green land was a vast inland estuary until we turned it into a fertile place that grows most of our vegetables.
I’m walking the Fen Rivers Way, a footpath tracing the banks of the Cam and river Great Ouse for 50 miles from Cambridge to the ancient Hanseatic port of King’s Lynn. This is the Waterland of Graham Swift’s novel, a strange, arresting landscape of black soil, huge skies and endless fields, many of which are below sea level – and sinking. Once 2,500 square miles of impenetrable reedbed and marsh where Iceni rebels could hide from the Romans, this wilderness was conquered by a Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermudyen, who built the first sluice and began draining and reclaiming the marshes in 1651.