Ruminations on the Wicken Fen Workshop


By Peter Coates

Saturday afternoon field trips

Workshop organiser Paul Warde and our National Trust partners arranged two outdoor excursions as part of the Wicken Fen meeting: a walk and a bike ride. I was one of those who chose to stroll through the landscape rather whiz across it. Our guide was Carol Laidlaw, who looks after the grazing animals that have been introduced to the fen – some highland cattle and a breeding herd of Konik polski horses. The herd of highland cattle is based on stock transplanted in 2005 from an organic farm on the island of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland. Some of them were visible from the window of the room in which we gathered for our discussions at Wicken, providing a visual destination for the wandering eye (not that the talks were dull!). The Konik polski is a primitive and hardy breed of small horse originating in Eastern Europe, which has a long history of successful adaptation to wetland habitats in lowland areas – unlike native British breeds such as the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies, which are habituated to the moors of upland environments. Wicken’s initial population of konik ponies (what’s the difference between a small horse and a pony?) arrived in 2001, from wetland conservation grazing schemes in Holland and Norfolk (Hickling Broad). But their numbers have been supplement by horses born at Wicken.

The destination for the walkers was the newly acquired area of farmland where these horses hang out in family groups known as harems and are a crucial instrument of the land management regime.  These small horses/ponies –  are an ‘echo’ of the kind of wild horses that would have been living in Britain’s fenlands before early humans wiped out large wild herbivore species such as these. This patch of very ordinary looking land where they graze has been acquired as part of the Wicken Fen Vision, a century-long project, launched in 1999, to expand the fen  into a ‘landscape-scale’ nature reserve.  When it’s complete, Wicken will be one thousand percent bigger than its current size – and stretch all the way down to the burgeoning university city of Cambridge. At 53 square kilometres, this will be the largest reserve of its kind in lowland Europe. Cambridge is a boom town for which nearly 50,000 new houses are planned with supporting facilities, so an expanded Wicken Fen will provide badly needed additional space in a county where publicly accessible open space is much lower than in many other parts of England (this one of the reasons that I live in the West Country!).

The horses have beige coats, in fact they reminded me of the colour of field mice. They live outside year-round and are allowed to roam freely – in fact, they are completely free range. Yet the area that they currently favour is little more than rough pasture, which the National Trust has no current plants to re-hydrate. The plan is to wait and see what happens when the dynamism of natural processes is given free reign (pardon the pun). How, for example, will the horse dung that enriches the soil affect the process of vegetational succession? Nobody knows – and that’s the exciting thing about the Fen Vision.

You may think this next thought, which is inspired by horse manure, is no more than horseshit, but I’ll include it anyhow. The most memorable thing that I learned during the entire weekend (no disrespect to our speakers intended) – from Carol Laidlaw – is that the highest points of elevation at Wicken, apart from the observational towers and windmill, that is, are piles of horse manure. These are the result of the competitive dunging engaged in by rival males jostling for supremacy within their horse harem. Someone, I think it was Paul Warde, likened this to petty academic rivalries, where an unfavourable review of a colleague’s work may trigger a comparable response to your own. If you crap on my book, then I’ll crap on yours. Socio-biology is alive and kicking.

Looking ahead to the Quantocks

What I find intriguing about any workshop or conference is what we chose to tell the folks back home on our return. Of all our stimulating encounters, out of all the conversations, of all the papers we listen to, of all the places we see and do, what is it that we talk about first on returning to our home environment? The sublime scones that the National Trust staff baked for us at Wicken Fen were certainly memorable. But what made an even stronger impression on me, if that’s possible, were the horse dung, about which I’ve already said enough, and a couple of seventeenth-century pictures that Petra Van Dam brought to our attention in her talk on ‘The End of the Amphibians’: how societies learned to live with watery environment over the

Boat house at Wicken Fen (Photo: Petra van Dam)

centuries and then forgot how to do so more recently. Petra’s images that caught by eye and imagination showed a peculiar Dutch institution known as the refuge church. Sited on the highest available ground, these refuge churches (some of which, like the one at Edam [1622], was specifically built to be big enough for this purpose) provided sanctuary during times of flood not just for people but for their cattle as well. Petra showed some wonderful paintings of cattle grazing on bales of hay, high and dry. That livestock were welcome in a church rather than a sacrilegious presence was a delightful thought. This reinforced my sense of just how diverse local cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions can be; there are no refuge churches in Cambridgeshire.

After all, we’d been lulled into a sense of the similarities between Waterlands on different sides of the North Sea by the windmill at Wicken that formed the irresistible backdrop to our group photo (and which is reproduced on this website). As a result of her participation in the workshop, Petra had also been struck for the first time by another building design shared between her native Waterland and the Cambridgeshire fens.  Another image that illustrated her Saturday morning talk showed a sixteenth-century Dutch boathouse, near the Rhine. Like the craft that it housed, the boathouse was long and narrow. And right there next to the visitor centre at Wicken was an East Anglian boathouse identical in shape and also thatched with reed. Petra got quite excited about this and I imagine that she’s going to show a picture of her boathouse’s East Anglian sibling when she next gives a presentation on Amphibious Culture. The workshop bristled with connections of this sort – which served as yet another illustration that a comparative approach to history teases out similarities and differences perhaps in equal measure.

We had a strong suspicion that the local and the global enjoy a fertile relationship. And the appropriateness of our approach to this Research Network was confirmed by the various sessions. Bill Adams, a Cambridge University geographer who was one of our guest participants, roamed between the Cambridgeshire fens and the challenges facing today’s nature conservationists in Africa. Petra Van Dam focused on Holland but ended up in Thailand and derived her conceptual framework from Greg Bankoff’s studies of cultures of disaster and cultures of risk, which were initially formulated with reference to the Philippines. The sub-title of her paper was spot on: ‘a case study about wetlands from the Netherlands with global aspirations’. And when Ian Rotherham quoted the gloriously evocative phrase ‘great dismal swamp’ in his coverage of negative appraisals of the value of English fenlands, as an Americanist, I immediately thought of how this phrase was exported to North America and attached to the wetland that lies across the coastal borderlands of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

The various outside participants that Paul involved in the workshop slotted in beautifully. One of the questions we invited the Roundtable panellists to consider was whether we were living in an era of unprecedented environmental change. The artist, Carry  Ackroyd, who is based near Oundle (also in Cambridgeshire), gave us further food for thought in her talk that followed the Roundtable. She spoke about John Clare and his response to the world that was being turned upside down in his neck of the woods (excuse the environmentally inappropriate metaphor) in the first half of the nineteenth century. Clare thought that the enclosure movement which was fragmenting and privatizing his native grounds in Northamptonshire was a once in a lifetime environmental upheaval. But then, while he was still reeling, along came another agent of environmental change with a profound impact: the railway. This is what we’d now call a double whammy. (For the young and those with short memories, double whammy is an American phrase derived from boxing that was widely used by the Conservative Party in its election campaign of 1992. Posters referred to  how the electorate would be hit by the Labour Party’s ‘Double Whammy’: more taxes and higher prices.)

One last thought: In conversation with Paul, he wondered how we were going to insert our experience of and responses to place into the collection of essays that we are planning to produce as a Network Output. How does immersion in particular places like Wicken Fen shape our thinking about environmental change? Re-working papers delivered at a workshop or conference into essays suitable for publication is a routine task with which we are all familiar. But how do we capture what we might call Environment Moments? How can we incorporate conversations such as the one I had with our National Trust expert on horses, about earthy subjects like dung? We know that some of the best discussions at gatherings occur on a one-to-one basis during session breaks, while munching on scones or spooning up spiced cauliflower soup. Are insets and side-bars an option? If so, how will a prospective publisher react to this format?

Finally, what progress have we made in figuring out how environmental historians and environmental managers can work together to mutual advantage? During the Roundtable discussion, I guess it’s really no surprise that nobody objected to the general proposition that historical data and insights are of value to those who formulate and implement land management policies. To deny this proposition would be like being against motherhood and apple pie. History, as Chris Smout emphasized, informs and contextualizes. But it does not, should not and cannot dictate policy.

We agreed that, for the next session in the Quantocks at the beginning of March (by which time, I hope, the winter will be on its way out), we’d try a different strategy. Instead of giving our project partner (the Quantock Hills AONB service team), questions to respond to, we thought we’d ask them what they’d like to know about us and from us. Here’s the question that Chris Smout has suggested: ‘how do you see historians being able to help you?

We also agreed that it would be useful to take BEAUTY  as our Big Overarching Idea for the Quantocks workshop. Just as Paul had opened the Wicken workshop with a paper that dissected the notion of THE ENVIRONMENT, I, as lead organizer of the Quantocks workshop, will kick things off with a paper that dissected the notion of THE BEAUTIFUL in relation to the environment in an environment. Since the Quantock Hills was the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty established in England (1956), this is the perfect place to ruminate on beauty and changing and conflicting notions of the beautiful. As Carry Ackroyd reminded us, beauty for the farmer is a good field of beans or wheat. At least that’s what an exasperated John Clare reported of the farmers in his neighbourhood.

The Quantock Hills is one of Britain’s most renowned literary landscapes, dignified by the presence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in the 1790s, a place where Romantic ideas of nature are rooted. According to fellow Romantic poet, John Keats, a thing of beauty is a joy forever (the opening line of ‘Endymion’).  So is a place of beauty also a joy forever?  The second line of Keats’s poem is less well known: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness. But can we share that confidence? We’ll put this to the test when we consider the challenges facing the Quantock Hills protected area in the early twentieth century, and try to contribute to the AONB team’s revision of its management plan and conduct of a Landscape Character Assessment exercise, both of which will be happening around the time of our Workshop Two.

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