4th February 2000 at 00:00
Wicken Fen is one of the most important wetland nature reserves in Europe. Carolyn O'Grady reports on what's to be found among the reed beds.

What immediately springs to mind at the mention of the National Trust? Enormous houses filled to the brim with priceless china? Windswept castles? Country estates? What about 575 miles of coastline, or 600,000 acres of wildlife habitat? The National Trust is actually about far more than bricks and mortar.

One special site is Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. In l899 the fledgeling Trust bought two acres of land here for pound;10. Now this has grown into a holding of some 800 acres, making Wicken Fen one of the most important wetland nature reserves in Europe.

Once part of the vast East Anglian marshes, which have been largely drained and given over to arable farming, the reserve is maintained in its original state by a process that reverses the draining. Reed and sedge beds, fen meadows and scrubby woodland all flourish. And after an absence of 60 years, otters have been spotted in its waterways.

Wicken Fen organises a wide range of activities for children. They range from the standard pond dippingmini-beast projects, through to the less usual soil sampling - in which children experiment with clay and peat - and sensory activities which involve smelling and touching native fen plants and objects. This last is popular with key stage 1 children.

Activities for families and nature buffs are also organised, including days on bats and hedgehogs, "ghost walks" complete with scary happenings, Fenland storytelling and courses on identifying and classifying wildlife.

A group from Priory county junior school in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, is visiting the centre for a new programme entitled Living in the Fens: a full day of local history. This introduced them to Fenland flora and fauna and to the strange livelihood of previous inhabitants of this waterlogged world. "It shows children how people in past times interacted with their surroundings and relied on them," says education officer Bridget Read.

"It's very much hands-on, with lots of doing and activity. It's also about being a detecive and trying to find the answer for themselves."

A highlight is a walk through the Fens with the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, played by an education officer. Dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat, he tells how he was commissioned to drain the Fens in the 1630s to make them fit for grazing. He created rivers to take the burden from the natural river Ouse. Understandably the locals objected - they had been harvesting the reed and sedge to thatch their houses, using the peat for fuel and catching the eels, fish and wildfowl for food.

Vermuyden points out trees that drowned when the Fens flooded, as they occasionally did, and the plants and wildlife. The wind pump which was one of many built in the 18th century to drain water out of the ditches into the river is now employed in reverse to keep the Fens wet.

Another group visit the 17th-century cottage next to the education centre, which was bought by the Trust about 40 years ago. Here they can see a reed and sedge thatched roof, peat bricks in the oven and a section of wall which is exposed to reveal the willow, clay sedge and cow dung with which it was built.

Children also work on creating a time-line, choosing pictures and text to illustrate each period. They write about events and handle tools used to harvest the main Fenland crops. They can examine the special stilts and skates which enabled people to get around this marshy terrain. It is an insight into a way of life and landscape which would have long disappeared without the Trust's efforts.

These efforts continue. To mark the reserve's centenary, it initiated a number of projects, including clearing 120 acres of scrub, increasing the number of reed bed habitats, building new visitors' facilities including a tower hide and logging 70,000 biological records collected by naturalists over 150 years.

Wicken Fen, Lode Lane, Wicken, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5XP.

Tel: 01353 720274. e-mail: awnedu@smtp.ntrust.org.uk www.wicken.org.uk Open daily except Christmas.

Admission: groups pound;2.80 adults, pound;1.20 under-18s. Taught activities, pound;2.75 per child per day.

Teachers' resources available.

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