Reach Fen Chitchat

Ha Ha Ha

Fenland Chit chat, May 2011, Lesley Boyle

I don’t like saying ‘I told you so’. Usually it’s unnecessary. The relevant person knows, and knows that you know they know, so there’s no point. Also, most of us don’t like to give advice when we’re not asked for it. It’s not polite. We assume the person will ask if they want advice.

So we assumed that the NT would get advice from necessary people when it erected a lovely Bird Hide on Tubney Fen. Individually, people muttered to them about the possibility of scaring the birds away when walking to the Hide; about noisy crunchy gravel, about clanging gates, about galumphing cattle around the water’s edge. So it’s pleasing to see that there’s now a bank which hides you from view as you walk through a cattle-free zone to the Bird Hide. The NT do know about these things, and I’m sure, get advice from experts in their field.

So if anyone is an expert at a Ha-ha, then it is surely the National Trust themselves. What is a ‘Ha-ha’ said most people, when we told them what was happening on Burwell Fen. Ha-ha is “a term in garden design that refers to a trench in which one side is concealed from view, designed not to interrupt the view from a garden or part, while maintaining a physical barrier at least in one direction, usually to keep livestock out.” (Thanks to Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge). See the diagram below:

Design for a Ha-ha

The NT had decided, instead of fences, to use a Ha-ha to keep the cattle away from the excellent new Lodes Way going across Burwell Fen. Firstly we objected. We said that horses/children/wobbly cyclists will drop off the edge, especially when reeds have grown at the bottom of the trench. It won’t be visible after a while. They told us that the path along the top would be very wide – easily wide enough to allow for lots of passing room for horses/cyclists/people. Then we asked whether it would work…?

We shut up. If anyone has experience of ‘Ha Ha’s it’s the National Trust, not people like us. Surely they know how to do Ha-has? The only places I’ve seen Ha-has are NT properties, and they work brilliantly well. You look out across the gardens and surrounding landscape wondering why the livestock aren’t grazing the lawns, and it’s only when you get to the edge of the lawn that you realise that there’s an obstruction there, they work so brilliantly well. But on soft fen earth with no retaining wall? Anyway at the beginning of this month the cattle were brought back onto the Fen for their summer grazing, and they thought it was a laugh:

Cattle crossing the new Ha-ha beside Lodes Way

Signposting – the good, the bad and the ugly

Fenland chitchat, March 2011, Lesley Boyle

Signposting by definition is for the benefit of the lost - those who don’t know where they are. I think we’d all agree that help in direction finding is a good thing when we’re wondering which way to go.

However if you think it through, local signposting isn’t really for people who live here. Which is why when new signposts go up, people tend to complain about them. ‘Why do we need that great ugly thing there?’ It is also a fact about them that they are usually ugly. Anyone who negotiates the Quy roundabout every day will have time to ponder how ugly, confusing and overdone the signposting there is. Frequently people have to take things into their own hands and drive into them to get rid of this excess.

Another purpose of signposts is to show us the ‘official’ route. Therefore we expect ‘Officials’ to be the people putting up the signposts. And indeed the County Council is the body responsible. They are required to erect a sign at the point that each public footpath, bridleway or byway leaves a metalled (tarmac) road (states some section of the Countryside Act).

I remember when, quite a few years ago now, the County Council put up all the footpath and byway signs around here. There must have been a ‘clean up’ directive at the Council Rights of Way and Access Team, for all our local routes suddenly sprouted signposts, much to the consternation of local residents who feared an influx of trail bikes – which didn’t happen.

I suspect many of you, especially those of you who venture down the fen, will have noticed the most recent flush of signposts – for The Lodes Way. There seem to be masses of these big, new signs, and this time there is an influx - of cyclists, walkers and dare I say it, horseriders. Those attracted by the TV promotion and the publicity can find their route along the Lodes Way over Reach Bridge to Wicken.

How strange then, that the signs for the ‘official’ footpath across Burwell Fen have gone. The poles are still there but with no signs on top. Instead you find nearby the new signs pointing along The Lodes Way nice tarmac path to Wicken on the edge of the NT land.

Is this a footpath diversion? Will we soon see official diversion notices? Who took the signs down? Was it the officials or a walker who preferred the new tarmac to the old route? Should we complain to the official body? Or should we just keep quiet, because we locals know where to go and it’s quite nice to have a quiet walk instead of joining the more congested and suburban Lodes Way. So keep it to yourself (wink).

‘You should be grateful to the National Trust.’

Fen chitchat, September 2010, Lesley Boyle

This was a comment heard at a recent consultation meeting held by the NT. We’re talking about access here, not wildlife, landscape, big houses, tea rooms or any of the other things the NT is known for, and for which we are very grateful.

To give them their due, the NT is much better at listening to the local public these days, don’t you think? There are now numerous groups – User Groups, Consultation meetings – where ‘The Public’ is able to voice opinions, and even consulted. The NT is much more likely to ask before they act, which is good.

The NT wants to give us more access. Apart from just being nice to us all, it is one of the terms under which it received some of its grants. But understandably although the people from the NT want to give us more access it is on their terms.

The NT, funded by benefactors, grants and member subscriptions and fundraising, generally doesn’t want to institute ‘Rights of Way’, ie access to a path by the public ‘as of right’. NT employees have a duty to maintain the £value of their assets, and having a Right of Way over the land devalues it. Therefore they usually give Permissive Routes over their land, where there is no statutory right of way, but they permit use, for the time being. The access can be taken away at any time, and usually permissive routes are stopped up intermittently in order to prevent any claim being made in the future for access ‘as of right’. By permissive access the NT have given us routes across land previously inaccessible to us. Sometimes you have to negotiate cattle or wild ponies, but nevertheless a lot of this is a ‘Good Thing’.

Highland Cattle at Guinea Farm

Actually the first experience many locals have of them is the stopping up of routes that have been used for years. Harrisons Drove approaching Wicken Fen was gated by them and the land wasn’t even theirs. That was topic of an article in the National Press. Burwell Fen Farm was completely fenced meaning that the routes along Reach and Burwell Lodes were suddenly cut off to the consternation of local fishermen and riders. The route along the bank past Guinea Farm near Wicken had been ridden by locals for many years. Fences and gates went up as soon as the NT purchased the land. In spite of talking about it, none of the previously existing access has been restored yet.

The County Council’s ‘Rights of Way and Access Team’, funded by us, the tax payer, is the body charged with upholding existing Rights of Way, and maintaining the Definitive Map – a legal record of registered rights of way. They might also, you would expect, be responsible for improving access to the countryside.

There are many unregistered paths, such as our historic underbank droves alongside Reach Lode. Just because a path is not on the definitive map does not mean that it is not a public path. The Countryside Agency estimated that over 10% of public paths were not yet listed on the definitive map.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 says that paths that are not recorded on the definitive map by 2026 and that were in use prior to 1949 will automatically be stopped up on 1 Jan 2026. So time is running out to get these routes that are used but not registered put on the definitive map before they are lost.

I think that the CC should be active in this, and at least publicise this, but in my experience they play a very passive role. It is up to the public to make the case, collect all the evidence, fill in numerous forms, inform landowners. It is a big palaver, and for a member of the public, an unfamiliar one.

The CC team have the experience, the legal background, the historic records near their office, but it feels as if they don’t actually advise, initiate, or do anything active to register these routes and expand our access ‘as of right’. It feels as though it is a lot easier for them to devolve this improvement of our local access to a body like the NT who are giving us permissive access, but sometimes stopping up historic but unregistered access because it doesn’t suit their land management plans.

So the NT are the good guys here. Yes, I am grateful to them. So, obviously, is the member of the CC Access Team who is reported to have made the original comment.

Meet the cattle…

Fen chitchat, July 2010, Lesley Boyle

The entrance to Tubney Fen

As they feature so large in my visits to Tubney Fen during the summer, I thought I’d find out more about the herd of cattle kept there.

Farmer Peter Day, of Padney, has a family farm in the Wicken/Padney area. He has 1700 acres of grassland, a herd of c. 200 cattle plus a few sheep, and 1400 acres of arable land. He runs this with the help of his sons and nephew. In addition he has summer grazing from the National Trust, and other land at Dimmock’s Cote. He is allowed on Tubney Fen between 1st April and the end of October each year.

He grazes 85 cattle on Tubney – 49 cows, 35 calves and one bull. 85 cows to 200 acres is light grazing, which is appropriate for ‘conservation grazing’. Normally he would have one cow per acre. However the plus side of this restriction is that he hasn’t suffered from lack of grass during this recent drought. Also there was an area on Tubney that had been fenced off for spraying off thistles. This has now been opened up and mown. 12th July is the earliest you can mow conservation grassland due to the danger of disturbing ground nesting birds, like skylarks. Peter says apparently cows will never walk on a bird’s nest.

The cattle are mainly European or Continental breeds – the Bull is Limousin, and the cows Limousin/Simmental crosses, with some Hereford crosses (the black and white ones). Limousins are noted for being docile and easy to manage, and also producing calves with low birth weights and therefore easy for calving (92% of his cattle need no help or intervention), but they have a high rate of growth so they make good commercial cattle. Peter also has another Limousin bull back on his farm. The calves are born at his yard, so they were all at least 3 weeks old before they came to Tubney.

Often cattle are excited when they get out of wintering in the yard. Also it can take their eyes a while to adjust to full daylight after being kept in. This can make them blind to fences, which is why they can get the reputation for being a bit unruly when they get let out for summer grazing.

I asked Peter if he had any advice for walkers, cyclists and horse riders going across the Fen. He said that we shouldn’t have much trouble. The bull is fine. The cows are more the animals to look out for. He asks that you keep dogs on a lead, but if you stray too close to a calf, and the cow starts to chase you, let the dog off the lead. The cow will be chasing the dog, not you. The cow is protective within the first two days of calving, which is why he calves the cows back on his farm. He makes sure that he gets rid of any cows that are too protective as they are too much trouble.

View of construction site

New bridge being lifted into position

Lining up the bolt holes

The bridge in position, May 2010

View back towards Reach

Reach Lode Bridge

Fen chitchat, May 2010, Lesley Boyle

These are historic times for Reach. Those of you who dog walk or horse ride will have seen the engineering work going on about half a mile away in the Upware direction where BAM Nuttall (of guided bus fame) are building the new National Trust/Sustrans bridge over Reach Lode. The last time you could get across the Lode without a boat was back in c. 1991 when it was temporarily dammed so that the banks could be relined with clay taken from what is now the lake in the pocket park beyond the fishing pit. The then Reach residents amused themselves by walking up one side of the Lode and back down the other. I don’t know why circular routes are so much more appealing somehow. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the opening of the new bridge and enjoying the quiet walks and rides that this will bring.

The NT Press release states how the bridge is ‘designed to blend into the surrounding landscape’. Right now it looks huge and industrial, but quite graceful – the main span was delivered today and sits in the field next to the Lode. It’s worth a look. The excavations for the bridge foundations revealed a lot of peat, so this had to be dug out and replaced with clay. The side effect of this work is a large pond and some big peat mounds, some of which will be used to cover the ramps to the bridge, which also have to be large to get up to the height required. There are three 3m high corrugated iron culverts running through these ramps on both sides of the Lode, built for flood relief apparently, in case the Lode overflows, so the water isn’t able to build up behind the ramps but will flow through the culverts. This is completely unnecessary in this particular situation, but apparently it will cost more to go through the planning application for NOT having them than it will to just build them anyway.

Some of you may remember a couple of years ago that the NT wanted to place cattle grids across Straight Drove – this is the main byway on the Prior side of the Lode that you get onto when you go across the footbridge from the Hythe. Cattle grids are potentially lethally dangerous to horses, and they’re not great for walkers, dogs or cyclists either. Some local residents and horse riders from the area put together a good campaign about the unsuitability of cattle grids and that it was not within the Highways Act to install them, and also got the County Council galvanised to prevent the NT. By this time, the NT had already bought two grids. Now the NT plan to put cattle grids across Hightown Drove on the Burwell side of the Lode to allow the free passage of cattle from Burwell Fen onto their new land at Hurdle Hall. In order to assuage safety concerns, they say they will put a gate in front of them so that if a horse bolts, it will not run into the grid. A gate and a cattle grid. Uh? Are they trying to use up their stock of cattle grids? Methinks that these 3m high culverts could be put to good use – the cattle can easily cross the road and bridge approach by going through these, so no need for cattle grids. Therefore horse riders = happy. Cattle can graze freely between the two areas, therefore NT= happy. Yes? Everyone happy. Lovely.