Pathways > The Pathways book > Wetland tracks
From Mesolithic times people have tended to colonise the wetland areas, counter-intuitive though that may seem now. The risk of flooding must have been as present as it is now, but that did not deter folk from setting up home, or at least a seasonal camp, by the water's edge.
The Fenlands of East Anglia are the archetypal wetland habitat, inhabitated for centuries by humans and by all manner of fowl, fish and beast. The abundance of footstuffs was, of course, the main attraction. The well-known prehistoric walkway at Flag Fen, superbly preserved in the moist soil, shows just how long people have been crossing the wetlands on artificial causeways.
Later causeways became major trading and communications routes, leading to monastic centres such as Ely. Monks through the ages have been drawn to the remoteness of the wetlands.
The Aldreth causeway walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
Odd though it may seem to us today, wetlands and marshy coastland areas were highly attractive places to live for the earliest inhabitants of our isles. Proximity to water provided a wider diversity of foodstuffs, whether through fishing, hunting for fowl or scavenging for cockles on the sea shore. We have already seen how Mesolithic folk populated the low-lying region known as Doggerland, now sunk under the North Sea.
Starr Carr, the Mesolithic “camp” discovered in East Yorkshire, sat on the shore of an inland lake (now completely drained so the ancient level has to be worked out from soil samples). The water would have been a magnet for herds of animals as well as a fine place to fish; a fragment of a wooden oar suggests the occupants used some type of boat. Numerous other settlements dating from around 9000 BC have been found around the edge of the lake, as well as on islands within it. The site may have been a seasonal hunting camp for a number of family groups.
Similar evidence for habitation at this time is found in the Severn estuary. Here footprints of animals, men, women and children living some 6,500 years ago have been found impressed into clay, very fortunately preserved under another layer of clay, in the Gwent levels. These prints are an extraordinary physical record of ancient people stepping across the tidal mudflats. The presence of the children’s prints is particularly poignant, as it suggests that with their lighter weight they were valuable in gathering shellfish and seaweed among the dangerous quicksands.
In Scotland from around 5,000 years ago people constructed artificial islands a few yards from the loch shore, usually connected by a narrow causeway. The platforms were created with timber on log piles driven into the loch bed, or sometimes by depositing tonnes of rocks to create a solid foundation. These “crannogs” would have been used as homesteads, fishing stations and quite possibly as refuges in times of trouble. They may even have been a status symbol. Some were in use right up to the 17th century.
There is evidence that wooden trackways were being laid across boggy ground from the very earliest times. At Starr Carr a deliberately constructed platform of split and worked timbers has been found preserved in the peat by the original lake edge. In the later Neolithic era the inhabitants of the Somerset Levels constructed a network of timber tracks across the marshland, one of which, the “Sweet Track”, has been excavated. The track appears to have been in use for only 10 years or so, an indication of how volatile the water levels must have been at that time.
It’s a reminder of how smart early folk could be that this idea of laying wood across marshes was exactly the same as that adopted by George Stephenson over 3,000 years later when he constructed the Liverpool-to-Manchester Railway over Chat Moss Bog in 1830. To this day the track still floats on the hurdles that Stephenson's men laid, and trains 25 times the weight of the original Rocket are able to speed across it.
Most famous of all is the slightly later wooden causeway and platform found at Flag Fen, near Peterborough.
Flag Fen is a small area of wetland just to the south-east of Peterborough on the western edges of the Fens. To the east and west of it, where the ground is a few metres higher, there would have been fields, farms and settlements.
In about 1300 BC a line of posts arranged in five parallel rows was set in the ground, traversing the fen from the dry land shore of Peterborough at Fengate to a large island called Northey on the Whittlesey side, a distance of a little under a mile. Between these 60,000 uprights, nearly a million timbers were used to create a causeway that was about seven yards wide, lying in more or less in a straight line. Partway across was a wider platform, like an artificial wooden island, the precise purpose of which is unknown.
As well as a practical thoroughfare to enable safe passage of man and beast over the boggy wetland, the causeway at Flag Fen would seem to be something more. Over 300 pieces of prehistoric metalwork and other apparently votive offerings have been found beside it. They include daggers that appear to have been deliberately broken and laid in the water, and beach pebbles that must have been carried from some distance away.
It is perhaps significant that the Flag Fen causeway was constructed at a time when the Fens were getting much wetter. The offerings may have been intended to summon up spiritual or ancestral support for an important boundary; the causeway may have been a symbolic defence against the rising waters.
The site was discovered in 1982 when Francis Pryor and a team of archaeologists carried out a survey of dykes in the area, funded by English Heritage. A section of the causeway has been excavated and can be viewed in the Preservation Hall, where the timbers are being slowly impregnated with wax. The dripping water, coolness and dark glistening timbers take one straight back in time. It is easy to imagine folk tramping home on this makeshift path after a day tending cattle in the low-lying fields.
Until east England’s Fens were drained, first in medieval times and then more extensively in the 17th century, they were Great Britain’s largest wetland, covering about a million acres, or 1,500 square miles. This was essentially a vast marshy swamp with just a few islands of higher ground, of which the Isle of Ely would have been one of the most prominent.
In 1630 the Earl of Bedford employed the Dutch engineer Vermuyden to drain the southern fenland to create land for agriculture. The drained soil exposed to the air was mostly composed of peat, which began to shrink and waste, and the ground level fell further. Over the years it became necessary to pump rainwater from the fields up into the rivers, which remained at the pre-drainage levels.
Thanks to this engineering the Fens became a rich agricultural region. But even before being drained they were blessed with abundant natural resources, with vast expanses of summer grazing, reeds for thatch and great stands of timber. The inhabitants were able to take advantage of plentiful stocks of fish, eels and a wealth of wildfowl.
Folk tended to settle on the drier islands and around the edges of the wetlands. Here their houses were free from flooding but they were still able to benefit easily from the area’s resources. This is one reason why so many prosperous medieval towns appeared along the Fens’ margins: King’s Lynn, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Peterborough, Lincoln, Spalding and Boston.
From the earliest times the Fens were also favoured by religious communities, perhaps because of the relative freedom they could enjoy from outside meddling. There are many monastic sites, of which Peterborough and Ely are the most famous. The disproportionately large cathedral at Ely, given the size of the community, is known locally as the Ship of the Fens as it towers over the flat landscape. It was built on the site of an earlier monastery, the main period of construction spanning 100 years from 1083.
In a region of fens and rivers (in the words of Daniel Defoe, “the soak of no less than 13 counties”), rights of way took on special importance, providing vital pathways through the landscape. They were also the key to defence and economic control. Trackways were built across the Fens as far back as the Bronze Age, both from timber and from the piling up of earthwork banks. The more solid earthwork causeways have been continuously repaired and improved over the centuries, so in many cases it is difficult to establish a date of origin. Many have become the trunk roads of today, having been the first pathways to utilise the contours and the lie of the land to best advantage.
Nicholas Rudd-Jones travels with Diana Rees, who has lived and worked in the fens, to explore an historic causeway leading to the Isle of Ely.
Before the Fens were drained the Isle of Ely was accessible only by river, or via the three causeways that reached across the swamp from the outlying hamlets of Stuntney, Earith and Aldreth. Of these, the Aldreth Causeway is probably the earliest, as well as the most important. It is part of the ancient road from Cambridge to Ely. It was made famous by the story of William the Conqueror and his attempts to oust the rebel Hereward the Wake and his men from Ely.
In 1071, in an attempt to reach Ely, the Normans built a causeway across the fens. However, during William’s first attack, the weight of the troops in their armour was so great that the causeway sank and many soldiers drowned. William’s second attempt to storm the island is recorded in the 12th-century Deeds of Hereward the Saxon. This time William’s men built new defences and recruited a local witch to help them. In retaliation, Hereward’s band set fire to the surrounding reeds and the heat, flames and smoke drove off the king’s men for a second time.
The village of Haddenham lies on the highest ridge in the Isle of Ely, at its western border. Its two spurs lead to the causeways at Aldreth and Earith. Parking the car at the south end of Aldreth, we spot the causeway immediately heading in a straight line south-west towards Cambridge. Nowadays it’s a popular stroll out of the village for dog walkers.
It is at Aldreth that Hereward’s band assembled (at four metres elevation!) and peered across the flat marsh anxiously to a point about two miles away where the ground begins to rise slightly again (to five metres) where William was assembling his troops on Belsar’s Hill.
From Aldreth we walk less than a mile to the ford across the Old West River. The Old West probably originated from the abandonment of the Car Dyke and the flooding of the Earith area, which forced the creation of a new outlet for the Great Ouse. During the Middle Ages, the Old West was the main trade route from King’s Lynn and Ely to the upper valley of the Great Ouse. Fuel, timber and other materials bound for the markets of Huntingdon, St Neot’s and Bedford were brought upstream, while corn, hides and wool were sent to other markets in England and abroad.
The ugly concrete bridge here was built at the beginning of the 20th century, when the road was still of some significance. There have been many previous structures, the first possibly dating back to the 12th century. When bridges collapsed through disrepair travellers had to cross by ferry. It could be dangerous. In the mid 17th century at least six people were recorded drowned at the crossing.
About a mile further on, we reach Willingham Field, on the edge of the fen, and Belsar’s Hill settlement, which takes its name from the Norman commander who led the campaign against Hereward. About half of a circular bank-and-ditch entrenchment remains; when entire it would have contained about six acres. Although it is supposed to have been constructed by William when he besieged the Isle of Ely, it may originally have been a British work. If so, Wiiliam probably made some alterations. It would always have offered an important strategic vantage point, controlling passage onto the Isle of Ely.
Here for the first time on this three-mile walk we get a real feel for the strategic significance of high ground in the fen, and the inaccessibility and therefore defensibility of Ely. We are reminded that in the end it wasn’t the geography that betrayed the city but its own inhabitants. The abbot and monks of Ely decided to side with William and guided the Normans safely onto the isle.
The causeway remained an important route right up to the 20th century, when it was superseded by surrounding roads. Alfred Watkins, who first espoused the theory of ley lines, identified this route from Ely to Cambridge as part of an alignment that runs from Strethall Church to the Great Ouse. It is certainly an ancient and historic trading route.
Despite the flatness of the terrain and a rather dull grey sky our short walk has been strangely evocative. The low clouds are whisked overhead on a brisk, chilly wind. We walk back the way we came, feeling the bleakness of the fen and its coldness towards an unfamiliar traveller. We cheer ourselves up with a rather fine pub lunch.
Other wetland tracks to walk
The Sweet Track (named after the man who discovered it in 1970, Ray Sweet) is one of the oldest preserved timber trackways in the world. Dendrochronology, the study of tree ring dating, places its construction at around 3800 BC. The track runs across part of the Somerset Levels and its location on Shapwick Heath can be visited. As at Flag Fen, the track would have provided its Neolithic makers with access for fishing, hunting and foraging. The discovery of a jadeite axe head in perfect condition suggests that offerings may have been made.
A visit to the Stretham Old Engine, erected in 1831, is a good chance to look at a bit of Fenland history and industrial archaeology. Close to the village of Stretham near Ely, this land drainage pumping station (now disused) is scheduled as an ancient monument and has been restored by the Stretham Engine Trust. It contains a fine steam-powered double-acting rotative beam engine, and is the last surviving complete example of its kind in the Fens. Find out more at strethamoldengine.org.uk. Nearby Wicken Fen is a remnant of the once massive Cambridgeshire Fens kept close to its ancient state (wicken.org.uk). There is a short boardwalk (our modern take on a wooden trackway) taking you over the fenland habitat. You may be lucky enough to spot the rare swallowtail butterfly.
Below is a list of other walks visiting wetland sites:
Fenland is not noted for its fine walks, but here's one that shows the reputation is not fully justified. It includes a wetland site, tree-lined byways, and paths running beside drainage dykes, as well as a stretch beside the New Bedford River.... More info
This straightforward walk combines several common features of the Fens. There are two lengthy sections along embankments, there are wetlands to the side and extensive views across the jet-black, arable farmland. Oh, also deep navigable drains and... More info
Compiled in August 2015. A short circular walk, suitable for any footwear. Good for children and dogs and most of the Park is also good for wheelchairs & buggies. It's an area of wetland, woodland and meadows close to the city. The described... More info
Dumfries and Galloway
This is a most pleasing short walk which features a fine community garden and wetland with bird hide, both with all-ability access, then a path through a woodland glen above a burn, followed by hedged farm track and descent by minor road with... More info
Several variations of the Barstobrick Farm Trail await you and the walk here described is less than three miles long, but includes a short, sharp diversion up to the summit of Barstobrick Hill to reach the Neilson Monument. Also available is the... More info
An easy walk around the RSPB Mersehead Reserve, delightful at any season. The route includes wetland, woodland, grassland and a stretch of sandy beach along the Solway. At different seasons you will see flocks of geese, ducks, swans and waders,... More info
An ideal place for a walk when you've got short legs - but equally enjoyable for the adults too! The walk takes you through the young plantation trees of the Hundred Acre Plantation and round the three ponds by the wetlands. There are ducks here, to... More info
An interesting walk bordering the wetland nature reserves and extensive fishing lakes along the River Wear between Witton le Wear and Bishop Auckland, including a visit to a well-preserved Saxon church. The return section of the walk north of the... More info
An ancient high street, a historical battle site, a riverside and wetland walk, dense woodland and high chalk downs: all for the price of one.... More info
The Slimbridge Wetlands Nature Reserve lies between the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and the River Severn upstream from Purton. The walk follows the Severn Way along the edge of the reserve via the canal towpath as far as Shepherd's Patch, close to... More info
A flat walk, much of it alongside water including the River Cam and Gloucester & Sharpness canal taking in Britain’s largest village Green, passing close to the world famous Slimbridge Wetlands nature reserve, with no less than four pubs to choose... More info
Isle of Wight
A scenic coastal and downland circular walk, returning via marsh and wetland, there are lots of varied interest within this trek, even a windmill.... More info
The walk is based upon the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust's reserve at Martin Mere. This has been doubled in size in the past few years and a very attractive concessionary path has been made around the reserve. I decided to revise my original route here... More info
Two of my favourite local walks are 1305 (Mere Sands Wood) and 1374 (Martin Mere and Burscough) but I had never linked them. This walk does that, starting at Martin Mere, going north to Mere Sands Wood and from there to the Rufford Branch of the... More info
A short, flat, but fascinating and dog-friendly walk around a beautifully reclaimed Country Park, with lakes, a canal and a huge variety of wildlife. The park has an open bird hide and areas of wetland being restored to reedbeds to improve the... More info
There is birdlife aplenty in this flat wetlands walk, in and around Barton-upon-Humber's new country park.... More info
Explore Alkborough Flats, 450 hectares of newly created wetlands. History and birdlife abound.... More info
You can reach this walk easily from anywhere in London. Much of the route is alongside the River Thames and the course of the Boat Race. There is wildlife in The Wetlands Centre, charming shops and refreshments and history in Putney and Fulham Palace... More info
This easy walk can take as long as you want. Starting from the Gwent Wetlands Car Park the walk explores the area bordering the River Usk Estuary. This area is rich in seabird life and is well worth a visit.... More info
This is a superb little walk that takes you away from Ludham Bridge and into the newly created wetlands along the River Ant. With marsh harriers soaring overhead and bitterns in the reedbed, this is a walkers' and birders' heaven.... More info
This wonderful walk is full of variations, steeped in history, and with a rich diversity of nature. The vast natural area of wetland and scrub meadows is a site of Special Scientific Interest. Part of the route is on Roman Road, lengthy and straight,... More info
A superb walk from the pretty village of Enstone taking country lanes, tracks and bridleways to the beautiful Ditchley Estate and onto charming Cleveley. The return route takes a super track above a picturesque valley, then meadow paths and a... More info
This walk is a nature walk; the route passes through gorse-covered hillsides, rich in birdlife, before returning through the wetlands habitat of a nature reserve. There are many birds to be seen in the reserve, as well as on the sea.... More info
An incredibly varied, compact, seven-mile walk; you will experience hills, woodland, a coastal path and intriguing views of the M5 Motorway both above and below. There are many chances to spot wildlife, although not guaranteed. All in all it's a... More info