Upware is a tiny village, perhaps it is a hamlet (I do not know the rules), six or seven miles south of Ely on the East shore of the River Cam. There is, at first glance, and probably on every subsequent glance, very little here. A few houses, maybe no more than a dozen, a marina, an old pumping station that seems to be undergoing some kind of development, a post box. The local pub, The Five Miles from Anywhere No Hurry Inn, manages to both embrace and celebrate the isolation.
Upware Lode, a distributary of the Cam, branches, as the tiny community gives up and dissolves back into the fields, and limns the Southern edge of Wicken Fen. Walking the towpath, barges and leisure craft sit quietly, a smaller community certainly, although it seems quieter if that were possible, even unoccupied.
It is a Tuesday morning, and I can see no-one brewing up or fishing or taking the sun. I suppose it must be a little busier at the weekends. Over a wooden bridge and the border of the Fen starts in earnest. A chunky wrought iron sign indicates that this is National Trust land; Wicken was the NT’s first reserve (two acres back in 1899, well over two thousand now) and it is a vital landscape.
It is trumpeted as a natural wilderness, but of course it is no longer that. The management practices here, a delicate balance of drainage, flooding, growing and harvesting the sedge, all add up to a carefully juggled act. The rich reclaimed arable land, the hundreds of square miles rescued from the marsh over generations would, now, if the maintenance stopped, destroy Wicken Fen.
The old winter floods no longer course through this landscape, dealt with as they are by the efficiency of drainage systems that have been in place for generations; instead, the pumps that the Environment Agency and others have put in place now take water away from the rivers and lodes and force it back onto Wicken Fen to replicate that vanished seasonal change. Without it, this peculiar little corner would simply dry out.
The impressive Highland cattle who regard me from across the Lode are there to champ on all manner of scrub plants from establishing and thus further drain the land.
And a good thing, too, for the Fen contains flora and fauna of rarity and diversity. Lepidoptera alone number over 1000 species, and yet this is a spot whose borders you can walk in two hours. I’m looking over into the centre of the Fen, an open area made up from the sedge, but also meadow grasses, hawthorn, buckthorn, teasels, meadowsweet, celendine and willowherbs. Watching, taking in the wind tides that tug and pull through the lop-headed reeds, compelling the stalks back and forth, I can hear a keening, a crying. I fancy it is a Marsh Harrier, but can see nothing beyond Wood Pigeons and the occasional spooked Heron.
I walk past the public entrance. With the school holidays continuing it is a busy spot. Past this, and suddenly left, I continue the border walk. There are chainsaws and engines whirring, whining, rumbling close by. Management at work. Running year ’round to keep this place standing still.
The village of Wicken and the road to Ely and Soham, run parallel for a few hundred yards. On my right there is a field of wheat that must surely be ready for harvest in the next day or so. Tractors and combines have been busy all around during this last fortnight, and a turn in the weather is clear for the sky begins to tumble and darken above me. Already, I have noticed on the way here, harvested fields are being ploughed over. These are the urgencies of the farming calendar. The program never rests.
The border runs out. Already, the Fen is behind me. It has taken no time at all.
And then, ahead, the land rises, almost imperceptibly. Had I not read about it, I might not even have acknowledged it. I cross the road that leads to Upware, that I have already driven down myself, and head into a golden field, this one harvested, but only just. Threshed straw stalks lie in convex lines to the horizon. I can see the slight upward curve of the land now, using the filed lines as a guide. This is the Upware Ridge, prosaically known elsewhere as the Isle of Upware, a modest topographical high of raised limestone. Two hundred years ago quarries were sunk here to exploit it.
Commissioner’s Pit, or the Upware South Pit was the smallest of the open mines. It quickly became of great interest to geologists. Predominately, limestone is composed of the skeletal remains of marine organisms; coral, plankton, simple multicellular creatures, molluscs, and so on. Most of these species create a test, or shell, and when they die the shell remains, eventually being crushed and reformed into the limestone. Billions of creatures coalesce to create the soft white deposit, but often, within, there are fossils. At around the time the National Trust was buying its first scrap of land across the road, geologists were blowing the fine white dust off a fossil record whose list of organisms grew longer and longer with each visit.
And as the studies continued it seemed that what was on record here was pretty much unique. The deposits come from the Oxfordian stage, the earliest age of the Late Jurassic, broadly speaking, between 160 and 155 million years ago. The species found, tiny bivalves, heads of coral, burrowing mussels, suggest that what was here was one of the most varied reef fauna for this part of the world. Creatures swarmed in these waters that previously had only been found hundreds if not thousands of miles further south. It is a pivotal spot in understanding the shifts and patterns of palaeobiology. It indicates how plates drifted, how the land masses moved. It is extraordinary.
Decades after the geologists made their studies the Pit became a nature reserve. School children from Wicken would troop along the border path, as I did, and down a set of wooden steps. There is an old hut, derelict now, with bird species names written across it. A notice to the memory of a local teacher looks out across the quiet gloom. It is a dull light that filters down from the path above. There are laminated notices attached to the trees, time-faded, dusted with mildew.
I wonder if anyone comes here regularly. I hope so, but much of it is overgrown. Briars and brambles make the path around the basin impossible to follow. I stop, defeated by it.
At my feet there are hundreds of limestone clods. I crouch down and pick them over. Each one is treasure, containing a tiny fossil. An impression of a shell; the grooves of a coral; the fine, smooth ridges of impossibly old creatures. Before me, before the teacher, before the geologists, before the sedge cutters and the fen drainers. There, across the flat base of the stone, are the tiny dark tracks of some remote and primal beast, whose filaments sieved the sparkling water of a lost sea, while vast monsters glided overhead, and the currents rushed and roared above the sandy floor to Tethys.