The Fen Edge - hidden gems of East Anglia

We explore the remnants of the royal hunting park of Rockingham Forest and the last echoes of the once great wetland wilderness of the fens that now form the core of one of Britain’s most ambitious conservation projects, The Great Fen.
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Often overlooked in favour of the showier wildlife sites of Norfolk and the coast, the City of Peterborough has an enviable position on the boundary between the low-lying Fens to the east and higher Oolitic limestone country to the west and has eight National Nature Reserves within half an hour’s drive.

This location means the city is surrounded by a surprising wealth of both wildlife and history, which are intimately and inextricably linked. This short break will provide an introduction to some of the exceptional wildlife and history to be found nearby.

During our holiday, we will explore the remnants of the former royal hunting park of Rockingham Forest, the limestone country that inspired local poet John Clare, and the last echoes of the once great wetland wilderness of the fens that now form the core of one of Britain’s most ambitious conservation projects, The Great Fen.

The trip has a mixed natural history focus with an emphasis on botany, invertebrates and the long interplay between human activity and semi-natural habitats in the region. We will visit a range of sites, including several National Nature Reserves, selected to cover a broad range of habitats including the most species rich ancient woodland in England, some spectacular flower-rich limestone grassland, lowland meadow with numerous butterflies and both calcareous and acid fen habitats, where Marsh Harriers quarter the reeds and dragonflies zip along the ditches and drains.

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Wildlife Travel Fen Edge 2021

Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.

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Day 1 Our holiday starts at our accommodation, where we will meet in time for an introduction to the holiday and our first dinner together.

Day 2 We head to Barnack Hills and Holes. This site was quarried until around 1500, the Barnack Rag limestone it produced used in the construction of both Peterborough and Ely Cathedrals. Since being abandoned the quarry has developed an exceptionally species-rich limestone grassland and we should be treated to the spectacle of abundant orchids, including Fragrant, Pyramidal and perhaps Frog Orchid, as well as many other limestone grassland plants. Later in the morning we will head to Swaddywell Nature Reserve, which has a very rich and interesting flora and fauna, before a visit to Castor Hanglands and Ailsworth Heath, which possesses a truly spectacular swarm of Dactylorhiza orchids, including three true species, Early Marsh Orchid, Southern Marsh Orchid and Common Spotted-orchid, and every conceivable hybrid. Both beautiful and challenging!

Day 3 We visit Bedford Purlieus, an extensive ancient woodland thought to have been constantly wooded since the retreat of the ice at the end of the last glacial period. It supports more plant species than any other British woodland: 462 vascular plant species and a far greater number of invertebrates, so there will be plenty to see! Botanical highlights are likely to include English Cinquefoil, Long-stalked Crane’s-bill and Hairy Lady’s-mantle, and rarities such as Lily of the Valley and Herb Paris. Nearby Old Sulehay Forest is another fragment of ancient Rockingham Forest. Here our focus will be on habitat created by more recent quarrying, with derelict quarries supporting a rich limestone grassland flora. 

Day 4 We venture into the Fens. Our first stop will be at Woodwalton Marsh a small but perfectly formed fen-edge reserve home to rare plants such as Crested Cow-wheat and Sulphur Clover. From there is a short drive to Woodwalton Fen, which would not exist today if it were not for Charles Rothschild who bought it in 1910 to ensure that part of the ancient fens would be preserved. More than 1000 beetle species alone have been recorded in the reserve, including the recently rediscovered Tansy Beetle which we hope to encounter. There are opportunities to see elusive wetland bird species such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Our final stop will be at Holme Fen where many scarce fen invertebrates can be encountered including Hairy Dragonfly and Scarce Chaser.

Day 5 One final breakfast, and then it is time to bid farewell to Sibson and to head home.

Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders

Our accommodation will be at Sibson Inn Hotel, originally a 17th century farmhouse. All rooms have en suite bathrooms.

We are catered on a full board basis, with breakfast and evening meals taken at the hotel and a picnic lunch provided by the hotel. Requests for special diets can be accommodated.

Our transport for this trip will be by a coach, with plenty of space for social distancing.

Travel to Sibson

The holiday starts and finishes at our accommodation in Sibson.

You can reach Peterborough or Stamford by train, from there you would need to take a taxi to Sibson.

Sibson is located on the A1, to the west of Peterborough. 

The English weather is of course anything but predictable. We should expect warm and sunny conditions, although who knows, the weather could be blazing sunshine one day, and cold and wet on the next! We will adapt our itinerary to the weather. It can be ‘breezy’ or even windy at times, especially out in the Fens. We will not walk for long in hot or adverse weather conditions.

We will be keeping to the government’s rules on social distancing for this trip, with the final group size dependent on those rules at the time of the holiday.

We will ask travellers to wear face coverings while on the bus, and will ensure there is plenty of space to enable social distancing, with hand sanitiser available at all times.

We will be walking for much of the day, each day, albeit at a slow pace and never covering any great distance. In some locations ‘facilities’ are scarce! You therefore need to have a reasonably good level of fitness although none of the walks are strenuous.

There are likely to be steps at the hotel.