A landscape that is as flat and bare as the Fens may seem a dull and uninteresting prospect for a walk, but in fact there is much more to this unique place than first meets the eye, and what you see now isn't the way it looked in the distant past. Ancient tree trunks known as bog oaks are periodically uncovered from the peaty soil, proving that this apparently treeless country once presented a totally different scene.
Until 400 years ago the Fens remained an unwelcoming swampy and impenetrable landscape which local outlaws and tribesmen such as Hereward the Wake, who led his rebels against the invading Normans, could make their own. Small communities such as Manea developed on the pockets of higher ground – the 'ea' suffix is derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'ig' meaning island.
Draining the Fens
Systematic draining did not begin until the 17th century, when the 4th Earl of Bedford turned to Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to repeat his successful work in the Netherlands. The result was a direct, 20-mile (32km) cut known as the Old Bedford River, which sliced through the lands south and east of Manea taking the winter floodwaters out to the Wash. A rapidly expanding series of drains and dykes followed, gradually turning the ancient bog and swamp into fertile agricultural land, with many of these artificial rivers named after their original width (the New Bedford River is also known as the Hundred Foot Drain, for instance).
But not everyone agreed with the draining of the Fens, however, and there was determined opposition from the 'Fen Tigers', those wildfowlers and marshmen whose livelihoods depended on the traditional Fenland way of life. Even after the drains and dykes became permanent fixtures there were still, until quite recently, occasional throwbacks to another era. When transport and communication proved difficult, particularly for remote communities during the winter floods, the so-called Floating Church would go from hamlet to village providing religious services. The converted barge was still in use into the early years of the 20th century, when it spent two years tied up at Welches Dam, near Manea, which you visit on this walk.
Fenland's capital that never was
An early supporter of the ambitious drainage scheme was King Charles I, who owned 12,000 acres (4,860ha) of wetland surrounding Manea. He backed the enterprise of the early speculators to such an extent that he even took the lead in designing a brand new capital for the Fens. Complete with a royal palace for himself, the town was to be sited near Manea and would be called Charlemont. Alas, he unfortunately lost his head before his dream could be realised.
With the Rose and Crown pub on your left, walk eastwards along Manea High Street and follow it round to the left as it becomes Station Road, then turn right for the public footpath alongside the primary school. At the football pitch at the far end turn right and go right again past Manea Wood, planted in 1997 with ash, oak, white willow, birch and common alder. Continue along the path as it bears right and approaches Bearts Farm.
Turn left by the old barns and sheds for the wide track out into the fields, and bear right at a junction of tracks to reach an attractive reedy lake known locally as 'the Pit'. This was originally dug for clay, which was then transported across the fields on a light railway to shore up the banks of the nearby Old and New Bedford Rivers. The Pit is now a popular place for fishermen and wildlife alike.
At the end of the track turn right on to a lane, with the lake still on your right, then, when you reach the junction at the corner of the road, turn left, on to Straight Road, and follow this through the fields to the end.
Turn left on to Purls Bridge Drove, signposted 'Welches Dam' and 'RSPB reserve'. Follow this open lane all the way to Purls Bridge, by the Old Bedford River. Continue along the bank to reach the Ouse Washes Nature Reserve, where there's a visitor centre and public toilets.
Return along the lane for 440yds (402m) and turn left for the signposted public bridleway by some dark wooden sheds. Known as Old Mill Drove, this runs directly across the open fields as far as the rusting farm machinery of the former Boon's Farm. Turn right and walk along the dead-straight Barnes's Drove for 1.25 miles (2km) until you reach the road at the far end.
Turn left and after 150yds (137m) turn off right through a gate for a public footpath across the fields back into Manea. The route zig-zags across the open field – just follow the clear yellow waymarks and aim for the fire station tower. At the far side turn right, past the village stores, to follow the main road back to the centre.
Lanes and hard farm tracks, field-edge paths
Wide, flat fields separated by ditches and drainage channels
Good across farmland, but on public rights of way only in nature reserve (and on lead)
OS Explorer 228 March & Ely
Roadside parking in centre of Manea
Off Park Road, Manea, and at Ouse Washes Nature Reserve
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
To the west of East Anglia is Cambridgeshire, a county best known as the home to the university that makes up the second half of ‘Oxbridge’ (the other half is Oxford). As well as its globally renowned educational credentials, it also has a rich natural history; much of its area is made up of reclaimed or untouched fens. These are low-lying areas which are marshy and prone to flooding. The lowest point in the UK is at Holme Fen, which is some 9 feet (2.75 metres) below sea level. Some of the fens had been drained before, but it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that wide-spread, successful drainage took place, expanding the amount of arable and inhabitable land available.
Ely Cathedral was built on an island among the swampy fens, but now sits among acres of productive farmland, albeit farmland criss-crossed by miles of flood-preventing watercourses. Oliver Cromwell was born in Ely, and his family home can still be visited. Cambridge itself is a beautiful and historic city, with any number of impressive old buildings, churches and colleges, and plenty of chances to mess about on the River Cam which gave the city its name.