Thursday, 10 November 2011

Adventurers Fen

If you follow the formidable Devil’s Dyke – a Dark Age earthwork that cuts across the chalk escarpment north-west of Newmarket, you will come to Reach and the edge of the Fens. It is border country, a line of Fenland villages that sit on a narrow strip of land between the slowly rising chalk behind and the vastness of the Fens beyond. Running north from Reach is a fenland lode (a drainage ditch) that joins the River Cam at Upware, just to the west of Wicken Fen. To the north-east of Reach is the village of Burwell, with its own lode, also tracking north-west and skirting Wicken Fen before joining the Reach Lode. Sandwiched between these two ditches, in a block of land that narrows to a triangular point, is Adventurers Fen, made famous by the artist and nature writer Eric Ennion.

In the early 1990s and new to the area, I had arrived already carrying knowledge of Wicken and its Fen, the last remnant of rich fenland vegetation, but I knew nothing of Adventurers Fen and its champion. Eric Ennion was born in June 1900 and grew up in Burwell; he went on to become doctor there in 1926. It must have been an exceptional time to be in Burwell in the 1920’s and 30’s. Secure in a reliable profession, Ennion was spared the hardships of the agricultural depression but able to watch nature’s return to a landscape that was ‘falling into disrepair. His interest in natural history, which had germinated in his childhood years, was channelled into sketches and paintings of the fenland wildlife. His sketches, often made from beneath a tarpaulin flung across his punt, are vibrant and alive; Ennion’s fellow inhabitants captured in pencil and watercolour. The combination of artist and naturalist, documenting a landscape soon to be lost.

With the outbreak of the Second World War everything changed. The fens around Burwell were drained and returned to agriculture, something that prompted Ennion to write a lament to the landscape he had felt so rooted in. Adventurers Fen, the book that was published in 1942, displays the intimacy that Ennion had with his local patch, not just the wildlife but also the villages, ditches and waterways. While it marks the sad passing of a watery world it also champions the local naturalist, highlighting the value of working a local patch over many years. Redshank, Coot and wild duck would have been Ennion’s everyday birds but, even so, he writes about them and paints them with enthusiasm and passion. His work has relevance today, with efforts underway to recreate something of this lost landscape, and through this work you can see something of the man and his world.

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