For archery, canoeing and other outdoor pursuits, spotting rare species of birds, discovery of diverse local history or enjoyment of perfect tranquillity in the 'most beautiful meadows' in England, visit the Ouse Washes in the heart of the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Fens.
This rich wash land, stretching for over 48km between Denver near Downham Market and Fen Drayton Lakes near Cambridge, is a distinctive yet beautiful largely man-made landscape thanks to its rich and diverse history and culture, spectacular wildlife and huge open skies offering expansive views.
The Ouse Washes allows floodwater to be stored safely in winter and protects the prime agricultural soil of the area. Much of the area would be flooded if it wasn’t for some magnificent drainage engineering back in the 17th century. This involved the digging of two diversion channels of the Great River Ouse, the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River. (Watch an animated history of the Ouse Washes here).
The expansive views, strongly linear landscape and isolated settlements only add to the sense of mystery and tranquillity. It’s been home to Oliver Cromwell, the ‘hovertrain’ trials of the 1970s and traditional fen skating. Novelist Daniel Defoe once said: ‘Here are the most beautiful meadows on the banks of the River Ouse, that are to be seen in any part of England, and to see them in the summer season, covered with such innumerable stocks of cattle and sheep, is one of the most agreeable sights in the world.’ Read on for our top five things to do:
1. Amazing Wildlife
The diverse wetland habitats of the Ouse Washes Landscape are of international significance and crucial for the survival of a large number of rare species, including booming bitterns, Bewick’s swans and barn owls. Enjoy incredible wildlife encounters throughout the year by visiting WWT Welney Wetland Centre or the RSPB Ouse Washes and Fen Drayton Lakes nature reserves.
2. Unique History
To learn about the strategically important drainage channels keeping the Fens drained to this day and the 11,000 men who dug them by hand, the rich archaeological heritage, the Ely & Littleport Riots and the historic significance of eels, take a trip to the hugely important Denver Sluice Complex or visit one of the fantastic museums in the area including Ely Museum, Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum and Norris Museum in St Ives.
3. River Relaxation
A visit to the Ouse Washes Landscape would not be complete without exploring the vast river network. Take boat trips or be your own captain starting in Ely, St Ives or March. Rowing boats and family dinghies can also be sailed from Denver Sailing Club.
4. Fascinating Culture
The Ouse Washes Landscape is rich with distinctive Fenland customs, traditions, folklore and arts including Molly Dancing and Plough Monday celebrations. A huge programme of festivals, exhibitions and performances take place throughout the year, including Fen Speak open mic poetry evenings, Isle of Ely Arts Festival and the spectacular OuseFest (Twitter link: @OuseFest) fortnight in July.
5. Outdoor Fun
The Ouse Washes Landscape has plenty of exciting pursuits for the more energetic. Try a range of activities including archery and canoeing at Mepal Outdoor Centre, fly a microlight with Airplay Aviation or take a trip on the Fenland Light Railway.
This is only a small taster. Events and more ideas for things to do can be found on the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership’s website, including a What’s On Calendar and Interactive Map. The Fenland Tourism and West Norfolk websites are also great sources of information.