During the 20th century drainage of the fens had been completed and the area was being intensively farmed. The two remaining fragments of wild fens - Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen became designated National Nature Reserves, but their wildlife was becoming increasingly isolated with no way of spreading out into the surrounding countryside.
In 2001 the Great Fen scheme was born and a few years later the first piece of land was bought and restoration began. Since then the project has gone from strength to strength and wildlife has been returning to the area.
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In the early 20th century Ramsey was mainly a market town, serving the local farming community, and trading in agricultural produce and livestock. Two separate railways served the town, and transported huge quantities of produce to market until the 1970s. Many different traders worked in the town including leather workers, bakers, seed and grain merchants. There was also a town gas works. Ramsey is now a small, thriving town with light industry and workshops, but many of its residents work elsewhere in the surrounding larger towns.
This airfield, just west of the Great Fen area, was built in 1942-43 by US Army engineers to house 2900 personnel and the B17 Flying Fortresses. RAF Glatton was the home of the 457th Bombardment Group, who flew 237 missions and 7086 sorties between February 1944 and April 1945. They hit Berlin, German aircraft factories, airfields, roads and railways, and flew in the raids before the Normandy landings. When they went home in June 1945, they had dropped 17,000 tons of bombs and 142 tons of leaflets but they had lost 94 aircraft. There are two memorials to the 457th - in Conington Churchyard and at the junction of Conington Lane / B1043.
The military airfield closed in 1946 but operates nowadays on the two remaining runways as Peterborough Business Airport and Conington Flying Club (from where this text and photo are derived).
Royal Air Force Station Upwood was located near the village of Upwood overlooking the Great Fen area. It was a flying station during both First and Second World Wars and was used as a non-flying base from around 1960. The station was under the control of the United States Air Force from 1981, being one of three RAF stations in Cambridgeshire used by the US Air Forces in Europe. Much of the RAF Upwood site is now unused, as it was closed by the Ministry of Defence in 1994. The airfield has been returned to agriculture and many buildings have been sold off. Find out more at the RAF Upwood website.
Since 1982, the Nene Valley Gliding Club has conducted its glider operations from a field that occupies the site of the old runways.
Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen are two National Nature Reserves (NNRs) within the Great Fen area. After the drainage of Whittlesea Mere in 1852 it was decided that Holme Fen was too wet and boggy to be drained and farmed. Over the years Holme Fen has dried out and turned from raised bog and reeds to a birch woodland and was used as a shooting preserve. In 1952 Holme Fen was bought and established as a NNR to help protect it and its wildlife. Natural England manage it, along with Woodwalton Fen which is leased from the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT). Natural England is also a major partner in the wider Great Fen and works closely with the other partners to deliver the project aims.
The Great Fen Project (now known as just ‘The Great Fen’) was officially born in 2001. It was named after a large area of wild fens shown in the same area on local maps, from the days before the land was drained for farming. Its aim is to connect up the two existing National Nature Reserves (NNR's), Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen which had become extremely isolated by the surrounding farm land so that the wildlife within them was struggling to survive.
In 2001 the Great Fen partner organisations first came together, forming a Steering Group Committee and employing the first Great Fen member of staff. Creation of the Great Fen was originally envisaged as a 50-year project, but thanks to the hard work and support of many individuals, organisations and the public, several major milestones have already been achieved. Find out more about the history of the Great Fen.
After the fens were drained for farming more than 99% of the fenland habitat disappeared along with many species of plants and animals. Some of these were extremely rare and only found in this area. Others managed to cling on within the two existing National Nature Reserves - Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen. One example of this is the Fen Violet (to the right) which is only found in two other places in the UK. Since the start of the Great Fen in 2001, with land around these nature reserves being restored for wildlife benefit, we have started to see wildlife returning to the area. Find out more about the wildlife around the Great Fen by looking at the wildlife pages.
Darlow's Farm Cottage was situated on Darlow's Farm to the north of Woodwalton Fen. It was built in the 1930's and had no running water, mains drainage or electricity. The cottage was the birthplace of the late Marshall Papworth, a co-founder of Ramsey Rural Museum, his family lived there until the end of World War II. In 2006 a group of volunteers from Ramsey Rural Museum carefully dismantled the cottage. Funds for the rebuilding were raised by the Museum and in 2012 the cottage was opened to visitors. To the right is a picture of the cottage before dismantling. You can still see some of the remains of the cottage at Darlow's Farm or you can visit the re-built version at Ramsey Rural Museum.
In 1911, on the site of an old farmstead at the heart of Woodwalton Fen, Rothschild had a bungalow built on stilts and used it as a base for his field trips out on the fen. His activities included moth trapping at night and local people were not quite sure what to make of the visitors from London who went out into the fen at night with lanterns. This bungalow can be seen today by visitors to Woodwalton Fen. It was re-thatched for the first time in 100 years in 2011 using some reed from the Fen. The bungalow is open to visitors during special events. Please contact the Great Fen team for more details.
Nathaniel Charles Rothschild (1877-1923) was an entomologist, a pioneer of nature conservation in Britain and, in 1912, the inspirational founder and first Chairman of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, the organisation that went on to become the Wildlife Trusts. A man before his time, he argued for protecting not only individual species but whole natural habitats, and was convinced that conservation policy had to be based on sound survey and research. In 1910 be bought Woodwalton Fen to protect it from being drained like the surrounding farm land: the Fen became one of the first National Nature Reserves and was used for research in the new science of ecology. In 2012 the centenary of the Wildlife Trusts and the vision of the man who made it all possible were celebrated here .
Find out more about the history of Woodwalton Fen.