Bridges across the Fen

This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 69.

Cambridge & the Wicken Vision

National Trust map of plans for Wicken Fen, as described in article

Jon Megginson works for the National Trust as their Wicken Fen Vision Project Manager. He has been working with Cambridge Cycling Campaign on a very significant project to open up recreational cycling and access routes to the north of the city. Mike Causer is a Cambridge Cycling Campaign committee member who lives in Burwell.

Jon explains about the Wicken Vision:

Existing bridge at an old lock on Bottisham Lode.
Image as described adjacent

‘Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, to the south of Ely, is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It has a staggering range of over 7000 species, one of the longest lists for any nature reserve in the UK.

‘And yet… the 700 acres which the reserve covered in 1999 is much too small to support sustainable populations of many of its rare species. Numbers of each are relatively small and isolated and they could easily be lost.

‘For the past six years the National Trust has been working towards a 100 year plan, the ‘Wicken Fen Vision’, for the expansion of this unique landscape, proposing to acquire up to 10,000 acres of farmland south towards Cambridge and gradually convert it to a wonderful new wetland Nature Reserve.’

The wildlife benefits are very evident from this project, but as Jon went on to explain the Wicken Vision is about people just as much as wildlife.

The banks of the Lodes are raised well above the surrounding countryside, giving excellent views.
Image as described adjacent

‘Nearly 40 000 visitors enjoy Wicken Fen each year, bird-watchers, butterfly and moth fanciers, students, school children, scientists, conservationists, horse riders, cyclists, boating enthusiasts and many more just out for a pleasant and quiet walk in unspoilt countryside.

‘The large majority of our visitors arrive by car and the public transport links to Wicken are rare. The bus connection is now almost as rare a sighting as the Bittern at Wicken.

‘The proposal to acquire land for the Nature Reserve in a broad swathe all the way to the outskirts of Cambridge gives us a marvellous opportunity to plan for traffic-free cycle and access routes to connect the National Trust properties at Wicken and Anglesey Abbey to the City.’

Mike Causer commented further:

Possible site for a bridge over Reach Lode.
Image as described adjacent

‘The city of Cambridge has the reputation of being the ‘cycling centre’ of the UK, with the highest proportion of commuter journeys by cycle of any corresponding sized conurbation. However, the problem for many recreational cyclists is that routes direct from the city to surrounding villages and out to open countryside are restricted by busy roads and river courses, by the lack of traffic free routes and circuits and poor surfacing of existing rights of way.

‘Many recreational cyclists start their cycle trip after travelling a significant distance in a car. Major recreational cycling centres for Cambridge residents which we know are used in this way are Thetford Forest (about 60 000 cycle trips per year) and Grafham Water (75 000 cycle trips).’

Jon Megginson explains the healthy living benefits further:

‘The enormous development pressure and increased density of Cambridge as an urban area, means that a growing number of people are living their lives divorced from their surrounding landscapes. Accessibility to ‘open air living rooms’ is essential for health, happiness and quality of life and is a fundamental guiding principle of the National Trust’s overall mission

‘If we can open up a series of access routes directly from Cambridge, the whole Wicken Vision area can become a huge ‘green lung’ for the city of Cambridge, with all the health and well-being benefits that this implies for Cambridge residents.

‘Growing medical evidence shows that access to the natural environment improves health and well-being, prevents disease and helps people recover from illness. Experiencing nature in the outdoors can help tackle childhood obesity, coronary heart disease, stress and mental health problems (and that is a direct quote from Natural England, the lead government agency!)’

The practicalities of planning for the route and access have involved Cambridge Cycling Campaign in undertaking a very thorough survey of existing rights of way and significant gaps in the network. The main spine route proposed connecting Waterbeach to Wicken Fen will become the missing link in Sustrans National Route 11 which links Harlow with Kings Lynn and joins Cambridge to Ely on the way. The upgrading of the element of this route from Ely to Wicken is already in place, as well as the spur route from National Cycle route 51, which links Wicken to the Burwell area.

Mike Causer explains

Existing wooden bridge crossing Wicken Lode.
Image as described adjacent

‘We have undertaken a mapped and photographed survey of all the access points and existing rights of way all the way from the A14 south of Quy and from the River Cam at Waterbeach working northwards towards Wicken and across to Anglesey Abbey and the villages to the south (Quy, Lode, Swaffham Bulbeck, Swaffham Prior, Reach and Burwell). To open up access to a large number of connecting circular routes it became very evident that we have some bridges to build and improve. There are four water courses to cross and the crossing of the Cam at Clayhithe could be much improved for cyclists. Most of the route can use existing rights of way but the National Trust are going to have to acquire some sections of land to complete the connections.

‘Our survey has allowed the NT to produce a brief for Mott MacDonald – the consultant engaged by the National Trust to lead the planning and design of the spine route and bridges – to draw up a schedule of requirements and to begin the design work and costing for all of the proposed improvements.’

Jon Megginson added:

‘The biggest hurdle is inevitably cost. The Green Infrastructure Strategy for the Cambridge sub-region, recently published by Cambridgeshire Horizons, is very positive in its support of the proposed access arrangements to Wicken. The National Trust have already been awarded a grant of £1 million from the Growth Areas Fund, via Cambridgeshire County Council. However opening up the complete route and work on all the bridges etc. is going to cost double this sum.

‘We have taken the opportunity of applying a bid to Sustrans as part of their national ‘Connect2’ campaign. This application will be considered in relation to applications from across the country. Sustrans will then apply to the Big Lottery fund for a single grant running to £10s of millions which will in itself be subject to a television vote planned for next year in competition with a range of other large scale community and environmental management projects.

‘I believe our bid is a strong one; it presses a lot of the right buttons by connecting communities, and addresses health and well-being benefits. Cambridge Cycling Campaign have provided enormous help in putting our bid together and are official supporters of the application. If you are excited about the proposals do keep up the pressure, and when it comes to the national television vote use your voting power!’