Country diary: lowest land in Britain is unsettling in the gloom | Environment

Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire: The trunks tangle back from both sides of the track, like wiry hair, their bark papery. Packed dense, this makes the forest look grey and odd

4592 - Country diary: lowest land in Britain is unsettling in the gloom | Environment






Holme Fen biological site of special scientific interest, west of Holme in Cambridgeshire.
Photograph: Simon Ingram

Britain’s highest highpoint is Ben Nevis. The lowest highpoint, if you like, is in what was Huntingdonshire: Boring Field, an old county top, at 81m above sea level. But hereabouts too is a mountain’s true inverse: the lowest lowpoint. The road to Holme Fen protrudes, like a fat plank thrown over a bog. You could fall off it if you’re distracted. I am, first by the red kites: they’re everywhere here, black wraiths cruising on dog-leg wings. I count nine within a kilometre. Then two herons, side by side at the side of the road and unbothered by it, those stripe-masked faces like strange little highwaymen.

It’s early, and the morning is feebly painted in winter colours: black fields full of rain, brown water, grey sky. It should be light by now but it isn’t. I turn on to the fen track and suddenly there’s red: the lights of a railway crossing, then the train blurring noisily beyond it. Beyond that, in a thicket of woodland, is the lowest land in Great Britain.

4592 - Country diary: lowest land in Britain is unsettling in the gloom | Environment



Photograph: Simon Ingram

This place is beautiful in summer. It’s a nature reserve, the biggest silver birch woodland in lowland England, a relic of wild fen and now part of the restorative Great Fen project. Wild it feels, but in today’s starved light it is quite unsettling. The trunks tangle back from both sides of the track, like wiry hair, their bark papery. Packed dense, this makes the forest look grey and odd.

Fenland can be eerie: enter it and the landscape’s lines straighten, as if drawn tight over it. The road. The railway and its wires. The drain ditches. Field boundaries. Stacked ranks of decked trees. The lane.

I walk the lane to find more lines, these ones vertical in Victorian iron. In 1848, Whittlesey Mere was drained. The peat dried, and shrank. Originally an oak pile monitored the rate of fall. Today, date stamps on the iron post record it. At foot level the most recent reads 2015. Four metres above it, the first: 1848. The fen has dropped four metres. It’s now 2.75 metres below sea level. We never built a mountain, but we sank the deepest fen. That word, by the way, is from the Old Norse fenn: dirt, mud, mire.

4592 - Country diary: lowest land in Britain is unsettling in the gloom | Environment



Photograph: Simon Ingram