One cold January lunchtime the dog and I catch a ride to the fen village of Mepal, our plan is to walk six or seven miles or so up the Old Bedford river.

big skies

It’s a windy, bright day, some clouds on the horizon, the sun low in the winter sky spreading some cheer, if not warmth, on the flat, flat fen.

The fields to the right of the Old Bedford are flooded, and give the impression, at times, of an inland sea. With the force of the wind, the waves are choppy, dark and slightly threatening.

We have the riverbank to ourselves and, other than a solitary bird spotter, meet not another person, this is the glory of the fens at winter.

I release the dog from his lead and watch him run, run, run with gleeful abandon; chasing down imaginary rabbits and sniffing around molehills.

The dog on the bank

It’s the birds though that claim my attention, Oh, those birds. Birds, birds everywhere.

Huge rook families roost on naked, black trees. Watchful, journeying from one branch to another.

Numberless small birds, some on the water, others darting past us, up and over the bank.

A hawk, circling the fields, hungry for a mouse.

But here, along the Old Bedford, the swans steal the show. Escaping harsh Icelandic and Siberian winters, more than 8,000 Bewick and Whooper swans over-winter on these flooded fields.

Swan squadron

They chatter to each other as they bob up and down on the river, as they fly over the bank, as they flock together, making a glorious cacophony.

Squadrons of swans flying in formation appear out of nowhere, or rise up from the river in groups. They make their way to a black fen field and feast on sugar beet tops left over from last year’s harvest.

Swans and sunset

As we enter the late afternoon, the sun drops beneath the horizon and the sky is awash with reds, purples and pinks.


The temperature drops a notch or two, the wind picks up, the light is fading. Eventually we leave the riverbank and head off across muddy fields to the Rose and Crown in the village of Manea.

The pub is warm and welcoming, the landlady gives the dog a bowl of water and a couple of biscuits while I sup on a pint and watch the football.

Sated and rested, we walk a mile up to the lonely train station and catch the train back home to Ely.


Here’s an aerial photo of the flooded fields (borrowed from the excellent Ouse Washes website)

flooded washes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *