What is special about the OWLP area?

LogosThe OWLP landscape provides extensive wide views and contains huge skies, while being dominated by rivers, drains and ditches that cut across some of the most productive agricultural land in England. This landscape means different things to different people: some can find it featureless and intimidating whereas others find it exhilarating and value its tranquillity and distinctive lifestyles.

Now we have finalised the boundaries for the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme and we have a defined area, the following question may need reconsidering: what is it that makes the OWLP area special?

In a previous post, I have set out what came out of workshops held regarding the unique qualities and ‘specialness’ and ‘distinctiveness’ of the OWLP area. As part of further discussions with our key partners, ongoing research and discussions with local community groups, we have been able to refine this information.

This then also fed into the Landscape Conservation Action Plan, a key document we recently submitted as part of our stage 2 bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The below word cloud formed part of our ‘Statement of Significance’ and sums up what we believe makes the OWLP area special:

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Word cloud, summarising what makes the OWLP area special. Created using http://worditout.com

The OWLP landscape is of important for several reasons:

Internationally protected wildlife and wetlands

At 3,000 ha the Great Ouse Wetland network , which lies fully within the OWLP boundary, is one of the most extensive and most important wetland areas in the UK. It comprises of a network of nature reserves, many of which are owned by nature conservation bodies, including the WWT Welney, RSPB Ouse Washes nature, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes and RSPB Ouse Fen reserves, with further schemes planned including those to be created by the Environment Agency near Sutton and Coveney. Within the heart of this landscape is the Ouse Washes itself, one of the most important areas of lowland wet grassland in Britain.

The expanding network of reserves form a crucial core area in the proposed Fen-wide ecological connectivity network of wetland habitats, crucial for the survival of many rare and endangered flora and fauna species. The restored wetland areas which incorporate a particular high percentage of lowland meadows and reedbeds provide for a tranquillity not easily found elsewhere.

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Fen Drayton Lakes. Image by Sheils Flynn for OWLP scheme.

Rich Archaeology

The OWLP area is of at least national significance for its repository of well-preserved, often waterlogged archaeological and palaeo-environmental remains. The OWLP area contains 18 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, including the well-preserved Earith Civil War Bulwark and several clusters of prehistoric barrows. The area contains especially rich prehistoric and Roman Period archaeology. The abundance of prehistoric remains in the southern part of the OWLP area demonstrate clear evidence for a major prehistoric ceremonial landscape, extending right across the floor of the Great Ouse valley.

Amazing engineering history

This man-made landscape lies largely below sea level demonstrating man’s amazing efforts in drainage engineering, executed here on a grand scale: with its abundant sluices, banks and dykes the whole landscape can be considered as a civil engineering monument. Human intervention regarding its management is as vital today as it was when, in the 17th century, the Ouse Washes in between the Bedford Rivers were created. The survival of the nationally significant Bedford Level Corporation archival collection, curated for by Cambridgeshire Archives, provides us with a unique insight in the historic developments of the drainage schemes in the area.

Unique Experiments

The landscape has also played host to some amazing social, economic and environmental experiments including the Flat Earth Society using the landscape to prove the earth is disc-shaped, the utopian social living experiment at Colony Farm in Manea in the mid-19th century, and the late 20th century hovertrain experimental track.

 

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Distinctiveness: A Local Perspective

Heritage Lottery FundWhat makes the Ouse Washes area special? This is a crucial question that I believe we need to find an answer to.

Early on in the process leading to the stage 1 bid we already set out some reasons why we believe this is a special area worthy of attention. The stage 1 bid application clearly convinced the HLF as well, judging from its reaction on our bid.

Unlike well-known landscapes in the East of England such as the North Norfolk Coast, the Broads or the Chilterns – all of which have been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Park and are well-known tourist destinations -, the Ouse Washes area does not get that much attention. One of the key aims of the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme is to change this around, to give the Ouse Washes the exposure it deserves: it is a unique landscape which should be better understood and much more explored.

One of the main aims of the Landscape Character Assessment which we will produce this year, is to assess what makes the Ouse Washes landscape distinct and special. Landscape character is often defined as such:

A distinct, recognisable and consistent pattern of elements, be it natural (soil, landform) and/or human (for example settlement and development) in the landscape that makes one landscape different from another, rather than better or worse.

Understanding the character of a landscape starts with the search for recurrent patterns that dominate the landscape and which are distinct from those of neighbouring landscapes. Landscapes result from the way that different components of our environment, both natural and cultural, interact together and are perceived and valued by us. The below diagram summarises some of the elements that constitute landscapes. This originates from the Landscape Character Assessment Guidance for England and Scotland, produced in 2002, and which can be downloaded here. 

What is landscape from 2002 landscape character assessment guidance

What is landscape? From: Landscape Character Assessment Guidance for England and Scotland, 2002, Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage

Going back nearly two years now, in April 2011 Cambridgeshire ACRE organised a workshop which was well attended by tens of people from organisations in and around the Ouse Washes. One of the items on the agenda that day was a word association activity. The outcomes of this are quite interesting, and I would like to present these here as well. The participants were asked from a long list of words to tick those which they thought best describe the Ouse Washes area.

The results of this exercise are shown in the image below; on the whole, the participants were surprisingly consistent in their choice of words, with the ones below chosen by the vast majority of people:

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Equally interesting perhaps are those words which absolutely nobody ticked; these included: ‘Uninspiring’; ‘Pretty’ and ‘Untouched’.

My questions to you are:

1. Do you agree with the above selection of words? taken together, do these describe the Ouse Washes area, or is anything missing?

2. Do these words specify the Ouse Washes landscape, or could most of these descriptions equally be used to describe The Fens as a whole? In other words, what makes the Ouse Washes area a distinct landscape, different from the surrounding landscape?

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