Flag Fen is Back!

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog post Always Look On the Bright Side… about Flag Fen and how it had just been taken under new management, following the demise of Vivacity, the organisation that ran most of Peterborough City Council’s cultural facilities. I won’t say how I feel about Vivacity and how they ran Flag Fen, but let’s just say it’s now in very safe hands. More to the point, the new management care deeply about the site, the people who work there and, of course, its many thousands of visitors. The new organisation behind Flag Fen will be familiar to all Peterborough residents, present and past, when it was known as Brook Street college; today it’s still based in its old campus off Brook Street and is known as City College Peterborough. Click here to visit the new Flag Fen website, which I should add is still under development. Over the years, I’ve done countless talks and lectures there because the College has always been focussed on outreach to local people – who are precisely the audience we were trying to appeal to in the early days of Flag Fen. Today archaeology is much better known than it was forty years ago, when sometimes visitors would come up to us and say words to the effect that ‘I thought excavations only happened in places like Egypt, I’d no idea we had such things here, in England.’ So I was absolutely delighted when City College asked me to join their Flag Fen team.

 We’ve had to organise a huge number of things in order to get Flag Fen back on the rails, as it were. One important aspect of Flag Fen’s re-launch has of course been purely archaeological: we need to know just how rapidly the timbers are drying out and how well the Mere is keeping the core of the site wet. To do this we called on the expertise of the highly experienced team at Cambridge University Archaeological Unit who carried out the superb, and internationally important, excavations at Must Farm, just over a mile away from Flag Fen, on the Whittlesey side of the River Nene. I need hardly add that we keenly await the results of their excavations at Flag Fen. The dig was funded with a generous grant from Historic England (known as English Heritage a few years ago). I must confess, it was great to see archaeologists once again at work in Flag Fen.

One day I would like to see a plaque erected somewhere out in the Flag Fen park to thank David Savory for his extraordinary devotion to the place and its continuing existence during some very challenging years. Whenever I did manage to summon up the courage to visit Flag Fen when it was being run by Vivacity, I would always nip round to the barn and there I’d meet David. Over the years he has done a huge amount of work improving the park as a haven for wildlife and now it is really starting to show. I’m delighted to say that David is now Manager of the park at Flag Fen. Every time I visit I seem to spot something new. I’d known for some time that David knows a huge amount about wildlife and was invariably willing to help me with problems identifying birds. He’d always have a broad smile and would tell me about the latest animals who’d paid them a visit. What I didn’t realise back then was that he was a brilliant photographer, too. Here are three great examples of his pictures, all taken at Flag Fen:

 Covid-19 has, of course, complicated every aspect of all our lives, but it has also led to the establishment of government-funded local recovery programmes, some of which are aimed at assisting the cultural sector.  With the help of these funds the new governing body appointed a General Manager to run Flag Fen. Jacqueline Mooney took up her new job in September and is already making a big impression.  Jacqui’s recent employment has been within the visitor side of organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust, where she ran important attractions and led teams that sorted out several long-term problems. But hidden near the start of her CV was something I had been looking for: she earned an archaeological honours degree from Sheffield University, which, until its very recent and – to my mind – scandalous closing down, was one of the finest archaeology departments in Britain. Over the years, experience has shown that prehistoric archaeology lies at the heart and soul of Flag Fen and whoever is in charge there must have considerable experience and knowledge of the subject. So welcome to Flag Fen Jacqui!

The new General Manager at Flag Fen, Jacqueline Mooney, at a well-known prehistoric site in Wiltshire.

Flag Fen’s first full season of rebirth started memorably with a summer solstice fair, which featured stalls and displays in the park and attracted good crowds of visitors. It was great to see craftsmen and women using Bronze Age axes, spinning nettle fibres and threading prehistoric looms. David Savory patrolled the exhibits accompanied by a bottle-fed Soay lamb, which behaved for all the world like a well-trained Labradoodle. David’s lamb was very popular with the many children, whose screams of delight helped to lift what was already a very relaxed and cheerful afternoon. While I was walking around the displays I also recognised the faces of many of our old Flag Fen volunteers, who I hadn’t seen for many years. David made big efforts to attract them back to Flag Fen and now, with Jacqui’s added support, our long-missed volunteers are returning. Flag Fen’s survival and future prosperity always depended and will continue to rely heavily, on its force of dedicated volunteers. In the past they helped us survive the hard times, and as new variants of Covid are sadly still showing us, these are not about to end any time soon.

 Back in the early-mid 1990s Maisie set up the first Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) at Flag Fen and it was a great success, with the young people helping with the excavations and going on trips to visit sites and places of interest further afield. Over the intervening years the Flag Fen YAC has waxed and waned, but it has recently been given a big rejuvenation, as part of the larger Fenland YAC, under the excellent supervision of Alex Fryer. In September YAC members were able to closely examine the trenches being excavated by the Cambridge Archaeology Unit. This went down very well indeed, as the cheerful faces of the youngsters in the following photo show.

Photo courtesy of Fenland Young Archaeologists’ Club.

When Maisie and I were running Flag Fen full-time, back in 1980s and ‘90s, we always liked to keep the site open twelve months a year, seven days a week. Of course our visitor flow slowed down quite dramatically during winter weekdays, but that was when we’d be able to get on with research and writing-up. One of the best things about our days of winter opening were the smiling faces we’d welcome on weekends. People loved walking through the park, visiting the Museum and of course the café was always well-packed with customers in bobble hats, clutching steaming mugs of soup, coffee and tea. I’m sure many of our regular winter visitors went on to become volunteers and helpers. Sadly, winter opening was soon abandoned when Fenland Archaeological Trust handed over the management to Vivacity, but now I am delighted to report that the site is open again and selling particularly good cups of real coffee, snacks and cakes. We have also applied for an alcohol licence and I hope one day to enjoy a glass or two of ale there (strangely we might be selling Pryor’s Bronze and Iron Age Ales – which are delicious and brewed by a local craft brewery).           

The new team at Flag Fen have made an exciting addition to the winter delights at Flag Fen. The Ancient Lights illumination trail will be will be open from December 10th-16th. It will consist of a spectacularly lit journey through the Flag Fen park, where children might happen to meet Father Christmas – and who knows, his mythical origins  might well lie back in the Bronze Age? Because of Covid-19, visitors are advised to reserve a time in advance. Here’s a foretaste of what’s to come:

 We had all sorts of problems to sort out, not the least being the two wooden bridges across the Mustdyke, which should have been given urgent repairs some time ago. A temporary metal one will shortly be in place. Covid has meant that some of our displays aren’t currently available, but we are hoping to open them soon. Meanwhile we soldier on. Do come and visit, but not just to show your support: when you come, I think you’ll agree that we’re making great progress – and much of that is due to the sterling efforts of David and Jacqui. Keep up the good work: it makes me feel humble to see a huge prehistoric presence slowly returning to life.

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