The Fen Cottage and Garden is open April to October on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 2pm to 5pm, and some other days during summer.
Like many historic buildings that have evolved to meet the changing needs of their owners, 5 Lode Lane is difficult to date precisely; the cottage is in fact of a number of builds that perhaps span more than a hundred years from the late 18th to the early 20th century. While alterations to large houses were usually motivated by a desire to keep abreast of changes in fashion, small houses, especially in the early 19th century were often adapted and subdivided in response to declining status and to the needs of an increasing population. That part of the cottage closest to the fen, roofed in thatch, is probably the earliest and would once have been a simple two- celled structure divided by a central brick stack, serving an open hearth. It seems likely that the pantiled end of the cottage was added subsequently in order to house a second family. During recent repairs to the fabric of the building, inglenook fireplaces were revealed behind the 19th century cast-iron fireplaces in both ends of the cottage. The lean-to kitchen to the rear of the cottage is the most recent addition.
Unlike most modern buildings which make use of standard components available throughout the country, the cottage is constructed from a variety of unusual materials specific to the locality. In this sense, and because it was clearly put up by local people without supervision from an architect, the cottage may be described as a ‘vernacular’ building. Recourse to such materials was traditionally encouraged in the fens by a scarcity both of oak and building stone, it was only in the construction of ecclesiastical and important secular buildings that clunch tended to be used.
Many of the locally-made materials which can be seen in the cottage are exactly the same as those used in the earlier fen ‘hovels’ that must once have abounded both in the heart of the fen and in the villages on its margins. Such hovels were traditionally built on wooden piles driven into the fen peat, or on great mattresses of compressed reeds and osiers. The walls, which supported simple roofs of willow overlaid with great quantities of sedge, were made from clay-bats lined with sun- dried turf blocks. These flexible structures often fared better on the shrinking and expanding fen ground than later buildings set on brick and concrete footings.
REPAIR When work started on the cottage it was in semi-ruinous condition; the main aim of the repair was to preserve as much as possible of the original fabric and therefore of the building’s character. The key to this was the matching of the following materials, so enabling unobtrusive patching rather than replacement.
Peat – Cut from the fen with a special spade known as a ‘becket’, the blocks were sun-dried and used like clay bricks. You can see examples inside the upper cupboard in the first room. The use of such blocks and other apparently fragile earth-based materials may seem foolhardy to us today but they did serve their purpose well (and indeed had particularly good insulating properties), so long as they were protected from the rain by a coat of lime plaster.
Gault Clay – This both underlies the fen and appears as an outcrop along its edge; its presence allowed in the first instance the digging of many local pits, and in the second, a more developed brick-making industry. By the time large-scale brick- making had started up on Burwell fen in c. 1900, most small local pits had been abandoned. Some of the ponds that you can see from Wicken’s Boarded Walkway are flooded brick pits. There are also the remains of a brick kiln on the reserve.
The clay, which from the mid I8th century was commonly fired to white but from which a variety of colours was possible, was used for bricks, floor ‘pamments’ and roofing pantiles. During repair work it was also used as an ingredient in daub, external plasters and as a colouring agent in limewash.
Lime – An essential constituent in traditional mortars and plasters, was also used to make limewash, and as an additive to clay daub. Lime continues to be commercially burnt within 2 miles of the cottage.
Reed and Sedge – Both materials were harvested from Wicken Fen for repairs to the building. The reed was used in bundles as an infill material for walls, as a roofing material, and as a base for ceiling plasters. The underlying reed can be seen in plasterwork in the loft above the first room. Sedge was added to daub and to plasters and, because of its flexibility, was used as a ridging material. Traditionally entire roofs were commonly thatched in sedge and an example of a small sedge thatched roof can be seen on the shed outside the cottage.
Elsewhere in the building oil bound lead paints and distempers (pigment bound in size) have been used.
Reggie Octavius Butcher and his Mother Alice lived in the cottage at 5 Lode Lane from 1924 until 1972. The cottage is furnished as it might have been when they were there during the 1930s.
Reggie was disabled and, unable to make a living from traditional fen activities, became something of an entrepreneur and opportunist, selling household items such as paraffin and spare wicks, hatching duck, geese and turkey eggs, making fretwork items and issuing fishing licences. However, both his grandfather George Butcher, his great-uncle John, and male members of the previous generation seem to have worked on the fen both as labourers and turf-cutters.
The family appears to have been relatively well-to-do and at one time owned several cottages in Lode Lane; Reg’s great-uncle eventually ran his own turf-cutting business in the Lane, while his grand-father took on the tenancy of a nearby farm before finally returning to the Lane with Reggie and Alice in 1924.
Life in an unimproved cottage must nevertheless have been harsh at times, and memories of the Butcher’s frugal lifestyle endure still. In his book “Memoirs of a Fen Tiger”, Audrey James tells of the stoicism that the Kent family displayed when they were forced to evacuate their house each year at the height of the winter floods. It was not unusual in Wicken when waters were high for duck-boards to be laid out inside cottages to enable their inhabitants to move in relative comfort from one room to another.
Within living memory the thriving hamlet which grew up along Lode Lane, and which was known simply as ‘The Lode’ was considered quite separate from the rest of Wicken. The livelihoods of the families that lived there were intimately tied to the fen. The hamlet could be said to owe its existence to the harvesting of sedge, reed, litter and buckthorn, to the digging of peat and clay, to the shooting, catching and trapping of wildfowl, fish, eels and moles, together with the transport of these and incoming goods on the Lode itself.
When water levels were higher fen boats were able to travel, not only on the Lodes, but on the smaller dykes and, on occasions, on flooded drove roads. Goods were transferred to and from the fen boats and lighters at hythes on the larger rivers where more sizeable craft could moor.
The National Trust gratefully acknowledges the generous grants received from the Alec Clifton-Taylor Memorial Fund, East Cambridgeshire District Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, contributions from National Trust Members’ Centres and the loan and gift of various items from The Cambridge County and Folk Museum, The Haddenham Farmland Museum and The Vintage Wireless Museum.