The RSA Heritage Index (2020) provides an important source for considering how heritage is placed at risk across the six counties. Norfolk has the highest percentage of Grade I listed buildings at risk with 7.7 per cent, followed by Bedfordshire at 5.3 per cent. Norfolk also has the highest percentage of Grade II* listed buildings at risk with 3.5 per cent. Grade II listed buildings are largely considered not to be at risk across the region. However, scheduled sites are far more at risk: Cambridgeshire stands at 16.6 per cent, followed by Essex at 8.7 per cent.
How can such fragile and vulnerable heritage be protected across the region?
Norwich has the highest rating in the RSA Heritage Index (2020) at number 3 for England. The rankings in all seven categories are almost identical to those for 2016. The lowest score, as might be expected for an urban location, is for Landscape and Natural Heritage.
Cambridge is placed at number 9, and like Norwich does not do so well for Landscape and Natural Heritage. Like Norwich, its rankings for the different themes are very similar to those for 2016.
Southend-on-Sea, a unitary authority, is placed at number 19. Its particular strength lies in Landscape and Natural Heritage, as well as Industrial Heritage, and Museums, Archives and Artefacts. Again, note the similarity to the rankings for 2016.
Ipswich, the highest ranking authority for Suffolk, is placed at number 87 (a fall from 2016). There is an improvement in the theme of Culture and Memories, though slight falls for Parks and Open Spaces, and the General category.
Colchester in Essex is placed at number 140. It shares a museum service with Ipswich, though does not perform as well as in the theme of Museums, Archives and Artefacts. There are improvements from 2016 in the themes of Historic Built Environment, Culture and Memories, but a slight slippage for Parks and Open Spaces.
Altogether there are 11 locations in the eastern region that are placed in the top 100 for England: four in Norfolk, three for Essex (plus Southend-on-Sea), two for Suffolk, and one for Cambridgeshire.
The RSA Heritage Index, issued in the autumn of 2020, provides information on heritage at risk for each local authority. It is possible to quantify each local and unitary authority. For example, in Suffolk there are 8 Grade I, 22 Grade II*, and 3 Grade II buildings at risk; in addition, there are 25 scheduled monuments at risk.
In Cambridgeshire there are 10 Grade I, 12 Grade II*, and 2 Grade II buildings at risk; in addition, there are 56 scheduled monuments at risk.
In Norfolk there are 41 Grade I and 29 Grade II* buildings at risk; in addition, there are 18 scheduled monuments at risk.
In Essex there are 3 Grade I, 19 Grade II*, and 1 Grade II buildings at risk; there are 28 scheduled monuments at risk.
Turning the numbers into a percentage, it is possible to see that Norfolk has a particularly high percentage of Grade I buildings at risk. Cambridgeshire has a high percentage of scheduled monuments at risk.
Wicken Fen is a major National Trust property in Cambridgeshire, and a National Nature Reserve. The fen is a reminder of what so much of this part of Cambridgeshire would have looked like at the beginning of the twentieth century – and a reminder of what drainage and modern agriculture has done to these former wetland landscapes. There is a huge bio-diversity in the fen that makes it well worth a visit.
The National Trust Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve is the home to one of the largest numbers of species and sub-species on any nature reserve in England. The extensive reed beds are home to marsh harriers and dragonflies, there is a dedicated butterfly walk, and kingfishers can be seen on Wicken Lode.
But this was also a working landscape. The reeds and sedge grasses were harvested for thatching and making reed mats, and the waterways provided food in the form of eels. The National Trust has preserved a fen cottage to remind us of what life was like on the fen. There is also a fenman’s workshop giving an idea of the range of activities that would have taken place.
It is possible to detect some of the Roman waterways constructed in the Cambridgeshire fens. One of the more easily accessible is Reach Lode that can be visited from National Trust Wicken Fen on their boat the ‘Mayfly’ (via Wicken Lode). Reach Lode joins the river Cam at Upware.
The classic study is by C.W. Phillips (ed.), The Fenland in Roman Times (London: The Royal Geographical Society, 1970).