Great British Drives: Magical fenlands and market towns of East Anglia in a classic Skoda

A road trip through the Fens with Martin , Jane and Trilby. Postcard moment outside Ely Cathedral with their classic Skoda Estelle.. cambs 24th January 2018
Skoda-mounted Martin, Jane and Trilby the dog at Ely Cathedral Credit: David Rose

I didn’t see Grunty Fen or Three Holes, but visiting Ely Cathedral was something of a compensation. I was taking my wife, Jane, on a tour of the Cambridgeshire Fens. This was billed as a birthday treat for her, where we’d experience an unfamiliar part of Britain.

There were obstacles to the treat part, namely our dog Trilby’s habit of stretching his harness to its full extent so he can lovingly stuff his nose into our ears, the often diabolical weather – and our car.

This was my 1989 Skoda Estelle, a pea-green, rear-engined relic of the era when Skoda, imprisoned behind the Communist-era Iron Curtain, built very basic, antique cars with sometimes dodgy driving characteristics and mixed reliability, making them the butt of many a joke.

I own one precisely because it feels older than it is. The car was appropriate fenland transport – a few years back the fens were filled with old boys in flat caps pottering about in Skodas, but when I suggested that it would be fun to re-create this slice of motoring social history, my wife wasn’t overly enthused.

With just over 50 horsepower, a chugging 1.2-litre engine and four-speed gearbox, the Skoda laboured at 65mph among the giant trucks on the M11, but once on the Cambridgeshire lanes, meandering through bowling green-flat, strangely arresting fields of dark earth, it clattered along happily. The dog slept and my wife insisted that she was having fun.

Inside job: the Skoda is pretty basic inside but has all the essentials - and the heater is especially  efficient Credit: David Rose

Outside, the wind, unencumbered by obstacles such as hills, thrashed the car with cold blasts of sideways rain. Fortunately you could roast chestnuts with the Skoda’s heater.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast called the Old School, located in a Victorian ex-primary school near Ely, and run by a jolly ex-pat German lady. She asked where we were visiting, before saying that some of our choices weren’t actually on the fens.

Having put us right, she sent us on our way via Ely, which quite resembles a quieter, scaled-down Cambridge, and after a bracing wander around the old town we arrived at Ely Cathedral. Dating from the 11th century, it stands on the site of a monastery created in 673, and looks delicate in some parts, solid in others. The sun shone briefly on the cathedral, vanishing as we set off towards the Welney Wetland Centre. To reach this we whirred along the A1101, which was anything but flat, so the little Skoda lolloped over dips and ruts.

The 120L's pea-green paintwork seems perfectly suited to the large skies and watercolour-wash light of winter in the fens  Credit: David Rose

There are about 200 square miles of fenland between Peterborough and Cambridge, and before 16th-century Dutch engineers drained it, people got about using flat-bottomed boats and caught eels. They were apparently used for currency as well as food. Once drained, the land experienced a sort of mass subsidence, leaving some culverts raised, so windmill-driven pumps were used to suck the water into them. In the 1600s two ruler-straight culverts, the Old and New Bedford rivers, were built for flood storage, and these are above and opposite the Wetland Centre.

We walked the dog, serenaded by a howling wind, the cry of waterfowl and the rancorous chattering of sparrows, then bolted for the visitor centre’s café, which was filled by convivial twitchers with very big camera lenses. The place also has a charming museum that revealed period life on the fens, where men once made duck calls and used cannon-sized guns attached to punts to blast the local waterfowl population.

Back on the road we made for King’s Lynn, the sky darkened, the wipers clacked and raindrops diluted huge, lead-grey vistas. Crossing the border into Norfolk we stop-started through Downham Market, on the banks of the Great Ouse. Still a functioning market centre, it’s filled with attractive buildings, and is apparently known as Gingerbread Town because of the warm colour of the local stone.

The old port area of King's Lynn features grand merchants' houses and civic buildings Credit: D Angood/Moment RF

To reach King’s Lynn we rejoined the busy, arterial A10, although it’s possible to trundle down lanes that take you through villages such as Wormegay. King’s Lynn has an interesting, varied history, some grand merchant’s houses and civic buildings: legacies of it being a wealthy, important port for many centuries. Perhaps not an obvious tourist destination, it’s a place that would reward a full day’s exploration.  

It’s also somewhere with a tricky one-way system and was holding a giant fair/market when we visited, putting parking spaces at a premium, so we made our way to Wisbech via the A47. I confess we arrived knowing nothing about the place, and were the sort of visitors who might wonder whether it actually had a beach. Locals are probably sick of this. 

An inland Cambridgeshire port, Wisbech sits on the banks of the tidal River Nene, close to Lincolnshire and Norfolk. It’s also rather lovely. “This reminds me of Paris,” said Jane.

As used to be Skoda tradition, the engine is mounted at the rear - just like a Porsche 911 Credit: David Rose

The Nene runs through the heart of Wisbech. On either side of it are broad roads overlooked by rows of fine, tall buildings, and the end result certainly has a Parisian flavour. 

Sometimes, not researching somewhere and simply turning up to see what it has to offer can reveal unexpected pleasures. Even in the rain that had constantly battered the Skoda since we’d left the Wetland Centre, Wisbech looked rather grand.

As with King’s Lynn we felt that here was a place that required a full day and decent weather to really explore and hatched plans to wish ourselves on some Cambridge-based friends to do just that. Their house was the final destination of our Skodering fenland odyssey; with a flatulent rasp of exhaust we aimed for it.

At this point Trilby woke, hauled on his harness, put a paw on each of our shoulders and, tail wagging, rammed a cold, moist nose into my left ear.

“Are you having fun?” asked my wife. Actually, I was.


Skoda 120L (1989)

PRICE NEW £2,950

PRICE NOW £1,000 

ENGINE 1,174cc, four-cylinder water-cooled 

POWER 52bhp

TOP SPEED 87mph (allegedly) 

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 17.5sec

FUEL ECONOMY 38mpg (est)

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Credit: Jessica Saunders