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A short history of the Fens

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The Fens have always been a unique part of England: few places today retain an individual character but Fenland certainly does.  For many hundreds of years, they were regularly under water for a great part of the year: they were therefore mainly pastoral economies, supplemented by fishing and fowling.  However, where arable land was available it was often extremely fertile.  The Fens were inhospitable to outsiders, partly because of disease: marsh ague was very common and traditionally countered by the use of opium. 

People living in the Fens knew how to make the best of their environment and to work in harmony with nature in a way that we can only envy today  As one great historian of Fenland, W H Wheeler says, ‘so wild a country naturally reared up a people as wild as the fen, and many of the Fenmen were as destitute of all the comforts and amenities of civilised life as their isolated huts could make them.  Their occupation consisted in dairying and haymaking, looking after the beasts and sheep which grazed in the fen in summer; and in winter, gaining a living by fishing or fowling.’  The most characteristic sound in Fenland was probably the croaking of the many frogs – they were known as ‘fen nightingales’.

The ‘drowned fens’ seemed a wasteland to some, but there were many ‘products’ available for harvesting, some of very great value.  They included fish, especially eels, wild birds, peat for fuel, sedge and reed for thatching.

Attempts to drain the Fens, and to protect land from flooding, began as long as Roman times, and continued throughout the Middle Ages, but the ‘Great Draining‘ took place in the seventeenth century.  King James I declared in 1620 that ‘the Honour of the Kingdom would not suffer the said Land to be absorbed to the Will of the Waters, nor let it keep Waste and unprofitable.’  He would himself be responsible for the reclamation of the fen lands.  He invited Cornelius Vermuyden to England, initially to drain marshes in Essex: Vermuyden was a Dutchman, then only 26 years old.  The great works of large-scale drainage of the mid-seventeenth century in Fenland that followed, like the Old and New Bedford Rivers and the Denver Sluice, are some of the largest man-made landscape features in England.

Fenland led the way in the use of a ‘new’ technology, the windmill.  The use of windmills for grinding corn spread very rapidly from the last two or three decades of the twelfth century, and by the sixteenth century the power of wind was put to further use in pumping water out of the fields into the rivers.  Victorian Fenland saw the development of the technology of steam drainage: as the levels of the peat shrank, more and more power was needed to lift excess water from the fields in to the rivers and drainage channels.  As early as 1805, the agricultural writer Arthur Young noted: ‘The application of steam engines to the drainage of the fens, instead of windmills, is a desideratum that has been often mentioned, but none yet executed: when it is considered that the windmills have been known to remain idle for two months together, and at seasons when their work is most wanted, it must be evident that the power of steam could nowhere be employed with greater efficacy of profit.’

They allowed the fertile soil to be fully exploited, and by the nineteenth century Fenland was known as the bread basket of England because of the amount of corn that was grown.  These changes were unpopular with many locals, who claimed that they had always made their living by gathering ‘reeds, fodder, thacks, turves, flaggs, hassocks, segg, fleggweed for flegeren, collors, mattweede for churches, chambers, beddes and many other fenn commodytes of greate use in both towne and countreye.’  This dynamic tension between old ways and new ideas is a key element in the character of the Fens.  More recently, the fertile soil has been exploited in increasingly diverse ways, most notably the growth of the production of fruit and flowers.

Of course, nature could not be completely tamed.  There were floods, one of the most notable being those of 1912.  In March 1947, there was a crisis, caused by the thaw of a heavy fall of snow: the Barrier Bank between Over and Earith gave way on 17 March, followed by other breaches elsewhere.

Floods have become much rarer, but the forces of nature still have to be reckoned with.  There was further flooding in 1976, especially in Lynn.  In December 2013, there were severe floods in Wisbech and Boston: In the latter town about 300 homes were under water and St Botolph’s church was flooded, causing a million pounds worth of damage.

Fenland was clearly an area with plenty of wind, as the windmills and pumps of previous ages demonstrated.  This is  something that can be exploited in the twenty-first century  Wind turbines of various sizes have already been erected across the area, and the Fens will increasingly supply the electricity used in England and Wales.

By Frank Meeres

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