Fens 6 Crowland

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Next day we wend our bumpy way back up to Whittlesey (Whittlesea – it was once coastal), a place of conflict in the Fen wars described in Boyce’s book. Locals all over the Fens did not like their land being drained and given away to outsiders, just like indigenous peoples all over the world. There were many battles and acts of sabotage before the resistance was tamed. Even after that, the great lake at Whittlesey remained at around 8 square miles, but it was eventually drained in 19C.  Sadly, there is little evidence of all this in today’s slightly depressed looking town.

We went north to from Whittlesey to Thorney, once one of the five great abbeys that effectively ruled this area before the great Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 (Peterborough, Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney). All the is left of the once-great abbey is a rather large parish church for such a small village, quite striking nevertheless.

Thorney Abbey church

More striking is our next stop, Crowland Abbey. I recall stopping here for a break many years ago on my cycle ride from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Abbey of memory is more delapidated than today’s impressive remains.

We are made enormously welcome by enthusiastic volunteers. All that remains of this once-great Abbey is the north aisle of the former church, now an impressive building in its own right. And with evocative ruined features attached. We are guided by the volunteers to see the highlights of the interior, including a striking Green Man, and then the exterior.

It is quite evident that the Dissolution in this area led to Fen drainage falling into disrepair – this job had been done by the monks. This was one factor setting up the situation where new forms of drainage were perceived as being necessary, and hence the new major drainage schemes less than a century later.

At the centre of Crowland is a unique 3-way bridge that once spanned the River Welland and a tributary. The waterways were diverted long ago, leaving this unusual structure high and dry.

3 way bridge in Crowland

Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.

Moorhen in hedge

Fens 5 Welney

The continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

The first large scale work on draining the Fens was completed in 17C by the Duke of Bedford and a Dutch engineer Nicholas van der Muyden. We drive along by one of the main drainage channels, called the New Bedford River (featured image), although it’s not actually a river but an extraction of some of the waters from the Great Ouse River.

The waterway is long and dead straight, with a high bank separating it from the surrounding lower ground. Nearby is an earlier parallel channel, the Old Bedford River. The land between these two channels, the Ouse Washes, is used as a flood relief area when the old River Ouse would have flooded. It’s also good for wetland bird conservation and bird watching, hence our visit here to WWT Welney, where hides that look out over the wetland.

We take turns to visit the hides as there is no provision for dog walking here. There is a fair bit of birdlife around, notably martins, avocets, lapwings. I also see a single black tailed godwit in the distance – evidence that the WWT project to establish a viable population here may be working. The avocets are particularly photogenic.

Following the channel towards the sea, via circuitous Fen roads, we arrive at our second destination, the Denver Sluice Gates near the Norfolk town of Downing Market.

Denver sluice

These sluice gates manage water flows both ways from here up to the coast near King’s Lynn – and specifically prevent the Fens from being inundated by high tides. It is salutary to realise that without these gates this whole area of the Fens would be under water at high tide.

Fens 4 Ely

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 3.

It is Sunday and we again circle Ely to the south, this time to to the small village of Prickwillow and its Engine Museum. With a small group of visitors we learn more about the history the Fens and specifically the engines used to pump water, from an enthusiastic volunteer and video. It is remarkable that the whole area of he Fens would be inundated regularly by the sea without regular pumping. A marker at the museum shows that the high tide water level would be above our heads.

After the Fens were drained, the land gradually sank due to contraction of peat, so that the fields are now lower than the rivers that drain them – another incredible feature of this area.

The village of Prickwillow was established in 1830 as a tolling station on the River Lark. When steam power came along in 1860 a pumping station was established for drainage. The old pumping station has now become a museum, containing a number of old diesel pumps on display from around 1970s. Sadly there are no remaining steam pumps.

I note that several of the pumps on display are manufactured by the company WH Allen, for whom my father worked designing pumps. Maybe he had a hand in some of these!

After this education, we visit and savour the magnificent Ely cathedral, one of England’s great religious buildings. The medieval octagon tower is quite remarkable. Ely’s position as an island in the original Fens made it a natural focus for travel and trade.

Featured image shows Ely cathedral from nearby meadow.

Fens 3 Wisbech

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 2.

Next morning, we drive north, past the pretty market town of March, following the River Nene up to Wisbech. The river here is straight and channelled, part of the great works that ensure continued drainage of the surrounding farmland. Coming into Wisbech there’s a pleasing arrangement of Edwardian-style buildings along by the river. 

River Nene at Wisbech

In the 18C, Wisbech was a prosperous Edwardian town, but now we get the impression of a struggling economy. There is evidently a large population of non-indigenous people, and some just hang around on benches smoking or drinking. Apparently 70% of the town voted for Brexit. This trip is not about Brexit, but this experience gives us a feel for why they might have done so.

A visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum gives us more insights into the history of life in the Fens over nearly 2000 years. The layout of the museum is just like the museums of my childhood 70 years ago, with a huge miscellany of historic items. We browsed for quite a while. Remarkably, this Museum claims to be the second oldest in the country.

Wisbech & Fenland Museum

Here was a real example of a 19C ‘punt gun’ – an obscenely large shotgun carried stealthily on a punt until it was close to a group of birds, before firing and killing up to 50 birds – a frighteningly efficient way of exploiting what must have seemed nature’s inexhaustible bounty.

There was also evidence of the heavy use of opium and laudanum in the 19C fens, reminding me of a story in my great grandfather’s diaries, where a child had accidentally died from laudanum poisoning. It seems that this was a common occurrence, the bottles being easiy confused with a popular childhood remedy.

Returning to our campsite via March, I recall cycling down that very road nearly 60 years ago, transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, on the way from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Beatles’ She Loves You had just come out. The headwind that day was seriously strong, it was hard work.

Back at base, we see an odd couple of a greylag with a Canada goose, with just a single chick.

The odd couple

There is a small group of modern windmills near the campsite. However, considering the reliability of wind in the Fens we saw surprisingly few such windmills. I suspect that the vested interests that control much of this land are the sort who don’t want windmills disfiguring their landscape!

To finish, yet another spectacular sky!

Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Fens 1 Whittlesey

I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.

I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.

We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!

Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.

It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.

The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.

The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).

The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.

To be continued.

The Messenger

Readers of this blog will know that I occasionally post poems by Steve Taylor, from his regular newsletter. Steve has a knack of getting to the heart of things, such as in the following poem, essentially about learning to trust our intuition, which is very consonant with James Hillman’s ‘acorn theory’ of the daimon (see this post).

The Messenger

It’s not for you to decide
the direction of your life.

It’s not for you to determine
whether your life has meaning.

It’s not for you to deliberate
over whether you’re following the right path.

It’s not for you to doubt
whether your efforts are worthwhile
then grow despondent and give up.

It’s when you deliberate and doubt
that you overrule your intuition
and confuse your inner compass
and lose touch with your purpose.

You have to step aside
and trust the wisdom that is guiding you
even if you can’t comprehend it.

You have to step aside
and let your purpose flow through you
even if you can’t see where it’s heading.

You have to step aside
and leave your channel empty and open
so that your message is clear and unbroken.

Then you have to remain open
through indifference and admiration
through failure and success
until the whole of your message is delivered.

Then your message will make sense
and your meaning will be manifest.  
 

Lime Hawk Moth

I just rediscovered photos from May of this large moth on the drive, maybe 1-2in long.

I think it is probably a lime hawk moth. The colouring, shape, time of year and location near a birch tree are all right. although the markings are not quite as in the examples on the web. Attractive pattern anyway!

Rambling roses

The rambling roses on the arch in our garden are now in their glorious second blooming of the summer. The individual flowers show a beautiful but subtle range of colours from pink/apricot/yellow through to pink tinged white and finally faded white – all in view at the same time.

This excellent variety came originally from David Austin Roses.

Photographs by Panasonic FZ1000, reduced to width 2500px.

Marcus Aurelius on today’s affairs

On impulse this morning, I reread parts of Marcus Aurelius’ wonderful classic book Meditations, which has sat on my shelves for many years. Marcus was of course one of the few ‘good’ Roman Emperors, but also at the same time a philosopher.

He actually has lots to say about matters that disturb us today. Fortunately, Goodreads has made an excellent selection of quotes from the book, so I was able to choose from these.

Consider our distress at the apparent downturn in world events (across many countries) and our circumstances:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

And what about our countries that appear to be descending into populism, lying politicians out on the make, even fascism.

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Yes we need to witness what is going on, act where we can to mitigate against disturbing trends, but at the end of the day:

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Featured image is young Marcus Aurelius from the Musei Capitolini.

We’ll figure it out

Jane Fritz recent post At this inflection point in history, compassion has to stand its ground set me thinking. The post highlights all the thing that are going wrong in todays world and goes on to highlight the need for connectedness, compassion, courage, authenticity, generosity – none of which I would disagree with.

The thing is, we are all exposed by constant media exposure to all the things that are going wrong in the world, and the trends that appear to be going the wrong way – many of which have featured in moments of exasperation on this blog. So much so, that many people I have spoken to in recent months have actually reduced their exposure to the news and media because it is just so dispiriting. And what is it doing to the minds and dispositions of today’s youngsters?

Two insights occur to me.

First, Einstein is frequently quoted as having said that you cannot solve today’s problems with the mindset of yesterday, or words to that effect. Equally, you cannot anticipate the solutions to today’s problems from yesterday’s mindset, which is what we all have, and are reflected in the media. Tomorrow’s world will emerge from the collective mindset of billions of people confronted with today’s world. Who knows what answers might emerge, and how those problems might be resolved, or evolve into different and maybe even more intractable problems, if that’s possible. So we shouldn’t dispair if we cannot see the answers; it’s a work in progress. As daughter says in her increasing wisdom ” We’ll figure it out…”!

Second, we ourselves are a work in progress. We have choices day in and day out in how we live our lives and the quality of those lives. I believe that we are each on a path of growth and learning – about ourselves and our place in the world, even the purpose of our existence – the soul or daimon. So the job is to fulfil our purpose here, to make the best contribution we can at this moment, from where we stand now. This has been highlighted innumerable times over the centuries by advanced human beings. The job is to move towards our soul purpose, our spirituality, or whatever terminology you wish to use.

Of course, the inevitable result is connectedness, compassion, courage, authenticity, generosity…

Featured image is evening sky over Knutsford 14.8.22

At West Kirby

These hot days it’s cooler near the sea. These pics were taken during a walk around the marina at West Kirby. The featured image shows a pastel view across the Dee estuary to Point of Ayr on the North Wales coast.

Meanwhile, the sun was gradually setting over to the west.

Barker Dam and the San Felipe Trail

While in Houston earlier this year I went to inspect the new flood controls at Barker Dam, the very ones that were almost overwhelmed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A vast amount of concrete has been used to reinforce the defences against Houston being overwhelmed by flooding after days of continuous rain. We pray that it holds the next next time.

What I had not realised is that the dam lies at a very historic point, where the old San Felipe Trail crossed the Buffalo Bayou, enabling transfer of cotton from the plantations further south to the port of Harrisburg, inland from Galveston. Harrisburg burned down during the 1836 Texas Revolution, to be replaced by the new port of Houston. So Houston had its origins in the cotton trade.

In 1831 a travellers’ inn was established by Joel and Elizabeth Wheaton at this important ford across the Buffalo Bayou, very close to the point where these modern flood defences lie. Wheaton’s inn operated until the 1870s, when a new railroad replaced the old trail.

In the 1840s many refugess fleeing war in Eastern Europe made their way across the Atlantic, through Galveston and Houston and then westward along the San Felipe Trail (via this crossing point) to surrounding areas and the Texas Hill Country, where many settlements were founded.

After the civil war ended in 1865, the slaves of the Texas plantations were declared free, and many of the freed men made their way eastward along the San Felipe Trail to a new life in the Houston area. Indeed there is a Freedmenstown area in Houston.

That’s a lot of history for one inauspicious location between Barker Dam and Texas Highway 6!

Cognitive dissonance – whistling ducks

Those ducks looked oh so familiar, lurking under weeping willow trees by Knutsford’s Moor Pool. But something felt wrong. Then I realised. These were black bellied whistling ducks, very familiar from our visits to Houston, Texas. And this was Knutsford, Cheshire, far away from the homelands of these American sub/tropical birds (see Wikipedia entry).

How did they find their way to Knutsford? A mistaken migration across the Atlantic? Unlikely, as this is not a migratory species. More likely, they are escapees from somewhere like WWT Martin Mere? Anybody know?

Darter, common

The next day after the previous post, another dragonfly appears in the vicinity of the garden pond, and stays still on the crocosmia, presumably waiting for its wings to develop after emerging. This was maybe between one inch and an inch and a half long.

Reference to the British Dragonfly Society website suggests this is a common darter, colours not yet matured into red.

It seems to me that this demonstrates one of the many benefits of a garden pond in providing for a diversity of wildlife. Unfortunately, garden ponds are no longer as popular in UK as they were in my memory, probably due to the work involved in maintaining them. It’s so much easier to mow a lawn, put down plastic grass, or tarmac it over.

Hawker, common

You know how dragonflies are always on the move, usually continuously patrolling their territory. So it was a surpise to see this large one just basking on a loganberry stem in the garden. The insect was probably a couple of inches long.

The British Dragonfly Identification Guide suggests that this is a common hawker. We realised that this was probably newly emerged, maybe from our garden pond, waiting for its wings to fully develop.

Another revelation was the following zoom closeup taken with my Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone, confirming that high-end modern smartphone cameras have caught up with many of the capabilities of my previously favoured compact superzooms Panasonic TZ80/TZ200. And this shot has been reduced to 2500px width.

Big eyes!

Crocosmia

As we enjoyed an evening drink in the garden, the declining evening sun was at just the right angle to back-light these crocosmia flowers and buds. Quick, grab the camera…

A load of mushrooms

It was just a large patch of mushrooms in a lawned public area, but closer inspection revealed interesting almost-geometrical patterns as the various individual cups had aged. Just the opportunity to try out the supposedly good camera on my new Samsung smartphone..

I haven’t managed to identify these, but the cups look unremarkable until they start to broaden and split with age. Here a single daisy completes the scene.

The sharpness could be better, and there’s a limit to what you can do with sharpening software…

Challenging times

A recent post by Gail Tverberg explains what many of us suspect, that the world economic/resource/technology/political ‘system’ is running into the buffers. She suggests that this is a problem of the physics of the system, and not something that is easily addressed. Her conclusion makes sobering reading:

“We are dealing with a situation that economists, politicians and central banks are ill-equipped to handle. Raising interest rates may squeeze out a huge share of the economy. The economy was already ‘at the edge.’ We can’t know for certain.

Virtually no one looks at the economy from a physics point of view. For one thing, the result is too distressing to explain to citizens. For another, it is fashionable for scientists of all types to produce papers and have them peer reviewed by others within their own ivory towers. Economists, politicians and central bankers don’t care about the physics of the situation. Even those basing their analysis on Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) tend to focus on only a narrow portion of what I explained in [this post]. Once researchers have invested a huge amount of time and effort in one direction, they cannot consider the possibility that their approach may be seriously incomplete.

Unfortunately, the physics-based approach I am using indicates that the world’s economy is likely to change dramatically for the worse in the months and years ahead. Economies, in general, cannot last forever. Populations outgrow their resource bases; resources become too depleted. In physics terms, economies are dissipative structures, not unlike ecosystems, plants and animals. They can only exist for a limited time before they die or end their operation. They tend to be replaced by new, similar dissipative structures.

While the current world economy cannot last indefinitely, humans have continued to exist through many bottlenecks in the past, including ice ages. It is likely that some humans, perhaps in mutated form, will make it through the current bottleneck. These humans will likely create a new economy that is better adapted to the Earth as it changes.”

We in the West have had the opportunity, since WW2, to live through the best of times, driven by plentiful energy and resources. Now we approach the times of reducing energy and resources, of climate breakdown, of conflict such as we already see today in Ukraine. Our mindsets need to change, and we need a whole new approach to organising the affairs of humankind on earth and its parts, one that is more aligned with the natural world.

The end of civilisations and empires is always a turbulent time, but also one replete with opportunity for renewal. The challenge to all countries and individuals is to ride the waves and emerge in a better place the other side…

But dare any politician say such a thing and get elected?

Featured image of storm clouds by FotoSleuth, via Wikimedia Commons