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 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.