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.

My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons