The Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire/Norfolk Fens all drain into and were flooded by the sea of The Wash. A potted history: they were first drained by the Romans, reverted to a natural state after the fall of the Empire, and were again drained around 12C by monks, falling into disrepair around 16C after the Dissolution, and drained in on a larger scale in 17C, the period focused on in James Boyce’s book.
The Fens and their drainage machines are an ongoing enterprise to maintain a balance between sea and land, in this most fertile part of England. No wonder this part of Lincolnshire is called New Holland.
The Wash is now a major natural asset for migrating and indigenous birds. As a last hurrah for our explorations, we go close to the mouth of the River Witham at RSPB Freiston Shore. Again we stand on the sea wall looking out over The Wash – salt marsh on one side and fresh water lake on the other.
A solitary cormorant stands in typical pose, amid black headed gulls and ducks.
On the landward side Boston Stump stands out proud (featured image), seaward there appears to be almost endless salt marsh, beach and then sea, with a misty Norfolk in the far distance.
I reflect that some of my ancestors played a part in this great drainage enterprise; the Fens are part of my own roots.
The dog was not impressed; there were cows on the sea wall. He dashed back towards the van.
Our next destination is Boston, near the mouth of the River Witham, and in the Middle Ages a major port of England, related to the wool trade.
Our main target is the church of St Botolph, commonly referred to as Boston Stump. This is one of the great churches of England, almost cathedral sized, funded during Boston’s glory days, made rich through export of wool and membership of the Hanseatic League. What a magnificent building it is! And the dog was welcome to enter with us.
I recall from childhood that we could see the tower of Boston Stump from the top of the central tower of Lincoln Cathedral, but we never actually went there. Boston did not have a great reputation. Today, the prosperity of Boston’s heyday is long gone, and the economy of the area appears quite depressed to us visitors.
I visit the dog-free 14C Guildhall, well preserved and containing a rather haphazard museum, with display boards outlining some of the key events in Boston’s history, particularly the role of local people in the nonconformist/ puritan movements, the emigration of those who became the Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of the US city of Boston. 1 in 10 Bostonians emigrated to help form the new city of Boston, Massachusets.
Boyce’s book has a theme that Fen drainage was a colonisation project similar to what happened in Tasmania. It became clear here that the Fens were being colonised at around the same time as the Americas. This was the spirit of those times.
Not mentioned is Boston’s role in leading resistance to the drainage of fens in this area, described in Boyce’s book – such that the process was actually reversed. Drainage channels were destroyed and the process delayed for 100 years. Boston people resisted the trends in the rest of the Fens – a bloody mindedness that maybe continues to this day, as the area was significant contributer to the majority in the recent Brexit vote.
Continuing the story of our exploration of the Fens.
Our second base was another Premier Park – Long Acres, near Boston. Unexpectedly, the satnav takes us there via Crowland, zig-zagging northwards – using the major east-west cross-fen highways between Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Boston. These seem to be the only decently surfaced roads in the area, and they are busy with lorries, tansporting the products of this fertile area to the rest of England.
We arrive at RSPB Frampton Marsh (featured image) and enjoy lunch overlooking freshwater marsh with a smattering of birds. The dog is more interested in the cows munching away at the grass, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
There are many more birds on the freshwater lakes we pass by to reach the raised barrier that constitutes the seawall. From this seawall we look out over huge salt marshes out into the Wash. This barrier is all that stops these Lincolnshire fens from being regularly inundated with seawater.
We are lucky that avocets are reasonably close to this side of the lake.
But we see rain approaching across the Fens, so make haste back to the van and on to our next base at Long Acres.
Out in the Fens, the sun slips slowly below the horizon.
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.
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.
Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!