Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.
To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.
A Potted Natural History
Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.
Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.
The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.
After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.
The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.
By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.
Draining the Fens
As early as the 13th century, the Church and monks experimented with limited drainage to expand their agricultural estates. In the 15th and 16th century, because the Fens were liable to flooding, ineffective and piecemeal attempts were made to prevent this by deepening and widening waterways though these were forever silting up. By the 16th century, a full-scale project to drain the entire Fens and ‘recover’ the land and protect it from flooding was being considered.
The first large-scale draining of the Fens was started in 1634 during the reign of Charles I by a group of wealthy landowners, the ‘Gentleman Adventurers’, led by the 4th Earl of Bedford and devised by the eminent Dutch engineer, Cornelius Veymunden. Those who did the draining were called undertakers. Field ditches and long straight drains were dug through the marshland, and the rivers to the sea, the main ones being the Ouse, Nene, Welland and Witham, were straightened, and new channels cut. The Fens were seen as a vast potential agricultural plain.
Fen-dwellers were fiercely opposed to the draining as it would deprive them of their livelihoods of fishing, wildfowling, the catching of eels, the coppicing of willows and other trees, taking peat for fuel, and the harvesting of reeds or sedge for thatch. Fenland was being replaced with arable land owned by strangers. The ‘Fen Tigers’ tore down dykes and sluices, and set reed beds on fire, halting drainage work.
In addition because farmers expected too much from the scheme, whenever things did not go to plan, such as when winter snow and rain rendered the ground unworkable, Veymunden and his adventurers faced scathing objections. Charles I projected himself as the scheme’s saviour but only so that he could take possession of a large area of Fens and prevent his own bankruptcy. The adventurer’s name still lives on in many parts of the Fens. There is Adventurer’s Land between Peterborough and Wisbech, and Adventurer’s Fens near Aldreth and near Wicken Fen.
Though the draining of the fresh and salt-water wetlands was similar to that which was being undertaken in the Netherlands, the engineers had not anticipated that as the land was drained, the peat would dry and shrink. This caused the land to sink leaving the rivers and drains, within their banks, at a higher level. The shallower meres simply silted up. From 1685, windmills or wind-engines, with water scoops, had to be used to lift the water from the ditches into the drains, though they were unreliable being dependent on the wind, and were uneconomic to maintain. By 1812, just the Isle of Ely had some 230 wind-engines. As the land continued to sink, much of it now below sea level, new sluices and drains had to be built. It did not help that the non-shrinking silt adjacent to the coast of the Wash had the effect of a barrier making it even more difficult for water to flow into the sea from the drains.
Between 1750 and 1850 a population explosion almost tripled the number of people in Britain. Food was scarce, many faced starvation. This was the driving force to the systematic draining of the Fens that followed the earlier efforts at drainage. Large scale drainage continued up to the 1820s as did opposition to it with fierce local rioting and sabotaging of works.
From the 1820s, wind pumps were replaced with pumps powered by steam from coal-fired steam engines. Steam pumps could operate in any weather and when flooding was likely they often ran for days and nights on end. And water could be lifted over a greater height from the ditches into the main drains. All the meres could now be drained with the use of steam power, and by 1852 they had gone. Whittlesey Mere, which was once famous for its summer sailing regattas and winter ice skating races, was the last to be drained, although its name remains on OS maps. Wheat was cultivated for the first time. The annual value of the crops grown in Whittlesey Mere in 1853 was £12,350 compared with the £1,160 produced by the cutting of reed and sedge around the Mere before it was drained. By 1860 the value of the newly drained land had risen by at least ten-fold. The roar of escaping steam and the steady stroke of vertical pistons brought with it the realisation at long last of the dream of Vermuyden and his Adventurers.
Steam-powered pumps were themselves replaced with diesel-powered pumps, the first being installed at Methwold and Feltwell in 1913. It had to cope with a lift of 6 feet, all attributable to land shrinkage. Elsewhere water was lifted 21 feet. Flooding still continued up until the severe winter flooding of 1947, but flooding was largely eliminated under a Flood Protection Scheme with the installation of more the small electric-powered stations that are still used today, many of which are automatic. Without these pumps, the Fens would be drowned and the islands would reappear.
The sinking of the Fens due to shrinkage of peat is well demonstrated by the Holme Post in Cambridgeshire. The post was drilled into the peat and underlying clay in 1851 in order to monitor peat loss and the top of the post was at ground level. Now the top of the post is 4 metres above the ground. This area of the Fens is the lowest point on land in Britain, 2.75 metres (9.5 feet) below sea level.
As a result of the draining of the fens, Fenland has become one of the major arable regions in Britain for grains and vegetables. The soil is particularly fertile, containing around half of the grade 1 agricultural land in England.
Thus there are competing interests between farmers and those organisations seeking to restore wetland habitats to the Fens.
Restoring the Fens
The wild fens once covered 1,350 square miles, but today only 1% of the original undrained wetland habitat remains in a few isolated fragments, but these habitats are still remarkably diverse. Wicken Fen near Soham in Cambridgeshire is the largest at 930 hectares (2,300 acres) in area. 8,459 species have been recorded at Wicken Fen. The other fragments are in reserves at Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen also in Cambridgeshire, and Baston and Thurlby Fens in Lincolnshire. Despite the challenge, a number of ambitious habitat restoration projects are in progress.
The Great Fen in Cambridgeshire is a 50-year project to create a huge wetland area by joining two Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen, both of which are National Nature Reserves (NNRs). On their own these fens are too small and isolated to support the special wildlife of the original fens, but the plan is to create a fen landscape of 3,700 hectares (9,142 acres) around these two fens. It is one of the largest restoration projects of its type in Europe.
Wicken Fen, Britain’s first nature reserve, was created in 1899 when the National Trust purchased two acres of the fen for £10. Other parts were bought by Charles Rothschild, the banker and entomologist, who donated them to the Trust. Rothschild was concerned with the rapid disappearance of British wildlife and habitats as a result of industrialisation, and saw that in order to protect wildlife species and their habitats, nature reserves would need to be established. Today Charles Rothschild is regarded as a pioneer of nature conservation in Britain.
In 1999, the Trust launched the Wicken Fen Vision, a 100-year project to establish a 5,300 hectare (13,096 acre) nature reserve between Wicken Fen and Cambridge. The Trust has purchased large areas of drained fenland in the surrounding countryside, including Adventurers’ Fen and Burwell Fen. Highland cattle and Konik ponies, originally from Poland, were introduced in 2013 as a low cost and natural method of managing the fenland and of creating the habitats for the thousands of species that inhabit the fen.
Other NNRs and restoration projects include Willow Tree Fen to link Baston and Thurlby Fens in Lincolnshire; Chippenham Fen and the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire; Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk; and the Wissey Wetlands and Welney Washes in Norfolk. The Ouse Washes are the largest area of washland (grazing pasture that floods in the winter) in Britain.
Even with the restoration of these fens, they will still be relatively small and isolated, and would be unable to support the extensive wildlife of the original fens. Restoring the original ecology of the fens on a large-scale is not simply a matter of stopping the pumping of water and blocking ditches, or of allowing fenland closer to the sea to flood. The condition of the existing drained peat is critical to recovery as is a good understanding of the complex hydrological processes involved. And the recovery of vegetation and of the right balance of nutrients in the water would take a long time.
But large-scale restoration is not likely to happen given the pressure to grow more food, the number of jobs that farming provides, and the rising value of agricultural land.
The Draining of the Fens by Trevor Bevis, a booklet first published in 1992, has many illustrations and old maps and is an interesting read.
Sadly not one of the original wind-engines has been preserved. The steam-powered Old Engine at Stretham in Cambridgeshire on the River Great Ouse, which was replaced by a diesel engine in 1924, has however been preserved, one of only three surviving steam drainage engines in East Anglia. The diesel engine Stretham has since been replaced by five smaller more efficient electric pumps. The Prickwillow Museum has many preserved engines, including a diesel engine that is nearly identical to the one at Stretham and which has been restored to working order.