What is unusual about the word pulchritude. It means beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. Pulchritude is certainly not an attractive word. How about the word diminutive or unwritten. Diminutive is not a short word, and unwritten is a word that can obviously be written. What is distinctive about these words is that they are all words that have been described as ‘not being themselves’. What they appear to mean is different from what they actually mean, their structure or appearance contrasts with their meaning, or they contradict themselves.

The term for such words is heterological, meaning something that does not describe itself, A study of such words is an esoteric one, of interest to language academics or lexicologists.

As this post is a little on the dry side (except perhaps for the bit about oxymorons etc at the end), I thought to lighten it up with a few cartoons on the subject of language and learning.

Words that do describe themselves are called homological or autological words such as finite, meaningful, numberless, pronounceable, readable, unhyphenated, thing, and visible. Good examples are grandiloquent meaning pompous or extravagant in a way intended to impress, and sesquipedalian meaning long-winded or characterized by long words. Such words are actually hard to find.

Are not almost all words heterological words? I suppose they are.

Misleading Words 

Apocryphal sounds as if it’s a story of great importance whereas it means a tale of dubious authenticity.

Belladonna may mean beautiful lady in Italian and sound like a stylish woman, but it’s the poisonous plant deadly nightshade.

Bemused might sound like amused, but it means puzzled or confused.

Benighted suggests someone who is honoured but it refers to someone who is ignorant or lacking in morals.

Bodkin ought to mean a little body but its a large needle without a point.

Bucolic surely means chocked up if not a severe illness, but it refers to an idyllic rural life or it suggests a pastoral way of life as with shepherds.

Crapulous sounds dirty but it’s excessive indulgence, intemperance.

Callipygian sounds as if describes a feature of an animal but it means well proportioned buttocks

Crepuscular refers not to a skin ailment but to creatures like bats or rabbits that are active in twilight, the period before dawn or after dusk

Decimate historically this was to kill one in every ten soldiers but nowadays it means destroying a large portion of something

Disinterested means to be impartial or unprejudiced, but it is often confused with uninterested, that is to be unconcerned or not bothered with something

Enervate is to be lacking in energy, though it sounds like the opposite, or even to annoy someone.

Enormity might be something to do with size or magnitude, but it’s actually about the seriousness or extent of something that’s bad or morally wrong.

Erstwhile means former not as often thought esteemed.

Fungible sounds like it describes a spongy fungus, but its a legal term describing goods or commodities that can be replaced by equivalent items.

Hiatus is not a commotion or a ruckus, but a pause in activity.

Inflammable suggest it can’t be set on fire, that it can’t be burnt, except that it means it can. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Ironclad has nothing to do with somebody dressed in armour, but it describes arguments that are impossible to disprove or contradict.

Mawkish sounds as if it might be to do with mocking someone or something, but it means to be excessively sentimental

Mordant might suggest someone who is ponderous or broody but it actually means humour that is biting and incisive. It also refers to a substance used to fix dyes to cells and textiles, and to a musical notation.

Noisome is to have a very disagreeable smell. Nothing to do with being noisy,

Nonplussed sounds like it means not caring too much about things, but it means very surprised or confused.

Nugatory must be something to do with nougat but it means futile, trifling, or having no value.

Orrery might be an animals nest or lair but it’s a mechanical model of the solar system showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.

Phlegmatic refers to a person who is calm, composed, unemotional, not as it might seem someone who gets easily excited or is animated.

Plethora means an excess of something, not an ancient Greek musical instrument

Priceless sounds as if it could mean cheap or worthless though it means the opposite, very valuable.

Prodigal looks and feels like the word prodigy which means a talented individual who invites admiration, but in reality means recklessly wasteful.

Prosaic comes from the word prose and means commonplace, lacking in imagination, dull, even though the word sounds elegant or ornamental.

Pulchritude sounds like ineptness or even a pustule, or refers to a rather large person, but as mentioned above it’s a showy word for beauty.

Saturnine was said to be the temperament of someone born under the supposed astrological influence of Saturn, but it nowadays means gloomy or melancholic.

Scurrilous could describe how some small animals move, but it’s the making or spreading scandalous claims about someone in order to damage their reputation.

Vomitorium contrary to what might seem obvious was the tunnel-like entrance in an amphitheatre or stadium.

Continue Reading »

Advertisements

Assorted Perugia

The hilltop city of Perugia, the capital of the region of Umbria in central Italy, may boast the greatest medieval palace in Italy, the finest art gallery in the region, and ancient fortified walls and gates, but its many dark and twisting cobbled alleyways, back streets, arches and winding staircases offer many other surprises for the inquisitive tourist.

perugia, umbria, fontana maggiore, cathedral of san lorenzo, palazzo dei priori, griffin, guelph lion, medieval

One of Perugia’s most photographed locations: the main square of Perugia with the Maggiore fountain in the centre. On the left is the side of the C14 Cathedral (or Duomo) of San Lorenzo. Immediately on the right is the entrance to the Palazzo dei Priori (the meeting place of the priori or ‘first citizens’ of Perugia’s medieval commune) surmounted by the city’s symbols, the griffin and the lion.

Perugia was amongst the most important of the twelve city states of Etruria, the dominant culture of Italy until the Roman Republic was established in 509BC. Though the Etruscans were assimilated into Roman culture, the city has many Etruscan landmarks including the innermost massive walls of the city with its seven gates that were constructed in the second half of the 3rd century BC. In the heart of the city is the masterpiece of Perugia, the C13 richly sculptured Fontana Maggiore in one of Italy’s finest piazzas, the Piazza IV Novembre (the day the First World War ended in Italy). Facing the square is the medieval Palazzo dei Priori, one of Italy’s greatest public palaces, which also houses the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria and the region’s finest collection of Umbrian art. Further out from the Etruscan walls, another series of walls and four gates was built in the C13 and C14.

Curiously evidence of Roman rule is scare. There are Roman remains beneath the cathedral, and also beneath the Tempio di Sant’Angelo at the end of Corso Garibaldi to the north of the city. This unusual circular building, which is a paleo-Christian temple from the C5-C6, is one of the most ancient churches in Italy. It has some Romanesque features and is built on the remains of a Roman temple. The aqueduct on the west side of the city is Medieval not Roman as is sometimes stated.

Today, Perugia is also famous for its international chocolate and jazz festivals, its football team, its cosmopolitan L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia (the University for Foreigners) established by the fascist dictator Mussolini in 1921, and home to the country’s largest language school.

If you’ve only 48 hours in Perugia, here’s an assortment of other places to see and things to do.

The Rocca Paolina 

At the southern end of the main street of the city, the broad Curso Vannucci, past the Piazza Italia, under the western porticoes of the Prefecture Palace of Perugia, is an escalator. This unexpectedly takes you down into an underground complex of passages and vaults. This is all that remains of a great papal stone fortress, the Rocca Paolina (the Pauline Fortress), commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1540 following the brutal putting down of a revolt by the city. Perugia had enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the Papal States that had ruled central Italy from the 8th century. The revolt was triggered by the Pope’s decision to enforce a tax on salt which violated treaties between Perugia and previous popes. The conflict became known as the Salt War.

rocca paolina, perugia, umbria, giuseppe rossi, pope paul III, salt war, baglioni

This C19 painting by Giuseppe Rossi shows Perugia encircled by its walls with the Rocca Paolina in the foreground as it must have looked after its completion in C16. This was before the destruction of the fortress in 1860, when the buildings were demolished leaving intact the irregularly shaped ramparts or bastion underneath.

To build the fortress, hundreds of houses, including the palaces of the Baglioni family, the brutal rulers of Perugia since 1488 and enemies of Pope Paul, were demolished. The huge fortress became a symbol of church supremacy and oppression that lasted for three centuries. With the unification of Italy in 1860 the top-level of the fortress was demolished using dynamite and bare hands and the Prefecture Palace and the Carducci Gardens were built on top. This left the bastion and ground floor of the fortress as underground galleries. Anthony Trollope, watching the demolition, wrote that ‘few buildings have been laden with a heavier amount of long-accumulated hatred’.

rocca paolina, perugia, umbria, etruscan, porta marzia

The underground streets of the Rocca Paolina (left and centre) and the 3rd century Etruscan gate, Porta Marzia (right), that was incorporated into the external walls of the fortress when it was built in 1540. The portal leads into the underground streets of the Rocca Paolina.

Three successive escalators continue down through the underground city, into the open in the shadow of the ancient walls, and arrive at a bus station and car parks in the newer city.

Continue Reading »

What are the furthest points north, south, east and west in Britain? Are they worth a visit? How easy are they to get to? In the first of four posts, I go to the northern-most point in Britain. And as getting there is quite a challenge in itself, I won’t tell you where it is straightaway.

ms hjaltland, ms hrossey, northlink ferries, shetland isles

Although the MS Hjaltland and the MS Hrossey are each 7,434 tonnes, the Shetland Islands Council is looking at the need for larger ships with more capacity and which would be better able to withstand the frequently choppy waters of the North Sea.

You can start by getting a train to Aberdeen which is on the north-east coast of Scotland. If you happen to live in Penzance in Cornwall at the other end of Britain you could catch the 08.28 train which will get you into Aberdeen at 21.55, a distance of 722 miles. Incidentally this is the longest single train journey in Britain. Southbound you don’t have to change, but northbound you have to change at Edinburgh. At Aberdeen you board the overnight ferry to Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Isles. The ship will either be the MS Hjaltland or the MS Hrossey of NorthLink Ferries, each being 7,434 tonnes. The ferry sails at 19.00 (17.00 if the ferry goes via the Orkney Isles) and docks in Lerwick at 07.30 the next morning. It’s 224 miles (or 195 nautical miles). But to make sure of a good nights sleep, there are modern ensuite cabins or comfy reclining sleeper beds.

If you’re in a hurry though, there’s a choice of three or four flights a day from Aberdeen airport, five miles north-west of the city, to Sumburgh airport, 20 miles south of Lerwick, and the flight takes an hour and a quarter.

Lerwick is 600 miles almost due north of London as the crow flies. Bergen in Norway is 223 miles due east and is closer to Lerwick than Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which is 301 miles south. The Arctic Circle is 400 miles further north. Owing to its northerly location, Lerwick, which has a population of 7,500, gets only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice. In contrast, daylight lasts 18 hours and 55 minutes at the summer solstice. For a period of time in the summer, the nights never get completely dark with dark blue elements remaining in the sky.

shetland islands, archipelago, lerwick, unst

The Shetland archipelago forms part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, 16 islands are inhabited.

Next you have to get to Unst, the furthermost north island of the Shetlands and which has a population of 652. This involves two car ferry crossings, one of 20 minutes from Toft on Mainland (the name of Shetland’s largest island) to Ulsta on the island of Yell, then a 10 minute ferry from Gutcher on Yell to Belmont on Unst. The 55 miles by road and ferry takes about two and half hours, but there’s no quicker way. There was an airport on Unst, at Baltasound, the main settlement on the island, but this was mothballed in 1996 when flights to the offshore oil rigs were centred on an airport on Mainland. Baltasound is home to the most northerly Meteorological Office weather station in the United Kingdom, as well as the most northerly Post Office.

From the ferry at Belmont it’s a 12 mile drive north on the A968 through Baltasound to Haroldswick, the Viking centre of Unst and home to the Unst Heritage Centre, Valhalla Brewery, and Shetland Distillery Company, and then north-west on the B9086 to Burrafirth and Hermaness. The road is now single track with passing places. The B9086 ends at Burrafirth but a minor road continues to the car park and visitor centre for the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR). The visitor centre is in the former shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (see below).

Continue Reading »

ForkInTheRoadI recall from a walk in Wensleydale a year or two ago, an unexpected fork in the path that my friend Patrick and I were taking down a hill called Addlebrough. There seemed to be two ways back to our starting point. For some reason the phrase ‘the path not taken’ came into my mind, and I briefly pondered that I might never find out what would have been different if we had taken the other path to the one that we decided to take. Patrick said that the phrase was ‘the road not taken’ and it was the title of well-known poem.

The Road Not Taken is a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in the preface to his collection of poems Mountain Interval which was published in 1916 when Europe was engulfed in the Great War. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

robert frost, american poet, rural life, new england, pulitzer prize

Robert Lee Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963), the American poet, was born in San Francisco. His poems were often set in rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He was much honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, and in 1913 he became a close friend of the then writer and literary critic Edward Thomas, after Thomas had reviewed one of the older poet’s collections. They took many walks together in the fields and woods around Frost’s cottage in the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. In 1915, Frost returned to New Hampshire and he sent Thomas an advance copy of The Road Not Taken.

The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their walks. Thomas would often choose one fork in the road because he was convinced it would lead them to something, perhaps a patch of rare wild flowers or a particular bird’s nest. When the road failed to yield the hoped-for rarities, Thomas would rue his choice, convinced the other road would have doubtless led to something better.

Frost wrote to Thomas ‘no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Unfortunately Thomas took the poem more seriously (as had college audiences to whom Frost had read his poem), and more personally than Frost had intended.

So close was the friendship that had developed between them when Frost was in England, Thomas and Frost had planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision. He also suffered from chronic depression. He found it difficult to choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France, even though he despised the jingoism and the hatred of Germans that the press was stoking.

But Thomas was also haunted by the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced six months earlier in a stand-off with a gamekeeper that he and Frost had encountered on one of their walks. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. The Road Not Taken did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. ‘Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’

Continue Reading »

The National Trust has a target of producing 50% of its energy from renewable sources on its land by 2020. It’s a challenging target. The new biomass boiler which was installed at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and which was switched on in July 2015, is one of five pilot renewable energy projects that will address that goal. This is the story of how trees on the 1,800 acres estate are being turned into fuel.

ickworth park, national trust, ickworth rotunda, nikolaus pevsner, gervase jackson-stops

Completed in 1829, the Rotunda was later described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘a crazy idea … it makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for rooms inside’. More recently architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops said the Rotunda was like a ‘huge bulk, newly arrived from another planet’ and an ‘overgrown folly’.

The 199kw boiler is fuelled by wood chip produced from timber taken from the 600 acres of woodland on the estate and it will supply 100% of the fuel for heating the Rotunda and the West Wing. These are the main buildings in the centre of the park, and were the idea of the 4th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey, who intended to use them as a place to display the treasures he gathered during his 30 years of travel in Europe. The Earl was seen more in Italy than in Suffolk.

Incidentally the Hervey family became more eccentric and more notorious right up to the 20th century; read more here. But ever since Ickworth was passed to the Trust in lieu of death duties following the death in 1951 of the 4th Marquess (and 8th Earl) , the buildings have been a nightmare to heat and the bills for the heating oil have been enormous.

Around 156 tonnes of wood chip fuel would be needed each year in addition to the 40 tonnes that was currently being supplied to the boiler at the Regional Office of the Trust at Westley Bottom a mile away. An independent assessment concluded that extracting this amount from the estate on rotation would be sustainable.

Removal of timber from the estate first started in autumn 2014 when ‘harvesting’ machines extracted non-native softwood trees like Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce and Larch, from a small area of Lownde Wood in the south of the estate. The logs had to be stacked nearby as the wood chip store still had to be built. This was to be located next to the existing wood store in the north of the estate. In September last year, harvesting of softwood resumed in Lady Katherine’s Wood on the east side of the estate (photos 1 & 2). The harvester cuts the tree at its base, and as the trunk is lifted up, it is fed through rollers. Knives strip the branches off the trunk, and a chain saw cuts the trunk into 12′ lengths. This all seems to happen in just a few seconds and it is fascinating to watch.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lady katherines wood, tree harvester

These plantations of softwood were likely planted forty or fifty years ago but they had not been managed for a long time. Not all of the softwood is cleared, no more than 30% of the canopy in fact (photo 3). This is to keep some cover for wildlife until the wood is replanted with native broadleaf species that will improve biodiversity. It also serves to protect the wood from strong winds which could blow down thinly spread trees. Standing and fallen deadwood is left, again for the benefit of wildlife.

The land for the wood chip store had by this time been cleared so all the timber, including that from Lownde Wood, was taken up to wood store in the north of the estate (photos 4) where it was piled into five long stacks (photo 5), enough timber to last Ickworth’s needs for an estimated three and a half years. Ideally the timber needs to be stacked for 18 months to 2 years to dry out before it is chipped.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lownde wood, timber stacks

Continue Reading »

The Christmas tradition of putting a plastic net bag of gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins in children’s Xmas stockings along with a satsuma or clementine took a bit of knock in 2014. Cadbury’s announced in October that year that it had stopped making its chocolate coins. The chocolate-maker said shoppers had switched to cheaper, own-brand versions sold at supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Poundland, leaving its own sales in decline.

cadburys chocolate coins

As well as declining sales, Cadbury’s said that wrapping the foil around the coin-shaped chocolate was ‘quite fiddly’. Wasn’t fiddling with the foil and trying to remove it intact, part of the attraction of the coins at Christmas. Apparently the last remaining box of 24 bags of coins were snapped up on eBay for £100, well before their sell-by date.

A spokesperson explained that the coins, which were made by a ‘separate contractor’, had proved difficult to sell and that the process of wrapping the foil around the coins was not easy, adding ‘we are sorry to see the coins go, but that’s business’. Making chocolates has always been a business where continuous reinvention seeks to repeat the success of earlier forever popular chocolate bars.

The first company to make a moulded chocolate bar as we know it today was J S Fry & Sons in 1847 at their factory in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry found a way to mix cocoa powder and sugar plus a little melted cocoa butter extracted from the beans, to produce a paste that could be moulded into a chocolate bar suitable for large-scale production. It was coarse and bitter by today’s standards, but it was still a revolution. The paste could also be poured over fillings and in 1866, Fry’s Chocolate Cream was launched (image below).

frys chocolate creamDuring the late 1800s, and early 1900s, the manufacture of cocoa and confectionery in Britain was largely dominated by Cadbury’s in Birmingham, Fry’s in Bristol, and Rowntree’s and Terry’s both in York, all of whom were Quaker families. This wasn’t just a coincidence. The Quakers were social reformers, and extracting cocoa from cocoa beans to make drinks was a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol. Then the companies turned to the making of chocolate. But today these names exist only as brands owned by international companies. Cadbury (the ‘s’ was dropped in 2003) and Terry’s are now owned by US-based Mondelēz International, the second-largest confectionery manufacturer in the world after Mars (though Mondelēz is looking to sell the Terry’s brand). Fry’s was taken over by Cadbury’s in 1919, and Rowntree’s is owned by a Finnish company, Raisio Group.

Confectioners Are Swallowed Up 

sharp's super-kreem toffee, sir kreemy knut

Sharp’s introduced Sir Kreemy Knut in 1919 to promote their Super-Kreem Toffee, a dapper aristocratic character with cane and bowler hat. After WWII, Knut was resurrected as a live diminutive sales rep Nobby Clarke, a regular visitor at shows and seaside resorts during the 1950s, who arrived in a Rolls Royce. Sadly none of the brands made by Sharp’s survived for long after its sale to Trebor in 1961.

Though Fry’s was swallowed up in 1919 it wasn’t until the 1960s that other major confectioners went the way of Fry’s, or merged, often a euphemism for a take-over.

Trebor bought Sharp’s in 1961, and Clarnico in 1969. Bassett’s bought Pascall in 1965, and Barratt’s in 1966. Bassett’s then merged with Maynards and Trebor in 1990, and were then bought by Cadbury Schweppes in 1998, and finally by Tangerine Confectionery in 2008 (now the largest independent confectionery company in Britain).

Mackintosh’s bought Wilkinson’s in 1964, Fox’s in 1969, and then merged with Rowntree’s in the same year. In 1988, Rowntree-Macintosh was bought by Nestle, and Paynes was bought by Northern Foods. Fox’s (still owned by Nestle) was bought by Northern Foods in 2001, then Fox’s and Payne’s were bought by Big Bear Confectionery in 2003, which was then bought by Raisio in 2011.

Cadbury’s and Terry’s came to be owned by Mondelēz as a result of Kraft Foods buying Terry’s Suchard in 1993, and Cadbury’s in 2010. A year later, Kraft Foods split in two with the confectionery arm, which included Cadbury and Terry’s, becoming part of Mondelēz.

Some Sweets Still Live on

Though the original confectioners have long gone, their names live on as brands as do some of their most popular lines. Each sweet and each company has its own story, but here are a few snippets.

tangerine confectionery, barratts sherbet fountain

When Tangerine Confectionery, owners of Barratt’s Sherbet Fountain, updated the sweet’s packaging in 2009, they faced a predictable backlash from customers. The new, hermetically sealed fountain may have protected the product from moisture and avoided spillage on newsagents’ shelves, but generations of kids delighted in its original, eccentric, sherbet sucking and tongue tingling form. Tucked in the back pocket, the yellow paper tube looked pleasingly like a stick of dynamite.

Barratt’s Sherbet Fountains was first sold in 1925, the sherbet contained in a paper wrapped cardboard tube with a liquorice ‘straw’ stuck in the top. The tip of the straw was bitten off so as to suck up the sherbet, though it could get clogged up and the stick was then used a dip. The traditional packing was replaced in 2009 by a plastic tube and a solid liquorice stick which caused a media outcry. The Barratt’s factory was in Wood Green, London. By the early 1900s it had become the firm’s custom to give every worker a Christmas present. In December 1913, this took the form of an alarm clock, and it is said that Mr G W Barratt, son of the founder, personally presented about 2,000 of them.

When sales representative for Bassett’s, Charlie Thompson, in 1899 spilt a tray of liquorice and cream paste samples of chips, rocks, buttons, cubes and twists samples in front of a shopkeeper in Leicester, Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts was born. The resulting colourful mix impressed the chap who placed the first order for ‘allsorts’. Bertie Bassett, Bassett’s promotional mascot was introduced in 1929. Bertie has remained a popular figure ever since and to celebrate his 80th birthday, Cadbury arranged in 2009 for Bertie to marry his sweetheart Betty Bassett in the Sheffield factory where Allsorts were then produced.

Continue Reading »

fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

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.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

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.

Continue Reading »