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David Self on how an unruly landscape was tamed

hen Noel Coward wrote "Very flat, Norfolk", he can't have seen the Fens.

They are awesomely flat. Stretching from Peterborough in the west to King's Lynn in the east; from Boston on the Lincolnshire coast south into Cambridgeshire, this seemingly featureless landscape contains more Grade I agricultural land than any other area of Britain. No wonder that in the Second World War the Fens became known as Britain's Breadbasket. As a result, few airfields were built in the area, despite its being an ideal take-off zone for bombers heading to Germany. The soil was too useful.

As the "breadbasket" tag indicates, cereals account for a larger acreage than any other crop, but the Fens also produce a third of our potatoes. As a result, the several towns host potato-crisp factories and Whittlesey is regularly bathed in the smell of McCain's chips. Other root crops such as carrots, parsnips and turnips grow well in the Fen soil and sugar beet was introduced in the 1920s.

Shortly before that, the silt soil of south Lincolnshire was found to be ideal for growing bulbs and salad. The explosion of those industries has resulted in Spalding hosting an annual spectacular flower parade with scores of floats smothered in tulip heads. A more recent influx of workers from eastern Europe who are prepared to do jobs which are now rejected by locals means that thousands of supermarket bags of ready-washed salad come from the Fens. Further south, Wisbech has been a centre for apple and rose growing for the past hundred years or so.

There is another side to this agricultural productivity. In his diaries (Untold Stories, Faber), Alan Bennett describes how "two tractors ply up and down a vast field, conscientiously soaking the soil with yet another spray". This, he says is a landscape with "all hedges gone, the soil soused in fertiliser, a real Fison's Fen".

Over the years, the Fens have had a bad press. Daniel Defoe described it as a "soak", meaning sink. The Fenlander has also acquired a reputation for taciturnity, insularity, stubbornness and incest. But that is because, for much of its history, the area was near-impenetrable to outsiders. Once part of the shallows of the North Sea, this was the land of the punt, not the plough. Today's landscape has been formed by centuries of hard manual work.

If we were to go back 10,000 years, this land would have been a tall, dense forest. As the Ice Age ended, the forest flooded, the trees died, fell, rotted and turned into the prime peaty soil known in the Fens as "Black Gold".

When the Celts arrived around 700 bc, the Fens were brackish marshes dotted with gravel islands. The coastline of the Wash was several miles further inland than it now is, an alignment that persisted until medieval times. At Flag Fen, near Peterborough, many Bronze and Iron Age artefacts have been unearthed and reconstructed, including 3,000-year-old timbers from a walkway that probably had a ritual significance. Flag Fen and its museum provide an illuminating glimpse into early settlements in an almost prehistoric land.

The Romans arrived in ad 43 to discover "a huge fen of hideous bigness".

Once they had defeated Boudicca and her Celtic tribe, and her surviving followers had migrated west to Wales, they set about turning Fenland into a factory complex, extracting salt from what became known as salterns, and digging peat for fuel. They even had a few stabs at draining the land.

After they left, it reverted to a salty, sedgy swamp, exactly the sort of place where you might mislay your crown jewels (if the story about King John is to be believed). Meanwhile, the Church had moved in. Few areas of England have so many ancient ruined abbeys: Ramsey, Crowland, Thorney, Peterborough, Ely. By the time Henry VIII seized control of them there were at least 15 wealthy foundations. Unhappy at now paying tithes to the king, the dissident Fenlanders were more than happy to support a likely local lad, the rebellious Oliver Cromwell, born in nearby Huntingdon.

But before Cromwell came to power, a later monarch, Charles I, had an inspiration. He would tame this unruly landscape, and also its inhabitants who had already acquired their reputation for insubordination. He instructed the fourth Earl of Bedford to drain the "Great Eastern Swamp".

Bedford gathered together a band of "adventurers" (for which read investors). At this point, the Dutch drainage engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden came on to the scene. In 1631, he dug a 21-mile drain from Earith to Denver. Straight as a ruler, this first "Bedford River" short-circuited a loop in the River Ouse through Ely, lessened the chance of flooding there and enabled excess water to flow more quickly out towards the Wash. It was the first serious attempt to drain the Fens. So pleased was the King that he considered moving his court to the village of Manea, east of March.

Despite its being only a metre or so above sea level, he proposed calling it Charlemont. Before he could achieve this dream, he lost his head.

Vermuyden, however, went on to straighten and reroute many other rivers and to dig completely new drains. Causeways, first built by the Church in medieval times to push back the sea, were repaired and extended. The coastline, once bordering modern Peterborough, retreated north of Wisbech.

Thus, as in Vermuyden's native Holland, considerable tracts of land were claimed from the sea.

The Earl of Bedford may have been given 95,000 acres of prime agricultural land as a reward for managing the project, but the emergence of the fertile, peaty soil did not impress the locals. For them, the draining of the Fens meant ruin. What would happen to their traditional ways of making a living: cutting turves (lumps of peat used for fuel), reed cutting, wildfowling, fishing and catching eels? Indeed, when Vermuyden's labour force, imported from other areas, arrived the Fenlanders did all they could to hinder and sabotage the work.

But Vermuyden's scheme had its own flaw. He had not predicted what would happen as the land was drained. As the water drained off the porous peat, the peat literally shrank, and the ground level became ever lower and lower. It wasn't long before many riverbeds were higher than the surrounding fields (as remains the case).

Increasingly large embankments were built, and they sank under their own weight. Yet so tempting was the newly discovered soil, the process was continued despite numerous breaches and floods. Windmills were introduced to pump water out of field drains into the rivers. Dependent on the wind, they were scarcely adequate. In 1778, farmers rowed through their orchards to pick the apples. It was only when the first steam pumps were introduced in 1820 that the Fens truly began to dry out.

One of the last great acts of reclamation was the drainage of Whittlesey Mere in 1851. This was, in area, the second largest lake in England, but it had become so shallow that a Norwich clergyman ran aground in the middle while sailing his boat on it. He waded to the shore and left his boat there.

Newly invented centrifugal pumps, which had been on show at the Great Exhibition that year, were brought to Whittlesey and pumped the Mere dry at 1,600 gallons a minute. Thousands of people came to watch. Besides tons of fish that could be caught (or left to rot), there were other discoveries in the emerging silt: priceless church silver, a prehistoric dug-out oak canoe and the skull of a wolf. When lower levels of silt were excavated, the skeleton of a killer whale was unearthed.

A year later, in 1852, a Mr W Wells had the wit to sink what became known as the Holme Post, to measure the shrinkage of the land where the Mere had been (see box, right). Another proof of land shrinkage is Prickwillow Rectory near Ely: its front door is now several feet above ground.

Drainage of the Fens may have completely altered the work pattern of Fenlanders, but one means of winter transport persisted: skating. Its origins are uncertain but early Fen folk used sheep bones as skates. In times of frost, Fen wives would often skate 30 miles to market. It was the Dutch who introduced something like the modern skate and by 1820, skating was a recognised sport. Speed-skating championships were held on Whittlesey Mere (before it was drained) and also on the "washes", areas that had been created to store excess flood water. Usually, the skating course was straight with a barrel at either end, around which the competitors would turn at speed, doing several laps in one heat. A champion skater would achieve 40mph.

During the 1930s, diesel pumps were introduced to keep the Fens drained, followed by electric pumps in the 1950s. Even so, there were major floods in the 1930s, again in 1947 and in 1953, due either to excessive rain or high tides. One result was the largest drainage project since the 17th century: that centred on Denver. The future is unpredictable. The system of sluices, pumps, drains and embankments is expensive to maintain, but the land is still productive and profitable. Some wonder whether the peat will eventually shrink to nothing and whether it will then be viable to protect and maintain the area. Then there is the question of global warming and predictions of higher sea levels and wetter winters (although this winter has been abnormally dry in the Fens). At the moment, constant vigilance maintains the balance and the microcosm of the Fens could be an example to other threatened areas. But, in the Fens, they know it's not that easy to make water flow uphill. As they say, water finds its own way.

The Denver Complex The first Denver Sluice was built in 1651, part of Vermuyden's grand plan.

Today the Denver Complex is a complicated system of sluices, gates and channels which considerably lessens the chance of flooding in Cambridge and the cathedral city of Ely; it protects southern Fenland from upstream floodwater and also from high tides surging up the river Great Ouse, while supplying water to the expanding population of Essex.

The first part of Vermuyden's original scheme, the original Bedford River (now known as the Old Bedford River) proved inadequate. Once the chaos of the Civil War had subsided, he set to work again, this time at the behest of the fifth Earl of Bedford. He constructed a New Bedford River, parallel to his first cut. It is now locally known as the Hundredfoot (from its width). At its lower (northern) end, at Denver, a sluice was constructed to control its outflow. The land between the two rivers (including the River Delph) became the Hundredfoot Washes, a flood plain that could store floodwater until tidal conditions allowed it to flow out to sea.

High tides and floods combined to burst Denver Sluice in 1731 and local opposition (also known as Fen bloody-mindedness) meant it was not rebuilt until 1750. It was improved in 1834. Floods in the 1930s led to plans being drawn up to raise the river banks and lower the river bed, but the Second World War intervened.

Then came the disastrous floods of 1947 and 1953. This time the response was to dig the Relief Channel from Denver north to King's Lynn. Built between 1956 and 1958, this channel runs almost parallel to the straightened Great Ouse and relieves that river of excess floodwater. It is big enough to store vast quantities of water until it can be released, when tidal conditions permit, through what is known as the Tail Sluice near King's Lynn. At Denver, a new sluice, the A G Wright Sluice or Head Sluice, regulates the flow of water into the Relief Channel.

During the next decade, the Government realised there was an impending water shortage in Essex, due to population growth. The Cut-off Channel was constructed south from Denver, to receive water from the Rivers Wissey, Little Ouse and Lark (tributaries of the Ely-Ouse).

The Impounding Sluice at Denver builds up the water level in the Cut-off Channel until the flow in the Cut-off Channel is reversed. Water then flows south, or "uphill", for some 25 kilometres (15 miles), until it enters a 20km-long tunnel at Blackdike on the Little Ouse. It is then pumped south, eventually entering a pipeline so as to reach the Essex river system. It is subsequently stored in reservoirs at Abberton (south of Chelmsford) and Hanningfield (near Colchester). For two thirds of the 145km journey from Denver it follows natural watercourses.

The Diversion Sluice at Denver allows even more water (from the Ely-Ouse) to be diverted to Essex when required. The Residual Flow Sluice is a device that measures water flow. This complicated but efficient scheme harnesses the forces of nature to prevent flooding and solve a water shortage. As global warming increases, equally imaginative schemes will be required elsewhere.

Language and literature

Visit Asda in Wisbech and you're now as likely to hear Lithuanian or Latvian being spoken as the Fen dialect. But, like any area that once had little contact with the world at large, Fenland developed its own dialect.

With an accent somewhere between rustic Norfolk and the northern tones of Lincolnshire, it had a many distinctive words: Beavers: boots.

Brink: river bank.

Camel: old nickname for a Fenman, derived from the custom of stalking across the Fens on stilts.

Docky: farm worker's mid-morning meal.

Fen Tiger: a local inhabitant, so named for his or her fighting spirit but more probably linked to the Welsh word "tioga" (peasant).

Spud: not a potato but a weeding tool.

Trandling: trapping small birds at night for food with a net and lantern.

Two fer ones: suet rolls with meat and onions in one end and jam or fruit in the other end; as you eat your way through it, it's a complete lunch.

Cuts, drains, dykes, leams, lodes are all artificial watercourses.

* The best modern novel about the Fens is Waterland by Graham Swift (Picador), which has been on some A-level English literature syllabuses. In it, Tom Crick, a Fenland history teacher, is driven by a marital crisis and the provocation of one of his pupils to forsake his teaching and explore his family history.

* Shamefully out of print is John Gordon's spooky and compulsive novel for teenagers, The House on the Brink, in which the young hero discovers he is able to detect echoes of the past in Fen mud, possibly including the whereabouts of King John's lost jewels.



The Story of the Fens by Valerie Gerrard, Robert Hale pound;20

From Punt to Plough by Rex Sly, Sutton Publishing pound;14.99


* Flag Fen Bronze Age Centre, The Droveway, Peterborough PE6 7QJ. Tel: 01733 313414

* Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum, Prickwillow, Ely, Cambs

Tel: 01353 688360

* Denver Complex, Sluice Road, Denver,

Downham Market, Norfolk PE38 0EG. Visits are occasionally possible. Contact Daniel Pollard

Tel: 01366 382013.

* The Fens Tourism Group, Ayscoughee Hall, Churchgate, Spalding, Lincs PE11 2RA. A free leaflet is available: Discover the Story of the Fens

Tel: 01775 762715


The Holme Post, erected in 1851, measures the shrinkage of land after the drainage of Whittlesey Mere, the year before. The mere had been the second-largest lake in England, and its drainage was made possible only after the advent of steam power.

The iron post was buried upright, its base set on oak piles driven into the underlying clay and its top level with the ground.

Over the years, the post gradually emerged as the ground level sank.

By 1875, 2.4 metres stood above ground. Now, 4 metres stand clear.

This is the lowest point in England, being 2 metres below sea level.

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