Over the years I have developed a passion for the Fens its history and its wildlife. About 20 years ago i was fortunate to have the oppurtunity to move to the Fens. webmaster
A brief piece of Fen History
The Fenland country is a unique part of Britain in its formation, its history and its population. Five rivers, the Trent, Witham, Welland, Nene and Ouse, empty themselves into a bay, the Wash. Each river carries down a quantity of alluvial soil which, in course of untold centuries, has accumulated on the sandy and peaty shore, creating vast areas of marsh-lands which gradually melt into the sea, so that often it is impossible to say where land ends and sea begins.
Two thousand years ago the whole area from north of Cambridge to south-east of Peterborough, and from Stamford to Brandon in Suffolk, seventy miles from north to south and thirty-five miles east to west, was one vast and almost impenetrable marsh, broken by many large and small patches of dry land, like islands, scattered amid it. Its sea of high reeds, screened by forests, formed an ideal hiding-place for refugees of all kinds. Here were strange men, and here, too, a great abundance of fish and birds that could not be found anywhere else in these islands. It seemed to have been made by Nature as a national aviary and aquarium. The pike from the river Witham and the eels from the Fens were even then famed far and wide. Roach and perch abounded, and many fish were found for which ancient chroniclers could find no name, being content quaintly to describe them as " of species unknown, of savour and flavour unequalled elsewhere on earth."
The feathered inhabitants included the common duck, wild geese, mallards, teal, quail, water-hens, spotted hens, woodcocks, pheasants, partridges and golden plover. These flourished in almost incredible quantities. Hundreds of years later men would catch as many as three thousand wild ducks on a single expedition. Herons, swans, cranes and bitterns bred in peace. The presence of so many fish brought in turn birds of prey, eagles, hawks, buzzards and kites.
The people who made their homes on the higher land came in boats hunting and fishing. Some adventurous souls settled on the islands, living on the fish and birds, and moving from place to place on stilts. From time immemorial these Fenmen had been a people apart, shrouded in the mists and vapours that so often swept over their land. Tradition described them as half-demons of appalling temper and ferocious appearance. For this there was a natural explanation. Men then living in the Fens were martyrs to ague, caused by the damp soil. The aches and pains and physical distortions of this, for which there was then no remedy, amply account for their execrable tempers and their twisted limbs. Even in the days of the early Britons men had discovered that the fields along the borders of the Fens were some of the richest to be found in the country. Nowhere is there such luscious grass, nowhere do crops grow so richly or cattle flourish better. The silt, with its underlay, known as the soak - subterranean salt water which rises and falls according to the season - makes great pasture and arable land. Men tried to '1 obtain more and more of this land by building sea walls and digging canals to keep back the sea and by draining the marshes. There came a long battle between man and Nature. Not without many setbacks, the Fen lands have been conquered, and to-day, canalised, drained and banked in from the sea, they rank among the great agricultural centres of Great Britain.
Early in the twelfth century a big marsh on the northern side of the Wash, known as Holland, was planted with trees, and a sea wall built to keep the waters off. But within half a century an abnormally high tide overwhelmed the wall, and the forest was flooded and ruined. It was brought under cultivation again, only to have 40,000 acres destroyed by another flood. Sea walls were built capable of resisting any known tide. Then would come an unusual spring tide, and everything would go.
It was not until the seventeenth century that adequate schemes were set afoot. The Earl of Bedford then obtained a concession from King Charles to reclaim a large area of the south-western fens known as the North, Middle and South Levels. A famous Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, was called in to direct operations. The greed of the king and the Civil War delayed the progress of the scheme. But in the end 95,000 acres were made good. Cromwell, it is interesting to note, helped to carry the scheme through, and Scottish and Dutch prisoners of war were put to work reclaiming the bogs.
Other big schemes followed. The Fenmen put up a stubborn resistance, claiming that they were being deprived of their livelihood. Sometimes their protests did not end in words. But they could do little to stop the march of civilization. Windmills helped to drain the surface water into the rivers. (To-day, steam pumps are replacing the windmills.)
Almost every great engineer during the first half of the nineteenth century studied the problem of the Fens. Some of them, their imagination captured, devised bold schemes for draining and cultivating a large part of the country now covered by the waters of the Wash. Sir John Rennie was one of these. People who know the land best say that, despite the experience of Holland, which has done and is doing just such things successfully, here it would be practically impossible. ( My thanks to Magic of the Fens for the use of the above text. )
The first drain to be dug in the Fens was Mortons Leam ( Leam is a medieval name for a drainage channel ) and was completed in 1480. Mortons Leam was named after John Morton who later became Bishop of Ely. It was his vision to cut a channel in a straight line enabling the water to traval faster and therefor reducing the silting effect. Prisoners from the hundred years war were used to dig Morton Leam which ran from Stanground to Guyhurn via Wisbech. Mortons Leam was 12 miles long, 40ft wide and 4ft deep.The drain was cut a second time by Cornelius Vermuyden in 1640. The use of prisoners to manually dig the fen drains was to continue until the 1700's.
The Fens have undergone massive drainage schemes since the seventeenth century and are still continually being drained today by local drainage boards. In the early days engineers faced a problem with land shrinkage which was caused by aerobic bacteria which lowered the surface of the peat. Many rivers were above land and gravity discharge alone could not move the water. In order to raise water onto the land pumps of sum discription were required, the first ones being wind pumps that drove a scoop wheel. ( The last remaining wind pump can be seen at the Wicken Fen wildlife trust site ) Around seven hundred wind pumps dotted the Fen countryside and proved inefficient as they solely relied on wind. With the advent of steam these wind pumps were soon replaced by steam pumps.
WIND PUMP AT WICKEN FEN
Of course fishing in the Fens you can't help but become endeared by the varied wildlife that abounds. A wide variety of birds and mammals are to be seen all year round. Some birds are resident and other come to the Fens to breed. Swans are prevalent here and many visitors take the time to visit the Welney Wetlands Trust ( see links page ) at Welney in Cambridge where you can watch the swans from special viewing points. Birds of prey such as Marsh Harriers, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks and Barn Owls to name a few can be seen all year round. At Wicken Fen wildlife trust you will find a preserved cottage and Fenland agricultural working tools remnants from the original Fen people that survived on the wetlands by growing and harvesting Osier and selling Eels. At one time eel fishing was a big industry in the Fens with the majority being sold to the church. The counties of Cambridgeshire,Lincolnshire,Norfolk and Suffolk all lay claim to parts of the Fens.It is the largest plain in the British Isles covering an area of three quater of a million acres.
Purpose of this website.
Sadly there is a dark side to the Fens, our wildlife is under threat from groups and or individuals that are seriously damaging the eco - system by killing birds,mammals and taking fish from our rivers. This is a countrywide problem and the authorities are doing what they can to stop these appalling practices.The purpose of this site is to hopefully make the people of the Fens aware of this and to advise on the correct procedure to report such instances. If like me you care and are concerned for wildlife in the Fens why not register to support our wildlife. As a member you can share you wildlife photos on the members photo page. Get out when you can and enjoy the Fens. ( don't forget your camera). If you are concerned for the wildlife in your area why not start your own wildlife watch project.