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The Fens

Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

Background Information

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map of eastern England, showing position of the Fens
The position of The Fens in eastern England.

The Fens, also known as the Fenland(s), are a naturally marshy region in eastern England. Most of the fens were drained several centuries ago, resulting in a flat, damp, low-lying agricultural region.

A fen is the local name for an individual area of marshland or former marshland and also designates the type of marsh typical of the area, which has neutral or alkaline water chemistry and relatively large quantities of dissolved minerals, but few other plant nutrients.

The Fenland primarily lies around the coast of the Wash; it reaches into two of the nine official regions of England (the East of England and the East Midlands), four ceremonial counties ( Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and a small area of Suffolk), eleven District Councils and six postcode areas ( LN, PE, CB, IP, NR and NG). The whole occupies an area of nearly 1,500 sq mi (3,900 km2).

Most of the Fenland lies within a few metres of sea level. As with similar areas in the Netherlands, much of the Fenland originally consisted of fresh- or salt-water wetlands, which have been artificially drained and continue to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps. With the support of this drainage system, the Fenland has become a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grains and vegetables. The Fens are particularly fertile, containing around half of the grade 1 agricultural land in England.

The Fens have been referred to as the "Holy Land of the English" because of the churches and cathedrals of Ely, Ramsey, Crowland, Thorney and Peterborough. Other significant settlements in the Fens include Cambridge, Boston, Spalding, Wisbech and King's Lynn.


A windpump at Wicken Fen

The Fens are very low-lying compared with the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them – in most places no more than 10 m above sea level. Indeed, as a result of drainage and the subsequent shrinkage of the peat fens, many parts of the Fens now lie below mean sea level. Although one writer in the seventeenth century described the Fenland as all lying above sea level (in contrast to the Netherlands), the area is now home to the lowest land point in the United Kingdom, Holme Fen in Cambridgeshire, at around 2.75 metres below sea level. Within the Fens there are a few hills, which have historically been called "islands" as they remained dry when the low-lying fens around them were flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built; its highest point is 39 m above mean sea-level.

Without artificial drainage and flood protection, the Fens would be liable to periodic flooding, particularly in winter due to the heavy load of water flowing down from the uplands and overflowing the rivers. Some areas of the Fens were once permanently flooded, creating small lakes or meres, while others were only flooded during periods of high water. In the pre-modern period arable farming was limited to the higher areas of the surrounding uplands, the fen islands and the so-called "Townlands", an arch of silt ground around the Wash where the towns had their arable fields. Though these lands were lower than the peat fens before the peat shrinkage began, the more stable silt soils were reclaimed by medieval farmers and embanked against any floods coming down from the peat areas or from the sea. The rest of the Fenland was dedicated to pastoral farming, fishing, fowling and the harvesting of reeds or sedge, for example for thatch. In this way, the medieval and early modern Fens stood in contrast to the rest of southern England, which was primarily an arable agricultural region.

Since the advent of modern drainage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Fens have been radically transformed, so that today arable farming has almost entirely replaced pastoral and the economy of the Fens is heavily invested in the production of crops such as grains, vegetables and some cash crops such as rapeseed or canola.

Drainage in the Fenland consists of both river drainage and internal drainage of the land between the rivers. The internal drainage was organized by levels or districts, each of which includes the fen parts of one or several parishes. The details of the organization vary with the history of their development, but the areas include:

  • The Great Level of the Fens is the largest region of fen in eastern England: including the lower drainage basins of the River Nene and the Great Ouse, it covers approximately 500 sq mi (1,300 km2). It is also known as the Bedford Level, after Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, who headed the so-called adventurers (investors) in the seventeenth century drainage in this area; his son became the first governor of the Bedford Level Corporation. In the seventeenth century, the Great Level was divided into the North, Middle and South Levels for the purposes of administration and maintenance. In the twentieth century, these levels have gained new boundaries, and include some fens which were never part of the jurisdiction of the Bedford Level Corporation.
    • The South Level lies to the southeast of the Ouse Washes and surrounds Ely, as it did in the seventeenth century.
    • The Middle Level currently lies between the Ouse Washes and the Nene, but historically lay between the Ouse Washes and Morton's Leam, a fifteenth century canal which runs north of the town of Whittlesey.
    • The North Level now includes all of the fens in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire between the Nene and the River Welland, but originally included only a small part of these lands, including those of the ancient parishes of Thorney and Crowland, but excluding most of Wisbech Hundred and Lincolnshire, which were under their own local jurisdictions.
  • Deeping Fen, in the southern part of Lincolnshire, lies between the River Welland and the River Glen with its tributary the Bourne Eau.
  • The Black Sluice District, much of which was known as the Lindsey Level when it was first drained in 1639, extends from the Glen and Bourne Eau to Swineshead. Its water is carried through to the Haven at Boston.

The above were all re-drained at one time or another after the Civil War(1642-1649).

  • The Witham Commission Fens:
    • First District: from Washingborough to Billinghay Dales;
    • Second District: Blacksluice – Holland Fen;
    • Third District: north of the River Witham above Bardney;
    • Fourth District: East, West and Wildmore Fens and the Townland from Boston to Wainfleet;
    • Fifth District: Kyme Eau to Billinghay Skirth;
    • Sixth District: Blacksluice – Helpringham Eau to Kyme Eau.

These were drained in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Formation and geography

At the end of the most recent glacial period, known in Britain as the Devensian, ten thousand years ago, Britain and continental Europe were joined by the ridge between Friesland and Norfolk. The topography of the bed of the North Sea indicates that the rivers of the southern part of eastern England flowed into the Rhine, hence through the English Channel. From the Fens northward along the modern coast, the drainage flowed into the northern North Sea basin. As the ice melted, the rising sea level drowned the lower lands, leading ultimately to the present coastline.

These rising sea levels flooded the previously inland woodland of the Fenland basin, and over the next few thousand years led to extensive development of both saltwater and freshwater wetlands. Silt and clay soils were deposited by marine floods in the saltwater areas and along the beds of tidal rivers, while organic soils, or peats, developed in the freshwater marshes. Fenland water levels peaked in the Iron Age; earlier Bronze and Neolithic settlements were covered by peat deposits, and have only recently been found. During the Roman period, water levels fell once again, and settlements were possible on the new silt soils deposited near the coast. Though water levels rose once again in the early medieval period, by this time artificial banks protected the coastal settlements and the interior from further deposits of marine silts, though peats continued to develop in the freshwater wetlands of the interior fens.

The wetlands of the fens have historically included:

  • Washes: these are places such as tidal mud flats and braided rivers, which are sometimes exposed and at other times covered with water.
  • Salt marsh: this is the higher part of a tidal wash, on which salt-adapted plants grew.
  • Fen: this is a broad expanse of nutrient-rich shallow water in which dead plants do not fully decay, resulting in a flora of emergent plants growing in saturated peat.
  • Moor: this developed where the peat grew above the reach of the land water which carried the nutrients to the fen. Its development was enabled where the fen was watered directly by rainfall. The slightly acidic rain washed the hydroxide ions out of the peat, making it more suitable for acid-loving plants, notably Sphagnum species. This is exactly the same as bog, but the word moor was applied to this acid peatland occurring on hills. These moors disappeared in the nineteenth century, and it had been thought that the Fenland did not have this kind of peat, until archeological and documentary evidence demonstrated that it did until the early nineteenth century.
  • Waters: these have included:
    • tidal creeks, which reached from the sea into the marsh, the Townlands and in some places, the fen, and seem to have been named only if big enough to be regarded as havens;
    • meres, or shallow lakes which were more or less static but aerated by wind action;
    • many rivers, both natural and (from Roman times on) artificial.

Major areas for settlement were:

  • the Townlands, a broad bank of silt (the remains of the huge creek levees that developed naturally during the Bronze and Iron Ages), on which the settlers built their homes and grew their vegetables;
  • the fen islands: areas of higher land which were never covered by the growing peat;
  • the fen edges: uplands surrounding the fens.

In general, of the three principal soil types found in the Fenland today, the mineral-based silt resulted from the energetic marine environment of the creeks, the clay was deposited in tidal mud-flats and salt-marsh, while the peat grew in the fen and bog. The peat produces black soils, which are directly comparable to the American muck soils. A roddon, the dried raised bed of a watercourse, is more suitable for building than the less stable peat.

Since the 19th century, all of the acid peat in the Fens has disappeared; drying and wastage of peats has greatly reduced the depth of the alkaline peat soils and reduced the overall elevation of large areas of the peat fens.


Pre-Roman settlement

There is evidence of human settlement near the Fens from the Mesolithic on. The evidence suggests that Mesolithic settlement in Cambridgeshire was particularly along the fen edges and on the low islands within the fens, to take advantage of the hunting and fishing opportunities of the wetlands.

Roman farming and engineering

The Romans constructed the Fen Causeway, a road across the Fens to link what later became East Anglia with what later became central England; it runs between Denver and Peterborough. They also linked Cambridge and Ely, but generally their road system avoided the Fens except for minor roads designed for exporting the products of the region, especially salt, beef and leather. Sheep were probably raised on the higher ground of the Townlands and fen islands, then as in the early nineteenth century. The Roman period also possibly saw some drainage efforts, including the Car Dyke along the western edge of the Fenland between Peterborough and Lincolnshire, but most canals were constructed for transportation.

How far seaward the Roman settlement extended is unclear owing to the deposits laid down above them during later floods.

Early post-Roman settlements

The early post-Roman settlements were made on the Townlands. It is clear that there was some prosperity there, particularly where rivers permitted access to the upland beyond the fen. Such places were Wisbech, Spalding, Swineshead and Boston. All the Townlands parishes were laid out as elongated strips, to provide access to the products of fen, marsh and sea. On the fen edge, parishes are similarly elongated to provide access to both upland and fen. The townships are therefore often nearer to each other than they are to the distant farms in their own parishes.

The Dark Ages and Middle Ages

After the end of Roman Britain, there is a break in written records. It is thought some of the Iceni may have moved west into the Fens to avoid the Angles, who were migrating across the North Sea from Angeln (modern Schleswig) and settling what would become East Anglia. Surrounded by water and marshes, the Fens provided a safe area that was easily defended and not particularly desirable to invading Anglo-Saxons.

A minority believes that the names of West Walton, Walsoken and Walpole hint at the native British population, the Wal- coming from the Old English walh, meaning "foreigner". However, the villages are in close proximity to the old Roman sea wall, so the wal- element is more probably from wal or weal, meaning "wall". Walton is generally believed to mean "wall-town", Walsoken to mean "the district under particular jurisdiction by the wall" and Walpole to mean simply "wall-pole" (Old English wal and pal) or perhaps "well pool" (Old English welle and pol).

When written records resume in Anglo-Saxon England, the names of a number of peoples of the Fens are recorded in the Tribal Hidage and Christian histories. They include North Gyrwe (Peterborough and Crowland), South Gyrwe (Ely), the Spalda (Spalding), and Bilmingas (part of south Lincolnshire).

In the early Christian period of Anglo-Saxon England, a number of Christians sought the isolation that could be found in the wilderness that the Fens had become. These saints, often with close royal links, include Guthlac, Etheldreda, Pega, and Wendreda. Hermitages on the islands became centres of communities which later became monasteries with massive estates. In the Life of Saint Guthlac – a biography of the East Anglian hermit who lived in the Fens during the early 8th century – it is stated that Saint Guthlac was attacked on several occasions by people he believed were Britons living in the Fens at that time. However, Bertram Colgrave, in the introduction to one edition, doubts it because of the lack of evidence of British survival in the region and the fact that British place names in the area are "very few".

Monastic life was disrupted by Danish raids and settlement, but was revived in the mid-10th century monastic revival. In the 11th century the whole area was incorporated into a united Anglo-Saxon England. It remained a place of refuge and intrigue. It was here that Alfred Aetheling was brought to be murdered and here where Hereward the Wake based his insurgency against Norman England.

Fenland monastic houses include the so-called Fen Five ( Ely Cathedral Priory, Thorney Abbey, Croyland Abbey, Ramsey Abbey and Peterborough Abbey) as well as Spalding Abbey. As major landowners, the monasteries played a significant part in the early efforts at drainage of the Fens.

The Royal Forest

During most of the twelfth century and the early thirteenth century, the south Lincolnshire fens were afforested. The area was enclosed by a line from Spalding, along the River Welland to Market Deeping, then along the Car Dyke to Dowsby and across the fens to the Welland. It was deforested in the early thirteenth century. There is little agreement as to the exact dates of the establishment and demise of the forest, but it seems likely that the deforestation was connected with the Magna Carta or one of its early thirteenth century restatements, though it may have been as late as 1240. The forest would have affected the economies of the townships around it and it appears that the present Bourne Eau was constructed at the time of the deforestation, as the town seems to have joined in the general prosperity by about 1280.

Though the forest was about half in Holland (Lincolnshire) and half in Kesteven, it is known as Kesteven Forest.

Draining the Fens

Drainage engine museum at Prickwillow

Early modern attempts to drain the Fens

Though some signs of Roman hydraulics survive, and there were also some medieval drainage works, land drainage was begun in earnest during the 1630s by the various investors who had contracts with King Charles I to do so. The leader of one of these syndicates was the Earl of Bedford, who employed Cornelius Vermuyden as engineer. Contrary to popular belief, Vermuyden was not involved with the draining of the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk in the 1630s, but only became involved with the second phase of construction in the 1650s. The scheme was imposed despite huge opposition from locals who were losing their livelihoods in favour of already great landowners.

Two cuts were made in the Cambridgeshire Fens to join the River Great Ouse to the sea at King's Lynn – the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River, the latter being known also as the Hundred Foot Drain. Both cuts were named after the Fourth Earl of Bedford who, along with some gentlemen adventurers ( venture capitalists), funded the construction and were rewarded with large grants of the resulting farmland. The work was directed by engineers from the Low Countries. Following this initial drainage, the Fens were still extremely susceptible to flooding, so windpumps were used to pump water away from affected areas.

However, their success was short-lived. Once drained of water, the peat shrank, and the fields lowered further. The more effectively they were drained, the worse the problem became, and soon the fields were lower than the surrounding rivers. By the end of the 17th century, the land was under water once again.

Though the three Bedford Levels together formed the biggest scheme, they were not the only ones. Lord Lindsey and his partner Sir William Killigrew had the Lindsey Level inhabited by farmers by 1638, but the onset of the Civil War permitted the destruction of the works until the 1765 Act of Parliament that led to the formation of the Black Sluice Commissioners.

Many original records of the Bedford Level Corporation, including maps of the Levels, are now held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies Service at the County Record Office in Cambridge.

Modern drainage

Stretham Old Engine,
alongside the River Great Ouse

The major part of the draining of the Fens was effected in the late 18th and early 19th century, again involving fierce local rioting and sabotage of the works. The final success came in the 1820s when windpumps were replaced with powerful coal-powered steam engines, such as Stretham Old Engine, which were themselves replaced with diesel-powered pumps and, following World War II, the small electric stations that are still used today.

The dead vegetation of the peat remained undecayed because it was deprived of air (the peat being anaerobic). When it was drained, the oxygen of the air reached it, since then the peat has been slowly oxidizing. This, together with the shrinkage on its initial drying and the removal of soil by the wind, has meant that much of the Fens lies below high tide level. As the highest parts of the drained fen are now only a few metres above mean sea level, only sizeable embankments of the rivers, and general flood defences, stop the land from being inundated. Nonetheless, these works are now much more effective than they were.

The Fens today are protected by 60 miles (97 km) of embankments defending against the sea and 96 miles (154 km) of river embankments. Eleven internal drainage board (IDB) groups maintain 286 pumping stations and 3,800 miles (6,100 km) of watercourses, with the combined capacity to pump 16,500 Olympic-size swimming pools in a 24-hour period or to empty Rutland Water in 3 days.

Modern farming and food manufacturing in the Fens

As of 2008, there are estimated to be 4,000 farms in the Fens involved in agriculture and horticulture, including arable, livestock, poultry, dairy, orchards, vegetables and ornamental plants and flowers. They employ about 27,000 people in full-time and seasonal jobs. In turn, they support around 250 businesses involved in food and drink manufacturing and distribution, employing around 17,500 people.

Over 70% of the Fens is involved in environmental stewardship schemes, under which 270 miles (430 km) of hedgerow and 1,780 miles (2,860 km) of ditches are managed, providing large wildlife corridors and habitat for endangered animals such as the water vole.

Restoring the Fens

In 2003, the Great Fen Project was initiated to return parts of the Fens to their original pre-agricultural state. The periodic flooding by the North Sea, which renewed the character of the Fenlands, was characterized conventionally by the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica as "ravaged by serious inundations of the sea". The modern approach is to allow a little farmland to be flooded again and turned into nature reserves. By introducing fresh water, the organizers of the project hope to encourage species such as the snipe, lapwing and bittern. Endangered species such as the fen violet will be seeded.

The Fens Waterways Link is a scheme to restore navigation to some of the drainage works. It is planned to bring the South Forty-Foot Drain and parts of the Car Dyke into use as part of a route between Boston and Cambridge.

Fen settlements

Many historic cities, towns and villages have grown up in the fens, sited chiefly on the few areas of raised ground. These include:

  • Boston, port and administrative centre of the Borough of Boston;
  • Chatteris, a market town;
  • Crowland, one of the Fen Five monasteries; also a medieval triangular bridge;
  • Ely (meaning "Isle of Eels"), whose cathedral – one of the Fen Five monasteries – is known as the "Ship of the Fens"; administrative centre of the East Cambridgeshire District Council;
  • Holbeach, a market town;
  • Littleport, a large village approximately 6 miles (9.7 km) north of Ely;
  • Little Thetford, settled on a boulder clay island within the fens since the Bronze Age, 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Ely;
  • Long Sutton, a market town and home to UK's largest food cannery;
  • March, a market town and administrative centre of the Fenland District;
  • Market Deeping, a market town;
  • Peterborough, the largest of the many settlements along the fen edge and sometimes called the "Gateway to the Fens"; its cathedral is one of the Fen Five monasteries; administrative centre of the Peterborough Unitary Authority;
  • Ramsey, a market town; one of the Fen Five monasteries;
  • Spalding, a market town, administrative centre of South Holland, and famed for its annual Flower Parade;
  • Thorney, one of the Fen Five monasteries; later model village and agricultural estates of the Dukes of Bedford;
  • Whittlesey, a market town; annual Straw Bear Festival;
  • Wisbech ("capital of the fens"), a market town.

Ancient sites include:

  • Flag Fen, a Bronze Age settlement.

Setting in fiction

Some authors have featured the Fens repeatedly in their work. For example:

  • John Gordon, adolescent fiction writer and author of The Giant Under The Snow, has drawn inspiration for many of his supernatural fantasies from the Fens. His books with Fenland themes include: Ride The Wind, Fen Runners and The House On The Brink, which is based on Peckover House in Wisbech.
  • Peter F. Hamilton sets a number of his science fiction novels in the Fens, including Mindstar Rising and A Quantum Murder.
  • Bill Hussey set two horror books, Through a Glass Darkly and The Absence, in the Fens.
  • M.R. James set several of his ghost stories in the fen country.
  • Jim Kelly set both The Water Clock and The Moon Tunnel in the Fens.
  • Philippa Pearce, a children's author, set many of her books in the Fens, for example Tom's Midnight Garden.
  • Gladys Mitchell, prolific writer of detective fiction, took her eccentric sleuth, the psychiatrist Mrs Lestrange Bradley, to the Fens in several books, notably The Worsted Viper, Wraiths and Changelings and The Mudflats of the Dead.
  • Nick Warburton has written a series of radio plays entitled On Mardle Fen, one of the longest running series of plays on BBC R4.
  • G.A. Henty's book Beric the Briton mentions some sections in the Fens.

The following novels, or substantial portions of them, are set in the Fens:

  • Sabine Baring-Gould: Cheap Jack Zita;
  • Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop;
  • Hal Foster: Prince Valiant;
  • Martha Grimes: The Case Has Altered, set in and around Algarkirk, Lincolnshire;
  • Charles Kingsley: Hereward the Wake;
  • Louis L'Amour: Sackett's Land;
  • Simon Marriott Woller
  • Sile Rice: The Saxon Tapestry, about Hereward the Wake;
  • Dorothy Sayers: The Nine Tailors;
  • Gregory Macguire: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister;
  • Graham Swift: Waterland (made into a film, listed below);
  • Robert Westall: Futuretrack 5.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights

Some films have large portions set in the Fenlands:

  • Dad Savage (1998), starring Patrick Stewart, was set and filmed around the King's Lynn area.
  • Waterland (1992), directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, is based on Graham Swift's book with the same title. Many of its scenes were filmed at Holbeach Marsh on the edge of the Wash.

The 1974 Look and Read series 'Cloud Burst' was set and filmed in the Fens.

At least one video game has also been set in the Fens:

  • "The Bedford Level" appears in the video game Tom Clancy's EndWar as a possible battlefield.
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