The area of the Fens covers parts of the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
In its natural state the area is marshy with open expanses of water, reeds and willows, interspersed with small hummocks of higher ground. This is an area of the countryside where anything ten feet above sea level is regarded as a hill. There seems to be more sky in this area because of the low lying land.
Today the landscape is man made. Neat fields are bordered with well maintained ditches and at regular intervals larger dykes or drains carry excess water to the rivers and wider drains. In these counties the words dyke, drain, eau, sluice, leam and cut all mean virtually the same thing. They are all man made waterways which ensure this naturally marshy fertile ground is drained sufficiently well to support agriculture and property.
In the Fens water levels are monitored constantly to ensure valuable farmland and property are not deluged by high tides or heavy rains. The system of drainage has developed over thousands of years.
From 500,000 BC until just before the Roman occupation of Britain, the area had long periods when it was flooded and uninhabitable, interspersed with equally long dry periods when people moved into the Fens. The Romans saw the possibilities of the fertile soil and started to build banks and dykes to protect the land from the sea and rivers. Once they left, the Fens reverted to marsh and wilderness. The flood defences continued to deteriorate until the Norman Conquest in 1066. During the period from 400AD to 1066, work had begun on many abbeys in the Fens area. Crowland was started ain 716AD and Ely in 672. The abbeys built during this time were sacked in 870 when the Danes invaded, only to rise again in later centuries.
During the 13th to 15th centuries the Fens were again very wet. It was in 1216 that King John is reputed to have lost his jewels in the Wash, dying a few days later. In 1258 the first Commissioners of Sewers were appointed with the aim of at least maintaining the existing drainage systems. In 1400 Wisbech was almost completely destroyed by floods and it was around this time the Commissioners of Sewers were given extra powers to collect taxes and to punish those who tried to evade the tax. This does not seem to have been a conspicuous success as during the 1500s neglect of the drainage lead to years of flooding. Between 1487 and 1490 John Morton, Bishop of Ely did some work on straightening the River Nene and had Morton's Leam dug in an attempt to make the area better drained.
It was not until the 1600s that the land started to be seriously drained after years of widespread flooding and neglect of the drainage system This was the age of the Gentleman Adventurers. most notable of whom was a Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden, who came to England in 1621, and was knighted by Charles I for his efforts. In 1637 the drainage of the Fens was considered complete. Later centuries were to show that this was misguided optimism. The drainage was a mixed blessing in some areas where the peat shrank once it was no longer waterlogged and this in its turn caused flooding. In the 17th and 18th centuries windmills were used to drain areas, though this could cause other areas to flood, resulting in quarrels between land owners.
No organised attempt was made to drain the Fens until the 19th century.
The work continues to this day with Government approval in June 2006 for a £48m project to build a new sluice and pumping station at St Germans near Kings Lynn.
Fen dwellers and opposition to progress
Throughout the centuries drainage work has been hampered by people who did not want the land to be changed, and who worked to sabotage windmills and drains. The Fens were regarded almost as a wild land inhabited by savages. At one time native Fenlanders were rumoured to have webbed feet and to be able to walk across marshy land that would swallow up ordinary humans. Malaria was endemic up until the 20th century and was often known as Fen Ague or Fen Harr. People living in the Fens needed to be tough and stoical to survive especially if they were farm labourers.
Fen landscape today
At Wicken Fen and Flag Fen, the land has been allowed to resume its former waterlogged state in order to create wetlands. The water is kept at what is now an artificially high level so that these areas provide suitable habitat for flora and fauna. Visiting these areas will show you what the whole if this area would have looked like before it was drained.
Morton's Leam: dug between 1487 and 1490
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