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The position of The Fens in eastern England.
The Fens, also known as the Fenland(s), are a naturally marshy region in eastern Englandmarker. 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.

The Fenland primarily lies around the coast of the Washmarker; it reaches into two Government regions (East of England and the East Midlands), four ceremonial counties (Lincolnshiremarker, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and a small area of Suffolk), 11 District Councils and six postcode areas (LN, PE, CB, IP, NR, and NG). The whole contains an area of nearly or about 1 million acres.

Most of the Fenland lies within a few metres of sea-level. As with similar areas in the Netherlandsmarker, much of the Fenland originally consisted of fresh or saltwater 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.

Introduction

The Fens are very low-lying compared with the surrounding chalk and limestone "uplands" that surround them, in most places no more than 10m above sea level. Indeed, owing to drainage and the subsequent shrinkage of the peat fens, many parts of the Fens now lie below mean sea level. Though in the seventeenth century, one writer described the Fenland as all lying above sea level (in contrast to those of the Netherlands), the area is now home to the lowest land point in the United Kingdom, Holme Fenmarker in Cambridgeshire, at around 2.75 metres below sea level. There are a few hills within the fens, 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 Elymarker, on which the cathedral city of Elymarker was built; its highest point is 37m above mean sea-level.

Without artificial drainage and flood protection, the Fens are 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 historically 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 fen-edge, the fen-islands and "townlands." This last area was an arch of silt ground around the Wash, where the towns near the Wash had their arable fields; though these lands were lower than the peat fens 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, such as of cattle and sheep, as well as fishing, fowling, and the harvesting of reeds or sedge for thatch, etc. 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, such that today arable farming has almost entirely replaced pastoral, and today the economy of 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 has been organized into river drainage, the passing of upland water through the region, and internal drainage of the land between the rivers. The internal drainage was designed to be 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. Since the seventeenth century, it has also been known as The Bedford Level, after the Earl of Bedford who headed the seventeenth-century drainage adventurers 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 south-east of the Ouse Washmarker and surrounds Elymarker, as it did in the seventeenth century.
    • The Middle Level currently lies between the Ouse Wash and the River Nenemarker, but historically lay between the Ouse Washmarker 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 Wellandmarker, but originally included only a small part of these grounds (including those of the ancient parishes of Thorney and Crowland, but excluding most of Wisbech Hundred and Lincolnshire), as the rest were under the jurisdiction of the Commissions of Sewers for Wisbech Hundred or Lincolnshire.


These were all re-drained at one time or another after the Civil War. These were drained in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica estimated the extent of the entire East Anglian Fens as being considerably over half a million acres (2,000 km2). The Great Level, including the lower drainage basins of the Nenemarker and the Great Ousemarker, now covers approximately . Significant towns in the fens include Bostonmarker, Spaldingmarker, Elymarker, Wisbechmarker and King's Lynnmarker.

The Fens have been refered to as the "Holy Land of the English" due to the churches and cathedrals of Ely, Ramseymarker, Crowlandmarker, Thorneymarker and Peterboroughmarker.

Formation and geography

At the end of the most recent glacial period, known in Britain as the Devensian, ten thousand years ago, Great Britainmarker was joined to Europe, notably, 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 Englandmarker would flow into the River Rhinemarker, thence through the English Channelmarker. From the Fens northward along the modern coast, the drainage flowed into the northern North Seamarker basin, which, in turn, drained towards the Viking Deep . As the land-ice melted, the rising sea level drowned the lower lands, ultimately establishing the coastlines of today.

These rising sea levels flooded the previously inland woodland of the Fenland basin, and over the next few thousand years led to the development of both extensive salt-water and freshwater wetlands. Silt and clay soils were deposited by marine floods in the salt-water areas and along the beds of tidal rivers, while organic soils, or peats, developed in the fresh-water marshes. The peak of the water levels in the fens was in the Iron Age; earlier Bronze and Neolithic settlements were covered by peat deposits, and have only been found recently. During the Roman period, waters 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, such as the great Sea Bank, protected the coastal settlements and the inland 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:
  • Wash, which at greater or shorter intervals had bodies of water flowing over it, as in tidal mud-flats or braided rivers.
  • Marsh, which was the higher part of a tidal wash on which salt-adapted plants grew. It is now usually called salt-marsh. This probably arises from the fact that salt was produced in such places.
  • Fen, a broad expanse of nutrient-rich shallow water in which plants had grown and died without fully decaying. The outcome was 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 hydroxyl ions out of the peat, making it more suitable for acid-loving plants, notably Sphagnum species. This is exactly the same as bog but that name entered English from the Irish language. Moor has a Germanic root and came to be applied to this acid peatland as it occurs on hills. These moors disappeared in the nineteenth century, and it had been thought that the Fenland did not have this kind of peat, but archeological and documentary evidence has since demonstrated that it did until the early nineteenth century.


As well as waters in
  • Tidal creeks. For naming purposes, the English settlers seem to have ignored them unless they were big enough to be regarded as havens. The creeks (in the British sense) reached from the sea, into the marsh, townland and in some places, the fen.
  • Meres, or shallow lakes which were more or less static, but aerated by wind action.
  • many rivers, both natural and (from the Roman and medieval periods forward) artificial


And the major areas of settlements were on
  • the "Townlands", a broad bank of silt on which the settlers built their homes and grew their vegetables, which were the remains of the huge creek levees which developed naturally during the Bronze and Iron Ages
  • the Fen "Islands" or areas of higher land which were never covered by the growing peat, as well as in "fen-edge" communities on 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 the black soils which are directly comparable with the American muck soils.

Since the nineteenth century, all of the moor or bog-type acid peats in the Fens have entirely 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.

This aerial photograph shows Bostonmarker at the bottom and the pale silt land along the margin of The Wash. The palest fields just inland from Boston are covered in plastic to warm the soil early in the season. The dark peat land of the fen and the moor of East Fen lies inland from the silt while the peat of West Fen lies further inland still, beyond the Devensian moraine at Stickneymarker. The pale upland of the Woldsmarker is at the top edge.

History

Pre-Roman settlement

There is evidence for human settlement near the fens from Mesolithic period on; indeed, 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 road, the Fen Causewaymarker across the fens to join what would later become East Angliamarker and central England: Denvermarker to Peterboroughmarker. They also linked Cambridgemarker and Elymarker but generally, their road system avoided The Fens except for minor roads designed for extracting the products of the region. These were notably, salt and the products of cattle: meat 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 Dykemarker along the western edge of Fenland between Peterborough and Lincolnshire, but most canals were constructed for transportation.

In the past thousand years, the marsh has been found along the coast of The Washmarker, the remaining tidal waters. Moving inland, next there is a broad bank of silt deposited until the Bronze Age, on which the early post-Roman settlements were made. Inland again is the former fen proper. (Compare the sequence of salt-marsh, spit and fen formerly found at Back Baymarker, Boston, Mass.) From these settlements, the silt strip is known as The Townland. How far seaward the Roman settlement extended is unclear owing to the deposits laid down above them during later floods. It is clear that there was some prosperity on the Townland, particularly where rivers permitted access to the upland beyond the fen. Such places were Wisbechmarker, Spaldingmarker and Swinesheadmarker, this last, replaced a thousand years ago by Bostonmarker. All the Townland parishes were laid out, elongated as strips, to provide access to the products of fen, townland, 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 in to the Fens to avoid the Angles who were migrating across the North Seamarker from Angelnmarker (modern Schleswig) and settling what would become East Angliamarker. The Fens formed a comparative 'safe zone', surrounded by water and marshes, and were easily defended, as well as being not particularly desirable to invading Anglo-Saxons with more important places to control. Although a minority of people believe that the native British population are hinted at in the names of West Waltonmarker, Walsokenmarker and Walpole, the 'Wal-' coming from the Old English 'walh', meaning 'foreigner', however, the villages are in close promiximity to the old Roman sea wall and thus the wal- element is likely from wal or weal which means wall. West Walton is generally believed to mean "wall-town", Walsoken means "the district under particular jurisdiction by the wall" and Walpole simply means "wall-pole" (Old English "wal" and "pal" or 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. These peoples (with their supposed territories) include North Gyrwe (Peterboroughmarker/Crowlandmarker), South Gyrwe (Elymarker), the Spalda (Spaldingmarker), and Bilmingas (area of South Lincs).

In the early Christian period of Anglo-Saxon England, a number of Christian individuals sought the isolation that could be found among 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 written about the East Anglianmarker religious 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, although Bertram Colgrave in the introduction to The Life of Saint Guthlac states that is very unlikely due to the lack of evidence for British survival in the region and the fact that British placenames 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 in to a united England. It remained a place of refuge and intrigue. It was here Alfred Aetheling was taken to be murdered and here where Hereward the Wake based his insurgency against Norman England.

Fenland monastic houses include Elymarker, Thorneymarker, Crowland, Ramsey, Peterborough, and Spalding. As major landowners, the monasteries took a significant part in the early efforts at the drainage of the Fens.

The Royal Forest

For a period in most of the twelfth century and the early thirteenth century, the south Lincolnshire fens were afforested. The area was enclosed by a line from Spaldingmarker, along the Wellandmarker to Deepingmarker, then along the Car Dykemarker to Dowsbymarker and across the fens to the Welland. It was deforested in the early thirteenth century, though there seems to be little agreement as to the exact dates or the opening and closure of the period. 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 Eaumarker was constructed at the time of the deforestation, as the townmarker seems to have joined in the general prosperity by about 1280.

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

Draining the Fens



Early modern attempts to drain the Fens

Though some marks of Roman hydraulics survive, and the medieval works should not be overlooked, the land started to be drained in earnest during the 1630s by the various adventurers 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 their 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 Ousemarker to the sea at King's Lynnmarker - the Old Bedford Rivermarker and the New Bedford Rivermarker, also known 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, which was directed by engineers from the Low Countries, and were rewarded with large grants of the resulting farmland. Following this initial drainage, the Fens were still extremely susceptible to flooding, and so windmill 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 were, together, the biggest scheme, they were not the only ones. Lord Lindsey and his partner, Sir William Killigrew had the Lindsey level (see Twentymarker) inhabited by farmers by 1638 but the onset of the Civil War permitted the destruction of the works which remained to the fenmen's liking until the Black Sluice Act of 1765.

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

Modern drainage

The major part of the draining of the Fens, as seen today, 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 windmills were replaced with powerful coal-powered steam engines, such as Stretham Old Enginemarker, which were themselves replaced with diesel-powered pumps and, following World War II, the small electrical 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 and the peat has been slowly oxidizing. This and the shrinkage on its initial drying as well as removal of the soil by the wind, has meant that much of the Fens lies below high tide level. The highest parts of the drained fen now being only a few metres above mean sea level, only sizeable embankment 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 question of rising sea level under the influence of global warming remains.The Fens contain about 50% of the grade 1 soil in the UK, making it a valuable National resource.

The Fens today are protected by of Sea embanked defences and of fluvial river embankments. Eleven Internal Drainage Board (IDB) groups maintain 286 pumping stations and of watercourses, with the combined capacity to pump 16,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools in a 24-hour period if necessary, or empty Rutland Water in 3 days.

Modern farming and food manufacturing in the Fens

There are estimated to be 4,000 farms involved in agriculture and horticulture, including arable, livestock, poultry, dairy, orchards, vegetables and ornamental plants and flowers. These employ about 27,000 people in both full and seasonal jobs.The Fens produce:37% of all vegetables grown in the open,24% of all potatoes grown in the UK,17% of the UKs Sugar Beet crop,38% of all Bulbs and flowers grown in the open,250 million loaves of bread from the wheat grown,The Fens are the only place that English Mustard is still grown for Colman's of Norwich.

Farming is the first step in the food chain, which in turn supports around 250 businesses involved in food and drink manufacturing, as well as its distribution. This generates a turnover of approximately £1.7 Billion and employs around 17,500 people.

But there is also room on Fenland farms for the environment. With over two thirds of the land entered into various Environmental schemes, like Entry Level (ELS), Higher Level (HLS) or the old Country Side Stewardship. Under these schemes there are of hedgerow and of ditches managed, providing excellent habitats and large wildlife corridors.The Fens are possibly the best area in the UK for breeding Barn Owls and are now a very common sight. The water vole population is also believed to be in a healthy state compared to many other areas.

Restoring the Fens

In 2003, a project was initiated to return parts of the Fens to their original pre-agricultural state. Traditionally the periodic flooding by the North Sea, which renewed the character of the fenlands, was characterized as "ravaged by serious inundations of the sea, for example, in the years 1178, 1248 (or 1250), 1288, 1322, 1335, 1467, 1571" (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911). In the modern approach, a little farmland is to be allowed to flood again and turned into nature reserves. By introducing fresh water, organizers of the Great Fen Projectmarker hope to encourage species such as the snipe, lapwing and bittern. Endangered species such as the fen violet will be seeded.

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
  • Bostonmarker,port and administrative centre of the Borough of Bostonmarker.
  • Chatterismarker, a market town.
  • Crowlandmarker, one of the Fen Five great Monasteries, also medieval triangular bridge.
  • Elymarker ("Isle of Eels"), a cathedral city. One of the Fen Five great Monasteries Ely Cathedralmarker, on a rise of ground surrounded by fenlands, is known as the "Ship of the Fens".
  • Holbeachmarker,a market town.
  • Littleportmarker, a large village approximately 6 miles north of Ely.
  • Long Suttonmarker, a market town, home to UK's largest food cannery (owned by Premier Foods).
  • Marchmarker, a market town and administrative centre of the Fenland Districtmarker.
  • Market Deepingmarker,a market town.
  • Peterboroughmarker, a cathedral city, one of the Fen Five great Monasteriesis, the largest of the many settlements along the fen edge. It is sometimes called the "Gateway to the Fens". Administrative centre of Peterborough Unitary Authority.
  • Ramseymarker, one of the Fen Five great Monasteriesis, market town in the Fens.
  • Spaldingmarker, a market town, administrative centre of South Hollandmarker, and famed for its annual Flower Parade.
  • Thorneymarker, one of the Fen Five great Monasteries, later Model Village & Agricultural estates of Duke's of Bedford.
  • Whittleseymarker, a market town, annual Straw Bear Festival.
  • Wisbechmarker ("capital of the fens"), a market town.


Ancient sites include

Setting in fiction



  • The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice about Hereward the Wake, little-known masterpiece combining historical and fantasy genres.










  • Barnabas Sackett, patriarch of an American pioneer lineage detailed in the Sackett novels by Louis L'Amour, was born and raised in the Fens, which are a prominent setting of the first book in the series, Sackett's Land.


  • In one of The Belgariad novels, characters Garion, Belgarath and Silk row through marshy water channels in the Drasnian swamplands known as The Fens.






  • Thorn, a short tale and Interactive Fiction by Eric Mayer, choses the Fens as a ghostly setting.










  • Jim Kelly's first novel is a mystery/thriller "The Water Clock" set in the Fens around Ely where the author lives.


  • The Fens and their inhabitants play an important part in Robert Westall's 1982 novel Futuretrack 5. The Fenmen live in what appears a bucolic idyll, in stark contrast to the urban unemployed ('Unnem') of future Britain who are effectively imprisoned in the brutal and anarchic inner cities. Settings include Elymarker, the Forty Foot Drainmarker and the village of Manea.


See also



References

  1. After Keith Lindley, Fenland Riots (1982)
  2. It is debated whether this area includes the fen areas of north Lincolnshire, such as the Isle of Axholme. Some scholars, such as Keith Lindley, include the Isle of Axholme as part of the Fenland as it has the same kind of environment and a similar environmental and social history. It is not, however, contiguous with the rest of the East Anglian Fenland, nor was its drainage at any point organised with any of the Fenland drainage areas. For yet more areas of similar wetlands within England, please see the Somerset Levels.
  3. H.C. A discourse concerning the drayning of fennes and surrounded grounds in the sixe counteys of Norfolk, Suffolke, Cambridge, with the Isle of Ely, Huntington, Northampton and Lincolne. London: 1629. Reprinted in 1647 under title: The Drayner Confirmed, and the Obstinate Fenman Confuted.
  4. WheresThePath.com, walking, London Loop, SWCP, South west coast path, county tops, Thames Path
  5. "An Act for settling the Draining of the Great Level of the Fens called Bedford Level", 1663, reproduced in Samuel Wells, The History of the Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens called Bedford Level, (London, 1830), Vol.2, pp.383ff.
  6. Bedford Levels information from Ordnance Survey 1:50 000 First Series Sheets 142 (1974) and 143 (1974). Lincolnshire information from Wheeler, W.H. A History of the Fens of South Lincolnshire 2nd edn. (1896) facsimile edn. Paul Watkins (1990) ISBN 1-871615-19-4
  7. David Hall and John Coles, Fenland Survey. An essay in landscape and persistence. Archeological Report 1. English Heritage, 1994.
  8. Christopher Taylor, The Cambridgeshire Landscape (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1973), 30.
  9. Hall and Coles, Fenland Survey (1994).
  10. Simon Young, AD500 p.245 (Notes & Sources) references Life of Saint Guthlac (Cambridge University Press 1956), pp. 108-11.
  11. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names: by James Rye: Published by Larks press, Dereham, Norfolk, 2000 ; ISBN 0 948400 15 3
  12. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Walpole
  13. http://www.archive.org/stream/geographicaletym00blacuoft/geographicaletym00blacuoft_djvu.txt
  14. http://www.houseofnames.com/xq/asp.fc/qx/walpole-family-crest.htm
  15. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4Gs4AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=Britons+in+the+Fens&source=bl&ots=ej6L3GwPCN&sig=wRrqBzSG-C2gRGFSjNK3GdvZwSE&hl=en&ei=d86vStrALuaM4Abqm6GtCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10#v=onepage&q=Britons%20in%20the%20Fens&f=false.
  16. Margaret Albright Knittl, 'The design for the initial drainage of the Great Level of the Fens : an historical whodunit in three parts,' Agricultural History Review, 55:1 (2007), 23-50.
  17. NFU 'Why Farming Matters In The Fens'Pub:2007/08


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