The Fens

The Fens may also refer to the Back Bay Fens, park in Boston, Massachusetts.

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The Fens are an area of former wetlands in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk in eastern England. The region lies west and south of The Wash. It now covers approximately 1,300 kmē (320,000 acres), but in 1911 the Encyclopaedia Britannica estimated its extent as being considerably over half a million acres (2,000 km²). Geologically, the fenlands are a silted-up bay of the North Sea that embraces the lower drainage basins of the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse. Wisbech is known as the "Capital of the Fens".

Ecologically, a fen is a nutrient-rich freshwater environment in which dead but undecayed plant matter has accumulated to the point where most or all of the remaining vegetation is emergent.

300 years ago, the Fens were similar to the Florida Everglades, a large area of low-lying land, though in a cooler climate. The Fens and fenmen have their own history and distinctive cultural characteristics. When need be, a few of the native fenmen moved about nimbly on stilts (the "stilt-walkers"). They opposed incursions by outsiders and defended their valuable traditional rights of commonage, turf cutting, fishing and fowling. The fenman's way of life was different from that of others so outsiders were sometimes suspicious of him. The aristocratic Hereward Leofricsson, later called Hereward the Wake, who was raised on the fen margin, opposed the loss of his inheritance to the Norman incommers in around the year 1070.



At the end of the most recent glacial period, known in Britain as the Devensian, ten thousand years ago, Great Britain 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 England would flow into the River Rhine, thence through the English Channel. From The Fens northward along the modern coast, the drainage flowed into the northern North Sea 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 World's modern coasts.

Around five thousand years ago, previously inland woodland of the Fenland basin became salt-marsh, a saltwater environment, and fen, a freshwater environment. In general, people writing of the Fens have been vague about the nature of the different sorts of wetland once found there. However, it is clear that the English settlers who named the various features of the place noticed eight kinds.

  • There was the wash which, at greater or shorter intervals had bodies of water flowing over it, as in tidal mud-flats or braided rivers.
  • There was the marsh, which was the higher part of a tidal wash on which salt-adapted plants grew. It is generally, now usually called salt-marsh. This probably arises from the fact that salt was produced in such places.
  • There were the 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.
  • There was the Townland, a broad bank of silt on which the settlers built their homes and grew their vegetables. This was the remains of the huge creek levees developed naturally, mainly during the Bronze Age.
  • There was the 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.
  • There was 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.
  • There was the mere, an expanse of shallow, open water. It was more or less static but its shallow water was aerated by wind action.
  • There were the rivers.

In general, the clay found in The Fens today, was deposited in tidal mud-flats and salt-marsh while the peat grew in the fen and bog. The three principal soil types resulting from this are the mineral-based silt, resulting from the energetic marine environment of the creeks and clay from the marsh and mud-flats. The humus-rich black soils derive from the peat.

In the past thousand years, the marsh has been found along the coast of The Wash, 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. (cf. the sequence of salt-marsh, spit and fen formerly found at Back Bay, 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 Wisbech, Spalding and Swineshead, this last, replaced a thousand years ago by Boston. 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.

For about two hundred years after the English began to settle the Townland and the upland of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, there remained in the Fens themselves, a relict Romano-British culture. The people were known as the Gyrwe, which name is likely to come from their word for "drovers" (compareWelsh gyrwyr). The cattle trade persisted well into the modern historical period as the means of livelihood in Crowland.

The earliest monastic settlements, distributed just inside The Fens appear to have arisen from the wish of English rulers to subvert the traditions of these people as a step towards controlling them. Beginning about the middle of the 7th century, the monks progressively built churches, monasteries and abbeys. They found themselves only moderately safe in the protection of the fens during the time of the Danish raids in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Ely Cathedral, on a rise of ground surrounded by fenlands, is known as the "Ship of the Fens". Its siege in 1071 is a story in itself.

Draining the Fens

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the old steam drainage engine near Stretham

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 contracted 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. 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, 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 windmills 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 underwater 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 Twenty) 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.

The major part of the draining of the Fens, as seen today was nevertheless, 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 engine, 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 un-decayed because it was deprived of air (the peat was 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 effect of the drainage schemes has drained water from the peat, which has shrunk, the highest point now being only a few meters above mean sea level, and only sizable embankments of the rivers, dikes and flood defences, stop the land from being inundated. Nonetheless, these works are now much more effective than they were until the mid-twentieth century. The question of rising sea level under the influence of global warming remains.

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 Project 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

  • Ely ("Isle of Eels"), a cathedral city
  • Chatteris, a market town
  • March, a market town and administrative centre of the Fenland District.
  • Whittlesey, a market town
  • Wisbech ("capital of the fens"), a market town
  • Spalding, a market town, administrative centre of South Holland, and famed for its annual Flower Parade.

Ancient sites include

The Romans constructed the road Fen Causeway across the fens to join East Anglia to central England.

Setting in fiction

The novels The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers, Hereward the Wake by Charles Kingsley and Waterland by Graham Swift are located here.

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