The Fenlands of England

by frankbeswick

The fens in Eastern England are flatlands, but their broad vistas have their own enchantment.

Travelling south and east from the North of England my journey at first passes through hill country and then through the rolling lands typical of England, but at a certain point where the train enters into a shallow descent I know that I am going to enter the Fens. As a northerner who has never lived far from the hills I find the Fens fascinating for their wide vistas of flat land stretching to the horizon. The term fen is now something of a misnomer, as it denotes marshy land, and much has been drained, but here humans and water are engaged in a long struggle, which in an age of rising sea levels humans may lose.

Photograph courtesy of herbert2512

What are the Fens

I have been accustomed to writing about hilly landscapes in the North and West of England and Wales, but this time I  am going to discourse on the precise opposite, England's flattest land and some of its  most-low-lying, land that is at points below sea-level, guarded from inundation by sea defences and intense drainage.This area is in the East of England, an area known as East Anglia.

If you look at the map below you will see a bay extending inland, which is called the Wash, wash being a geographical term for a shallow area of sand and mud.Extending southwards is an area of low-lying land drained, if that is a somewhat optimistic term, by several rivers. This flat marshy land is the Fens. The Wash was the tidal part of the Fens, the Fens being coastal marshes characterized by relatively high alkalinity and low nutrient levels.The reason for the wetness of the land is that it is low lying so river water travels but slowly over the surface and can if uncontrolled spread easily across the low-lying land, especially in Winter, when it is rainy  

Historically the first attempt to control the water around the Wash was made by the Romans, who engineered some earthen sea defences, but the Romans left and as they went the economy of Britain slumped, as it had been built around sustaining high troop levels, and the incoming Angles [historically a tribe friendly to Rome] had not the resources to maintain them. It was only in the twelfth century that the Benedictine monks began to work on the creation of more effective defences that the fens began to be reclaimed for agriculture. The monks did  a massive amount of work in turning Britain into the well-tilled land that it is, but they get little  credit for it. One wonders why? 

This is not to say that there were no people dwelling in the Fens, there were, for the land consisted of glacial islets on which people settled. Places such as Ely [Eel Island]  and Anglesey [Angles Island] which is not to be confused with Anglesey in Wales, whose name has a different origin, are examples of such isles. Archaeologists have found remains of wooden footpaths made of laths of coppiced willows entombed in the preserving peat of Fenland deposits. These have been found in other marshy parts of Britain where residents wanted to walk dryshod from one island to another. It is also likely that some resident dwelt on crannogs, pile dwellings constructed on artificial islands in lakes, which were useful for defence against marauding neighbours [The Britons were not very friendly to each other!] One such site was at Must Farm where archaeologists found so many artefacts that were lost when  crannnog was burned down, probably by marauders, that they dubbed it Britain's Pompeii.  

The Struggle With Water

The maps show areas of land marked off  from the sea, but reality, especially in parts of Britain, is a different matter, for there are places where the boundary betwixt land and sea is not clear. The Fens are such an area, for they are an extensive coastal marsh stretching deep inland. Yet humans have claimed them as land and taking this dubious claim to its logical conclusion endeavoured to reclaim them. But land they once were, for until seven thousand B.C.  the southern part of the North Sea was land and the fens were elevated slightly above it. Then sea levels rising post-ice age culminated in an inundation that swept over what is archaeologists know as Doggerland, after the Dogger Bank in the North Sea.About the same time the chalk ridge between Britain and France was breached and Britain became an island rather than a peninsula. The area that is now the Fens was transformed from a slightly elevated confluence of rivers into a coastal marsh. 

After the monks' efforts drainage work was sporadic until the seventeenth century, when a company of "Adventurers" set out to reclaim the land. Adventurers was a term denoting businessmen who  speculated on a project.  This gave us the Bedford Levels, after the earl of Bedford who led the venture. This project involved a complex drainage system in which the River Ouse was partly diverted into the newly created, canalized Old Bedford River. There were subsequently two more artificial rivers created, the New Bedford and the Delph, all three taking overspill down to the Wash. In Winter the rivers are allowed to spill over into an area known as the Ouse Washes, which prevents it from flooding  towns and villages downstream 

I cross these rivers two or three times a year on my working visits to Cambridge, and on my November trip the railway line crosses the Ouse Washes. Safely on an embankment  above the flood,  I look out of the window at a watery wilderness on each side. I get the feeling that I am in  a moving oasis of safety in an aqueous and stormy world. 

The profits of the drainage were that the peat soil of the Fens became available for agriculture, and the rich, black soil of the Fens became some of the best agricultural land in England.On my Summer visits I pass through vast fields of crop:potatoes,barley,brassicas and so on, and they are a treat for my grower's eye. 

But there are problems. Modern agriculture has taken more from the soil than it has given and the depth of soil is shrinking across the Fens. The large modern fields without many hedgerows allow for dried soil to blow away in Summer. And as soil is shrinking sea levels are rising. Certain areas of the coast are now in managed retreat. We have stopped trying to fight the Sea, but we roll with its blows. In these coastal areas sea defences have been breached to recreate coastal marsh, which is a better defence against coastal erosion than a hard sea wall is, as the marsh is so fluid that it does not crack.What will happen in the future we know not. 

Fen Plants

Purple Loosestrife
Purple Loosestrife

The Attractions of the Fens

By the start of the twentieth century most traditional fen had gone, leaving four areas untouched. One of these was Wicken Fen, an area of over 240 hectares, which the National Trust preserve as a nature reserve using traditional harvesting methods. A windmill still controls water levels in the fen, and sedges [water plants] are still harvested for thatching and mat making. The most ancient fen is sedge fen, which is found right at the heart of Wicken Fen, and there visitors might if they are fortunate hear the booming call of one of Britain's rarest birds, the bittern, nicknamed the bull of the bog, a bird that nearly went extinct, but was saved by conservation efforts.   

About nine thousand species of plants and animals have been found in Wicken Fen, some common,like dragonflies, but others rare, like the marsh pea, [Lathyrus palustris] whose purple flowers  visitors might be fortunate to spot among the sedges. Purple loosestrife [Lythrum salicaria] adorns the fen, and you might find the rare marsh valerian [Valerian dioica] a pink flowered plant that thrives in an alkaline environment.  Visitors can cycle down  network of paths, walk or take an electric boat journey down the channel known as Wicken Lode.

Many visitors are drawn to the Wash, which is a wonderful site of special scientific interest for the bird life above it, the sea life below it and the seals that are born and rest on its sandbanks. 

Another Fenland attraction is Flag Fen, an archaeological centre which contains the relics of excavations into the ancient history of the Fens. Francis Pryor who led the excavations discovered a system of fields and drove ways leading down to the Fen along which cattle could be led to drink. He was later to discover a system of  boardwalks leading into an ancient lake, into which worshippers had cast votive offerings to the deity. This practice still has echoes today in the custom of throwing coins into fountains, and it is behind the Arthurian legend that the sword Excalibur was delivered back to the Lady of the Lake when he died. Though you must be clear, there is no Arthurian connection with the Fens. Not only is Francis Pryor [now retired]  an excellent writer on archaeology, he created a popular visitors' centre that is well worth a visit. 

Visitors will find much scope for quiet walking down country and cycling down country lanes where they might come upon villages with mediaeval churches and traditional village inns. Ascent on these walks is rare , which makes the Fens a good place for older people to stroll. 

Ely was an abbey church that survived the Reformation by being turned into a cathedral. It was erected on the orders of William the Conqueror, though his building programme would not have paid the price of the blood that he shed. But nevertheless, the building is prestigious and worth a visit. I change trains for Cambridge at Ely; the station overlooks the River Ouse,  and I am always enchanted by the marina with its plethora of small boats for cruising holidays or day trips.  

I find Fenland an interesting place that I would like to explore more fully in my retirement. 

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedraal
Ely Cathedraal
Updated: 08/06/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 09/29/2019

1: The treasure is a mystery. England was a land riven by much theft, as Saxons were not averse to stealing from Normans, so some light-fingered characters might have found some of the treasure and then held on to it.

2:Anglesey probably derives its name from the Deceangli tribe, who lived there, though its Welsh name is Mona. Deceangli is a Latin rendering of a Welsh name that might have been Dchangli. Sey or Say or Ay is a common name ending for islands in British usage, It is a Scandinavian term. It probably came from the Norse seafarers, who named many coastal places.

3: Climate change predictions are that the east of England, where the fens are, will suffer more droughts, but the north and west will suffer more storms,and this is being proved to be so. Wind frequency cannot increase in the fens as the area tends to suffer strong and regular winds anyway. Wind strength might be worsening, but it is not the main problem. The main threat to the fens is sea level rise.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/28/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the flower- and sedge-filled stroll, photos, practicalities and products, particularly those by Francis Pryor, whose King Arthur's Britain three-part DVD series I know.
Did King John really lose the royal treasure in the Wash? If so, has nothing ever been retrieved?
What is the etymology of the Welsh Anglesey?
Is the globally warmed climate change increasing the frequency and power of winds on England's fenlands? That's what's happening on the flattest lands along the coasts and Great Lakes on this side of the pond.

frankbeswick on 08/11/2018

Thank for your comment. I did not mention that East Anglia, where the Fens are located, has quite a number of historic churches, erected when the area was prospering from the wool trade.

dustytoes on 08/10/2018

Thank you for all that interesting information about the Fens. Another place I would love to explore in your beautiful country.

frankbeswick on 08/06/2018

Trees obstruct the view in many places, but there are places on the Fens where the line is on an embankment, so the view is clear. At one point the view is right into the distance, and you get a sense of space.There are few trees on the Ouse Washes and there the line just has to be raised high to prevent flooding, so the view is clear.

blackspanielgallery on 08/06/2018

I certainly can relate to flao land. Apparently the railroad is high enough, here the trees impede looking too far to the horizon.

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