The Fenland primarily lies around the coast of the Wash; it reaches into two Government regions (East Anglia and the East Midlands), four modern counties (Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and a small area of Suffolk), and 11 District Councils. The whole contains an area of nearly 1,500 square miles or about 1 million acres.
Today, the Fens are a primarily agricultural area which is strongly characterised by both its very low elevation and its flatness, as 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 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.
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 Fen 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 Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built; its highest point is 37m above OD.
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 was an arch of higher silt ground around the Wash, where the towns near the Wash had their arable fields). 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:
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 Nene and the Great Ouse, now covers approximately 1,300 km² (320,000 acres). Significant towns in the fens include Boston, Spalding, Ely, Wisbech and King's Lynn.
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 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:
As well as waters in
And the major areas of settlements were on
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 Boston 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 Stickney. The pale upland of the Wolds is at the top edge.
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.
For a long time, it had been thought that the Iron Age fens were inhospitable to settlement, as few sites had been found; this period was one of significant flooding in the fens. But a recent archaeological survey of the region has revealed that while some areas such as the northern fen edge in Lincolnshire may have been lost to settlement, there was considerable settlement in the southern fens, on the islands and on the fen edge. Despite the fact the area of wetlands were at a maximum, the density of these settlements seem to have approached that of the Roman period, and the islands of the southern fens continued to be inhabited as they had been before.
The Romans constructed the road, the Fen Causeway across the fens to join what would later become East Anglia and central England: Denver to Peterborough. They also linked Cambridge and Ely 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 possible saw some drainage efforts, including the Car Dyke 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 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. (Compare 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.
After the end of Roman Britain, there is a break in written records. 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 (Peterborough/Crowland), South Gyrwe (Ely), the Spalda (Spalding), 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. Monastic life was disrupted by Danish raids and settlement but was revived in the mid-10th century monastic revival.
These fenland monastic houses include Ely, Thorney, Crowland, Ramsey, Peterborough, and Spalding. As major landowners, the monasteries took a significant part in the early efforts at the drainage of the Fens.
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 Spalding, along the Welland to Deeping, then along the Car Dyke to Dowsby 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 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 and half in Holland and Kesteven, it is known as Kesteven Forest. (map)
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 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 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.
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.
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 highest parts of the drained fen now being only a few metres above mean sea level, only sizable 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 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 60 miles of Sea embanked defences and 96 miles of Fluvial river embankments. 11 Internal Drainage Board (IDBs) groups maintain 286 pumping stations and 3,800 miles of watercourses, with the combined capacity to pump 16,500 Olympic Sized swimming pools in a 24hour period if necessary or empty Rutland Water in 3 days.
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 270 miles of hedgerow and 1,780 miles 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.
Ancient sites include