Oct 16, 2010 workshop: histories of land & water in the East Anglian Fens

November 25th, 2010 by

The Fens are a naturally marshy low-lying landscape in the flat lands that stretch out around the Wash in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk. This land is prone to flooding: see the photo here of flooding in Feltwell in 1915.

What interests me as an anthropologist is way in which the humans who live in this region have attempted to adapt to their environment, and to adapt the environment to their needs.

See my presentation here: RDGIpdf

In particular, the contemporary landscape of the fens is shaped by past drainage; there is evidence of Roman efforts to drain the land in their digging of the 80 mile long Car Dyke along the western margin of the Fens. The history of the Fens has subsequently been punctuated by attempts to render the marshy ground ‘productive’. A systematic programme of drainage was advanced in the 17th century when a group known as the ‘Adventurers’, led by the Earl of Bedford and assisted by the Dutch Engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, obtained contracts from King Charles I to drain the land and make it suitable for agriculture, and to retain property rights in that which they had drained. This was seen by some as an act of enclosure, and actively resisted. Oliver Cromwell, who was born in Ely, an ‘island’ in the Fens, declared himself a champion of the commoners, and the attempts by inhabitants to undermine the drainage works in order to protect common rights must therefore be read through the lens of the English Civil War history of this period. Indeed, Cromwell resumed drainage works in his time as Lord Protector. Still, the folk history of resistance to drainage by those fearing that the right to use the land would be taken away from them (and with it, access to resources of peat, reeds, waterfowl, and fish) retains an allure, and is commemorated in folklore to this day; for example, a band called Norcsalordie recently composed a song entitled “Cursed Cornelius”, which expresses the anger of the Fenmen towards the Dutch engineers: “God help those damn blasted Dutchmen, they’ll drive him away from these lands… Cornelius Vermuyden, the worst of them all, Cursed Cornelius you’ll bloody well fall”.

While the effects of 17th century drainage were short lived, renewed efforts to drain the land in the late 18th and 19th centuries made use of windmill and, later, steam technology to lift water out of the land and push it towards the cut channels. The triumph of steam over the flooded plains is commemorated on a plaque in a pumping station built in 1830:

These Fens have oft times been by Water drown’d
Science a remedy in Water found
The powers of Steam, she said, shall be employ’d
And the destroyer by itself destroy’d

Yet the triumph over water was far from absolute. Indeed, the nature of the land being drained meant that this work ultimately lowered the level of the land, making it more prone to flooding. Much of the Fen was peatland, and peat is a wasting asset: as it is drained, it shrinks, and as it is exposed, it oxidises, dissipates, and blows away. This gives rise to dust-storms known locally as ‘fen blows’, filling the air with peat dust, which spreads out across the flat open fields. The extent to which the peat has shrunk – and therefore, the extent to which the land level has dropped – is made starkly visible by the Holme Peat Post, which was sunk into the ground in 1851, so that the top of the post was at the surface level, and as the peat shrunk, the post would become more and more visible. The post is now exposed 4 metres above the current ground level. Because of this fall in land level, waterways in the fens are often above the level of the adjacent farmland, creating a need for substantial banks to be built up (and maintained) alongside them.

I am interested in exploring the kinds of social life that emerge from this negotiation between people, land, and water. We have seen, for example, in the idea of the fens as a ‘common land’ a particular historical representation of a system of use: the fens as land for common subsistence, a site for waterfowling, eel catching, reed cutting, and grazing livestock. Today, individuals such as Peter Carter, eel catcher and waterfowler continue to put the natural resources to this kind of use, although such activities are sometimes represented as a relic of the past rather than a serious attempt to adapt to the contemporary environment – indeed, much of Peter Carter’s visibility as an eel catcher comes from his involvement in heritage events.

The creation of ‘productive’ (and owned) land through drainage creates different forms of social relations. The cultivation enabled by such drainage has made the region a key site for the UK’s food security (and during the Second World War, its productivity was investigated and measured, and concrete roads built for access, precisely to ensure that the nation was making full use of the Fens as agricultural resource). Today the area is a major producer of sugar beet, carrots, and potatoes.

While cultivation today favours a small number of large farm businesses, previously the unpredictable nature of the land meant that much was left unused, enabling small-scale and flexible land rental – though in times of flooding, those renting could lose everything. For example, following a 1796 flood, 416 land renters were forced to take up day labour after their crops were destroyed. Floods, however, could create opportunities as well as destroy them; W.H. Barrett, in his Tales of the Fens – a collection of stories told and retold in pubs – describes the ‘drown’ of 1861, giving us detailed insight into the social impact of an extreme weather event, but also showing us the impact it had on land use, with a rise in smallholding activity as people made use on the at-risk land as “one horse farmers”.

The social life of the Fens has historically been characterised by an understanding of what it means to live alongside water, and in land that is prone to inundation by water. This is perhaps clearest in the mobilisation of whole communities in the work of watching for floods: relays of men kept watch on the banks containing the waterways, so that word could quickly be sent out if one of the banks was to break. During the extreme floods of 1947 and 1953, these teams of ‘bank-watchers’ played an essential role in minimising the loss of life and livelihood by alerting the communities.

More broadly, living alongside and often in water leads to particular forms of accommodation to the environment. The buildings in which people in the Fens lived were built in consideration of the particular environmental pressures to which they were subjected. While this is most evident in surviving examples of houses built on stilts (see, for example, the Rothschild bungalow at Woodwalton Fen), such accommodation to the water often took subtler and more everyday forms. Many of these ways of adapting are well described in Sybil Marshall’s Fenland Chronicle, in which her parents recall their late 19th and early 20th century lives in the Fens in vivid detail. We see, for example, that the damp conditions meant that many of houses were infested with crickets, which led to some people keeping hedgehogs as pets, so that they would eat the crickets. Floors in houses were bricked or paved, but not bound, to enable easy relaying when the surface became uneven due to the nature of the ground, and also to enable drainage through the spaces between the tiles if water was to come into the house. Blocks would be kept handy to raise beds above the level of the water should the houses become flooded, leading Sybil Marshall’s father to tell the following story:

“I ’eard a tale about a chap as I knowed what used to get a fair amount o’ beer down him whenever he had the chance. One night when the water were just a-coming up ’e’d bin out and ’ad a goodish allowance, and found as ’e’d got to get out again to get rid o’ some of the beer. But by that time the water had ris’ so that it stood about nine inches all over the flood all around the bed, so ’e just rolled over to the side o’ the bed and done what ’e wanted.” His wife is indignant, but he tells her “What’s a little drop more matter? It’ll all goo out wi’ the rest.”

While prior to the Second World War construction of roads much of the Fen was difficult to access, the use of waterways to navigate around the region created a certain attitude to social life that is well expressed in the name of a (still existing) pub on the banks of the River Cam – the “Five Miles From Anywhere – No Hurry” Inn at Upware. The name encapsulated the fact that a particular pace of movement was created by the watery landscape. While such a pace of movement may have made it difficult, for example, to reach nearby villages to attend church, such problems could be solved in enterprising ways: in 1897 the Vicar of Holme Parish had a floating church built to reach the parts that other churches can’t reach. This ‘Fenland Ark’ navigated the waterways of the parish, providing services in difficult to access places; 70 people were baptised on board.

While these stories of accommodation speak to a particular understanding of the nature of the Fenland landscape, recent events in the region point towards a sense of disconnection. In 2008, Natural England suggested that parts of the Upper Thurne Basin in Norfolk could be allowed to flood in the next 20-50 years as part of a strategy of “managed retreat”. While such a strategy recognises the vulnerability of the landscape and makes clear that much of East Anglia consists of ‘temporary land’, such an idea was met with a certain amount of public outrage, because of the inevitable effects that such a strategy would have on property value and insurance rates.

Natural England’s strategy points to the fact that due to the pressures of isostatic rebound (the post-glacial readjustment of land masses, which means that most of the south of England is very slowly sinking in relation to global sea level) and, more recently, the effects of global warming, much of the flat East Anglia region is under a particular risk of flooding – and as I have explained, peat shrinkage has exacerbated this problem in the Fenland area. And yet, also in 2008, the Office of National Statistics predicted that after London, the East of England region was going to see the largest growth in population in the UK. So while the region is likely to consist of less land and more water, it is also expected to contain more people.

Alongside this evidence of disconnection, it is also important to note particular ways in which people have ‘reconnected’ with the landscape. Since 2004, the City of Ely has organised ‘Eel Day’ festivities (see myself throwing an eel at Ely’s Eel Day in 2009), celebrating their namesake and the watery environment that supports the eels. A giant eel is paraded through the streets, and participants can take part in an “eel throwing” competition (in fact throwing stuffed socks in the shape of an eel), meet an eel catcher, look at eels in tanks and, of course, eat eels.

This ‘invented tradition’ celebrates the particularity of Ely as a place, and emphasises a particular form of relationship with the environment. Further to this, the recent photographic competition and exhibition “Fens through a Lens”, organised by the Cambridge Museum of Zoology and the RSPB, generated a surge of photographic interactions with the habitats of the Fens, although it is interesting many of the photographs consisted entirely of wildlife scenes without any evidence of the human place within the environment. On a much bigger and more dramatic scale, the ‘Great Fen Project’ aims to buy up and ‘reflood’ 14 square miles of Cambridgeshire, turning a large area of productive farmland into nature reserve.

In a context of environmental change, in which the particular land history of the Fens interacts with the changing climate, what are likely to be the future patterns of land use? What kinds of social life will the future Fenland generate?

2 responses

  • peter carter
    Dec 5, 2010

    me family have lived and worked on fen for over 500 years eel catching, wildfowling and cutting the osier. when they got married back then there wedding rings were made of eel skin. i still make um as i get folk asking for them as gifts to there other halfs. i hope one day the fen will reflood. and we can be left alone to live off fen as they did in past. them fen tigers who fought against the draining will finally win.

  • Jacquie Hobbs
    Dec 6, 2010

    Hello Peter, this is really fascinating! Maybe the Fen will reflood. I have heard some reports that this is quite likely in the next 50 years. I would also be fascinated to see one of your rings. I grew up in Bury and heard about these but didn’t know if it was true. Thanks ever so much for your comment!

Leave a Comment