Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Fens

We are at the southern edge of the Fens where the land merges with the Brecklands. The local landscape of the Fens is very different from the drama of the Cumbrian fells, the wildness of the Yorkshire dales or the lush rolling hills and valleys of the Devon countryside. The Fens includes south Lincolnshire, much of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and an area of west Suffolk where we are. The main characteristic of the area is its virtually uninterrupted flat landscape, much of it below sea level. It is traversed by four main rivers that flow into the Wash: the Nene and Great Ouse draining the middle fens and further north the Welland and the Witham. Connecting these rivers is an extensive network of drainage ditches, dykes, drains or lodes which keep the land drained. Some of the rivers have been re-channeled into straight, wider water courses. The process of drainage also resulted in rectilinear, mostly unfenced, fields and long straight roads familiar to those who know this part of East Anglia.

Baldwins lode which marks the southern edge of the Fens and which borders our smallholding. The photograph typifies the flat landscape and big skies so characteristic of the Fens.

There were some early attempts to drain parts of the Fens in Roman times and in the 15th century. However, it was after 1630 when Fen drainage took place on a large scale. This was instigated by the Duke of Bedford who recruited a number of investors (Gentleman Adventurers) to fund the works in return for allocations of the resulting land that had agricultural potential. They hired the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden who had experience of drainage schemes in the Netherlands. Two major drains were excavated at this time to drain water from Huntingdonshire to the Great Ouse and outflow into the North Sea at Kings Lynn. These were the Old Bedford River and twenty years later, in 1650, the New Bedford River (or Hundred Foot Drain). The idea was to create straight channels in place of a meandering river which could flood the surrounding land.
Windmills were used to pump the river and these were later replaced by steam pumps and latterly by diesel and electricity. The 19th Century saw a massive extension of drainage across the Fens to create today’s landscape.
One of the consequences of the land drainage is that the land has sunk. This is particularly evident in the peat areas. As the peat lands were drained the peat began to dry out and shrink in some areas by as much as forty feet. Land shrinkage has caused much of the Fen farmland to be below the level of the drainage channels and the drains are carried by embankments.
Contrary to what many people might  think, the Fens is not an area of marshy conditions any more but mostly fertile agricultural land because of this drainage. Bear in mind also that this is the driest part of the country. Large irrigation hoses drawing water from the drains to water crops are a common sight each summer.  
The Fens are noted for their peaty soils, but there are also extensive areas of clay and also sandy soils. The soil on which our smallholding lies, and which has a big influence on my own horticultural efforts, is what I will write about in the next post.

You can get an overview of your own local landscape in the National Area Character Profiles which make interesting reading if you are curious about local landscapes and how they came about.

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