History of the Fens
An introduction to beautiful part of Norfolk that has a fascinating history. The battles fought against rising tides to protect the rich fertile soils and the remains of the prehistoric man and animals that once roamed fee, Iceni Tribes and Roman occupation all sit comfortably waiting to be discovered in this flat land in West Norfolk
Situated in a sweeping arc around The Wash and reaching into the counties of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Huntingdonshire, The Fens are a marshy region of low lying land with a unique alkaline water chemistry that contains large quantities of dissolved minerals.
Often referred to as ‘The Holy land of the English’, partly due to the wealth of notable churches and cathedrals within the region but perhaps also because of their favourable mineral rich composition, the great Fenland plains are classified as first class agricultural land.
Throughout the history of The Fens its mineral rich lands have been desired by those living in the region. However the agricultural prosperity provided to those who cultivated the Fenland plain was hard won, and at constant risk of destruction by rising tides.
10,000 years ago the continent of Europe was vastly different to that which we see today. Norfolk was part of the continental landmass and its coastline non-existent.
Evidence of this notable change in sea level was uncovered during modern drainage works in Cambridgeshire. Revealing a pattern in the many layers of clay and peat which make up The Fens, it suggested that the low lying plains had been exposed to alternating periods of farming and flooding.
Uncovered in the Fen clay were the remains of large marine animals such as whales and walruses, whereas the peat deposits contained those of bears, wild ox and wolves.
Remnants of prehistoric civilisations were also discovered in the layers of peat, hinting to the history of those who tried to reap reward from the mineral rich ground. Evidence of pre-Roman settlement as early as the Mesolithic era has been discovered on the borders of, and even within the low lying islands of Fenland. While the Roman’s themselves constructed the Fen Causeway (connecting what is now East Anglia with Central England), it is thought that their road system avoided The Fens where possible.
After the fall of Roman Britain little is known about the population of Fenland. Although it is thought that the Iceni tribes may have lived in the region during the Dark and Middle Ages in a bid to avoid the Angles, who began migrating across the North Sea to settle in what is now East Anglia at that time.
Though the remnants of Roman hydraulic systems and medieval drainage works have been discovered, efforts to drain The Fens only began to gain momentum in the 1630s under the reign of King Charles I. Utilising wind pumps to direct water towards the River Ouse and the Old and New Rivers of Bedford, the successes achieved were short lived. As more water drained from the land, The Fens contracted sinking even lower until river water once again flooded the plains.
Despite fierce protest from locals, the drainage of The Fens was finally realised in the 1820s when powerful coal fired steam engines were brought in to replace the failing wind pumps.
With the addition of river and sea defences, new pumping stations, and 3,800 miles of watercourses, Fenland is now a thriving agricultural asset with over 4,000 farms involved in a number of aspects of agriculture and horticulture.
Today the reclamation of The Fens has a renewed focus, with the region’s conservation a key component of future plans. The Fens Waterways Link and the Great Fen Project are two initiatives set up to conserve the future of the region, and ensure a harmonious relationship between the farmers who work the land and the unique flora and fauna that thrived in its pre-agricultural state.