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The Fens

Ely, Littleport, Shippea Hill and Feltwell,
Southery, Burnt House and Brandon Creek,
Popham's, Pingles, Jenny Gray's and Horsemoor -
All true Fenmen have black-webbed feet.

Edward Storey

The Fens is an area of low-lying agriculture land that stretches across parts of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Today it provides some of the most fertile farming land in the country but originally the area was covered by marshes, reed-beds and dykes and was frequented only by wild-fowlers and fishermen. Wicken Fen, which is now maintained as a nature reserve,  is a fine example of how the original fen would have appeared.

The Norfolk Fens

Beneath the huge sky

During the seventeenth century the Earl of Bedford employed the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the Fens. He set to work (with the help of thousands of labourers) and created the Bedford River and the New Bedford River which helped to move the water from the fens more quickly northwards and out into The Wash. Even today the area is known as the Bedford Levels.

After the land was drained however, the peat started to dry and contract so that the land sank further - leaving the rivers and dykes inside their levees at a higher level. In 1851 at Holme, a cast iron column was hammered into the ground so its top was level with the surface of the fen - however the post now stands 13 feet above the surrounding land.

Originally there was great resistance to the draining from the 'fen-tigers' - or people whose livelihood depended on the wetlands - and some of the reclamation work was sabotaged. Below is a famous seventeenth century, anonymous protest poem called the Powte's Complaint - a 'powte' being a sea-lamprey.

Powte's Complaint

Come, Brethren of the water, and let us all assemble,
To treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble;
For we shall rue it, if''t be true, that Fens be undertaken
And where we feed in Fen and Reed, they'll feed both Beef and Bacon.

They'll sow both beans and oats, where never man yet thought it,
Where men did row in boats, ere undertakers brought it:
But, Ceres, thou, behold us now, let wild oats be their venture,
Oh let the frogs and miry bogs destroy where they do enter.

Read complete poem

The unique landscape of the Fens has provided inspiration for many writers over the centuries:

Anthony Trollope (1815-82)

In his novel The Belton Estate (1866) Trollope paints a grim picture of the Fens. His heroine, Clara Amedroz, has to chose between a wealthy suitor and a distant cousin called Will Belton. Belton owns a farm near Downham Market but is keen to leave the Fens and take up his inheritance in the West Country.

Trollope was familiar with the fens through his work as a surveyor for the Post Office but was not enamoured by the landscape. In the book, Belton walks to Denver Sluice and back and Trollope writes 'a country walk less picturesque could hardly be found in England'.

Charles Kingsley (1819-75)

Kingsley's novel Hereward the Wake (1866) is set mainly in the Fens. Hereward the Wake, who may have been born at Bourne in Lincolnshire, resisted the Normans by hiding out in the fens and by using Ely as a stronghold. In the novel, Hereward frequently uses his knowledge of the area to outwit the Normans.

Kingsley was Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University from 1860-69 and therefore would have had some personal experience of the fenlands.

However, the Fens that he writes about in the novel are the pre-drained version - consisting of marshes, dykes and reed-beds. Historically the Fens were regarded as a disease ridden place, haunted by witches and Will o' the Wisps and rife with superstition. Even today the Fens have retained a reputation for witchcraft.

As there are no hills or mountains in the Fens - the sky always seems much larger and more beautiful - as Kingsley points out in the prelude to Hereward the Wake:

'Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles.'

(Hereward the Wake was also the subject of Henry Treece's 1962 children's book Man with a Sword.)

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)

Her detective story The Nine Tailors (1934) - featuring the famous upper-class detective Lord Peter Wimsey - is set in the Fens. The book opens with Wimsey stranded at Fenchurch St Paul after a car accident on New Year's Eve. When one of the local bell-ringers becomes ill with influenza, Wimsey agrees to step in for a nine hour bell-ringing session and he soon becomes involved the Thorpe family (local squires) who have experienced a series of tragic events. The church in the novel is almost certainly based on St. Peter and St. Paul's at Upwell - which sits right on the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border. Sayers' father was the vicar of Bluntisham in Cambridgeshire and, from an early age, she was familiar with the landscape and atmosphere of the Fens.

Edward Storey (1930-2018)

Edward Storey was born at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire and has written many books about the Fens. After completing his National Service  -he worked for fourteen years for Adult Education - before becoming a full-time writer in 1970.

In his prose and poetry he has captured the beauty and desolation of the place, recording its changing appearance through out the seasons. Here is one of his poems:

You walk the roof of the world here.
Only the clouds are higher
And they are not permanent.
Trees are too distant for the wind to reach
And mountains hide below the horizon.
The wind labours through reed
As though they were the final barrier.
Houses and farms cling like crustations
To the black hull of the earth.
Here, you must walk with yourself,
Or share the spirits of forgotten ages.

His books include: Spirit of the Fens (1985) and In Fen Country Heaven (1996). In Fen Boy First (1994) he gives an account of his childhood growing up in Whittlesey. Fen Country Christmas (1995) is a collection of stories, legends and Fenland superstitions (of which there are many) in which he takes a look at skating - which has always been a popular sport in the region. He has also written a biography of the poet John Clare.

Edward Storey has recently moved to Wales.

Road at Salters Lode

Round the bend

Graham Swift (1949- )

Graham Swift's novel Waterland (1983) is set in the Fens and the narrator  Tom Crick lives in a lock keeper's cottage on the bank of the (fictional) River Leem which flows out of Norfolk. (It may have been modelled on the Little Ouse which flows through Thetford and Brandon and then out onto the flat fens.)

Graham Swift (Photo © Ekko von Schwichow)

The novel tells the story of Tom's childhood and also the history of the Fens themselves and his mother's family the Atkinsons who were brewers from Norfolk:

'Some say they were originally Fenmen. But if they were, they moved long ago, tired of wet boots and flat horizons, to the hills of Norfolk, to become simple shepherds. And it was on the hills of Norfolk (low and humble hills as hills go, but mountain ranges by Fen standards) that they got ideas - something the stick-in-the-mud Cricks rarely entertained.'

The novel is influenced by George Eliott's Mill on the Floss. The novel ends tragically with the death of Tom's brother Dick - who commits suicide by jumping from a dredger into the Great Ouse River (see Downham Market).

A film of Waterland was released in 1992 - starring Jeremy Irons as the grown-up Tom Crick and directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Much of the filming was carried out at Holbeach Marsh in Lincolnshire. However, many critics felt that the film failed to capture the mystery and drama of the book.

Pylons in the Fens

Pylon Poetry

Dyke at Salters Lode

Dyke at Salters Lode

Personally I have always found the Fens to be a dramatic and inspiring landscape and one of the best ways to see them is to travel by train from Norwich to Peterborough. After crossing the Brecklands, the line drops down onto the fens and takes you through stations such as Shippea Hill, Prickwillow, Queen Adelaide, Ely and then out onto the Bedford Level - crossing the Hundred Foot Drain and proceeding through Manea and March. Sometimes the train stops for no apparent reason and you can find yourself stranded in the middle of this remarkably flat landscape with the weight of the sky pressing down on you. The following poem of mine was inspired by this particular part of the fens:


Who fashioned this land of fields, fen-man
Clawed from beneath the seaís tongue?

Who drained these lost levels, fen-man
With lock and sail and engine?

Who sweated knee-deep in the fen mud,
Exhausted by the clod weight

And the singing of the windís voice?
Why, you did!

But who filled your brain with peat?
Who cast the speech from your blue tongue?

And who, after stealing your five senses
Left you, wedged and breathless

Under your own sky?
Why, the land did, the land did!

Other writers who have been influenced by the Fens include: crime and mystery writers such as Gladys Mitchell and Jim Kelly and children's writers John Gordon (see Upwell) and Philippa Pearce (best known for Tom's Midnight Garden).


More Photographs of the Fens





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