Relating to the project here:
Death of a Mere
The River Nene was once an important waterway, linking the lands to the west of the Fens with London and other ports. Goods included building stone (“Barnack Rag”), from the quarries near Stamford, wool, reeds, and later bricks. As it passed through the fens, it curved around areas of higher ground where there were settlements. “Holme” is an old Norse term for an island, and other local places with names ending in “-sey” were likewise raised, habitable land.
But the boats plying this trade had to tackle Whittlesey Mere, a natural lake along the way, and the largest of several lakes in the vicinity. This was difficult territory: the mere changed size (and depth) dramatically over the seasons, during the winter it would grow to perhaps 3 miles wide, and six miles long. The surrounding ground was dangerously soft: in February 1851, a young lad sank up to his armpits, remaining stuck for 19 hours, hidden by the reeds, until a passing labourer discovered him. In most places, the depth was minimal, and Fen Lighters (the traditional boats employed) had a very shallow draughts - effectively larger versions of the punts used by locals.
Pleasure trips on the mere became popular. “We came in sight of a great water, looked like some sea it being so high… It was 3 miles broad and six long. In the midst there is a little island where a great store of wildfowl breeds… it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that rise like Hurricanes, but at other times people boat it round the Mere with pleasure, there is abundance of good fish in it.” (Celia Fiennes, 1697). By this time, the name of both mere and settlement had arrived at a consensus: the railway company demurred, and to this day the little station remains “Whittlesea”.
The Victorian enthusiasm for collecting wild plants and insects also had a big impact. Local people made money by sending trunks full of desirable specimens to London collectors, via the new railway, from Holme station. The trade, already threatened by over-collecting, died off after the drainage of the Mere, due to habitat change.
The Abbeys at Ramsey, Sawtry and Peterborough had all long held fishing rights on the mere. These were divided into ‘boatgates’ (one boat, three men, and specific size of net): the sale of licences for these brought in considerable income. In addition, Ramsey Abbey appears to have held the rights to levy a toll on shipping, helping to make it one of the richest. One local waterway (Monks Lode) was probably built by Sawtry Abbey to bypass the mere, and evade this tax.
So, when the drainage of the fens began in earnest in the 17th century, it was natural that Whittlesey Mere was a prime target. By this time, it was badly silted up, and slightly higher than the surrounding fens, following earlier drainage work. (The aptly-named Ramsey Heights is now a dizzying 2m above sea level: the Holme Fen posts, a few km to the west, are around 2m below it.)
The locals were mostly opposed to the draining, as it would deprive them of their traditional livelihood - wildfowling, fishing and reed cutting. Life might be hard, but it gave them a sense of belonging and community. The “Fen Tigers” sabotaged the dykes and sluices, and set reedbeds on fire. But, in time, the River Nene was re-routed, new drains built, and the change “from punt to plough” was largely complete. A tiny remnant of Whittlesey Mere (no more than 25m diameter) remains at Holme Fen – but you have to be shown where it is!
After the land was drained, the peat started to dry and contract so that the shrinkage increased - leaving the rivers and dykes at a higher level. In Railway Wood, some of the trees seem to stand on tiptoe – the ground has shrunk from around their roots. It became necessary to mechanically raise the water from the field ditches up into them. There were nine windmills in Woodwalton parish alone: later, these were replaced by steam, then diesel or electric pumps.
in 1851 William Wells (now the landowner, a gift from the crown for his his backing the drainage project) had an oak pile driven through the peat into the underlying clay beside Engine Drain at Holme Fen; he then cut the top to ground level, to monitor the peat subsidence. A few years later, the oak post was replaced by a cast iron column, with its top at the same level as the original post. As it was progressively exposed it became unstable, so steel guys were added in 1957, when a second iron post was also installed 6m to the northeast (claimed to have come from the Crystal Palace rubble: the original post was sunk the in the year of the Great Exhibition). The Homle Fen Posts now stand 4m above the ground.
The drained mere was never fully “tamed”. Some of it never became stable enough for agriculture, and it was allowed to scrub over. Today, Holme Fen is probably both the lowest point of mainland Britain, and also the largest lowland Birch wood. A branch railway ran along the edge of it, linking Ramsey and places further east to what is now the East Coast Main Line. Despite ever more loads of ballast, the track remained unstable, and restricted by very low speed limits. Stand near the northern Holme crossing (“Queenie’s” - named after one of the last keepers), and you can feel the earth shake quite dramtically as a train passes on the ECML. Lock your car, and the tremors will likely set off the alarm.
Powte’s Complaint: (Anon, c. 1850. A ‘powte’ is a lamprey.)
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.
Behold the great design, which they do now determine,
Will make our bodies pine, a prey to crows and vermine:
For they do mean all Fens to drain, and waters overmaster,
All will be dry, and we must die, 'cause Essex calves want pasture.
Away with boats and rudder, farewell both boots and skatches,
No need of one nor th’other, men now make better matches;
Stilt-makers all and tanners, shall complain of this disaster,
For they will make each muddy lake for Essex calves a pasture.
The feather’d fowls have wings, to fly to other nations;
But we have no such things, to help our transportations;
We must give place (oh grievous case) to horned beasts and cattle,
Except that we can all agree to drive them out by battle.
Why a Duck (Decoy)?
(With apologies to the Marx Brothers)
The word “decoy” appears to be Dutch in origin (“duck-cage”), the traps may have originated there. Duck decoys first appeared in Britain around 1620, in Norfolk. King Charles II learnt of them, and had a Dutchman construct one in St James’s Park in 1665, at a cost of £30. In their heyday, there were nearly 200 in England and Wales: and over 20 in Ireland: but they never caught on in Scotland. None of the ones known around the Great Fen project area has survived. One near Peterborough was maintained until a very few years ago; but was latterly used for bird-ringing, rather than commercially.
A decoy typically consists of a pool, usually surrounded by trees or scrub: an inviting, secluded place for ducks to forage. From this pool were up to eight curved, tapering ditches, or “pipes”. Over each of these was a series of net-covered hoops, which diminished in size as the ditch tapered. On the outside curve of the pipe, were overlapping wood or reed screens. Tame ducks (the name “Call Duck” - a bantam breed of domesticated Mallard - is a corruption of “decoy duck”) were often fed at the entrance to the pipe, to entice their wild cousins into the trap. The decoys were mostly operated in winter.
Ducks are naturally curious: when they see a predator, such as a fox, they will tend to follow it, at a distance. The decoy man therefore used a dog, preferably a small red-brown one similar in appearance to a fox, to lure the ducks along the pipes. The Dutch bred the “kooikerhondje” for this purpose, you can find photos on the internet. In the UK, the dog was often called “Piper” (from the pipes, but one is reminded of the tale of the Pied Piper) Another popular name was “Bosun”.
The dog appeared between a gap in the screens, to lure the cautious ducks to approach. It was then sent into the next gap along the pipe, and so on, until the ducks were trapped in the low netting (in some cases, a wire cage) at the end. The hunter would often move behind the ducks, and let himself be seen, to scare the birds into the trap. Others might walk behind the screens, throwing grain or other food over, to encourage the birds. Some decoys relied solely on feeding, rather than using dogs.
Mallard and Teal were the commonest victims. Diving ducks – Pochard and Tufteds, for example, would often escape the standard decoys. So, in Essex and Suffolk in particular, “Pochard ponds” were built as an alternative; employing tall nets on long poles.
The decoys were economically significant: in some years, the total catch exceeded 20,000 birds. Pricing appears to have been simple: Mallards were “full ducks”, other breeds were “half ducks”. With the advent of the railways, one might have expected it to grow further, since the birds could now be transported rapidly to the big cities. But this pretty much coincided with two other factors. The first of these was the development of reliable, rapid-loading shotguns. This combined with the Ground Game Act of 1880, originally brought in for control of rabbits and hares. Prior to this, control of game was restricted by law to a privileged few, but now almost anyone could legally go hunting. Shooting disturbed the operation of the decoys, as well as reducing available catches: it was also more cost-effective. Land drainage on the fens, and industrial development, were also factors: a decoy at Coatham, Teesside, was lost under the expanding steel works. The practice declined rapidly, and the remaining decoys re-purposed or removed.
Brilliant, like the idea of providing more to read on and around the IFocus topic for those with the inclination/headspace/time, an enrichment. Efforts to create this IFocus really appreciated!
Should say there’s a lot of heart in it!! #
Might be useful to include a map with contours or spot heights. when surveying over in that area it can be alarming to see how close to sea level you are and wondering what would happen with sea level rise and a breach in the sea wall.
Just wait for the next high tide then
BONUS CONTENT: POWs used to drain the fens.
According to Trevor Bevis (“Prisoners of the Fens”, ISBN 0 901580 73), a contingent of Scottish and Dutch POWs were employed in the drainage work.
The Scots were mostly captured at the Battle of Worcester. Whilst many other Scots prisoners were sent to the West Indies to join African slaves on the plantations, an initial 1,000 were despatched to work on the Fens. They effectively became slaves of the Gentlemen Adventurers (the money men behind much of the work), and were joined by a contingent of 500 Dutch sailors captured after a sea battle with the English fleet off Porlland Bill (I never knew, or had forgotten, that England was busy with more than just the Civil War at the time).
The working conditions were harsh: malaria (or a related illness) was rife, the undrained fens were dangerously boggy. As a result, recruiting labour had been difficult: the locals resented the work, as it was destroying their way of life, and “outsiders” found the conditions alien and unpleasant. The workforce proved inadequate, and more Scots were drafted in, though by the time they finished their forced march from London or other cities where they were being held, they were probably not fit for hard labour.
Given the work and conditions, it is not surprising that many tried to escape. But, dressed in the undyed wool supplied to them, and being unfamiliar with the territory, it is doubtful that many succeeded. If caught, they could expect to be shot.
These forced labourers were a crucial part of the whole fenland drainage project: today, they are largely forgotten.
Forget the Scots at your peril!
Not the last Hibernian influx, of course. We’re not that far from Corby - “Little Scotland”. Although the steel has gone, the families of many ex-pat workers remain: and I’m told that at least one chippie sells deep-fried Mars bars.
Not a delicacy I’ve ever tried - or been tempted to try. I value my arteries too highly.
I was teasing (hope you guessed) - I’ve never met a Scot who has eaten one. I will admit that when I lived on Teesside, I did eat a “parmo” (based on chicken parmigiana, but without those nasty tomato vegetable things: fried breaded chicken breast, white sauce with analogue cheese, chips). Once.
And a dour Scot can react to teasing with a VERY straight face … an’ a twinkle in his een!
Altogether Liked by ðJ
SPORT ON WHITTLESEY MERE
The mere provided opportunities for entertainment all year round. Hunting or fishing were popular: a record 52 lb (23.6 kg) pike was caught in the last years before the drainage. There was sailing in summer (an annual regatta was instigated), and skating in winter.
REED AND TURF CUTTING
These were major sources of income, although census figures suggest few people were directly employed in them, these would probably not include landowners or tenants that did them as part of their general manage-ment.
Starlings were a big problem, large flocks roosting in the reeds could damage the crop. As a result, they were the subject of extensive control measures.
THE “FENLAND ARK”
The Reverend George Broke was appointed to the parish of Holme in 1895. His parishioners faced some difficulties in regular attendance: many had to travel several miles to the church, and the roads were often impassable in winter.
The Diocese of Ely had already acquired three horse-drawn church vans, to visit more remote parishioners. One of these could have been made available to Broke, but he decided they were not well-suited to the local roads.
So, he decided to take to the water: to build a floating church. He had considered buying an old railway carriage (many people bought these – for around £5 – and turned them into sheds, or even homes) to mount on a hull, but in the end he decided on a custom build.
This was built in 1897, at a cost of £70. It was a flat-bottomed lighter, about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. The superstructure was 7 ft tall, limited by the various bridges it would encounter. It was horse-drawn, as were most fenland craft of the time. Inside it had an altar, a font, a lectern that served as the pulpit, a small American organ, a small vestry, and 34 chairs.
It was dedicated to St. Withburga, and until October 1904, seventy-four baptisms took place on it: special cards were issued, and people were proud of the fact that they had been baptised on the Fenland Ark.
In the late 19th century the rivers were still crucial for freight, communication and transport and the need to maintain water levels saw a preponderance of pumping stations across the reclaimed land. As a result, Broke’s congregants were not just agricultural workers but pumping engineers, river men and their families.
St. Withburga’s was typically towed to the site the day before, by the church caretaker. At first, the itinerary was not fixed: later, a rota of 4 stops was settled on, but one of these was a problem, due to a low bridge that she could not navigate. There were occasional accidents: people in their Sunday best falling off the boarding plank. One victim was pulled from the river with the cheery admonition “thank God, you’ve got the parson here to attend ye in yer dying moments”.
Broke would hold two services at St. Giles in Holme every Sunday, before travelling by horse to St. Withburga’s. He tried cycling, but the heavily rutted roads were unsuitable for bicycles through much of the year.
Winters in the late 19th century were generally hard. In 1898, St. Withburga had to be dragged along an ice-bound river in temperatures down to -8 centigrade, and just four hardy souls turned out to worship. George could never be sure that the church had made it to its designated location, or that any parishioners would turn up.
The weather made life difficult: when it was particularly cold, the church could not be moved for weeks on end. When the river levels rose due to snow melt or heavy rain, she could not navigate under the bridges, resulting in further idleness. In February 1900, St. Withburga’s lost her chimney while passing under Stoke’s Bridge. The hot, dry summers from 1899 to 1901 saw water levels drop so much that, again, St. Withburga’s could not be moved.
After five years of active service, St. Withburga was returned to the boatyard for major repairs. The floating church had always been a financial burden, and these costs were prohibitive. St. Withburga’s days were numbered.
In 1904, a combination of cost, declining congregations, and Broke’s declining health saw St. Withburga pass into the hands of the vicar of Manea, who was having similar problems reaching communities along the Old Bedford River. She served Manea for just three years: in 1907 , she was retired. and converted into a houseboat known as the “Saints Rest”. She was then moored at Orton Thicket on the River Nene, until she sank in the excessive flooding of the summer of 1912 (“the year the harvest was got in by boat”)
As you write a comment, there is a menu of icons above your text, clicking on the smiley will find you a heart. You can Bold or italicise - bock the words and click B Or I. best not overdone I guess as we are quite civilised here…
I was put off trying to format, as I found that I had to get it right first time. If I tried adding formatting later (or made corrections), I was obviously doing something wrong, as it always seemed to go wrong. Like trying to add the “heart” to the title here.
You can edit anytime (for up to 28 days) and insert or delete a ‘smiley’
Click on the ‘pencil’ just below right to edit
I couldn’t see an edit option to insert a symbol into the header (no “toolbar” available as there is here). Copy-and-paste would not work at the time, but offered no resistance on today’s edit.
Thanks for this fascinating piece Amadan. Drew me right in and enjoyed the inclusion of ‘Powte’s Complaint’ too.
Although the subject is a species from beyond our shores, i suspect (if you haven’t already read it) this book would be of interest. You’ll no doubt know the tragic history of the bird already, but you may not be prepared for the breathtaking descriptions of the species’ unique and amazing (by ANY yardstick),landscape transformative and poetic ecology, or the unthinkable scale and wickedly devious methodology that drove the relentless, apocalyptic annihilation.
Never mind stones, Greenberg left no grain of sand unturned. The bird and the book blew my tiny mind. Imagine a 5 billion strong flock that was heard before it was seen; the beating of Biblical numbers of wings combining to make a sound often mistaken for the thunder of an incoming storm. Then the sky darkens dramatically, the sun drowned by an ongoing avian eclipse continuing unblinkingly for hours, occasionally even days (!) as the birds begin to arrive in a formation miles wide and sometimes so deep and low that you can literally almost touch the lowest individuals with your fingers.
A similar but more concise read, and this time with, if not exactly a happy ending, then one concluding with a certain amount of redemption (Aldabra and it’s tortoises strictly protected etc) is this equally recommended title by Paul Chambers: