The Fens – Discovering England’s Hidden Depths
Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus, £25
‘Very flat, Norfolk’ drawls a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives – a supercilious condemnation of another character, and by inference all eastern England. Francis Pryor proves that while the Fens may be level, their gentle undulations and cubist planes hold stories as absorbing as anywhere.
Mr Pryor is well-known as excavator and interpreter of the massive prehistoric site at Flag Fen near Peterborough, and from television’s Time Team. In childhood the Fens were a tantalising grey-blue smudge on his horizons – then when he was studying archaeology at Cambridge, an intriguingly unknown landscape conveniently close to town. He has come to know the Fens from the inside out, and the surface down. For him, this is literally hands-on history – a deeply felt discovery of a million underestimated acres extending from Lincolnshire to Suffolk.
The author’s father scanned RAF photographs for V1 launch sites, and his son applies comparable care to the study of silts – sometimes almost causing accidents by swerving into the side of the road to fossick in drainage ditch upcast. He adores the Bronze Age, when the Fens were well-populated and highly-organised – the stains and traces of banks, boats, bodies, boundaries, drove-ways, fish-traps, middens, and sluices proof of complex adaptations to this environment where land was drier rather than dry. Through phosphate analysis, we can even tell where cow manure splattered thousands of years ago, and suddenly we smell the Age in imagination.
The Fens, with their huge and numinous firmaments, have always been a ritual landscape – perhaps once with many monuments like ‘Seahenge’, the upturned oak surrounded by a ring of 55 closely-set posts, salvaged providentially in 1989 from the shrinking shore at Holmes-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. The British Museum’s famous Witham Shield shows that for Celts fenland rivers were mystical as well as tribal frontiers. Ely Cathedral, Croyland Abbey, the Boston Stump and many other superb edifices were raised on long-hallowed ground, their soaring stone a defiance of uncertain earth. These attest to ancient prosperity; Boston and King’s Lynn once rivalled London, and 12th-century Peterborough was nicknamed ‘Gildenburgh’, city of gold.
Boudicca ruled roundabout, Hereward the Wake legendarily resisted the Normans around Ely, and feudalism never became firmly established. Mr Pryor speculates that local traditions of independence may help explain the later appeal of puritanism, Parliamentarianism and modern intellectual enquiry to both ‘Slodgers’ (southern fenlanders) and ‘Yellowbellies’ (their Lincolnshire equivalents).
Dissolution opened monastic estates to entrepreneurs, and encouraged agricultural improvements, turning piecemeal efforts to keep water out of particular fields into a vast geometry of reclaimed ‘dearbought’ land, and half-tamed waterways (the Ouse Washes are visible from space). Fenlanders resisted, and the author empathises, but he also finds this titanic engineering inspiring. In some places, he observes, people seem insignificant, but not here, because without humans there would be no fens.
But ‘improvements’ have had adverse consequences, symbolised by the Holme Fen Post near Peterborough, inserted with its top at ground level in 1848, but now standing over 13 feet above, thanks to the drainage of Whittlesey Mere, formerly England’s largest lake. Shrinkage and drying of primordial peats are causing carbon release, soil degradation and erosion, increasing flood risk, and wildlife loss – while rising sea-levels menace huge tracts of prime farmland, and Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The author watches an overflying Lancaster bomber from nearby RAF Coningsby, and ponders today’s threats.
The Fens are trembling on history’s brink, but then they always have. For now at least, they retain much of their brooding, enigmatic character – and those who wish to understand their unique importance can now call on an articulate and avuncular guide.
This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission