Forgotten landscapes – fens in history and imagination

A road in the Linconshire Fens. Photo: Derek Turner

Twenty-five years ago, when I first started thinking about living in Lincolnshire, I kept coming up against strange preconceptions. People I talked to often seemed to have peculiar ideas about what the county was like – how it looked, how difficult to get to, how isolated it was, how unsophisticated it must be. But not many of these had ever been to Lincolnshire, or even passed across it going somewhere glamorous.

I realised that these stereotypical ideas about Lincolnshire were very widespread – and that they were largely derived from the level landscapes of the Fens. There was a lazy notion that all of Lincolnshire was not just flat, but a kind of Canadian-style prairie – drained, drenched in chemicals and made boring for the benefit of farming.

Fenlanders have long been the subjects of incomprehension and snobbery. William Camden’s Britannia of 1607 described fenlanders as “rude, uncivil and envious to all others”. Another 17th century antiquary, William Dugdale, called them “a rude and almost barbarous sort of lazy and beggarly people”. A metaphor-mixing 18th century writer said fenlanders “lurk like spiders, and when they see a chance, sally out, and drive or drown or steal just as suits them, and are the Buccaneers of the country”. A 1997 BBC 2 programme, Double Dutch, poked savage fun at fenlanders as living in an “open prison”, where “hick has spoken unto hick, and white trash unto white trash”.

To a certain kind of modern metropolitan, Lincolnshire in general, and the Fens in particular, is inhabited by unreconstructed churls whose ideas of culture are line-dancing, Seventies pop music revivals, demolition derbies and Coronation mugs. The supposed flatness of the landscape was equalled by the supposed flatness of the local culture. As M W Barley noted in his 1952 book, Lincolnshire and the Fens, “It is a defect of the romantic view of history that it elevated the Venetian gondolier and turned the fenman into something slightly less than human.”

These notions were obviously unfair. But fens everywhere have often been regarded with disdain and distrust – as places of ugliness and uncertainty, miasmas and mud, ill-health and isolation, drowning and danger.

The word ‘fen’ is from an Indo-European root, but proximately comes from Old Frisian – the language once spoken in the equally amphibian islands off the Dutch coast. It signifies simply a tract of low-lying land partly covered with shallow water, or subject to flooding. But the second meaning listed in my Oxford Dictionary is “Mud, filth, excrement”. A third meaning is “Mould, mildew, moisture”. ‘Swamp’, incidentally, seems to be from an Old Germanic word meaning ‘sponge’ or ‘fungus’. Think of some of the synonyms for fen, marsh and swamp – bog, mire, morass, mud, ooze, quagmire, quicksand, slush, squash. You begin to see why fenlands might seem less than attractive to outsiders!

Heracles fighting Typhon. Wikimedia Commons

In legend, fens have often been the haunt of demons and evil spirits. The Ancient Greeks wrote about the great “Serbonian Bog” under what is now the Egyptian coast, where the serpentine monster Typhon was reputed to live. In Buddhist tradition, marshes symbolised sensual pleasures to be avoided by those seeking enlightenment. The man-eating Grendel in Beowulf was a beast of the Swedish swamps. In 19th century Louisiana, the voodoo queen Marie Laveau carried out her mysterious animistic rituals in the darkest and most forbidding bayou.

An Edwardian imagining of Grendel

The Arthurian knight Sir Gawain wanders long in trackless marshes, emblematic of his difficulty finding the Green Knight to repay his debt of honour. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian becomes bogged down in the Slough of Despond which stands between him and the Celestial City. In the opening scenes of Great Expectations, Pip is wandering alone in the desolate marshes of the Thames estuary, where the graveyard is filled with his family, and potentially murderous escaped convicts hide in the swirling mists. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the only way to Mordor for Frodo, Sam and Gollum is through the Dead Marshes, where the pools are filled with images of the undead – candle-carrying elves, orcs and men killed in a great battle many centuries before. “Do not follow the lights”, Gollum warns the hobbits – referring to the wills-o’-the-wisp that flit across this terrible landscape – “or else you will go down to join the dead, and light little candles of your own”.

We now know wills-o’-the-wisp are natural phenomena, probably caused by organic decay of the kind seen in marshes (and graveyards). But for many centuries and in many cultures these lights of level landscapes were assumed to be mischievous or evil spirits, symbolic of pointless or perilous endeavour. ‘Pixie lights’ or ‘hobby lanterns’, they were called in England, and in eastern England ‘jack-o’-lanterns’ – a name carried by Puritans to America, to be remembered every Halloween when scary faces are cut into pumpkins. In Welsh folklore, they predicted funerals.

Wills-o’-the-wisp, by Hermann Hendrich (1823)

In Germany, they were called irrlicht, deceitful or wandering light – from which came the Latin ignus fatuus, or foolish fire. In Korea, they were called ‘goblin-fire’, and in Japan, ‘fox-fire’, sparked by the mating of demons. They feature as eerie emanations in Paradise Lost, in Jane Eyre, in Dracula, and Hound of the Baskervilles. And these are just one of many supernatural features of the great brooding sweep of the Fenlands, with their doom dogs, and werewolves, and witches, their boggarts and brownies and streams that no-one will cross at night.

The swamp has often been emblematic in Western culture of a kind of confusion – a loss of direction, a loss of purpose, or a moral uncertainty paralleling the uncertain footing of the terrain. Outlaws lived there, and fugitives. To the Greeks, swamps were conceptually similar to labyrinths – places difficult to penetrate and containing secrets at their core, either secrets of initiation or dreadful deaths. To the 20th century German musicologist Marius Schneider, swamps represented “decomposition of the spirit” – places of passivity and pointlessness. They were places of great fecundity – but also of formless chaos, where land and water might change places at any moment. In psychoanalysis, swamps symbolise feelings of loss, or being overwhelmed, or being trapped.

Water Rail. Wikimedia Commons/Marek Szczepanek

The secretive or striking wildlife of marshes all added to an otherworldly atmosphere – the booming bitterns, the chirring grasshopper-warblers, the dashing water-rails and skulking moorhens, the bearded tits, the statuesque bustards, cranes and herons, the gulping frogs, the pop-eyed newts, the water-walking spiders and whirligig beetles and pond-skaters and singing mole-crickets and jewel-like dragonflies, the snake-like eels and lampreys, and sinisterly grinning pike. So many geese flew into south Lincolnshire in the winter that it was nicknamed Wingland, and their cries at dusk gave rise to superstitious fears of what the locals called the ‘Gabblerout’ – the ghostly Wild Hunt of Germanic mythology. Still waters really can run very deep.

Raft Spider. Wikimedia Commons

Ideas of the Fens as especially remote and strange were always exaggerated, with literary visitors always likely to focus on exotica rather than less interesting day-to-day realities. Rural life everywhere has always been full of difficulties, and local eccentricities.

But even now, the Fens give rise to offbeat culture – Graham Swift’s haunting novel Waterland, about abortion, incest, and drownings, John Gordon’s ghost-stories The Fen Runners and The Giant Under the Snow, about sinister titans sleeping a few inches beneath the clay, Daisy Johnson’s Fen, about shape-shifting and dark magic – and Spalding-born Edward Parnell’s magnificent Ghostlands, in which he frames his tragic family history through the traditions of the English supernatural.

The Fens were also guarded by their reputation for disease – malaria, always uncomfortable and sometimes fatal, carried by the Anopheles mosquito, which teemed along the brackish edges of drains and meres. The 17th century antiquary Thomas Fuller called malarial fever the “Bailiff of the Marshland”, and warned those thinking about travelling into Norfolk – “The aire of Marshland in this county is none of the wholesomest…strangers coming hither are clapped on the back with an ague”. Samuel Pepys – one of whose ancestors may have been a bailiff for the Abbot of Crowland – remembered terrible roads traversing the fens to Parson Drove near Wisbech – “a heathenish place”, he called it, where he reported “I was bit cruelly by gnats”. One of the theories for the origin of the nickname “yellowbellies” is that fever victims developed sallow skin-tones.

Malaria was endemic in parts of the Fens well into the 19th century, and was only eliminated by drainage, which destroyed most mosquito habitat. Earlier attempts to defeat fever were less efficacious. One folk remedy was to nail three horseshoes to the foot of your bed, and tap them with a hammer, while saying: “Father, son and Holy Ghost / Nail the devil to this post / Thrice I strikes with holy crook / One for God and one for Wod and one for Lok.” That doesn’t even work as poetry! Even more scientific remedies had drawbacks, with the Fens notorious as hotbeds of opium addiction.

There are other possible views of marshland. In Greek myth, marshes were the birthplace of music, because the nymph Syrinx turned herself into reeds to avoid being ravished by Pan – and his sad sighs at being thwarted moved the reeds to music, inspiring his eponymous pipes. In ancient Egypt, the marshes of the Nile delta were regions of fertility, and fields of reeds a foretaste of the afterlife. In classical China, wetlands were seen as places of contentment and peace. In Finnish, Irish and other traditions, wills-o’-the-wisp are thought to mark buried treasure.

The sacred Celtic site of Glastonbury is guarded by former marshes. Hereward the Wake of Bourne utilised the marshes of the Isle of Ely as a secure fastness from which to launch attacks on the Norman invaders. In The Silver Chair, one of his ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ stories, C S Lewis gives us the Marshwiggle, Puddleglum, a moorland creature whose lugubrious slowness and peculiar appearance conceal an ardent warrior for Aslan.

In his 2016 book, Cities and Wetlands: The Return of the Repressed in Nature, the English writer Rod Giblett points out the many great cities that have been built on swamps – Berlin, Chicago, London, New York, and of course Venice – the latter simultaneously beautiful and stinking, a city of serenity and sinking. Paris may be the most marshy city of them all, its old name Lutetia deriving from lutum, the Latin word for mud, its coat of arms bearing the motto, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” – “it floats but does not sink.”

Giblett rues the millennia-long process of building on, draining and otherwise destroying wetlands. He writes:

Wetlands are…environmental waters of nourishing milk, their living waters are the breast of the great mother, the earth, and they are the moist womb that gives birth to new life. Wetlands are also maternal as they are the tomb for decaying and dying matter that gives rebirth to new life. Wetlands…are the first source of nourishment, the first object of love and the first object to be lost in modernization, colonization, drainage, and ‘progress.’

The fecundity of fenny places was the cause of their eventual downfall. As early as the Bronze Age, humans had noticed that fens could not only provide a rich natural bounty – birds, clay, fish, herbs, reeds, willow – but could also be claimed, drained and tamed to grow crops or feed livestock. The tannin-stained dead bodies found preserved in the old peats of Cheshire, Denmark and Ireland are poignant testament to long settlement – links in long chains of being that even now nourish national identities. The name Welland is pre-Celtic in origin, showing how long there have been people living along the banks of the river, despite all too frequent dangers from flooding. The place-name Spalding may derive from a term meaning “dwellers by the gulf”.

Reconstructed roundhouse at Flag Fen. Wikimedia Commons/

The million acres of fenland of eastern England, stretching from Suffolk to Lincolnshire, once hosted relatively large populations. At Flag Fen on the edge of Peterborough can be seen redolent traces from 3,500 years ago – the substantial remains of a sophisticated trackway and postholes, , the hulls of impressive wooden boats, horse mandibles and ritual objects dropped into the placate riverine spirits. By phosphate analysis of the soil, we can even find out exactly where long-horned cattle once passed, thousands of years ago, spraying manure as they went complaining on their way.

The Romans drained marshes extensively elsewhere in the empire, but largely left the Fens alone, apart from making lanes to bring sea-salt to the city. The so-called Roman Bank that extends around parts of the Wash, is in fact medieval.

Ouse Washes. Wikimedia Commons

After they had gone, the Fens continued to attract small numbers of determined settlers, from the similar landscapes just across the sea – Frisia, Flanders, Jutland – Angles, Saxons and Jutes fighting and intermingling with those already here, helping found little kingdoms or turn little kingdoms into large ones – all eventually to become the first ‘English’ by the time Bede wrote the first national history in the eighth century. They brought with them new farming practices and breeds of livestock, their building styles, languages, arts, and Rome-looking religious practices, and settled along the highest ground they could find. Today’s villages of Stickney and Stickford are named after the Anglo-Saxon raised road called the sticca, joining the Wolds to the Wash.

Especially visionary Anglo-Saxons founded abbeys, friaries, monasteries, nunneries and priories that would endure as local power centres for centuries to come – foci of economic and political as well as social and spiritual strength. The founders of Bardney, Boston, Crowland, Ely, and Medeshamstede – which we now call Peterborough – seem to have seen the Fens as suitably sequestered spaces, far from worldly temptations.

Crowland. Photo: Derek Turner

St Guthlac of Crowland was a Mercian nobleman and warrior who had tired of war, and had highly-coloured visions of salvation. He nosed in a little boat among the seas of reeds to find a small and malarial island, where he prayed and slept and self-mortified alternately in feverish dreams of fighting off demons. His reputation grew, and soon Mercian nobles were rowing to his door for spiritual as well as political counsel – while his sister Pega developed a saintly aura of her own at nearby Peakirk. Market Deeping was for many centuries called Deeping St Guthlac, because he passed through it on his way towards immortality.

The great Anglo-Saxon foundations suffered and survived Viking depredations – protecting relics and treasures against terrible oppression. After the Vikings had settled and become Christianised, the Anglo-Saxon foundations would be joined by many others as the ‘Age of Faith’ came on – Barlings, Bourne, Freiston, Kirkstead, Ramsey, Sempringham, Spalding, Stixwould, Swineshead, Thorney, Throckenholt, Tupholme and Whaplode, to name just some.

The bells of Crowland are supposed to have been among the first to be heard in England, so famous that as early as the tenth century all six of them had names – Bartholomew, Betelin, Turketyl, Tatwin, Pega and Bega. The Fens long stayed famous for bells – so much so that Dorothy L Sayers set her 1934 Lord Peter Wimsey story, The Nine Tailors, in the fictional village of Fenchurch St Paul, where he uncovers a tale of theft, mistaken identity and murder thanks to a coded riddle wrapped up in the church’s peal.

Bourne was famous for learning, with two of its monks, Orm in the 12th century, and Robert Mannying at the start of the 14th, leaving texts that would have seminal effects on the development and understanding of the English language. Wainfleet was the birthplace of William of Waynflete, first Provost of Eton, and Lord Chancellor to Henry VI.

The beauty and sheer size of these foundations were a kind of act of defiance – a divinely-inspired defiance of the underlying geography, with its lack of good building stone, its unstable watery subsurface, and the ever-present danger of flooding. They must have looked like ships sailing across green seas – landmarks and seamarks, simultaneously rooting the people to the earth, and pointing the way to heaven.

The monks had God-given and crown-guaranteed rights – rights to tithes and glebes and stipends of the produce gathered by farmers, and rights to farm themselves, and to fish, and to build. They also had duties – to preach the Word and otherwise educate, to counsel all comers and comfort the sick, to give sanctuary, to set good example, to drain land and maintain bridges, embankments and highways. The lantern of Ely, the west fronts of Bourne, Crowland and Peterborough, the tower at Boston, the churches at Gedney, Heckington, Holbeach, and many others, were all built on the backs of the fenland economy, and with the endorsement of secular and Scriptural kings. Boston and King’s Lynn once rivalled London as ports, and 12th-century Peterborough was nicknamed ‘Gildenburgh’, the city of gold.

Feudalism never became fully established in the Fens. This is probably because they were hard to police, with oppressive aristocratic seats safely far away in more fashionable or salubrious locations. There was a persistent Fennish legend of a Norfolk man, ‘Tom Hickathrift’, a Champion of commoners against enclosers and exploiters – who in even more romantic versions of the story took up a cartwheel as a shield and a cart axle as a club to slay a cruel giant who was eating the people. If King John ever really did lose his treasure in the Wash, perhaps some local people were grimly pleased.

In his 2019 book, The Fens, Francis Pryor speculates that a local tradition of independence stemming from the Middle Ages may account for later attraction to puritanism and other Chapel and Low Church movements. This tendency is illustrated by the roll-call of Lincolnshire iconoclasts and reformers – John Taverner, Anne Askew, Anne Hutchinson, John Cotton, John Foxe, John Wesley. Well into the 19th century south Lincolnshire was celebrated – or notorious! – for rambling preachers, as described by a Spalding clergyman in 1820:

Under the specious pretext of religion, the peace of society is disturbed, mobs are gathered, and greatest numbers of the lowest rabble concentrated by imposing novelties…Schism, sedition and blasphemy combine to raise their brazen crest…the Church is openly assailed by an organized banditti of strolling Methodists, vociferating Ranters and all that impious strain of et ceteras

Later still, Pryor suggests, Fenland individualism gave rise to a spirit of innovation and scientific enquiry – of the kind epitomised by the Spalding Gentleman’s Society, England’s second-oldest learned society, guarding a unique collection of wonderful objects, and still making a contribution to science.

The fens were hard to work, and to live in – something suggested by Billinghay’s best-named road, Labour-in Vain Drove! As early at 245 AD there are records of major floods in Lincolnshire – with recurrences in many centuries since. This is not to mention the more usual droughts, famines, freezes, storms, and animal and human plagues. As Edward Storey writes in his 1975 book, The Solitary Landscape,

Fenmen have always been fighters. They have had to be. They have fought their way through many catastrophes of floods, fires, epidemics, depressions, hungers, hardships and killing winters. They have not been called ‘fen-tigers’ for nothing and their stubbornness is more than just cussedness. The land has made them what they are.

Medieval Lincolnshire was famous across western Europe for sheep-rearing, with ‘Linsey’ a synonym for wool in the markets of Flanders and France. The most successful sheep-farmers, it was joked, equipped their shepherds with silver sheep-hooks. But fens also required very particular skills – reed-gathering, thatching, hurdle-fencing, basket-making, brick-making, duck-decoying, punt-gunning, eel-trapping, salt-production, and yet other specialisms. In the eighteenth century, the duck-decoys at Friskney alone are said to have produced 31,000 mallard, wigeon and teal annually for selling in London. Fenlanders added to their reputation for oddity by walking on stilts to stay above the mud, and becoming expert ice-skaters to negotiate the flooded washes of winter.

Many plants were suited to wetland conditions, and utilised in many different ways. As well as the always useful reeds and willows, and predictable plants like mustard, oats, potatoes and wheat, fen cultivators grew woad for dying, flax for linen, and cranberries for pies, and ground bogbeans into flour. Butterbur is called butterbur because its leaves were used to wrap butter, while its roots were used as an anti-fever remedy. People pickled the heads of marsh marigolds to use instead of capers, and used the plant’s juice to colour butter. The beautiful and still familiar white flower called meadowsweet is really meadsweet, because it was used to flavour the overpowering honey liquor. People ate tansy to flavour meat, control flatulence, treat intestinal worms, or even induce abortions – while 15th century monks ate it at Lenten meals to remember the “bitter herbs” advocated in Exodus 12: 8. There were less elevated uses for plants, like celery-leaved crowfoot – also called the cursed or wicked buttercup, because it contains a liquid that can blister skin. There are records of tramps and beggars rubbing it onto themselves in order to elicit pity, and donations.

Fenlanders became experts in drainage and land reclamation, in which they grew to rival the Dutch – although only after serious disagreements in the 17th century, when the first Dutch engineers to arrive were greeted with sabotage and sometimes deadly violence. Cornelius Vermuyden and his compatriots were seen not just as foreign interlopers, but as lackeys first of James I, and then of Charles I, sent here to strip them of their ancient rights. Drainage had always been resisted by many local people, including some aristocrats, for the excellent reason indicated by Lord Willoughby in 1598 – “instead of helping the gennerall pore, it would undo them and make those that are allreddye ritch farr more ritch”.

Charles I sent in two English brothers, the Tippers, to try to persuade those who had reclaimed land that in law they had no rights to that land – although luckily His Majesty was graciously prepared to sell them these rights!

When the Civil Wars started, Fenlanders understandably mostly supported Parliament, and in any case Huntingdon-born Cromwell seemed to be instinctively on their side. In fact reclamation and drainage works were also carried on during the interregnum, with the Commonwealth as ready as Charles had been to cheat fenlanders. As the legal counsel for the fenmen argued in 1650 – “The judges for ship money were accused for treason, by reason it was destructive to propriety, yet that was not three in the pound; but the fenne-project cuts our estates asunder at a blow.”

This extraordinary and not easy-to-live-in landscape inspired great resourcefulness and gave rise to a plethora of locally specific expressions and words. There is a clichéd saying that ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’. Fenlanders have almost as many for different kinds of watercourses, or types of land. They used expressions and sayings derived from the everyday things they saw, as recorded in the 1995 dialect dictionary Words and Doggerybaw. Instead of “by the skin of your teeth” they used to say “by the skin of a gnat’s eyelash”– while something that had no purpose was “no more use than pockets to a toad”. Doggerybaw, by the way, means “nonsense” or “waffle”. Of course it’s exactly the opposite – but that’s typical of the self-deprecating humour that can refer to St Botolph’s soaring tower as “The Stump”.

Boston Stump. Photo: Derek Turner

Dissolution opened monastic estates to speculators. There were increased efforts to reclaim land from the sea, and keep all fields drier, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that these schemes would be coordinated, and start to alter the whole landscape. The piecemeal schemes of the past slowly grew into an ingenious unified system of water management which both made farming far more efficient, and appealed to 18th, 19th and 20th century ideas about the necessity of imposing rational order on chaotic nature. As Alexander Pope wrote in his 1730s ‘Epistles to Several Persons’:

Bid the broad arch the dang’rous flood contain,

The mole projected break the roaring main;

Back to his bounds their subject sea command,

And roll obedient rivers through the land;

These honours, peace to happy Britain brings,

These are imperial works, and worthy kings.

There is something deeply impressive in the traces of these centuries, and the old energy which still shapes today’s topography – the raised and straightened rivers that lead the eye towards immensity, the relief channels, bridges, dams, dykes, warping sluices, seawalls, engines and pumping stations, and sail-less windmills. It is nevertheless hard not to regret the disappearance of so much ancient landscape character. William Dugdale gives a list of around 60 lakes that then existed between Boston and Coningsby, with names like Groope, Mose Water, Wash Ballock, Gasp Water, Matlade Flottons, Cow Mouth, Dibbin, and Smith Nuke – names, knowledge, sights, layers and countless lives dried up and erased.

The result was a triumph for agricultural efficiency. Not necessarily for the farmers themselves; in 1790, George Byng, later to become Viscount Torrington, reported that “Not only gentility have fled the county, but the race of yeomanry is extinguished”. Further down the agricultural ladder, small farmers and field workers always lived lives of constant toil. There were understandable outbreaks of unrest, although Lincolnshire was not as discontented as some other areas – just after the Napoleonic Wars, and again in the 1830s when threshing machines and Irish navvies were sometimes targeted for attack.

Abandoned farming equipment. Wikimedia Commons/Jonathan Billinger

A Crowland woman, Mrs Burrows, recalled how in the 1850s, gangs of children as young as five would be set to work in the fields from 6am until dusk, with the only shelter from hedges, behind which they ate their cold dinner. When the easterly winds or snows were particularly fierce, the children would be allowed to stop work, and told to run around to keep warm. She worked in one of these gangs for four years, with the only holidays being very wet days and Sundays. “At the end of that time” she says, “It felt like Heaven to me when I was taken to the town of Leeds, and put to work in the factory. Talk about White Slaves, the Fen districts at that time was the place to look for them.”

Food from the Fens fuelled the Industrial Revolution, the growth of great cities, and the expansion of the Empire. Even now, something like 12% of all crops grown in the UK comes from the Lincolnshire fens alone. But there has been a loss of connection, and of beauty, and of local character – a human as well as ecological price. As James Boyce noted in his 2020 book Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens, “The Fennish relationship with their muddy home is as foreign to the modern mind as the traditional connection to country of the Aboriginal people of Australia”.

Photo: Derek Turner

The adverse consequences of agricultural ‘improvements’ are 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 all across the fens are causing carbon release, soil degradation and erosion, increasing flood risk, and wildlife loss. Fenland soil generally is becoming less fertile, requiring more and more chemical assistance – expense and extra work for farmers, and damaging for everyone. To get some idea of how the Fens once felt, we need to go to nature reserves. These offer windows into a more evocative past, and gleams of hope for the future – in 2020, cranes settled and bred at Willow Tree Fen near Spalding, and just this week, four black-winged stilt chicks hatched out at Frampton Marsh, the first ever breeding record for the county.

On the other hand, rising sea-levels may make all discussions irrelevant. Thanks to climate change, it may be the case no matter what we do, perhaps one day – maybe 100 years hence – the Fens may take matters into their hands, and drown themselves all over again. It would be a westward expansion of Doggerland, the lost land beneath the North Sea – a blind force of nature that eventually overcomes our sea-defences and sluice-gates – and cares nothing for our concerns. This would be a catastrophe, obviously. It would also be oddly appropriate. In the Fens, inundation is always implicit.

But today, looking out over this grand landscape – from the shoulder or the Wolds, or the top of the Stump – it seems inconceivable that all this expanse could one day be no more. It seems impossible that all those millennia of effort and imagination – and of love – could ever be allowed to disappear.

Twenty-first century scientific projections may not, in the end, be any more correct than the prophecies of those soothsayers who in the Great Panic of 1524 confidently predicted the final downfall by drowning of London. And even if they are correct, fenlanders are always realistic. They have no choice but to keep on living as they have lived, and working as they have worked – standing strong on the soil, immersing themselves in their landscape, as so many have done before.

The Fens may be trembling on the brink of history. But then they always have. I am just one of many, many people who hope they always will.

This paper was delivered at the Boston History Book Festival on 11th June 2023, and is reproduced with permission

3 Comments Forgotten landscapes – fens in history and imagination

  1. Roger Walkinton

    Born and bred near Lincoln myself a few years before you, I am voraciously reading and hugely enjoying Edge of England, learning much, disputing very little, able to add or amend a very few items, and happy to share my researches and history of generations of ancestors who farmed where you must live, if interested?


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