The Fens

Fen DykeThe Counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and in a minor way Suffolk all lay claim to a part of the Fens. Since Roman times mankind alone by his ingenuity, hard work, and determination has increased the landmass of the Fens by one third of the size they are today. It is the largest plain in the British Isles covering an area of nearly three-quarters of a million acres, which is roughly the size of the county of Surrey. The rivers running through the Fens have a catchment area from the surrounding high country five times the size of the Fens themselves making a total area of over 4 million acres to be drained. These rivers are all gravity fed through the Fens into the Wash and are almost all above the level of the land, some many feet higher. The fenland waters are pumped into the main drainage dykes and drains that traverse the Fens and from there they are pumped up into the rivers above or near the coast directly into the Wash itself. Many lowland lying areas are pumped twice and some three times before being discharged into rivers. The total pumping capacity of all the pumping stations in the Fens are capable of moving in the region of ten million gallons of water per minute when they are all in operation. Add this to the highland water passing through the Fens rivers from a catchment area five times as great, gives one some idea of the water that is discharged into the Wash at times of flood. This highlights the management and expertise needed to maintain the status quo created by runoff. For thousands of years this has happened but what has changed is, surface runoff, the time difference between the water being deposited on the soil, or man made surface and passing into the drains and rivers, a man made problem created by urbanisation and changing farming patterns.

Witham, Glen, Welland, Nene and the Great Ouse

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) on his journey through the Fens described them as being "the soak of no less than thirteen counties". The main rivers discharging their waters through the Fens are the Witham, Glen, Welland, Nene and the Great Ouse all beginning their life in the surrounding uplands. There are other small rivers of no less importance such as the Little Ouse, the Steeping, the Wissey, the Lark as well as smaller becks, lodes and eaus all adding to this soak. The Great Ouse is the longest of them all, over 150 miles in length it's source not that far from the Cotswolds, gathering water from five counties on it's way to the Wash. Its catchment area is over 2600 square miles, or 1.5 million acres in total.

Both the rivers Nene and Witham have catchment areas of over six million acres each to gather water from and carry it to the Wash. The river Welland rises under Studborough Hill, three-miles south west of Daventry joined by many tributaries on its way to the Fens with a catchment area of over .45 million acres. For thousands of years these rivers gathered their waters from these hills and gleaned the soils of it's finest fine particles of earth to be deposited in the fenlands. Forests blended with peat decomposing over thousands of years leaving us with rich black peat soils. Since the ice age the inhospitable North Sea had also enriched this land with marine estuarine muds gathered from around our shores. This phenomenon of nature has left a legacy of soils unique to the Fens, silts, clays and peats of many variations. It was water, from the sea and the uplands, that endowed us with this legacy of precious soils and ironically it would be water that was to become mans adversary in controlling them for his own exploits.

Fenland Topsoil

It takes, it is said, "seven thousand years of Mother Nature to create one inch of top soil which one man can destroy in his lifetime"! Nowhere is this more in evidence than the Fens themselves. The complex drainage system we have in the Fens at the end of the second millennium has been created over a period of almost fifteen hundred years and would require several volumes and maps to explain how it evolved. Indeed, many books have been written and will continue to be written on this subject, for the question of Fen drainage is a never-ending, ever-changing phenomenon fuelled by controversy.

Fen Top Soil Blow

The Fens today survive purely by sea defences and internal drainage managed by the Environment Agency and drainage authorities managed from local expertise. They are the home of around half a million people mostly employed in agriculture, horticulture, along side the packing and processing of food and flowers mostly for the super-markets.

Fen Eco-System

The Fens have a unique eco system consisting of the marshes around the Wash harbouring fish, seals, wading birds and at varying times of the year home to migrating birds. Its inland Washes and wetlands attract not only indigenous wildlife but thousands of winter migrants from as far away as the Artic circle. Raptors are in abundance, owls, hawks, kestrels, and Marsh harriers grace our skies and on the fen Muntjac, Roe Deer, foxes, badgers and hares are here. Even the otter has returned to his once favourite abode, so they say ?

The flood washes built by the drainers in the 17th century have served their purpose, as flood defences, a grazing utopia and wildlife havens.

Its religious roots go back to 7th century and the Fen skyline is constantly broken by the abbeys Cathedrals and Parish churches reminding us it was once the "Holy Land of England".


Soil In Their Souls Soil In Their Souls Soil In Their Souls Soil In Their Souls