Soil In Their Souls

Exploring the Fen Edge

Separating the fens from the uplands is the fen-edge – not a defined area as such, but a divide between the uplands and fenland. It could be defined as ‘lying in ming’, an area of no defined boundary – a chartered surveyors’ term used in the past when many such areas existed in the fens. The counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk all lay claim to their areas of fen and so include fen-edge in their domain. Having written on the fen interior, I felt a wish to explore this area, which is part of the fenland landmass and, in many ways, has been missed out by travel writers of the past.

Before mankind stemmed the tides with sluices and other tidal barriers, saline waters from the sea would have reached the fen-edge via the many rivers passing through the fens. The fen-edge itself was at one time vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, especially from the upland rivers surging through the fen-edge on their way to the Wash. An old adage was, ‘letting live water into the fens’, meaning flowing waters. Great forests existed on the fen-edge thousands of years ago, but due to climate change and rising sea levels they were submerged to decompose, forming the peat soils we know today. This phenomenon occurred on the fenland side of the fen – the edges, which were and still are the lowest parts of the fens. Many meres existed in these low-lying areas of fen prior to drainage during the 19th century, with the advent of steam-driven pumps. There is evidence of human settlements here as far back as Mesolithic times, particularly along the fen-edges. Bronze Age evidence has been found on the fen-edge south of Peterborough on the black fen. Many Iron Age salt workings are evident between the Deepings and Billinghay, while Roman and Saxon evidence is abundant.

Glacial activity is evident along the fen-edge, where large deposits of aggregates have been extracted, while further in the uplands limestone, sandstone and phosphates have been mined since the Neolithic period. The fen-edge at its upper reaches is bordered by heathland lying on chalk and limestone substrata. Early settlers lived in these areas and ventured into the fens for fishing, fowling, and grazing their livestock during the summer months.

There is no straight line dividing the fen from the uplands. Small upland peninsulas run into the fens and conversely the fen creeps into the uplands, as if both have vied for their common rights against evolution. Many early settlements off the fen had grazing rights on common pastures in the fens. They could also take fish and wildfowl from the fen meres and lakes and had the right to dig turves from the peatlands for burning in their settlements. Drainage Acts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought to an end villagers’ rights to the commons when all lands were enclosed. Some commoners retained their rights, but most of the enclosed land went to the families who financed the drainage itself. Productivity of the newly drained land increased, as did the demand for labour to work it, with many villages and towns doubling their population over a very short period.

Up until the First World War, pastoral agriculture was the main farming enterprise on the fen-edge. This changed mainly to arable cropping during the two World Wars and has remained as such to the present day.

My journey begins at Eye near Peterborough, following the route of the Car Dyke to Lincoln, running between these two great cathedral cities. The Car Dyke is 57 miles long, believed to be of Roman origin, and follows the fen-edge along most of its course but deviates deeper into the fen in some parts.

Occasionally I stray up off the fen-edge onto the higher ground, which I will refer to as uplands. I also delve into the fens themselves, back into my homeland – or anywhere my curiosity took me. On my journey I visited over 50 villages and hamlets along the fen-edge all with interesting churches and their individual fens. The book contains 160 pages made up of 144 text illustrations and maps to show the reader where I journeyed. Icons indicate where wandering around is interesting and where I found remains of the Roman Car Dyke as well as the few remaining Inns we have left in the countryside.