The Fens, its drainage and rich soil

Making the Rich Soil

The FensThe land of East Cambridgeshire is renowned for being some of the richest, most fertile and profitable land in Britain. This however was not always the case and much of the area was once marshland or swamp and completely underwater. The landscape you see today has only come about as a result of centuries of trial and error in trying to manage water levels and the drainage of the area, extensive drainage schemes from the 17th Century onwards and the ongoing maintenance of these interventions. Experts believe that without these management systems, which today include a complex system of electric pumps and automatic sluices, the lower lying areas of the district would be under water again within just two days. Having been flattened during an ice age long ago, the area took the form of a large bowl that was later covered, in parts at least, with forest. This is evidenced today, when farmers in East Cambridgeshire frequently encounter the phenomenon of ‘bog oak’, sometimes very large pieces of ancient trees (ash and pine too) that have been preserved in damp conditions far beneath the current surface for thousands of years before being finally dragged up into the 21st Century by ploughing or other agricultural activity. Those areas not wooded were under water that either flowed down from higher ground or in from the sea. Did some later seismic event shift the earth’s crust in our part of the world enough to put some of it permanently below sea level? The rich dark soil you see today was created from many thousands of years of the marshland vegetation dying and only partly rotting due to the prevailing damp conditions. However it came about, before the comprehensive drainage of the area, the marshland around East Cambs still had a number of islands where people could live ‘high and dry’. Although some low-lying areas would dry out during the summer, they would certainly have flooded in the winter. These ‘island’ communities, some dating back to the Bronze Age, can be identified today either by looking at their height above sea level but also by the place-names themselves. Any places ending with -ey, -ea and -y (pronounced “ee”) are names with an Anglo-Saxon element meaning ‘island’. Local examples would include Coveney, Stuntney and, Quanea.

Taming the waters

Plans to drain the Fens, which included much of the area now covered by East Cambridgeshire, had been considered for many years. The Romans are known to have introduced some drainage to areas of the Fens, while in medieval times some works were initiated by the church. It was during Elizabethan times that the ambition to drain the whole of the Fens was first voiced but it was not until the 17th Century that truly strategic works were undertaken which would significantly and dramatically change the landscape of the district. It was principally this work that led to the rich soil so familiar to us today. 17th Century wealthy investors – the Fen Adventurers – set about reclaiming the land from the waters to make it suitable for agriculture, and at the very least, summer grazing. In return for their investment they were promised huge tracts of the land when it was drained.


Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden (pictured left) had already successfully drained large areas elsewhere in England and he was chosen to mastermind the scheme to drain the Fens.

“The soyl of this vast country is moorish, gathered and grown up higher by the weeds and oaze of the waters; many of them are rich grounds, and all would (if they were well drained) be very profitable and become good grounds especially after they be burned, manured and husbanded as such grounds should be. There be many isles and rising grounds within this great level and the rivers pass by towns low seated…fenced by banks from the waters of the fennes, and sometimes they have been overflown by the said waters and have often been in great danger, and they are at continual charge for the maintenance of the said banks. The King’s contract is to make these lands winter ground, that is to free them from the overflowing of the rivers aforesaid, as far by art can be devised.”

Cornelius Vermuyden, writing about the Fens, 1642

Vermuyden’s drainage scheme centred on the creation of a new long, straight drainage channel between high earth banks running from Earith, just over the North West border of East Cambs, to join the River Ouse nearer the coast. Vermuyden’s scheme would see the water flow straight out to sea through a deep free flowing channel instead of via meandering rivers prone to silting. Before the drainage, the water sat because it had nowhere to go – the new scheme relied, mainly, on gravity to move the water away and help the land dry out. What came to be known as the Old Bedford channel was complete by 1637. It measured 21 miles / 34 kilometres long and had sluices built at either end to control the flow into the channel, at least for part of the year. Remarkably, no-one knows who actually did the digging of this channel. It was a huge job, carried out by hand in the days before mechanical diggers, and in the worst of conditions – it’s a real heritage whodunit.

Little more work was done on the scheme while England was ravaged by the English Civil War. Once Cromwell was firmly in control of the country, he ensured work began again to improve and complete the drainage scheme. The first drainage channel had insufficient capacity to deal with the amounts of water involved. The scheme was expanded and included the creation of a second drainage channel, known as the New Bedford, a short distance to the east of the original channel and also heading towards the sea. The work was completed around 1653 (and marked by a service of thanksgiving held at Ely Cathedral), with much of the work being carried out by Scottish prisoners-of-war captured at the Battle of Dunbar as well as Dutch prisoners of war in a time long before bulldozers and pumps. Even today, this is a remarkable civil engineering achievement but if you visit Sutton Gault and look along the length of the channel, just imagine having to dig this with just shovels. According to The River Makers (Trevor Bevis ,1999), some Huguenot and Walloon refugees who had fled persecution in France, Flanders and Holland almost certainly supervised the physical digging of the second wave of drainage works. Welcomed as free men, they supervised Dutch prisoners captured following naval battles and Scots prisoners following Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar and the taking of 10,000 prisoners. As well as digging smaller channels, the ‘foreign’ workers also built roads including Ireton’s Way (named after one of Cromwell’s generals) now the line of the A142 between Mepal and Chatteris. Look at a map of the area today, criss-crossed by perfectly straight blue lines and they are probably drainage channels dug, by hand, in appalling, malarial conditions, by these anonymous men almost four centuries ago.

Fen shrinkage and wind power

windpump-bwThe rich soil we see today was once waterlogged peat which gradually dried out as a result of the drainage schemes. As peat can hold up to eight times its own volume of water, when it dries out, it shrinks. This meant that the ground level dropped by up to two feet in a year. As it dried out, the ‘earth’ was simply blowing away through wind erosion while still shrinking although at a much reduced rate of up to 2 inches/5cm a year. The big drainage channels created by Vermuyden soon found themselves at a higher level than the surrounding areas they were intended to drain by gravity. By the end of the 17th century, a great deal of the reclaimed land was again waterlogged. Something had to be done to raise the water up into the channels. After an occasionally chaotic period in which local solutions including first horse-powered then wind-powered pumps were introduced in some areas, an Act of Parliament made provision for the setting up of Commissions (also known as Internal Drainage Boards) to control drainage in certain areas. Meanwhile the Bedford Level Corporation continued to be responsible for maintaining the major rivers and channels in the area. This more structured approach brought the introduction of many windpowered ‘engines’. A map dating from 1812 shows the Isle of Ely had some 230 wind-powered engines used to help lift the water up and into the drainage channels which by now ran above the level of the land they were intended to drain. These pumps would of course only work if the wind conditions were right which meant that the drainage did not always happen when it needed to because there was not enough wind to power the pump. This led to the windmills being nicknamed ‘gentle spectators’.

The arrival of steam powered drainage

fens1It was the arrival of steam power to the area around 1820 that gradually brought a more constant and reliable solution to the drainage issues facing the area. In common with many who fully embraced the opportunities and benefits that industrialisation could bring, the men who introduced these machines proudly commemorated their achievement in ‘taming’ nature on plaques mounted on the brick engine houses that appeared with the steam engines to protect them and their operators from the elements and any rural ne’er-do-wells. A plaque mounted on the engine house built on the former site of a wind pump the Hundred Foot River in 1830 illustrates this splendidly:

“These Fens have oft times been by Water drown’d Science a remedy in Water found The power of Steam she said shall be employ’d And the Destroyer by Itself destroy’d.”

A plaque mounted on the now demolished Lark Engine house (Burnt Fen, near Littleport) gives an equally vivid impression of the pride felt by the people responsible for the introduction of steam to the area’s drainage systems.

“In fitness for the urgent hour, Unlimited, untiring power, Precision, promtitude, command, The infant’s will, the giant’s hand; Steam, mighty Steam, ascends the throne, And reigns lord paramount alone.”

The mechanisation of the drainage facilitated the draining of vast areas of land in the district. In 1832, a 60 horse power engine was established to drain about 7000 acres near Soham while a single 28hp steam engine replaced no fewer than 75 wind engines at Littleport Fen. The increased efficiency of pumping moved a great deal more water and this required the building up of many embankments in the area in an attempt to stop the outfall channels from overflowing back onto the drained land. Joseph Glynn had pioneered the introduction of steam power into the area and later wrote of his work around here and other Fen areas “I have not only caused ‘two blades of grass to grow where one grew before’ but I have had the pleasure to see abundant crops of wheat take the place of the sedge and the bulrush”. Where there had been, as Glynn put it “ …the swamp or marsh, exhaling malaria, disease, and death”, there were now “…fruitful cornfields and verdant pastures.”

Continued shrinkage and erosion

fens2The problem of the shrinking, sinking fenland referenced above which rendered the gravity drainage system ineffective was made much worse by the introduction of mechanised, around the clock drainage. The differential in levels can be seen clearly on the B1381 between Sutton and Earith and on the A142 entering Ely from the Soham direction. A dramatic empirical manifestation of the shrinking ground can be seen at Whittlesey Mere at Holme in the north of Cambridgeshire. Although it is well outside the geographical scope of Rich Soil Rich Heritage, the Holme Post has to be mentioned. In the mid 19th Century, landowner WIlliam Wells had a cast iron column driven into the peat at Whittlesey Mere in anticipation of the subsidence to come. When it was put into the ground, the top of the post was level with the surrounding land. As the land dried and shrank, more and more of the post was exposed. Within a decade, the ground level had dropped well over a metre and today the world famous Holme Post stands a remarkable 4 metres above the surrounding ground level.

Steam engines were improved but were all ultimately replaced by diesel, and later, electric pumps that demonstrated massive improvements in terms of efficiency. Diesel and electric pumps can be started instantaneously whereas the steam-powered pumps took time to get to maximum power. Despite all the efficiencies that man could introduce, the battle against flooding in the area is ongoing. In the flooding of 1947 for example, 40,000 acres were devastated by floodwater. Additional drainage channels were later introduced in the region to reduce the risk of similar floods, very similar to measures suggested by Vermuyden himself almost three centuries earlier but never completed. Today modern anonymous semi-automatic electric pumps, with diesel pumps on standby, protect East Cambridgeshire and the Fens as a whole from the floodwaters. Standing sentinel, they pump millions of gallons of water daily to maintain the fruitful cornfields and verdant pastures referred to by Joseph Glynn in the 19thC.


RSRH14A 036 (Sutton Gault)RSRH14A 013 (Mepal)


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