‘Fen Stuey’

The Fenland area of Cambridgeshire has long been an area of Britain I have wanted to visit.  There and the northern most county of East Anglia, Norfolk.  This year I decided it was a good time to head over and see what a ‘flat’ land actually looked like.  In particular I wanted to see some of the famous archaeological sites and discover something of the agricultural history and modern day farming.

Welsome sign for Cambridgeshire

Croeso i'r Sir Gambridge. West to East, a journey not to be undertaken by the feint hearted. Definitely not !

The idea to undertake the journey came to me one evening some months ago.  I was studying a report on recent finds and interpretations of an ongoing archaeological investigation into the late Bronze age / Early Iron age fenland settlement of ‘Flag Fen’ (see http://www.flagfen archaeological park) and decided I really wanted to see the site and find out what this area of lowland was really like – maybe before it disappears under the  north sea, which seems its fate if sea levels continue to rise as predicted.

Iron-age water sports

Iron-age boy racer's dug-out canoe. "I'll pick you up at 7, wear something waterproof, oh yeah, and don't forget a towel!" "We'll be home before the Romans arrive...."

My maternal grand-father boasted that by the time he was 19 years old, he had cycled through every English county (he was born in the ‘Black Country’ of the West Midlands).  He was born at the end of the 1800s and discovered the new freedom and excitement of the bicycle in the early years of the 20th century.  My mother on the other hand, used to bore me each autumn with her summer holiday snaps of some hot Mediterranean isle or, latterly, some fetid east European city (where she got her kicks in back alleys trading her dollars for gold and jewellery – and never apparently got nicked !) I used to counter by asking her if she had ever seen a place in Wales which I knew she had never even heard of.  My grand-pa’s wander-lust definitely rubbed off on me,  I used to go with him on his journeys into ‘Wild Wales’ where a road never travelled could not be passed by, up and down narrow un-mettled roads was a common Sunday afternoon activity.  However, to my slight shame, my knowledge of the English counties is nowhere near as complete as his was.  There are many parts of our neighbouring land that I have yet to visit, and most likely never will,  but those areas of highland are known to me, well they would be, they are covered in dry stone walls.  As for the flat lands of East Anglia, I have to confess, east of the M1 is mostly unknown to me.

On any motoring holiday I try to make the journey a part of the experience.  It seems a little silly to spend large amounts of money on fuel just to zoom through an area and not see what it has to offer.  As those of you who read of my travels through France last summer (see the ‘French Poodle’ posts of August 2010) I like to take it easy and meander a little, take in the scenery, watch out for interesting rust piles etc.  Thus my route took in some of middle England’s most scenic countryside, in all I traversed eight counties, all of them different in what their particular landscape has to offer – naturally I avoided motorways and large connurbations – and all of them a complete contrast to my favoured lands of Wales.

Canal long boat on the Grand Union canal

Narrow-boat on the Grand Union canal near Leomington in Warwickshire.

The first part of the route took  me over familiar ground as I had travelled the same roads just a few weeks back on my visit to Stratford and Warwick.  The journey across the Welsh / English border at Kington and into Herefordshire to the market town of Leominster is a simple, if slow, scenic trek through some lovely countryside and thence into Worcestershire where the Malvern Hills dominate the skyline.  Once the city of Worcester is circumnavigated – is the Worcester by-pass the longest in the world I ask ! – and the M5 motorway crossed it always feels like I am into a new land, unfriendly natives and fast moving traffic !

Warwickshire is without doubt a county worth seeing, it is a rich farming county and has many quaint villages and picturesque medieval towns, and of course all roads lead to the home of the Bard.  Well almost, my road lead to Leomington Spa, a slightly posh town close to Warwick – ‘new money’ as my old granny would have said, new next to the grand medieval town and castle of Warwick that is.  Built so the Edwardians could ‘take the water’;  same as Llanwyrtd Wells and Llandrindod near me then, oh, except they are merely ‘Wells’ not ‘Spa’ towns…

I have yet to indulge in the ‘must have’ in-car gadget of the moment, a ‘sat-nav’, instead I use a thing called a ‘road atlas’.  I actually bought a new one especially for the journey, having been advised by my road-wise, constant traveller around clogged up English roadways, London based beamer driving daughter, that some new roads had been recently built – I think one was called the M1… Thus armed and my pathway heavily highlighted I feel well able to get from A to B albeit M and P might also be encountered.

It is of course almost inevitable that on such a long hike a little misdirection occurs, getting lost can add to the discoveries, rounding a bend and seeing something totally unexpected just doesn’t happen on a major road or motorway.  So it was that I happened on the Grand Union canal, a rather stately waterway that wends its way from the Thames near Brentford in west London all the way to Birmingham.  It has a number of ‘branch cuts’ and hence it appears that you cross it, run alongside it, even pass under it, several times whilst apparently travelling in a reasonably straight line.  Having grown up alongside an old disused canal I have always been drawn to them and like to stop whenever the chance occurs.  I sometimes fancy that a narrow boat holiday might suit me, but then again, I’m not given to travelling in straight narrowly defined parameters, so maybe it isn’t really my thing.  Besides, I would be forever bumping my head…

Tidy rope-work on a canal side

Another reason canal boating probably isn't for me, I could never be sufficiently anally retentive to coil a rope this tidily !

I made good progress through Northamptonshire and erroneously got onto the M6 for a short hop to the A114 which would speed me the last hour or so into the destined camp site which was in a little town called Wilmington near March (have a look at http://www.Fenland Camping.co.uk) What I hadn’t realised was the M6 conjoins with that ‘must-to-avoid’ motorway, the M1.  The design of road junctions always fascinates me, this one lacks that particular attribute.  Everything seems to have been an after thought, the M1 existed first and then someone thought a motorway from IT to Birmingham and the north would be a good idea.  So the M6 was spawned off it, not with the rather enigmatic charm of ‘spaghetti junction’, where the M6 and M5 intertwine like snakes in a bag, rather like two hateful neighbours who refuse to let the other gain an inch.  Then, almost recently so I understand, another major link, the A114 which penetrates to the heart of Cambridge and East Anglia, was appended at the very same junction.  So, on a Friday afternoon I happened upon a classic of British motorway-network madness.  Gridlock.  Traffic leaving the M1 or M6 wishing to go to either one, or onto the new A114 or indeed from it to the other motorways, all has to cross through a series of traffic-light controlled cross roads.  When I eventually got within sight of the junctions I amused myself for an hour or so counting how many trucks got across one of the sets of lights before they changed; an average of two trucks or four cars managed to cross into the box between the sets of lights.  A film, speeded up a thousand times, would give a good impression of what I was watching, utter unbelievable insanity, the cost to the earth of this activity was laid bare there, on that retarded junction, and I watched bemused until my turn came to sprint across each set of lights and then jam on the brakes and wait for the next little opportunity and so on.  Eventually I broke free and headed off on the ‘new’ dual carriageway, itself full of trucks and beamers all racing somewhere, nowhere, purposefully or just robotically, who knows.  What I surmised as a particularly stupid piece of road design was confirmed and re-inforced by the miles of clogged up traffic, filling both of the opposite carriageway lanes for some ten miles.  When did they get across that junction I wonder.

A drainage ditch in the Fens

This is what the Fens are all about; keeping the land drained so that agriculture can be sustained. Miles after mile of these drainage channels criss-cross the endlessly flat countryside.

The area called ‘The Fens’ is a large expanse of flat wet marshy ground, interspersed with small islands of higher ground on which early settlements were founded.  Whilst today the whole area looks dry and stable, in centuries past it was an area of large open expanses of water, peat bogs and salt marshes nearer the sea.  Early Christian settlements were founded in this inhospitable ‘out-of-the-way’ place and as early as 650AD a fellow called Guthlac was living a solitary monkish life amidst  “this hideous Fen of a huge bigness“.  By 673 AD the religious settlement of Ely (of which more later) was founded and was recorded by the Venerable Bede in the C8th as the eel district.  Fish and Eels were a particular resource so much so that in 1086 the settlement of Wisbech could record an annual catch of 33,000 eels.

The system of land drainage used in the area is similar to the systems in use in our own ‘below sea-level’ zone on the Gwent levels and as constructed in the Somerset levels.  Fields are created by simple ‘field drains’ laid into the ground at a defined depth (defined by the nature of the soil below the surface) and originally lined with brushwood and small stones on top.  These drain the water which percolates from the surface into ditches around the edges of the fields – hence no walls nor hedges are required – and it is these ditches which run either side of most of the roads making concentration a necessary activity enhanced by sporadic gatherings of wilted bouquets along road edges where concentration and speed did not match and the murky waters claimed yet another soul.  The ditches drain into larger, longer and dead straight dykes or ‘rhynes’ .  In theSomerset and Gwent levels these drains run into the sea and the outflow is controlled by a simple flap-trap door which is closed by the in-coming tide and forced open by the pressure of water from the land once the sea recedes.  In the Fens the rivers are actually higher than the surrounding land; shall I repeat that ? The rivers are banked up to flow above the land around.  Water from the drains is pumped up and into the rivers which then flow sedately to the sea.  The infra-structure of pumping stations and sluices is quite astonishing.

Straightened river course in Fenland

The river courses have all been straightened such as here on the Nene near Flag Fen close to Peterborough. This was accomplished by men with spades and wheel barrows as was the rest of the immense drainage system !

I knew the area was flat, it was just I hadn’t understood until now what ‘flat’ actually meant ! From horizon to horizon there were no bumps, just corn and ditches.

The main reason for selecting the first camp site was its proximity to the Flag Fen project.  The site has been developed around the astonishing wooden causeway that ran across a wetland site.  Five lines of pile- driven oak posts intersected by cross pieces which created a walkway across the fen.  The most amazing part of the exhibition is an exposed section of this Bronze age roadway.  I found it incredible looking at the wooden remains that had remained covered by later peat deposits for over three thousand years.  The other focus of the site is the recreation of an Iron age roundhouse and an earlier Bronze age hut.  In the museum is an exhibition of Bronze age arms and a description and fascimile of the oldest wheel ever uncovered in Britain.

Bronze age timber causeway at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire.

Sorry about the picture quality, but the timbers if the causeway are precious and kept moist and dark. Is this the oldest man-made artefact I've ever photographed ?

The replica Celtic roundhouses are well worth seeing on their own.  They are beautifully constructed and give a real impression of how warm and dry they were and, given all else that occupied life at that time (like being eaten by some big animal or have your wife run off with a bloke from some down-market neighbouring tribe just because he has a chariot or some such) they seem quite a comfortable abode.

I have always wanted to build one but I am rather lacking the space and certainly flat ground is quite rare around here, I have however already begun the process of trying to persuade some friends who have exactly the space and place where such a building could be utilised – the fact that (as it’s not permanent) it does not need planning permission just makes it even more achievable, watch this space !

Celtic roundhouse at Flag Fen

Wouldn't it make an ideal camping shelter or just an interesting summer-house if you had a big enough garden.

An altogether worthwhile place to visit – even if you are not quite the nerd for archaeological sites as I am.  Another place which is a must to visit if in that part of the world is the small but massive  Cathedral city of Ely.  The cathedral building dates from around 1084 with developments adding astonishing towers, buttresses and beautiful windows.  I had no expectation of how jaw-dropping the cathedral is and the fact that it is stands on the high ground and dominates from miles around.

The great tower of Ely Cathedral.

The approach from a quiet street adds to the shock of suddenly seeing the grand tower.

The whole town is worthy of a visit but the cathedral and the waterfront is exceptional.  The waterways were something I was aware of but hadn’t really appreciated just how popular a summer destination it was for boating holidays.  Every mooring was busy and the marinas were packed.  I wondered how so many landlubbers managed to become competent boat coxwains in such a short time.  Of course the Norfolk Broads is a famous boating area and for me, as a young angler in my early teens, they were the stuff of legend.  I avidly devoured every article or book I could get hold of which recounted the stories of the great pike that were caught on the Broads, usually by the great Dennis Pye whose tales of daring do in the small boats enthralled me.  He would regularly catch pike in excess of 30lbs and some 3 feet long, scary and amazing.  I caught a 4lb pike in a small pond off the river Tywi near Carmarthen and was too scared to bring it in !

Marina at Ely

This nice little mooring is just down the road from the Cathedral.

So, the first weekend took in a great deal of what I had wanted to see and visit for a long time.  Flag Fen and Ely Cathedral as well as some extremely flat and wet countryside I found fascinating, I wouldn’t want to live there mind you, I like my horizon to be above me and closer.  The other fact which stood out for me was the weather, no rain, warm and bright, a good start indeed to my exploration of the East Anglian flatlands.  Next stop the Norfolk countryside north of the county town of Norwich.

On the way from Cambridgeshire I encountered some stunning relics of the past history of the part of the country which did much to change the history of agriculture and politics in medieval Great Britain.

Transept Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral will remain one of my greatest impressions of my trip to the Fenland area of Cambridgeshire.

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