Whittlesey And The Fens

In a blog post earlier this year I wrote about Whittlesey. Whilst this is not my ‘home’ town as such because I was born in London, we moved there when I was just eight months old because of my mother’s health and as my father had acquired a teaching job in the town, along with the use of the adjacent school house. This town was definitely where I began my education in this life, a journey which continues as there is always something new to learn, no matter what age we are! I got to know the area fairly well, although this was nothing like the families who had lived there all their lives. They knew their history, how things had changed so much as well as how it had grown and developed over so very many years. My research showed the town’s name appearing in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Witesie”, meaning “Wit(t)el’s island”, deriving from either Witil, “the name of a moneyer”, or a diminutive of Witta, a personal name plus “eg”, meaning “’island’, also used as a piece of firm land in a fen. At some point the spelling of the town’s name was Whittlesea, but sadly my research has so far failed to determine exactly when. The name was then modernised at some point to Whittlesey, however, the old name spelling of Whittlesea is still used at the local railway station and on all British Rail timetables. In the centre of Whittlesey is the Market Square that has on it a structure known as the Buttercross and this dates back to 1680. It was originally a place for people to sell goods, but the structure was considered useless in the 1800s and only saved from demolition when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. Latterly it served as a bus shelter, until the local bus services were relocated from the Market Place to a purpose-built terminal in nearby Grosvenor Road. Adjacent to the Market Square is the church of St Mary’s, which does contain 15th-century work but most of the building is later. It is well-known for having one of the tallest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire for the smallest tower base. The spire is 171 feet (52 metres) high. The church also contains a chapel that was restored in 1862 as a memorial to Sir Harry Wakelyn Smith, who I wrote about in a blog post earlier this year. The other church in the town is St Andrew’s, which blends the Perpendicular and Decorated styles of Gothic and its records date from 1635. A market is held on the Market Square every Friday and the right to hold a weekly market was first granted in 1715, although there have been several periods since in which the market did not function, for example from the late 1700s until about 1850. At one time the town had a large number of public houses, fifty-two in all and in 1797 a local farmer noted in his diary, “They like drinking better than fighting in Whittlesea.” In 1784, during the reign of King George III a brick tax was introduced, a property tax to help pay for the wars in the American Colonies. As a result, the local clay soil was used to make boundary walls made of cob, a natural building material made from subsoil, water, fibrous organic material, typically straw, and sometimes lime. The contents of subsoil naturally vary, and if it does not contain the right mixture it can be modified with sand or clay. Cob is fireproof, resistant to seismic activity and uses low-cost materials, although it is very labour intensive. Some examples of these cob walls still stand today and are claimed to be unique in Fenland. At one time there were several pits near to the town which were quarried for their clay, but only one is still in existence with the rest now flooded. Clay walls predate the introduction of the brick tax in other parts of the country and some were thatched. As a result, Whittlesey was significant for its brickyards, around which the former hamlet of King’s Dyke was based for much of the 20th century, although only one now remains following the closure of the Saxon brickworks in 2011. The detailed excavations of an area known as Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BCE, also at the nearby Must Farm quarry a Bronze Age settlement is described as “Britain’s Pompeii”, due to its relatively good condition and in 2016 this was being excavated by the University of Cambridge’s Archaeological Unit. At Must Farm at least five homes of 3,000 years in age have been found, along with Britain’s most complete prehistoric wooden wheel, dating back to the late Bronze Age. Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by the Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century CE. Roman artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell, and a Roman skeleton was discovered in the nearby village of Eastrea during construction of its village hall in 2010. The town is still accessible by water, being connected to the River Nene by King’s Dyke, which forms part of the Nene/Ouse Navigation. Moorings can be found at Ashline Lock, alongside the Manor Leisure Centre’s cricket and football pitches.

Whittlesey Market Place in the 1940’s

The town is regarded as being on the edge of an area known as The Fens, also known as the Fenlands, and is a coastal plain of eastern England. This naturally marshy region supports a rich ecology and numerous species, and helps absorb storms. Most of the fens were drained centuries ago, resulting in a flat, dry, low-lying agricultural region supported by a system of drainage channels and man-made rivers, dykes and drains along with automated pumping stations. There have been unintended consequences to this reclamation, as the land level has continued to sink and the dykes have been built higher to protect it from flooding. The word ‘fen’ is a local term for an individual area of marshland or former marshland. In addition, it also designates the type of marsh typical of the area, which has neutral or alkaline water chemistry and relatively large quantities of various dissolved minerals, but few other nutrients. This fen land lies around the coast of the Wash, an area of nearly 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometres) in the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Most of this Fenland lies within a few metres of sea level and as with similar areas in the Netherlands, much of the area originally consisted of fresh or salt-water wetlands. These have been artificially drained and continue to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps and with the support of this drainage system, the Fens have become a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grains and vegetables. The Fens are particularly fertile, as they contain around half of the grade one agricultural land in England. The Fens have also been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the former monasteries, which are now churches and cathedrals, of Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey and Thorney. Other significant settlements in the area include Boston, Cambridge, Spalding and Wisbech. The Fens are very low-lying compared with the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them, in most places no more than 33 feet (10 metres) above sea level. As a result of drainage and the subsequent shrinkage of the peat soil, many parts of the Fens now lie below mean sea level. This is despite one writer in the 17th century describing the Fenland as entirely above sea level (in contrast to the Netherlands) and the area now includes the lowest land in the United Kingdom. Holme Fen, in Cambridgeshire, is around 9 feet (2.75 metres) below sea level. Within the Fens are a few hills which have historically been called “islands” as they remained dry when the low-lying fens around them were flooded. The largest of the fen-islands was the 23-square-mile (60 square kilometre) Kimmeridge Clay island, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, its highest point is 128 feet (39 metres) above mean sea level. Without artificial drainage and flood protection, the Fens would be liable to periodic flooding, particularly in winter due to the heavy load of water flowing down from the uplands and overflowing the rivers. Some areas of the Fens were once permanently flooded, creating lakes or Meres, whilst others were flooded only during periods of high water. In the pre-modern period arable farming was limited to the higher areas of the surrounding uplands, the fen islands, and the so-called “Townlands”, an arch of silt ground around the Wash, where the towns had their arable fields. Though these lands were lower than the peat fens before the peat shrinkage began, the more stable silt soils were reclaimed by medieval farmers and embanked against any floods coming down from the peat areas or from the sea. The rest of the Fenland was dedicated to pastoral farming, fishing, fowling and the harvesting of reeds or sedge for thatch. In this way, the medieval and early modern Fens stood in contrast to the rest of southern England, which was primarily an arable agricultural region.

Not far from Whittlesey is an area referred to as Whittlesey Mere. It is reputed to have formed from about 500 BC when silt was deposited by the rivers Nene and Welland and water backed up which in turn was unable to flow away towards the Wash and the North Sea. As a result, a series of large ponds formed and water plants as well as reeds, sedges and mosses grew. Wet and dry periods ensued and over time the plants decomposed and turned into peat. The Mere formed as a shallow lake with a peat bog on the south side and a river-bank on the north side. This Mere occupied land southeast of Yaxley Fen, south of Farcet Fen, and north of Holme Fen, with the town of Whittlesey lying to the northeast. Whittlesea Mere stretched 6 miles wide, being both the largest as well as the shallowest lake in lowland England and was always at or below sea level, which made it very difficult to drain. Great gales were mainly a feature of autumn and spring, summer weather was often muggy and close, drying the peat out. In 1626, King Charles I of England engaged the services of an experienced embankment engineer named Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch-born British engineer to introduce Dutch land-reclamation methods into England. His first task was to drain Hatfield Chase on the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. Jointly financed by Dutch and English capitalists, this project was quite a controversial undertaking, not only for the engineering techniques used but also because it employed Dutch instead of English workmen. The fen-men, local inhabitants who hunted and fished in the fens, attacked the Dutch workers and in order to complete the project, the engineer had to employ English workers and compensate the fen-men for their loss of hunting and fishing rights. Vermuyden was then contracted to drain the Great Fens, or Bedford Level, Cambridgeshire. This project was completed in 1637, although it drew objections from other engineers who claimed his drainage system was inadequate. However in 1642, during the English Civil Wars, Parliament ordered that the dykes be broken and the land flooded to stop a Royalist army advance. In 1649 Vermuyden was then commissioned to reclaim the Bedford Level and by 1652 some 40,000 acres were drained. According to the traveller Celia Fiennes, who saw Whittlesey Mere in 1697, it was “3-mile broad and six-mile long. In the midst is a little island where a great store of Wildfowle breed…. The ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes….” But despite the initial success of his land-reclamation efforts, Vermuyden’s techniques were undermined by the unique peatland ecology of the Fens. Draining the marshes caused the peat to shrink dramatically, lowering the land surface by as much as 12 feet (3.7 metres) below the height of the drainage canals and making the area extremely susceptible to flooding. Much of the reclaimed land was regularly flooded by the end of the 17th century, and the issue remained largely unsolved until steam-powered pumps were employed in the early 19th century. In the very hot summer of 1826 the Mere completely dried out. The bed of the Mere contained only 100 acres of water where over 1,000 was the norm and this laid bare large areas of mud. Then high wind blew what little water remained into deep fissures, leaving tons of eel, carp, pike and perch all flapping on the surface. Although the Mere filled up again in the winter of 1827, no fish were caught in it for another 5 years. In December 1851 it was drained artificially when a 25hp Appold centrifugal pump, capable of lifting 16,000 gallons of water per minute, was used. The Mere’s owner, a Mr Wells of Holme Fen, also instructed labourers to cut a bank in the Mere allowing the water to escape into one of the outflowing rivers. Thousands came to watch this feat of engineering; some brought big baskets or horses and carts to carry the fish away. Some people strapped boards on to their feet so they would not sink into the soft mud and thereby waded carefully towards the fish which were left dying on the surface. Various treasures were found, including a valuable chandelier, various swords and a pure gold censer (incense burner). In November 1852 heavy rains swelled the outer rivers and the new banks could not stand the extra weight of water, so Whittlesea Mere returned to its former glory but was then emptied again by artificial means, leaving an area of some 3,000 acres of peat-covered swamp to be turned into agricultural land. Since the advent of modern drainage in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Fens have been radically transformed. Today arable farming has almost entirely replaced pastoral. The economy of the Fens is heavily invested in the production of crops such as grains, vegetables, and some cash crops such as rapeseed and canola. As such, the Fens are very flat and offer clear views right across Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, a beautiful area of the countryside.

Whittlesey Mere, 1851

For this week, a couple of fun ones…
I’ve just finished writing an essay on the life of Julius Caesar, starting with where he was baptised. The font was Times New Roman.

During a routine inspection by his Colour Sergeant, a dead fly was found inside a soldier’s locker. The soldier was given two punishment details; one for keeping a pet, and the other for not feeding it.

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