BEDFORD LEVEL, an extensive tract of flat marshy ground, also called the Fens, on the eastern coast of England, comprising parts of the six counties of Lincoln, Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Norfolk, and Suffolk. It is situated to the south of the Wash, extending from the river Welland, in the south-east part of Lincolnshire, to Milton, in Cambridgeshire; and from Peterborough, on the river Nen, in Northamptonshire, to Brandon, on the little Ouse, in Suffolk. It is about 40 miles in length from north to south, and the same in its greatest breadth. The Level is divided into three parts, the North, Middle, and South Levels. The first is the district lying between the rivers Welland and Nen; the second, that between the Nen and the old Bedford river; and the third, that which lies to the south-east of the old Bedford river.
The area of the Level is estimated at about 400,000 acres. Above half of that area is comprised in the Isle of Ely. When the Romans invaded Britain, the whole of this district, it is believed, was a great marsh, and its surface was considerably lower than at present. Roman ways were formed across its site, one of which is still to be seen. Writers of the 12th century describe the Fens as being at that time a most fruitful and agreeable country, with lakes and many rivers, woods, and orchards. But in the following century it was all changed; for in the year 1236, on occasion of a fierce storm which lasted above a week, the sea broke in and spread destruction over the country. Similar calamities occurred several times in subsequent years; the natural drainage was stopped, and the whole district again became a morass. In some parts it was covered with stagnant water above ten feet deep, and boats were necessary for communication between the towns and villages. In the 15th century, the first attempts were made to drain the Fens. One of these was Bishop Morton's Cut, from Peterborough to Guyhern, 40 feet in width, and now forming part of the river Nen. After several other failures, the task was undertaken afresh in the reign of Charles I., by Francis, Duke of Bedford. A charter was granted to the company formed under the presidency of that nobleman, and in three years their proposed works were completed. It was in honour of this important undertaking for the drainage of the Fens that they have since been called the Bedford Level. Fresh works, however, soon became necessary, and in 1664 the company received a charter of incorporation, with all necessary powers and regulations for maintaining and improving them. They are styled the Corporation of Bedford Level, and consist of a governor, 6 bailiffs, 20 conservators, and a commonalty. The principal cuts formed under their management are, the Old and New Bedford Rivers, Bevil's River, Sam's Cut, Peekirk, South-eau, and other great drains, besides many smaller ones. The most important recent works are the following:-A new channel; 6½ miles long, for the outfall of the Nen, by which a larger area has been reclaimed, and the Wisbeach navigation much improved; a new communication opened between Lincolnshire and Norfolk by a bridge over that channel, and a long bank across the sands at Sutton Wash; a new drain for the waters of the North Level; a new cut, 11 miles long, for the drainage of the Middle Level; and works for the drainage of Whittlesea Mere. The cost of the Nen outfall was £200,000; that of the new drain for the North Level, £150,000. The Old and New Bedford rivers, which run parallel to each other, are 21 miles in length and 1 mile apart. The former is 70, the latter 100 feet wide. They extend from Earith in Cambridgeshire, to near Downham in Norfolk.