Norfolk: The Fens


For pictures of the Fens, see:

Day, Anthony
Fen and marshland villages: a portrait in old photographs and picture postcards.

A fen is usually an area of marshy ground, for example Strumpshaw Fen which is to the east of Norwich. Many such areas are now nature reserves. They tend to be on the edges of villages, near to water, and have few people living there.

"The Fens", or "the fenlands", are different. This is the name given to an area of land in north west Norfolk, north east Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire. Very roughly, the boundary is marked by King's Lynn and Downham Market in Norfolk; Ely and Peterborough in Cambridgeshire; and Bourne, Sleaford, Lincoln and Skegness in Lincolnshire. To the east is the very wide estuary of the Wash. The greatest distance from north to south is about 30 miles, and similiarly from east to west.

Originally much of the land was very marshy, if not under water, but from Roman times attempts were made to drain it. This was done by digging many deep channels (called dykes and drains), building high banks and using windmills to pump water. By the mid 19th century most of the work was completed, providing the rich agricultural land that is seen today, and allowing people to travel on dry land.

A small scale map or atlas will show the rivers, the Nene and the Ouse, and also the main drains with names such as the Middle Level Main Drain, North Level Main Drain etc. A large scale map will show thousands of smaller drains through and between each field, and alongside each road.

See also the History of Southery and the Fens.

This evocative description of the fens today is by Rod Neep:

Nowadays... the picture is... a land perfectly flat (at or up to 2 feet above sea level) ..... with mile upon mile of crops and waving wheat in the summer, hardly a tree in sight ..... where you can see as far as the horizon. The roads, large and small are built on banks 6 to 10 feet above the level of the surrounding land, bordered each side by small open drains... like streams... which are all directed into the main waterways, which are hardly rivers in the natural sense, but with high banks (levees to you American folks) to prevent flooding. The water from the field drains is pumped *up* into these main drains, which are usually dead straight for miles.

The villages are built on land just slightly higher than sea level - usually no more than 6 to 9 feet above sea level.

Overall... a picture of complete tranquility and beauty, thriving agriculture, and gorgeous in the summer time.

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Copyright © Pat Newby
May 1999