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The Magic of the Fens

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The Fenland country is a unique part of Britain in its formation, its history and its population. Five rivers, the Trent, Witham, Welland, Nene and Ouse, empty themselves into a bay, the Wash. Each river carries down a quantity of alluvial soil which, in course of untold centuries, has accumulated on the sandy and peaty shore, creating vast areas of marsh-lands which gradually melt into the sea, so that often it is impossible to say where land ends and sea begins.

Two thousand years ago the whole area from north of Cambridge to south-east of Peterborough, and from Stamford to Brandon in Suffolk, seventy miles from north to south and thirty-five miles east to west, was one vast and almost impenetrable marsh, broken by many large and small patches of dry land, like islands, scattered amid it. Its sea of high reeds, screened by forests, formed an ideal hiding-place for refugees of all kinds. Here were strange men, and here, too, a great abundance of fish and birds that could not be found anywhere else in these islands. It seemed to have been made by Nature as a national aviary and aquarium. The pike from the river Witham and the eels from the Fens were even then famed far and wide. Roach and perch abounded, and many fish were found for which ancient chroniclers could find no name, being content quaintly to describe them as " of species unknown, of savour and flavour unequalled elsewhere on earth."

The feathered inhabitants included the common duck, wild geese, mallards, teal, quail, water-hens, spotted hens, woodcocks, pheasants, partridges and golden plover. These flourished in almost incredible quantities. Hundreds of years later men would catch as many as three thousand wild ducks on a single expedition. Herons, swans, cranes and bitterns bred in peace. The presence of so many fish brought in turn birds of prey, eagles, hawks, buzzards and kites.

The people who made their homes on the higher land came in boats hunting and fishing. Some adventurous souls settled on the islands, living on the fish and birds, and moving from place to place on stilts. From time immemorial these Fenmen had been a people apart, shrouded in the mists and vapours that so often swept over their land. Tradition described them as half-demons of appalling temper and ferocious appearance. For this there was a natural explanation. Men then living in the Fens were martyrs to ague, caused by the damp soil. The aches and pains and physical distortions of this, for which there was then no remedy, amply account for their execrable tempers and their twisted limbs. Even in the days of the early Britons men had discovered that the fields along the borders of the Fens were some of the richest to be found in the country. Nowhere is there such luscious grass, nowhere do crops grow so richly or cattle flourish better. The silt, with its underlay, known as the soak - subterranean salt water which rises and falls according to the season - makes great pasture and arable land. Men tried to '1 obtain more and more of this land by building sea walls and digging canals to keep back the sea and by draining the marshes. There came a long battle between man and Nature. Not without many setbacks, the Fen lands have been conquered, and to-day, canalised, drained and banked in from the sea, they rank among the great agricultural centres of Great Britain.

But between the mystic Fens of early British days and the flourishing countryside and cities of to-day there lie nearly two thousand years, in which the Fens have played a tore-most part in the making of the British people. Here was the refuge of Bou-dicca (Boadicea) first ol British heroines. In the first century Prastagus. king of the Iceni, on the Norfolk border of the marshes, lived in peace with the Roman conquerors, paying tribute and acknowledging their authority, but ruling his own people in his own way. When he died it was found that he had divided his private fortune between Nero and his two daughters, probably with the hope of retaining the good will of Rome.

He had miscalculated. The Roman governor-general was waiting for this moment to annex the chieftain's territory. The widow, Boudicca, protested and resisted, only to be swept roughly on one side, she herself whipped and her daughters outraged. Then she retired to the Fens, gathered her forces, and sent for aid to her friends. The tale of how she and her armies emerged, attacked, captured and burnt the strong Roman outposts at Lincoln and York, slew seventy thousand Romans and British supporters of the Romans, almost annihilated the first Roman legion sent against them, and in the end only suffered repulse after a prolonged battle near London, is part of our national record. Boudicca, even though her close was defeat and poison, remains to this day one of the two foremost of the great figures of the Fenlands, and one of the greatest of Britain's daughters.

When the Romans left Britain and the Saxons arrived a new era began in Fenland life. Many of the Saxon chiefs first came as raiders and pirates, and returned as settlers. They liked this land. The Angles especially made their homes in the uplands around the Wash, absorbing or destroying the original Britons and giving the country much of the character and the, form of speech which it retains to this day. One finds practically no trace of the early British ancestry among the Fenland families, but they are the most distinctively Saxon part of the British race. The names of their towns and villages, and the family names, their appearance and their speech still bear the Saxon stamp. It was here that, later on, the English language took its present shape. A man from Bourne, Robert Manning, v/as in 1300 the first great writer in classic English. To this day the speech of an ordinary Lincolnshire Penman will be found to be of purer Saxon English than is to be met with anywhere else.

The Saxons were not to be left alone. The waters of the Wash were a natural landing-place for invaders of many kinds, and when Danish and Norwegian adventurers set forth east and west to conquer the world many of them landed around there. Sometimes they retired, stricken and defeated, sometimes they returned in triumph, bearing much rich plunder. But, defeated or triumphant, they came back again and again, in ever-increasing numbers. If one is to believe the Saxon chroniclers they were utterly defeated in all important battles and those left alive mercifully allowed to remain as peaceful settlers. The Danish records tell that one Dane would put ten Saxons to flight, and that they captured, held and enslaved the population of five towns around the Fenland borders. But even the Danish records admit that they found the Fens too much for them and kept clear of them and their people.

In the end, as we all know, England remained Saxon and not Danish.

While Saxons and Danes were at war, a chapter began in the history of the Fens of the utmost importance. Christian missionaries cast their eye on these wastes. Here was a district supposed by popular tradition to be the home of evil spirits. In a striking passage Charles Kingsley says: "The whistle of the wind during the dreary night, the wild cries of the waterfowl, were translated into the howls of witches and demons, and the delirious fancies of marsh fever made those fiends take hideous shapes before the inner eye and act fantastic horrors around the Penman's bed of sedge."

Eager young monks saw a chance to tackle their demonic foes. Among these monks none was more eager than Guthlac, whose expedition into this "hideous fen of huge bigness, oft times clouded with moist and dark vapours," required courage as high as that of modern explorers who have faced and dared torture and death in remote Chinese provinces. Guthlac at first mistook the Fenmen for demons, but he overcame them, settled among the men of the marshes, and by his piety and many virtues won wide reputation. The simple Fenlanders came to look upon him as a man sent straight from heaven and tales of his miracle-working powers spread far and wide. When he died and was canonised the abbey of Crowland was built around his remains, an abbey whose riches and splendour, fine buildings and wonderful bells, well-managed farmlands, vineyards and orchards ranked it long ago among the glories of the East coast. Danish invaders, even the greatest, came and paid tribute there. The benevo lence of the monks of Crowland was as distinguished a feature of their establishment as was their wealth. S. Guthlac became the patron saint of the Fenlands, and old prints show him, with whip in hand, driving into the sea the demons that threatened him when he entered their reed-hidden fastnesses.

The coming of the churchmen was the beginning of a new stage in Fenland life. In course of time they settled on many islands, built churches and monasteries, and cultivated the country around. They were not only religious teachers, but farmers, master craftsmen and civilizers. Many of them, less fortunate than Guthlac, were put to death in the fighting between the Saxons and the Danes. The remainder kept on. Splendid cathedral cities like Ely, and the fine churches that are so prominent a feature of this part of England, are their work.

When William of Normandy conquered Harold the Saxon at Hastings, many of Harold's friends relations and supporters sought refuge in the Fens and for some time held out against the new rulers. They centred around the Isle of Ely. a firm area of land surrounded by marshes, and here the Saxons' "Camp of Refuge" was established. Tradition and fiction have agreed to centre the glory of this resistance on Hereward the Wake, next to Alfred the Great the most famous of all Saxons. Critical historians tell us that many of the tales about Hereward were probably fabulous, but even they cannot deny that he was the greatest Englishman of his time.

Hereward was a son of the Lord of the Manor at Bourne, in Lincolnshire, a high-spirited and turbulent youth, who fought brilliantly as a soldier of fortune on the Continent of Europe, and returned home with high reputation, to find that his family estates had been seized and held by the invaders. He joined the Saxon refugees on the Isle of Ely, where he found them living in peace and comfort, the Normans being unable to discover the secret paths through the marshes by which they could reach them. Peaceful waiting was not Hereward's idea of how to conduct war In order to discover the strength of William's forces he went into his camp at Brandon, disguised as a potter, and was recognized, attacked and nearly captured, only escaping after a desperate battle. Again and again he penetrated the Norman lines. News of his adventures came to William, and he, being a doughty fighting man himself, openly expressed his admiration, and told his knights that if they discovered the rebel they were not to kill him but to bring him safely to the royal tent.

Hereward's tricks in war, his varied methods of attack, and his plans for beating back every attempted Norman assault, were the wonder of all. But courage and ingenuity afford no protection against treachery. The monks of Ely betrayed the secret paths to William. His armies falling unexpectedly on the Saxons early one morning killed many and captured most of the remainder. Hereward, caught by surprise like the rest, rallied a small band of his followers around him and fought his way through the Norman ranks, escaping into the Lincolnshire Fenlands. From here, he and the remnants of his forces waged unceasing guerilla war. At last William, tired of this profitless struggle, came to terms with Hereward and restored his family estates to him. His daughter, Trufrida, married a Norman noble, Hugh de Evermont, Earl of Deeping. But Hereward was not to end his days in peace, being later on treacherously slain by a band of Norman fighting men.

As the Saxons gave way to the Normans, so the warrior gave way to the merchant. The East coast of England was now invaded by men of a different stamp, great merchants from Wisby, the capital of the Goth princes of commerce, traders from Lubeck and agents of the Hanseatic League. In those days the river Witham was navigable for big ships - big as ships were counted then - right up to Lincoln. Boston, best known to-day for its "Stump," the great church tower that is a landmark for forty miles round, grew into a borough of prosperous Continental traders. But while ships from many lands passed through their waterways, the men of the Fens lived apart from all this activity. Nicknamed the Gyrvii, they bore none too good a reputation. "They are a kind of people, according to the nature of the place where they dwell, rude, uncivil and envious towards all others whom they call upland men. Stalking on high, upon stilts, they apply their minds to grazing, fishing or fowling," said one old writer.

With the break-up of the Hanseatic League, the trade of cities behind the Fens, like Boston, dwindled, and that borough, for a time the second largest mercantile centre in England, sank to minor importance. But the value of the Fenlands themselves became more and more evident, and attempts to reclaim them were begun on a large scale. The old Roman sea walls had been allowed to crumble and their canals had become choked. Now fresh schemes were matured.

Early in the twelfth century a big marsh on the northern side of the Wash, known as Holland, was planted with trees, and a sea wall built to keep the waters off. But within half a century an abnormally high tide overwhelmed the wall, and the forest was flooded and ruined. It was brought under cultivation again, only to have 40,000 acres destroyed by another flood. Sea walls were built capable of resisting any known tide. Then would come an unusual spring tide, and everything would go.

It was not until the seventeenth century that adequate schemes were set afoot. The Earl of Bedford then obtained a concession from King Charles to reclaim a large area of the south-western fens known as the North, Middle and South Levels. A famous Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, was called in to direct operations. The greed of the king and the Civil War delayed the progress of the scheme. But in the end 95,000 acres were made good. Cromwell, it is interesting to note, helped to carry the scheme through, and Scottish and Dutch prisoners of war were put to work reclaiming the bogs.

Other big schemes followed. The Fenmen put up a stubborn resistance, claiming that they were being deprived of their livelihood. Sometimes their protests did not end in words. But they could do little to stop the march of civilization. Windmills helped to drain the surface water into the rivers. (To-day, steam pumps are replacing the windmills.)

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