Gateway to the Classics: The Counties of England by Charlotte Mason
The Counties of England by  Charlotte Mason

The Fen Counties

Between the counties of Lincoln and Norfolk there is a broad inlet of the sea called "The Wash," and round its low marshy shores lie the "Fens," which stretch far inland into the three shires of Northampton, Cambridge, and Huntingdon.

Soil which is always soaked with water is a /en, or, as it is more often called, a bog or a marsh; indeed, the name Fens only belongs to this one great eastern % level, which stretches fifty miles north and south and twenty or thirty inland.

The Fen country is dreary indeed to people who are used to hills. It presents a dead level everywhere, stretching away to the far-off horizon. There is never so much as a hedge to vary the scene; nothing but the straight, gleaming water-lines, often broad and deep as rivers, which cut and score the country in every direction. These are the dykes or drains, which are bordered by high green turf-banks. Here and there is a windmill or a steam-engine to pump up the water into the dykes, in which it often rises higher than the surrounding land. Long lines of pollard willows, all just like one another, stretch away upon these banks by the never-ending dykes. Where hedges should be, waving sedges hide the water in the broad ditches which part field from field.

Dull as you would think the country from this description, the view from any of these same dyke-banks on an autumn day, a bright, sunny day, is simply glorious. You are in the midst of a wide sea of golden corn or of deep green pasture, which stretches away out of sight on every side. There are patches of barren swamp, the haunts of coot and heron, where reeds and rushes grow and wildfowl swarm; but, on the whole, there is no richer land in England, no land which bears more bountiful crops of goodly corn. Certainly there is no part of England where man deserves a better harvest or does more to earn it; for Nature, if left to herself, would make all this precious land, which now brings forth bread for thousands, a soaking bog, into which a man might sink to his neck.

This fen country is not only very flat, but it lies very low, hardly a few feet above the sea-level. Low shores slope down to the Wash; they are so low at the east end of it that the sea would come in were it not kept out by earthen mounds. This piece of Lincoln is called Holland, or hollow-land, like the Holland over the sea, where the people have even more trouble to keep their heads above water.

The four rivers, Witham, Welland, Ness, and Ouse, which flow into the Wash, find very little fall in the land to help their waters on. You know how much easier it is for water to run off a slope than off a level. Thus the rivers are very slow in carrying their own proper waters to the sea; and when heavy rains come they overflow their banks, and the Fens are flooded. There is one other reason why this fen country is wet and spongy. If you have ever made mud pies you know how nicely they hold water—that it will not soak through. The surface of the Fens is covered with dark brown, or black, crumbly peat, composed chiefly of decayed leaves and branches. This peat, which makes the very best soil when it is properly dug and looked after, lies in a mud pie; that is, there is a layer of clay underneath it through which water cannot pass. Now you can understand why the Fens should be so swampy: the water cannot flow off because the land is flat, has so little slope; it cannot sink far into the earth because the clay holds it. So there it would lie, filling the peat en the surface, and making the whole country an unwholesome swamp, but that men come to the aid of Nature, and make ways for the water to escape. All the wonderful dykes which cross the land everywhere are channels which have been dug for the waste water to fall into. Through these it at last finds its way to the sea; and, drained in this way, this eastern level is no longer a swamp, but a most fertile district.

In the Saxon days, and later, much of the Fens belonged to rich abbeys; the monks drained the land, and the vine, and corn, and abundance of all good things rewarded their labour. In those days a great deal of "English history" took place in these flat fens. By-and-by, after Henry VIII. had turned the monks adrift, the dykes and" drains got out of order, and the mouths of the four rivers became choked up so that their waters could not escape. The sea-banks were neglected, and the sea broke through; and the whole district became full of stagnant pools and spongy earth, unwholesome and useless.

A great part of the Fens, measuring forty miles each way, and including a part of each of the five Fen counties, is called the Bedford Level. Francis, Duke of Bedford, in the reign of Charles I., thought it a pity that so much good land should lie waste, so he got some other persons to join with him, and they formed a company for raising banks and digging dykes in the Fens. The Old Bedford Eiver and the New Bedford Biver were both made by this company. They run side by side, a mile apart; they are both twenty-one miles long, and the New River is a hundred feet wide. Countless drains have been cut since these were made, called learns, cuts, dykes, eaux, or droves.

The northern half of Cambridge, as well as part of Huntingdon, is in the Isle of Ely, which is not an island out in the open sea, but was called an isle because all round it there were once rivers or waterways. A wild, out-of-the-way tract it was at one time, which only those who knew the way through the marshes could get at. The Great Eastern Railway carries you through the Isle now, and the only sign left of the old wild marshes is that the whole island is cut up by dykes into four-cornered fens, each fen bearing the name of the village or town close by.

Crowland, in Northampton, was once upon such another island, only a much smaller one; and to it, as well as to Ely, many a tale belongs.

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