300 years ago, the Fens were similar to the Florida Everglades, a large area of low-lying land. The Fens and fenmen have a distinctive history and unique cultural characteristics. The native fenmen moved about nimbly on stilts (the "stilt-walkers"), fought off outsiders and defended their valuable traditional rights of commonage, turfcutting, fishing and fowling. The area was reputed to be a haven for outlaws, including Hereward the Wake, the last Anglo-Saxon resistance fighter against the Normans.
Draining the Fens
Though some marks of Roman hydraulics survive, the land started to be drained in earnest during the 1640s. Two cuts were made in the Cambridgeshire Fens to join the River Great Ouse to the sea at King's Lynn - the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River, also known as the Hundred Foot Drain. Both cuts were named after the Fourth Earl of Bedford who, along with some "Gentlemen Adventurers" (venture capitalists), funded the construction, which was directed by engineers from the Low Countries. and were rewarded with large grants of the resulting farmland. The major draining of the Fens, nevertheless, was effected in the late 18th and early 19th century, involving fierce local rioting and sabotage of the works.
These days, deprived of periodic deposits of silt, much of the Fens lies below sea level. The effect of the drainage schemes has drained water from the peat, who has shrunk, the highest point now being only a few meters above sea level, and only sizable embankments of the rivers, dikes and flood defences, stop the land from being inundated.
Restoring the Fens
In 2003, a project was initiated to return parts of the Fens to their original pre-agricultural state. Traditionally the periodic flooding by the North Sea, which renewed the character of the fenlands, was characterized as "ravaged by serious inundations of the sea, for example, in the years 1178, 1248 (or 1250), 1288, 1322, 1335, 1467, 1571" (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911). In the modern approach, farmland is to be allowed to flood again and turned into nature reserves. Organizers of the Great Fen Project hope to encourage species such as the snipe, lapwing and bittern. Endangered species such as the fen violet will be seeded.
Protected by the impassable fens, members of the monastic orders began to settle in isolated localities on higher ground after about the middle of the 7th century and built churches, monasteries and abbeys, moderately safe from the raids of Vikings and Danes (9th and 10th centuries). Ely Cathedral, on a rise of ground surrounded by fenlands, is known as the "Ship of the Fens".
The novel The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers is located here.