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The Fens

There are two fens, and the peat fen is the deepest and the strangest. This great black landlocked mire was crossed by countless waterways, gathering in vast brackish lakes, climbing to make a vast flat flood, leaving a maze of wet rush covered ways, with nowhere that the feet don’t get wet. Where it nears the surrounding uplands – to the south, west and east – there are islets and splits of dryness; and in the south east corner, nearest to Cambridge, is an archipelago, an archipelago dominated by a single settlement – not so much a town as a collosal church – Ely.

Ely is impressive enough today. In a landscape of brackish wetness, with no other verticals in the landscape, and this largest of the islands a low clear rise over Soham Mere, it must have been extraordinary. Terrifying.

Here is the great church, with its bare unvaulted nave, and its choir, Octagaon, Lady chapel: mounting hymns to Virgins of Palestine and Northumbria intertwined; the first great myth of this landscape. It didn’t only dominate this landscape: it owned it. And the only other landlords where monasteries, too, at once finding hermitages among the frightening waste and fixing it, exploiting it.

This is the Peat Fen, the Isle of Ely: an archipelago and its surrounding waters. Everywhere there was no island, there was no thing: Domesday makes this clear. Miles of empty peat fen. But it was not poor. Fish, fowl, fuel; good farming land on the islands; tithes measured in tens of thousands of eels suggesting a wetscape boiling with life.

The drive to Crowland takes us right across this; right through the heart of what was once submerged. Even today one wonders what lives are led here. But only Guthlac’s extraodinary story reveals the horrors it held for those who first came to it. Eve today this is a shattered town, its shops closing, its triangular bridge left high and dry, monument to intersecting watereways that for two thousand years set neighbour against neighbour. Drain a bit of peat fen and you deprive your neighbour of water; as soon as it drains it shrinks and soon  floods again. And here it this strange and compelling church, its stumpy pyramid-tower and skewiff west front peopled with stumpy memorants of those honoured here: Guthlac climbs elegantly onto a sow-filled island, is borne aloft to view the terrible wastes. The nave marches with forgotten beauty east; the pulpitum overlooks a silent graveyard. The parish had nothing but an aisle, and that is all that remains, a low vessel by a shattered ruin.

Further north, and the salt fen is quite different (are the landlords different, too? Castle Acre at West Walton, bishop of Norwich at Lynn, of Ely at Walpole… that’s all I have thus far). Build a sea wall and in a few years you have the most fertile land imaginable, prone to years of stability followed by sudden and disastrious floods. The Romans knew it, and at the mighty churches of Wal-pole St P and W Wal-ton the C13 and C15 swaggered with — what? At Walpole, a parish full of purgatory-fed piety; at Walton, something more interesting: a model parish church, with the unexpected extra of a top-notch effigy to a presumed prior of Castle Acre to explain it. Lateran IV eat your heart out; in fact the heart has been eaten out of this church, in its no hope village with its slanting patches of brick and dried out wood; the broken beauty of the fens, even here.

The fen edge made towns; the rivers abandoned Wisbech for Lynn – a celtic name, an extraordinary relict town; through the higher rivers, dry places like Castle Acre and Bury were once ports, are also part of the fenland landscape.

Returning south, Willingham stands at the gate to the Aldreth causeway, hermit-gaurded way to Ely. And here, vivid on the walls, is St Christopher dressed up as a fenland peasant, complete with forked fishing-stick, mighty feet  striding through waters stuffed with the very fish the Liber Eliensis tells us where the products of the peat fen. Men like him owed carrying-service to the bishops; they would have helped load barges and shoulders for the last timbers of the Octagon, the fuel for an acre of lost and glittering glass. Full circle, Fen-edge, sinking into deep waters.

  1. R
    June 24, 2010 at 8:30 am

    On the opposite side of England the Somerset levels replicate the Anglian Fen. Here too powerful Abbots – of Glastonbury and Muchelney – and a Bishop – of Bath and Wells – drained the peat moor and released land and fuel and sustenance to their flock, for a tithe, of course.

    Though harder to recognise at this gentle time of year, when the Friesan cattle graze on rich pasture and the Reens brim with sticklebacks, in Winter the Somerset Levels are quite as bleak as the Fens. Don McCullin’s extraordinary pictures of the Levels, framed through the eye of one who has seen landscapes transformed by conflict, capture the brooding threat better than most.

    Lovely piece, Jon; needs a little sub-ing though; remember the LCP!

    • June 24, 2010 at 9:02 am

      Funnily enough I just went over it, in a bid not to get on with the day’s doings. But I do regard a second read (or even writing when still properly awake) as something of a luxury. If I did that. I wouldn’t blog at all..

      … ah yes, the Levels. Same same only different different. In fact Glastonbury owned the Levels just as utterly as Ely owned the Isle – the Isle *is* the Peat fen (not the Marshland). Bath and Wells owned a patchwork of dippy mendip round the edge. But the Levels can’t be explained without their surrounding hills; Somerset a great draining bowl of Mendip and Blackdown; it is in this contrast that the county’s quietly electrifiying identity lies…

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