Fenland, and keeping dry under water

It gets dark around here at 4 in the afternoon. Dixie is rambling around the East Midlands of England at the speed of a sedated snail. Sunset has replaced sunrise as the best part of our day due to the sharp drop in temperature, it is almost like autumn turned her back on us overnight, and a 6:30am rise from our warm nest of a bed no longer holds any appeal, no matter how much hot coffee is on offer. The Fens is the name given to these 4 counties in the South East, made up of green marshes, estuaries and windswept coastal plains, thousands of kilometres of fertile farmland, saltwater wetlands and brown tidal muck.

Miles and miles of muck

A lot of Fenland is below sea level, it makes for an entire ecosystem for all kinds of birds and fish and animals, it’s been used as far back as Mesolithic times to graze and fish and farm on. Only 10,000 years ago a ridge connected England here to continental Europe. The Romans (and everybody since) had attempted to drain this land, fighting a constant losing battle with the water. Some 280+ pumping stations still used today maintain over 6,000km of coastline, their combined capacity could empty 16,500 Olympic sized swimming pools a day. That’s a lot of water. It looked to us as if there were puddles between the puddles, even the dry land was wet.

Puddles at low tide

Time to spend outdoors is limited and weather dependant these days. There is no point trying to heat ourselves OR the air around us at the coldest part of the day when W.E. (William and Elizabeth) could be sleeping, dreamily oblivious to the frost on the windows. This week W.E. made a few well-researched and reasonably priced purchases, a really good ski jacket each, a big teapot, socks so warm our feet are glowing, a rug runner to keep our feetwarm at night, an emergency one ring burner with fuel, and of course another hot water bottle, it turns out 3 is the magic number.

Hat warming, a pre-emptive strike

On a quiet beach on Mersea Island on the mouth of the river Blackwater, evidence of coastal erosion is everywhere W.E. look. Trees once in the park now hang on a ledge overhead, their dry roots poking through the rich red soil and dangling above us. Here the sea, when it comes in, comes in angrily and takes what it wants back out with it.

Trees waiting patiently to fall into the sea

Cement pillboxs and brick searchlights, remnants of the areas strategic geographic importance during wartime, that previously dotted the coastline park have been uprooted by waves and dragged along the sand to the middle of the beach.

When the English army built these lookouts they didnt expect the sea would carry them off!

W.E. read about a group of Ely locals in the 1650s, nicknamed the Fen Tigers and worried about their livelihoods as farmers and fishermen, who protested against the next level drainage plans for the area proposed by a wealthy investment syndicate. The businessmen wanted to drain the fen and cut the peat, to avoid serious seasonal flooding in the future they said, and to make a healthy business-like profit selling the peat I’d assume. These pre-Luddite Fenmen attempted to sabotage the construction, ripping down the newly built dykes and destroying sluices and setting reed beds on fire. Their saboteur actions only delayed the inevitable, and the project was hugely successful in the end. Nice try, Tigers, but money talks.


W.E. walked along the promenade on Canvey Island, a reclaimed island with almost 40,000 residents, on the ocean side of a 2 metre thick dyke. My new jacket feels 2 metres thick, no wind or rain is breaching this dam! Though a local told us the sea has not come this far inland since 1953, during the great North Sea flood (or “Watersnoodramp” in Dutch, literally meaning water emergency disaster) which killed 60 here and forced the evacuation of thousands more, I wouldn’t build a house below sea level. I would assume the sea will be over when it is ready, when, not if.

Canvey Island, beautiful, colourful and below sea level

Down here, the people spend their time, resources and money pumping the water off the land. On the other side of the island, they built up high walls and reinforcements to keep it out, while just a few miles up the coast the North Sea rips chunks from the foreland and carries them away. I think in the end the sea is going to do what it wants, in more and more unpredictable-by-science ways. Rising sea levels will make the Fens eventually uninhabitable, and the reclaimed land will be reclaimed again, this time by water.

View from Anne’s house in Rowhedge

W.E. spent a day with dear friends Anne and Christian in Rowhedge, Colchester, catching up, looking at sea charts and learning about the local fauna, perhaps what I thought to be noisy seals barking all night in Maldon Quay was actually a flock of American Coot on a nearby ornamental lake. Their feet look just like feathers and they are known for their guttural chattering. Unfortunately W.E. did not spot the strange looking muntjac deer, all of which are descendants from a herd of escapees from nearby Woburn Abbey in 1925 and now very common in these parts.

American Coot- noisy creatures with weird feathery feet

W.E. visited Christians sailing boat ‘The Madame Bradwell’ and, aside from some great storage tips and hints on life in a very confined space, got to see the fen muck up close. Hearing first hand from sailors who navigate the waterways regularly and know the tides well was invaluable. Evidently W.E. talked too late into the evening as Dixies driver door was frozen shut by the time W.E. left, such was Anne’s hospitality, and W.E. haven’t enjoyed such a lovely home cooked meal in months! On their advice, W.E. visited the Ely Museum to get a better idea of how this huge stretch of  swampland was drained and dyked for use as arable and pasture. On the short drive inland W.E. noted the deep ditches and channels cut around each field of crops and each meadow, farmers tend to these regularly to keep the fast growing reeds at bay and the channel ready to carry excess water away. Ely, once the Isle of Ely and accessible only by boat, now many miles inland, is known as the Black Fen due to the rich dark peat cut from the bog here. Amongst the fossils and artefacts found locally and on display at the museum, W.E. saw the heavy remains of a wooly mammoths tooth dug from the peat, imagine these great animals wading through Fenland! Ely was considered the capital of the Fens in Roman times and much of the drainage efforts (and most of the capital) stemmed from here. The remains of almost 70 Dutch windmills built to pump water still dot the East Cambridgeshire landscape, the working ones have changed roles to suit the changing times, once joining the war efforts to grind corn to feed the masses, now steadily generating electricity. Though W.E. have met some local and online disagreement as to what exactly constitutes a Fen and where Fenland technically begins and ends, and W.E. are not historians or experts in any way, the effects of thousands of years of drainage attempts are obvious north of the Thames Estuary and along the east coast.

Where Google says Fenland is

After 6pm the chill starts to sets in. W.E. make sure W.E.’re driving or busy cooking so Dixie doesn’t have a chance to get cold. Come 8pm it’s gloves, scarves and hats time. By 10pm, our nest is layered in a specific order to improve heat retention, (wool, sheet, mattress, wool, sheet, fleece, duvet) the windows and doors are covered with foil first and then heavy curtains, the kettle is on constantly for more tea. W.E. are keeping one step ahead of the forecasts, checking the local reports and really, overpreparing for the worst. The Fenmen Tigers (and the successive rioters of the 18th & 19th century) were very brave to fight for their livelihood back then but just like you can’t stop progress, no amount of money or methods will keep nature at bay. I think the sea will get it’s revenge for centuries of draining and manipulation in the end. Retreat might be the wisest choice. Here inside Dixie, W.E.’re trying to work with the elements, not against them.

Christian on-board the Madame Bradwell, resting in the mud

W.E. have lots to think about (as usual) after a few days living in and learning about a new place, but right now it’s time for a 10pm hot water bottle reiki session. Winter is coming whether W.E. like it or not, and W.E. would be ill-advised to ignore it. Its best to let the weather do it’s thing, to let it make the first move. Nature is bigger than all of us.

View from an inland fortification on Mersea Island, how long until the sea comes to claim this too?

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