The peat that had formed in the fenland area over thousands of years was full of nutrients and, if it could be drained, it produced exceptional soil for growing crops. The Romans may have been the first to try to drain parts of the fen but in the late middle ages, efforts began in earnest to separate water from land. If successful, the land around could be cultivated and the channels or dykes would provide transport.
In the late15th and early 16th century the Ouse was straightened and a new channel cut from Littleport to Brandon Creek. Water from the fens could now reach the sea more easily.
In 1630 a group of wealthy landowners (the 'Gentleman Adventurers'), headed by the Earl of Bedford, set out to drain the fens so that the peat soils could be used for summer cultivation and to prevent serious winter flooding. The Adventurers would be repaid for their investment by a grant of land. They hired in the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to mastermind a drainage scheme using drains and wind power. The northern part of Woodwalton Fen was included in these Adventurers lands and was taxed accordingly. During the Civil War some of this progress was put back when Parliament decreed that the dykes should be broken but, later, captured Scottish soldiers and Dutch sailors were sent to work in reclaiming the Fens.
The local villagers were fiercely opposed to the draining, believing it would deprive them of their traditional means of livelihood from wildfowling, fishing and reed cutting and would replace the fenland with arable land owned by strangers. The “Fen Tigers” tore down the dykes, ditches and sluices that had just been built and set the reedbeds on fire, so stopping work. But by the end of the 17th Century much of Vermuyden’s hugely ambitious project had been completed, with the Bedford River and New Bedford River carrying water more quickly northwards to the Wash.
After the land was drained, the peat started to dry and contract so that the land sank further - leaving the rivers and dykes inside their banks at a higher level. It became necessary to raise the water from the field ditches up into the higher drains. From 1685, windmills, with their great sails were used to power pumps to lift the water. Nine windmills were recorded in Woodwalton parish alone. Later, the pumps were powered by steam, followed by diesel and electricity. Over the years, new sluices and drains had to be built as the land continued to fall.
On the left is a brick-built windmill and engine shed at Ugg Mere, Ramsey St Mary. Probably 1910-30.
The wooden windmill on the right was at Higney, to the west of Woodwalton Fen
For a long period early maps show the Great Fen area as a poor wet boggy place. An estate map of 1770 shows the whole of the area south of Whittlesea Mere as either turf fen or wet pasture. The resources of the Great Fen area were carefully managed. Each farm and village along the fenland edge included both tracts of arable land and pasture on the higher land and an area of lower wet land for summer grazing.The valuable sedge crop was taken out from the Fen by boat, as was the turf or peat. By 1820 the villagers were collecting butterflies, moths and bog plants to sell to collectors both locally and in London.
The shallow meres became silted up and landowners realised that if drained and cultivated their value would increase enormously. Ramsey, Ugg and Trundle Meres were all drained by the 1840's, wheat was cultivated for the first time, and their land value increased fourfold.
These two etchings, published in the Illustrated London News give a flavour of fen life in the 19th century.
(Click on the images for larger view)
The history of the Great Fen area continues here: Victorian Engineering