Wild fenlands with their abundant wildlife once stretched for hundreds of miles across eastern England. Some attempts at drainage were made from medieval times, but in 1630 a group of wealthy landowners set out to drain the fens so that the peat soils could be used for summer cultivation and to prevent serious winter flooding. From 1685, windmills, with their great sails were used to power pumps to lift the water.
More than 99% of this peat fen habitat has now disappeared, with its many rare species of plants and animals. You can find out more about how people lived in the area at this time with the map below.
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Over time wildlife changed considerably as the climate and habitats of the area changed. After the last Ice Age (approximately 10,000 years ago), as the climate warmed large forests developed across the land. Wolves and large herbivores such as elk and aurochs (the ancestors of domestic cattle) roamed these forests along with wild boar. Gradually sea levels rose, the low-lying land flooded and, around 5,000, years ago the fens developed their unique habitat.
Find out more on the Past Wildlife page.
The monks of Ramsey and Sawtry Abbeys followed the religious life, were teachers, and also produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts. They managed their Abbey lands, selling the farm produce and managing the use of natural resources such as timber, grazing, fishing and reed-cutting. Infirmaries and guest houses were run as another part of the Abbey’s duties. The monks organized labour provided by the people living on their lands for major projects such as church building and digging drainage ditches.
Ramsey Abbey was established in 969 AD on what was then an island in the fens. A wooden chapel for three hermits was built by the founder, Earl Ailwin, but was soon replaced by a stone church. In medieval times the Abbey was very wealthy, and a famous centre of learning. It owned huge areas of land and controlled the farming activities and the lives of all the people living on their lands. The Abbey was dissolved at the Reformation in 1534. Ramsey Abbey House, the Abbey Gatehouse, and the parish church can still be seen today.
The nearest market was at Ramsey but this was only small, serving the needs of the Abbey, the townspeople and the nearby villages. When the Black Death of 1347-8 struck, Ramsey lost a quarter of its population. Tradesmen in Ramsey included weavers, fullers, tanners and fishermen along with many ale-house keepers. Nearly all the produce and fuel was moved by water, with a waterway coming right into the centre of the town.
This was a motte and bailey castle built by Geoffrey de Mandeville or his son in the time of King Stephen (1135-1154), whilst they were outlawed barons. Geoffrey and his band of ruffians drove the monks out of Ramsey Abbey and used it as their headquarters whilst they raided the surrounding countryside. The castle mound at Woodwalton can still be seen. The sketch by John Northall shows what Woodwalton Castle may have looked like if completed.
Find out more about the story of Woodwalton Castle.
The first drains or dykes were dug in the 12th century. Monks Lode (NW of Woodwalton Fen) was dug by the monks of Sawtry Abbey to transport stone for building to the Abbey site. The Great Raveley drain probably existed in the 13th century, being dug by order of Ramsey and Sawtry Abbeys. After the Reformation there was little more drainage work until in 1631 the Earl of Bedford and the Gentlemen Adventurers created the Bedford Level and started to drain a large area of the fens. There are accounts of local people around Holme Fen threatening the drainage workers with scythes and pitchforks, as they thought they would lose their livelihoods.
Most of the Great Fen area was wet boggy land. There was wet pasture that, despite only being suitable for grazing in the summer, provided the Abbeys with meat and wool to sell. The remainder was wet peaty land or ‘Turf fen’, which was dug by hand providing peat blocks that were dried for use as fuel. Reeds and sedge were also cut from the wet lands and sold for thatching roofs. Cereals and other crops were grown on the surrounding drier lands in the common fields surrounding each village.
The marshy area of the Great Fen was enormously rich in birds of all kinds, especially ducks, geese and water birds. The drains and dykes were alive with fish of all types too. Eels were so plentiful that rent was paid to the Abbeys in eels rather than money. Catching and selling the birds and fish provided a good source of food and income for the local people. They often lived in cottages amongst the reedbeds, using punts to get about to their traps and sometimes stilts when the land was especially wet.
From earliest times the local people had learned how to skate on the ice, the first skates being made out of the shin bones of animals, smoothed on one side to slide across the ice. Skating provided a much easier way to get about on the flooded fens when the water was frozen.
Skating matches were held on Whittlesea Mere and were very popular. Metal skates did not appear until the late 1700’s.
From Norman times onwards, the right to have a boat and fish on the meres was carefully managed, and these rights were sold and traded between the owners and the Abbeys. Rights were described as ‘boatgates’ which was a boat, its crew and a specific number of nets and traps. Whittlesea Mere was also a popular place for leisure boating: in the 1700s great numbers of people would gather there at holiday times for pleasure trips and races.
The picture to the right shows a regatta on Whittlesea Mere.