It is thought that Whittlesea Mere formed from about 500 BC, when silt was deposited by the rivers Nene and Welland and water backed up because it couldn’t flow away freely towards the Wash. A series of lagoons formed and water plants, sedges, reeds and mosses began to grow. Wetter and drier periods occurred and over the centuries the plants decomposed and turned into peat. Whittlesea Mere formed as a shallow lake alongside a river bank on the north side and with a peat bog on the south.
Early Bronze Age flanged axe head, found when the Mere was drained.
From Peterborough Museum.
The Mere was at one point six miles across, the largest lake in lowland England. But it was very shallow, only from two to seven feet deep. Its area in 1786 was 1570 acres, but this varied seasonally. The Mere was at or below sea level and so was very difficult to drain, which is why it survived until 1851.
The bottom of the Mere was covered with a thick layer of white shell marl (decomposed remains of freshwater shells). Below this are alternating layers of clay and peat, showing that conditions had changed over the long periods of time, from salt to freshwater conditions and back again.
The Romans were the earliest people known to have dug a dyke in Fenland, the Car Dyke, for drainage and transport of grain to Roman forts. The earliest reference to Whittlesea Mere is in 664AD, when ownership was transferred from the Crown (possibly the Mercian king Wulphere) to Medehampstede Abbey, now Peterborough, which had been established by the Saxons in about 657. Other monastic sites followed at Thorney in 662, Ely in 673 and at Crowland by the Saxon saint Guthlac in 716. Chatteris and Ramsey were established later. In about 1020, in the reign of the Danish king Canute or Cnut, some of his family and servants were caught in a storm on the Mere and nearly drowned. Cnut caused a dyke to be dug from Bodsey near Ramsey across the marshes to Pondersbridge and on to Peterborough. The dyke may also have been used for moving building stone.
Ramsey Abbey censer and incense boat © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
These magnificent objects came to light when the Mere was drained in the 19th century.
The Abbeys at Ramsey, Sawtry and Peterborough managed the fishing grounds on Whittlesey Mere. It was divided into ‘boatgates’ (one boat, three men and specific size of nets) and licences for fishing were sold, giving the Abbeys a valuable income. From the 13th century onwards the Abbeys also caused the first dykes to be dug in the area using the labour of people living on Abbey lands. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1534, Abbey lands were sold off to many different landowners. The Cromwell family bought Ramsey Abbey and its lands which included much of the Mere.
Whittlesea Mere was already very popular for pleasure excursions by boat. In 1697 Celia Fiennes, daughter of a Cromwellian general, passed by the Mere on one of her journeys: she recorded that she
‘came in sight of a great water, looked like some sea it being so high and of great length. It was 3 miles broad and six long. In the midst there is a little island where a great store of wildfowle breeds; when you enter the mouth of the Mere it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that rise like Hurricanes, but at other times people boat it round the Mere with pleasure, there is abundance of good fish in it.’
The Mere at that time was very shallow, only 5-6 feet deep. By the early 19th century it had become even shallower, often only 2 feet deep with more vegetation growing in it due to improved drainage in other parts of the Fenland. It had become ‘a nuisance’ and in 1844 the Middle Level Act gave parliamentary powers for the drainage of Whittlesea Mere and the surrounding lands.
All the early sources describe the extreme richness of the Whittlesea Mere area, in particular the waterbirds and fishes, from which many of the local people made their living. The reed and sedge harvests provided another source of income. From about the early 1800s the natural fauna and flora began to decline as a result of the gradual drying out of the whole area. Many species were in terminal decline before the Mere was drained.
Early botanists valued the area for its diversity of plants. The Victorian enthusiasm for collecting wild plants and insects also had a big impact. Local people made money by sending trunkfuls of specimens to London collectors via the new railway from Holme station. Specialist plant and animal species became extinct after the drainage of the Mere, as a result of the habitat changes and also from over-collecting.