Thursday, 19 June 2014

Fenland Trails

Come and join me on a bicycle ride through the Fens from Littleport to Downham Market, not for any particular reason, just because I feel like it. So here we are in early morning in Littleport - which used to be just that - a little port on the River Great Ouse.

The road we are going to take is called Ten Mile Bank. You could get there more quickly but much less pleasantly along the main A10 road. But today we shall stick to the by-ways and absorb some of the landscape as we go. You can see that it's flat - very flat. This all used to be swampland which has been drained over the centuries and turned into good agricultural land. If you glance at a map you'll see a squiggle of contour around here which might suggest undulations but, if you look more closely, you'll see that it's all the same line, snaking back and forth across the land. What's more it's the contour for 0 metres above sea level!

In a wayside garden I spotted this dear lady. Not a very threatening sort of scarecrow, you might think, but effective nonetheless; at least there were no crows to be seen pecking amongst the flowers and vegetables.

The "ten mile" part of the name Ten Mile Bank will explain itself to your legs as we pedal. The "bank" refers to the river bank which we'll follow much of the way. And a very important bank it is since it's all that prevents the river inundating the land. For the river here is higher than the land through which it flows and water has to be pumped up to it in order to make its way to the sea.

So we'll ride along beneath the bank with sheep gazing down on us. Although this doesn't look to be great country for wildlife I heard the Cuckoo calling from all quarters.

Our little road links the farms that exploit the rich peat soil of the drained fens. But when you drain peat it starts to shrink as it dries out, even worse it gets blown away by the wind. The land gets lower and lower - and harder and harder to drain. The majority of the land is at the height of the little greenhouses on the left of the picture, the farmhouse is on slightly higher ground, while the river is held back behind the bank on the right.

These farms used to be functional, workaday places; prosperous enough but rough and untidy. However in this part of the Fens, at least, everything looks very smart these days.

I was just beginning to think that I wasn't in the Fens at all. However a little later on, past the straggle of houses which forms the village of Ten Mile Bank, the farms reverted to their comfortable old ways....

I know it's not Beautiful Britain nor indeed Historic Heritage Britain but I feel very at home here amongst the rural rustiness. So it was that I went along my way singing "Take Me Home Country Roads" - even if I did have to substitute "Downham Market" for "West Virginia"
and make it a "Fenland Momma".

Maybe that song was also in my head because it was by John Denver and Denver was also the name of the place I was approaching. The massive machinery spanning the river is Denver Sluice which is the hub of modern drainage in the Fens, where the levels of the main rivers can be regulated. 

The drainage of the fens had always been a piecemeal affair in the past which caused all sorts of problems; principally that draining your piece only caused flooding on someone else's piece! And although things gradually improved as larger scale projects were undertaken it was not till the last century that an all-encompassing scheme was put in place.

I know I promised to keep away from churches for a while but I couldn't resist at least an exterior shot of the "gingerbread" church at Denver. The ginger colour derives from the Carrstone which was used in its construction (yes, the same rock which outcrops at Hunstanton cliffs).

Then I made my way into Downham Market (not the wrong way down a one-way street as the photo seems to suggest!). It was market day and the place was a-bustle with people. I'll show you more next time.

Take care.


  1. What a sunny day you had for photographing all the unique farms and small towns. Everything you pointed out in your photos was of great interest to me. The narrow roadway you traveled, the Downham Market streetscape, the rural rustiness farm scene, the scarecrow lady, and of course the idea of the water embankment were all quite unique to view and read about. -- barbara

  2. Beautiful pictures! This bike ride was fantastic :)
    -- Varanasi: on the banks of Ganges

  3. The draining of the fens, the banks and levees are a lot like the situation in the area around New Orleans --except the city is below sea level.

    It certainly was a perfect day for your ride.

  4. You know, at this stage of my life, bicycling on flatlands like this is becoming more appealing all the time. I like the photo of the rustic old barnyard with the chickens - so American.

  5. That rust barn shot could have been taken in Canada. I ought to take more shots like that.

  6. Oh my, what a wonderful bike ride that was, and not even a twinge in my quirky knees. Great contrasts in the countryside - I would be happy with the comfortable farms! Thanks for taking us along, John.

  7. That was a nice bike ride. And you are mistaken -- that IS beautiful Britain!

  8. What a fun adventure ...& a lovely place!

  9. I am fascinated each time you take us on an exploration of the fen lands. Surely in the US there is much low, marshy ground which has been drained for agricultural use. I'm trying to think of some large area that might approximate your fens. I've traveled in the Gulf Coast region--bayous, levees--but a much warmer climate.

  10. Just love the house with the big white balcony wish I could live there.


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