Friday, 21 March 2014

The Fens From A Moving Train

The train journey north from Cambridge to King's Lynn would not score highly on scenery for most people, especially on a grey morning. But I find the flatness and endlessness of the landscape to be oddly compulsive viewing. And there's plenty to think about....

Before it was drained for agricultural land it was an eerie marshland known only to a few hardy souls who made a living from it, wildfowling and fishing for eels. Dark, swarthy, suspicious men who knew every inch of the treacherous waterways. Every so often they would emerge from the misty swamps to sell their catch in Ely market. Then they would drink, sing, whore and fight till they slipped away unseen before daylight. Some called them web-feet, some call them yellow-bellies but those who admired their hardy self-reliant lifestyle called them The Fen Tigers.

With the Winter Olympics at an end, let us remember Turkey Smart.

William "Turkey" Smart was born in the fenland village of Welney in 1830 and for many years was the best speed-skater in England and quite possibly the world. He got his nickname from his low, crouching style with his arms flapping like wings behind his back - in other words he pioneered the style which all speed skaters employ to this day. If you think he had an odd name then you should be informed that he gained his reputation by defeating someone called Larman Register and his chief rival throughout his career was one Gutta Percha See! 

Turkey continued skating into his sixties by which time a whole dynasty of Smarts and Sees dominated skating in the Fens and Turkey's nephew James Smart became world champion.

Recently I mentioned the riots which took place in Ely and Littleport in 1816 as a result of the poverty suffered by agricultural workers. However new ideas were being voiced in wider society, in particular Robert Owen's vision of a socialist Utopia. 

In the Fens, where problems arising from exploitation had so recently been seen, there was a ready audience for these ideals. A farmer and Methodist minister, William Hodson, donated the land to be the basis of a communally-run farm. Hodson had the formula worked out in great detail; the community produced its own newspaper, 'The Working Bee', and even did away with money for a while. However the social experiment failed after a couple of years and all that remains today is a place called 'Colony Farm'.

Holme Fen, at 9ft below sea level the lowest point in England, was the most difficult part of the Fens to drain. There were no proper roads and it was easier to travel on water. The vicar of Holme came up with a novel solution to the problem and had a boat built to serve as a floating church to reach all his parishioners. It had a harmonium which doubled as pulpit and lectern and the "church" could accommodate up to 50 people. Between 1897 and 1904 some seventy-four baptisms took place in The Fenland Ark. The village sign at Holme shows this unlikely craft being towed by a horse.

Even after much of the Fen was drained it continued to be frequently flooded into the 1900's. With it's regular mists and fogs it was generally regarded as an unhealthy place to live. Doctors did not serve much of the area so the Fenmen self-diagnosed and self-medicated against the ague and rheumatism ('ague' may or may not have been malaria as proper diagnosis was so infrequent). And the drug of choice was opium which was consumed in large quantities, many folk adding it to their beer as a matter of course. It could be obtained in any chemist in any of the small towns.

The results of this state of affairs ranged from the comic - men found sleeping in the fields, leaning on their hoes - to the tragic - high rates of infant mortality as babies, being looked after by their siblings while both parents worked, were often given opium to stop them crying. 

All this dead-flat land might appeal to the Flat Earth Society, you'd think - and indeed it did! Even after the earth was proved to be spherical there were still those who thought it was flat. Before the remarkable pictures sent back from space there was little direct proof, other than the way that ships seem to sink below the horizon. 

Now it just so happens that when the fens were being drained an absolutely straight river was dug to carry the water more quickly to the sea; you can walk alongside it - the straightest, flattest and most soul-destroying walk in the entire country. One Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a convinced flat-eath believer, conducted a series of experiments on this river where he claimed he could, with the aid of a telescope, see boats some six miles distant. You shouldn't be able to see more than three miles so either Rowbotham's experimental technique was flawed or his observations were the result of the refraction of light over a warm surface. (Or the earth is in fact flat!).

No one took much notice of Rowbotham till John Hampden made a wager that the next experiment would prove once and for all that the world was flat. Enter Alfred Russell Wallace to investigate the matter further. He devised a more complex version of the earlier experiment. He not only showed that the earth was a sphere but that it had a diameter of 7,920 miles, which we now know was just 6 miles out!

But the matter did not end there and dragged on for many years with court cases for libel and each group convinced of the validity of their own experiments!

We'll soon be in King's Lynn but there's just one more improbable-but-true tale to relate. The dead straight riverbank also appealed to the would-be developers of a hovertrain which would run on a monorail and they were granted permission to build a 20 mile stretch of experimental track along the course of the river. I well remember the fuss on local TV news at the time. But then I heard no more as plans were shelved after a only a short stretch of track had been built. The prototype train, RTV31, is now at Railworld, Peterborough, and can be clearly seen from the mainline train as you head south from Peterborough station.

Some of the stories above are gone into in more detail on the excellent
website  to which I am indebted.

Take care.


  1. a lovely stretch of green. Now I wonder if those misty swamps have web-footed wildlife photographers instead? Seen any evidence? Some great history there John, and I love the silhouetted trees on the horizon of the finale' photo too. Neat that you had a blog post idea in your journey, while many others were taking calls on their mobiles, or watching their laptops or i-pads perhaps?

  2. The Owen/Hodson utopian experiment went the way of almost all of those 19th century utopian experiments. They all shared a common flaw: people. Those that remain would not be recognizable to their founders, e.g., the Amana Colony or the Shakers.

  3. Just goes to show, there is so much more to most any place than meets the eye! Doubly true for places you'd never suspect of having much to tell. Love the tales (and appreciate the detailed research!)...

  4. You did have a great deal to think about as your journeyed the flatland, John, and thank you for sharing your stories. The countryside reminds me of the Canadian prairies, less the fens of course.

  5. A great selection of stories and I too am rather drawn to the simplicity of the landscape.

  6. Oh, how wonderful, it is a landscape I learned to love when I lived over that way - you've brought back all I'd forgotten about wildfowlers, fen slodgers, speed skating champions around Baston Fen, the Adventurers who drained the land and the Fenland Ark. Thank you, I've really enjoyed reading your post:)

  7. Wonderful panoramas to accompany your Fenland tales John. W. Turkey Smart was actually quite a conservative moniker compared to others :) It certainly was a hard life back then, it must have been very disconcerting for some before they realized that they weren't going to fall off the sphere :)

  8. I find the draining for the fens for farming something like how American farmers drained land in the our Midwest for farming. I have some historical papers on the process. Of course draining is an ecological no-no. -- barbara

  9. Larman Register was called after his Dutch grandmother, Mary Larman. Register as a surname goes back a long way, mainly in East Anglia and Yorkshire (think of the movement of traffic between the ports of Kings Lynn and Hull!) So not such an odd name!! Larman Register, incidentally, was my great, great grandfather....


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