It is easy to forget sometimes how the Fens once were.
When you stand and look out across the seemingly endless miles of fertile black soil, it is easy to imagine that they have always been like this; obedient, productive, bending to the will of mankind. Yet there is something about the spirit of the Fens that gives the feeling that they have never truly been mastered, that they might well rebel one day. That feeling is there in the misty cloak of autumn, the biting frost of winter, the awakening of spring and the fecund glory of summer. As I put in ‘In the Wash’, there is the feeling that the patience of the drained Fens might one day snap ‘and they would flood, just for the hell of it’.
Because it isn’t really very long ago, in the scheme of things, since the Fens were comprehensively drained in the 1600s. Before then, you would have seen, rather than mile after mile of dark soil, a marshy landscape of reed beds and shimmering water.
I was reminded of this the other day when I visited Welney. The Ouse Washes close to the Welney Wetland Centre provide a glimpse of how the Fens would once have been. It was a warm, beautiful day and as I stood and looked at that landscape of tall, waving reeds fringing water that teemed with life, the silence was broken only by the rustling of grasses and the warbling, insistent song of a White Throat.
This, of course, is a romantic view. Life on the old Fen was extremely harsh. Damp, severe arthritis that crippled even children, Malaria, these were just a few of its hardships. Yet it also provided a way of life for the Fen dwellers, mostly of fishing and wild fowling, that was all they knew. Which was taken away when the land was drained.
Being in Welney brought me a tiny echo of the past, but it could also be seen as a view into the future. Various schemes, notably the National Trust’s project at Wicken Fen, aim to return areas of the land back to its natural state and to allow the wildlife that once inhabited it to reclaim it.
But for now, the Fens are as we see them. Fertile, endless, atmospheric. They, and the towns settled among them, are the background to everything I write. They most likely always will be.