The Fens of Huntingdonshire

The Fens of the County of Huntingdonshire in England and their drainage


The level tract of Fenland, the largest plain in Britain, reaches from Lincoln in the north to Cambridge in the south, and from Stamford on the west to Brandon on the east, and contains an area of 750,000 acres. It received the name of the Bedford Level from the Earl of Bedford, whose association with the reclamation will presently be referred to, and it is divided into three parts called the North Level, South Level and Middle Level, Only part of this plain is covered by peat.

The area of fen land in the county of Huntingdonshire is give, as mentioned earlier, as 35,000 acres---some authorities, however, say 44,000. The whole of this is covered by peat and is in the Middle Level, with the exception of a small portion in the South level.

The un-reclaimed fen has been described as "A vast open plain, covered, for the most part, with deep sedge, dotted with thickets of Alder and Willow, abounding in shallow lakes, temporary and permanent, and overflowed in its lowest parts, nearly, is not every winter"

Fen Panorama

It does not matter which way you look - it's FLAT!


Whilst there have been great changes in the Fenland in the last 2000 years it would appear that in the middle ages the fen people could often travel from place to place without following the course of the river, for all the fen was one vast lake. As spring advanced and the waters sank, course grasses grew, and most of the fen became passable for foot-passengers, with pools here and there and some lakes of considerable size, for the land was not a dead level, but in places depressions of several feet, forming permanent lakes. We may gather from the above that what was often a lake in winter became in summer a rough plain covered with sedge, reeds, alders and willow as we find it in some parts today.

Holme Lode

The Holme Lode running through the centre of the former Whittlesey Mere.

The Holme Lode running through the centre of the former Whittlesey Mere.

Photograph taken in November 2004 viewed towards Holme from Engine Farm.


Let us now proceed to consider how the silt and peat came to be in their present positions, or in other words how the fens were formed. A glance at the map will show that the Fenland receives the drainage of several counties the Huntingdonshire district collecting the waters from most part of the "highland" portion if the county. We, notice too, that owing to the flatness of the country the rivers are very sluggish. Now something of this sort must have happened: at certain times the rivers overflowed their banks and formed vast inland lagoons. The flow of the water in the rivers being very slow, the tide, meeting the fresh water, helped drive it back, and the mouths of the rivers gradually silting up, the waters became lakes for the great part of the year. In this way silt was deposited on the beds of the lakes and on this silt grew aquatic plants. The land then rose somewhat or the water receded, vegetation growth increased and even large trees grew, the trunks of which can still be found in the peat, see Bog Oaks. Again this land became submerged, a fresh deposit of silt occurred , and again plants, destined later to be turned into peat, flourished. In some places this must have occurred several times, as there are several layers of silt and peat.

The Romans appear to have made some attempt at embanking, but although the subject of draining the fends was considered in the fourteenth century, little seems to have been done for a century or so, till in 1490 John Morton, Bishop of Ely, had a river cut, 40 feet wide and 14 miles long, from Peterborough to Guyhirne. An Act was passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I bearing on the subject, but nothing effectual was done until 1630 a contract was made with Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, for draining the Great Level of the Fens.

There was so much opposition to this work being in the hands of a foreigner, that a request was made to Francis, Earl of Bedford, that he would undertake it. On January 13th 1630-31, a contract to drain the fens was signed with the Earl, who, shortly after, obtained the co-operation of thirteen other gentlemen as joint "adventurers". The adventurers were to receive as payment 95,000 acres; of this they were to hand over 40,000 acres to maintain the drainage works in repair, and 12,000 to the King, while the remaining 43,000 acres were to be held by the Earl and his joint "adventurers".

The Old Bedford River

In spite of the opposition that had been shown to Vermuyden, the adventurers employed him as their engineer. One of their principal undertakings was the cutting of what is now called the Old Bedford River, from Earith in the eastern corner of Huntingdonshire heading north-east to Salter's Lode, 70 feet wide and 21 miles long. After some years' work and an expenditure of £100,000 the drainage was declared inadequate by the Government at a session of Sewers held at St Ives, October 12th, 1637; and not until 1653, when William, Duke of Bedford, had succeeded is father and further work had been carried out at great expense, was the undertaking declared complete.

It will be seen that the principle adopted by Vermuyden was to make little use of the natural rivers, but to dig long, wide drains---the Old Bedford River is an example of this-- the narrower ones as feeders to them, and smaller drains still, feeding these, so that all were connected like a network. Windmills were then placed at various points to act as pumps to raise the water from one level to another. The windmills were later replaced by steam pumping engines and these too have been replaced by far more efficient electric pumps. By this means the depth of the water is easily regulated and---though a disastrous inundation, owing to the breaking of the Denver sluice, occurred in 1862, while 1879 witnessed the flooding of many acres of land---skill, perseverance, and the expenditure of large sums of money have made the district that was a morass in winter, and only capable of feeding cattle in summer, one of the most productive areas in England.

In recent years there has been great pressure to restore our environment to its former glory, the Great Fen Project will restore over 3000 acres of fen between Huntingdon and Peterborough.