The Draining of the Fens

The Draining of the Fens

The Fens was, and in a way, still is as Daniel Defoe described it the “sink of thirteen counties”, being the outlet of four major rivers and many minor. Draining the fens was a major earthworks project.

The main river is the Great Ouse, one of the longest rivers in the country. It carries the silt and sediments along with the watershed, of parts of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, including Huntingdonshire, Suffolk and Norfolk.

The rivers Witham, Welland and Nene also flow through the Fens.

Prior to the seventeenth century, the Fens were a flat low-lying area of marsh, peat bogs, reed beds and shifting channels. On the occasional “island” of clay, the isolation of the Fen had made ideal retreats for monks, who built their abbeys and monasteries there.

The potential richness of the peaty soils part below water did not go unnoticed as in the exploring days of the early seventeenth century, the fourth Earl of Bedford, a wealthy land owner and entrepreneur, gathered a number of investors prepared to take the risk of trying to drain the Fen.

With the permission of the crown, they sought to drain, expose and utilise some 95,000 acres of this land.

A Dutch engineer named Vermuyden had achieved success in draining areas around the Humber river and began work in the Fens in 1630, to capture the meandering River Ouse.

He cut a straight channel for the river, from the start of the flat lands at the foot of the Huntingdonshire escarpment, and cut another parallel to it a mile distant. In deference to the instigator of the project, the first cut was known, and still is, as The Old Bedford River.

The later cut is the New Bedford River. Between them they could carry most of the waters. In the Winter and Spring, in heavy flood conditions, the lowland in between them, Welney Wash could be flooded to keep surrounding areas safe.

The rivers and drains, canals and ditches that channel water to keep the land and adjoining towns and villages safe, by their very nature need upkeep and maintenance to ensure both gravity and pumping stations are efficiently moving water onward, keeping it draining.

Today, modern machinery from the likes of Hanlon CASE is employed by the various inland drainage authorities to keep channels running. Annual or bi-annual clearance of vegetation to prevent stagnation, along with periodical dredging of silt and sediment, ensuring optimum depth and width of the channels.