Secrets of the forgotten fenlands unearthed

Landscape detective Ian Rotherham digs out a story that runs from before recorded history to the present day.

Until a little over 200 years ago, the county of Yorkshire, and the areas adjacent, such as north Lincolnshire and north Nottinghamshire, was home to a remarkable wetland landscape – nearly 2,000 square miles of marsh, bog, wet lowland moor, fen and carr.

Yet this amazingly extensive, and for centuries intractable wilderness, was swept away in just a few human lifetimes.

The process was so swift and so decisive that we have little obvious evidence of it ever existing, and precious little knowledge of what it looked like.

Indeed, the very ecology of this lost environment, the wild birds, mammals, insects, and flowers, is also largely a mystery; at least that was the case until recently.

A few years ago, I set about trying to unravel the story of the forgotten fens and to re-construct a picture, almost like a jigsaw, gradually putting the pieces back in place.

A major problem is that these wetlands were on a scale that is unimaginable today, and the wildlife was fantastically rich and diverse. Most of the species had long since disappeared before we even had ways of recording and naming them.

However, there are ways for the landscape detective

to begin to search out vital clues and sources of information –teasing out the history of the cultural landscape of the wetlands of the Humber basin and the entire county of Yorkshire.

This stretches from the Humber and north Lincolnshire through the Vale of York, through South Yorkshire and Holderness, to Pickering and beyond.

The research set out to discover the extent and the ecology of the once great fenland that covered much of lowland Yorkshire.

It takes us back to before records began and when nobody even named the species of birds that populated the intractable wilderness.

What did this fen look like and why has it gone?

Yorkshire's Forgotten Fenlands draws together the story of a changing landscape, lost wildlife, forgotten cultures and crafts, and ways of life, too.

I wanted to set the scene for the region's wetlands as they are today, and the former primeval wild wetland – the landscape past and present.

I then sought to move on to a series of regional accounts for the distinctive areas within the county of Yorkshire.

I focused on the South Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire fens with their vast primeval peat bogs and extensive carrs, and their catastrophic destruction in only a couple of hundred years.

Then I turned to consider the Holderness landscape, today squeezed by massive coastal erosion and the

ever-present threat of flooding.

A thousand years ago, this was a landscape of water, of meres and of lakes, pools and fens, but it is now a rich land of farming and "improvement".

However, there is a cost to be paid for the agricultural gains, and climate change is forcing the issues.

Hull, for example, is a city under threat from inland flooding and from coastal surges and erosion, too.

I went on to examine the bogs, marshes and fens of the city of York and the agriculturally productivity of the Vale of York.

Here large wetland sites that remain remind us of a lost landscape, and the threat of flooding to the land and

the city recall a nature untamed.

I wound up at the lost Lake of Pickering Vale. The accounts of Yorkshire's 18th-century agricultural improvers provide a real insight into the transformation of a now lost landscape.

Even our largest wetland nature reserves today are tiny degraded fragments of what used to be.

My inquiries moved on to deal with the specifics of how these great wetlands were, indeed, lost and then forgotten.

I have tried to discover the heroes and villains as different interest groups struggled for the resources – with commoner and peasant set against gentry and church.

It was in these vast water worlds that the English Civil War was kindled, and non-conformist religions found eager audiences.

I looked at the processes of drainage to see how, over many centuries, the lands of the now "forgotten fens" were wrested from the waters by Yorkshire farmers and engineers, and then developed the story from the Victorians with their increasing application of technology, to the modern day.

I came across accounts of a particular local craft and industry long-since forgotten – the peat cutter.

Their collective impact on the region's landscape, from urban Pennine Sheffield and the Derbyshire Rother Valley, to rural flatland Doncaster, is now almost forgotten and always overlooked.

The city of York was, for centuries, fuelled by peat turf from Tillmire, Askham, Skipwith Common, and Bridlington Priory held important peat-cutting rights in medieval times.

By the 17th century, the amount of peat turf being consumed increased with improved forms of transportation.

In York, in 1643, nine men were accused of "selling turfs contrary to my Lord Mayor's price".

Admitting guilt, they were fined three-quarter pence

each "according to an Order made in the like case the 9th day of November 1593".

This latter reference was to four men reprimanded or fined for a similar offence.

There are refrences to "Turf Mosses" to "wayne leades of dryed peates", to the use of carts for carrying dried peat and to the "turfpitt" from such places as Giggleswick, Thruscross, Barwick-in-Elmet, Bentham and Fishlake.

In the latter case, the notes refer to the theft, in 1652, of "one Catch loade of Turves and wood" with a total value of 7.

A "catch" was a ketch, one of the traditional open sailing barges.

I finally tried to consider present-day ideas of landscape re-creation and the challenges that we face.

With climate change and flood risk, these lost wetlands are generating a renewed interest from holding back floodwaters, to mopping up carbon, and kick-starting tourism economies.

The story of people and fens has been one of managing risk and benefit over centuries. The fenland peoples of the past generally knew what to expect with the seasons. But living and working in the wetland or around the water's edge was a balance between the dangers and the problems and the rich wealth that such an existence offered.

The same applies today. With the increasing concerns over global food supplies and competitive world markets, there will be a renewed interest in squeezing the last kilo of food production from fenland landscapes.

However, this will only exacerbate future flood and drought risks.

Engineering will be a vital part of any effective response, to avoid system overload in drains and channels and to protect critically "at risk" services such as power and water.

But this is only part of the solution. We must learn to work with the grain of nature, and the main battlegrounds will be in the Yorkshire fens, their catchments and the eastern seaboard.

We need to work with and pay farmers as custodians of the landscape, to manage the land to hold back the floodwaters.

I found remarkable records of the riches of birdlife in these fens in the accounts of great medieval feasts and the records of the church and of great households.

Bitterns, cranes, spoonbills, egrets, bustards, herons,

and many others were "harvested" and eaten in vast quantities.

Yet by the 1700s and 1800s, habitat loss drove them to extinction.

Today, many of these species are making a welcome return, and that alone is reason to be excited.

Professor Ian Rotherham's Yorkshire's Forgotten Fenlands is published by Pen & Sword 10.99. Tel 01226 734222 or 734555, or order via their website.

CW 22/1/11

Back to the top of the page