The lost fens — Prof. Ian Rotherham — 8 January 2018

Ian Rotherham is Professor of Ecology and Geography at Sheffield Hallam University.  He is an author­ity on cul­tural and his­tor­ical aspects of land­scapes, espe­cially peat bogs and fen­lands.  He writes and broad­casts on envir­on­mental issues.  He has many books to his name and is an excel­lent speaker.

His talk centered around the wet­lands of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire that before being drained, dwarfed the area of the present Cambridgeshire fens.  Ian star­ted by remind­ing us that Hereward the Wake lead the last sig­ni­fic­ant res­ist­ance to the Norman inva­sion and sought refuge in Ely Cathedral that was situ­ated on an island totally sur­roun­ded by wet­lands.  Access was by float­ing reed pon­toons between the beds of high reeds.  Similar wet­lands stretched up beyond York. The land along the M18 cor­ridor remained wet until the 1600’s.

In 1466 the feast to mark the enthrone­ment of Geoge Neville as Archbiship of York, over 2000 guests con­sumed: 2,000 suck­ling pigs, 204 bit­terns, 2,000 geese, 12 por­poises and seals, and 3,000 cold cus­tards, all washed down with 500,000 pints of ale and 168,000 pints of wine.  The wet­lands were pretty pro­duct­ive places.  Eels were so plen­ti­ful on occa­sions they blocked the rota­tion of water­wheels and wild birds were killed and shipped to London in 100,000’s.  The English “turkey” was the great bus­tard that thrived in the wet­lands.  Bustard Farm near Great Driffield is a reminder of this food source .  Fish, reeds, rushes, peat, willow and brush­wood all came from the carrs.

In 1609 an under­ground earth­quake in south­ern Ireland prob­ably caused cata­strophic flood­ing along the east coast.  In 1600 under Elizabeth I an Act includ­ing the drain­ing dry of marshes, fens, bogs and moors was passed.  The mood developed in the ruling class to dis­like wet­lands and to favour land fit for till­age and pas­tur­age.  In 1626 Cornelius Vermuyden brought in Dutch and Flemish money and work­ers to drain large areas of wet­land at the behest of Charles I.  People flee­ing per­se­cu­tion like the Huguenots were also attrac­ted.  Few people at this time could swim, marsh mal­aria was always a prob­lem espe­cially for those not living in but vis­it­ing the swamps and these areas when drained dra­mat­ic­ally increased in value when drained.  Those drain­ing the land and the land owners could make large for­tunes.

In 1809, Gilpin was very fash­ion­able for design­ing pic­tur­esque land­scapes and he hated fen land and thought the Peak District was the work of the Devil.  By 1900 these wet­lands had largely dis­ap­peared.  By using the latest air­borne light detec­tion and ran­ging meth­ods Ian and his team are uncov­er­ing some of the drain­age work­ings includ­ing around Doncaster and Thorne moors.

Ian is very know­ledge­able and gave a really fas­cin­at­ing talk about the land­scape on our door­steps that most new little or noth­ing about.