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.