Fen to Farmland

Known as “black gold”, fenland peat is full of nutrients and when drained is fantastic soil for growing crops.

From around 1600, there were efforts to drain the land so that more of it would be dry enough for crop production.

The meandering rivers were straightened, so that they would flow more efficiently, and gradually other channels were dug to encourage water to drain into them.

As the land dried out, the spongy peat contracted, and the land surface of the fields sank.

This left the rivers flowing at a level higher than the surrounding land. Huge embankments keep them contained but to get the water up into them from the fields, pumps had to be installed. These were initially powered by windmills.

Photo credit: Catherine Blackburn

Later steam pumps were used and today the pumps are powered by diesel or electricity. Further drainage channels have been added as the land has continued to sink down.

Follow this link for a fascinating archive film. It shows how the fens were drained and how farming was carried out when much of the work was done by hand. Enjoy!