Friday, April 23, 2004

Walk 100 -- Gedney Drove End to Moulton Marsh

Ages: Colin was 61 years and 351 days. Rosemary was 59 years and 128 days.
Weather: Sunny with a pleasant breeze – getting hot!
Location: Gedney Drove End to Moulton Marsh.Distance: 10½ miles.
Total distance: 771 miles.
Terrain: Grassy sea banks all the way, much of it alongside an RAF bombing range!
Tide: Going out.
Rivers to cross:

Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None, in fact we had a few short cuts!
How we got there and back: We were camping at Lutton, near Long Sutton. We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Lutton to Moulton Marsh where we parked in a Nature Reserve car park. We cycled to Gedney Drove End along back lanes and it was all blissfully flat – as everything is in the Fens. We chained our bikes to a post at the T junction, at the exact spot where we parked the car two days ago. But what a difference in the weather! Today it was sunny, warm and pleasant. We walked to the seawall along the footpath, which did not seem nearly so long and was not slippery.
At the end, we walked the short distance from the seawall to the car park whilst watching scenes of intensive farming in the adjacent field. After partaking of much-needed tea, we drove back to Gedney Drove End to collect our bikes, and thence to the campsite.

We were a little apprehensive about today’s Walk because the first half was across an RAF bombing range! The red flags were up, but the notices were a bit ambiguous. They didn’t say “Don’t walk!” or “Keep off!” and seemed to indicate that it was the marshes that were unsafe, not the seawall. So we decided to risk it—the alternative inland path would have extended our Walk by several miles. Jets were screaming overhead bombing two orange ships and other targets on the marshes, but nobody challenged us as we walked along. As we approached an observation tower we really thought we were going to cop it, but a jeep went zooming past on the adjacent private road and the driver just waved his hand in greeting. He then took down the next red flag, but didn’t bother with any more—we reckoned he was keen to get to the pub with his mates because it was Friday lunchtime! There was no more bombing after that. There was no one in the observation tower by the time we reached it, but a bomb disposal unit drove out to one of the targets on the marsh. We were well past it by then, and later on we heard some small explosions from that direction.
We saw a hare in one of the fields, which was exciting. We sat on a pillbox to eat the first half of our lunch, and then continued on to the end of the range. We breathed more easily then because we knew nobody was going to turn us off the seawall. We were also delighted to find that the seabank had been strengthened and straightened since the map we were using was last surveyed, and short cuts took a total of two miles off the distance we had to walk! At a car park we balanced across a narrow concrete wall—out of sheer bravado (or was it boredom? we could have walked along the bottom!)—and sat down to enjoy the second half of our lunch.
Shortly after that we saw two hares in a field sitting up looking at each other. Then we saw a BARN OWL! It was hunting in daylight, unusually, and seemed quite unconcerned about our presence. It flew (silently) right past us—a beautiful sighting! Colin was especially thrilled, and in a very buoyant mood.

In fact it was a very good day for wildlife—we saw small tortoiseshells, small whites and peacock butterflies, wheatears, redshanks, partridges, oystercatchers, shelducks, herons, geese, a swan, gulls, skylarks and a ‘thrush’s anvil’ surrounded by cracked snails! If it hadn’t been for all this interest, today’s Walk would have been one big yawn—Fenland fields to the left of us and green marshes to the right, no sign of the sea. When we got to the end of the Walk, we decided that the Wash is a washout! We also remarked that it would be nice to hear the waves again—it seemed a long time.
We were in sight of the ‘Horseshoe’ car park at the end of our Walk when we crossed the Greenwich Meridian from East to West. There was no indication on the path where it might be, so we worked out where we thought it was from the pattern of the drainage ditches and where they were drawn on the map in order to take the photo. We watched a bit of intensive Fenland farming in progress. Fields were being sown, sprayed and then covered in polythene—all by machine. It didn’t look very ‘organic’!

The Fens
(Extracted from a rather confusing leaflet we picked up)

The vast flat landscape of the Fens has a long and fascinating story. 10,000 years ago the land was dominated by forest. East Anglia was joined to Europe by dry land and her rivers were tributaries of the Rhine. As the Ice Age came to an end the forest was flooded, and the trees died and fell to form the rich peat soils which are cultivated today. Over the millennia the Fens have been wet and dry—forests grew in the dry periods and died in the wet periods. Huge iron-hard ancient bog oaks still lie in the soil and snag unwary ploughs. Thousands have been dug up and dragged to field edges; many can still be seen.
By the time the Romans invaded, the land was covered by ‘a hideous fen of huge bigness’.
Banks were built to keep out the waters so the islands could be settled and cultivated. The Fens provided a good free living for those who could survive the marsh fevers and damp. Reeds, sedges, willows and turves were cut, fish were caught, and in Winter wildfowl were plentiful. The Fens provided rich grazing, but frequent unpredictable flooding made cultivation of the rich peat soil risky. An old Fen saying runs—‘The profit of willows will buy the owner a horse before that, by any other crop, he can pay for his saddle’.
Flocks of 1,000 and more geese foraged freely on the common land of the Fens. They were considered ‘the Fenman’s treasure’ as they bred readily and provided meat, eggs, feathers (everyone had a feather bed) and quills. The geese were plucked five times a year, and often birds could be seen raw with the plucking. In the Summer, when the wild ducks had moulted and were unable to fly, the Lincolnshire Fenmen would advance on the birds in a semi-circle of boats and drive them into funnel-shaped enclosures. The method was so destructive—three to four thousands ducks could be taken in one drive—that in 1534 a law was passed prohibiting driving from May to August – but the Fenmen ignored the law. Many items were traded, and the rivers provided the routes to coastal ports at King’s Lynn, Wisbech, Spalding and Boston.
Large scale drainage schemes started in the 1600s.
Long straight cuts were dug by hand using barrows and shovels. The grandest scheme of all was Vermuyden’s plan for controlling the waters of the Great River Ouse. Eleven thousand men, mostly prisoners of war, dug two cuts, each twenty-one miles long and running from Earith to Denver. The scheme was financed by ‘Adventurers’ who were rewarded with parcels of the drained land to farm. The Fenmen’s livelihood was threatened and they violently opposed the schemes.
To keep the land dry windpumps were installed, later replaced by steam, then Diesel.
Now the pumps are electric—increasingly powerful means of lifting the water ever higher from the farmland up into the drains and rivers. In 1842 it was decided to maintain a navigable height of water only in certain waterways on the Middle Level. The remaining channels would be run as low as possible to facilitate drainage. Thus the Mullicourt Aqueduct was constructed to carry the navigable Well Creek over the Main Drain. Fen lighters (small barges) depended on the Fens’ waterways remaining navigable.
In the 19
th century most of the Fenland was drained in theory but not in fact. Winter flooding was frequent and Summer flooding was regular. In 1778 farmers had to row through their orchards to gather the fruit from the trees. In 1799 many hundred acres of harvest were reaped by men in boats or standing up to their waists in water clipping off ears of corn wherever they peeped above the surface. In 1912 the harvest was again flooded near Ramsey, and in 1947 the worst ever floods engulfed houses up to roof level.
The success of the grand drainage schemes was short-lived. Deprived of water the peat shrunk—the new peat farmland could drop by the height of a man in the life of a man, then be drowned once more. The more efficient the drainage project, the more effectively the peat dried out and the greater the resulting problems. This was why water had to be lifted ever higher to reach the sea. Much of the Fens in the present day is below sea level, and if it wasn’t for the action of the many pumps it would be a disaster area. The rivers, in the dead straight channels, are usually higher than the surrounding countryside. Keeping up the sea walls and the river banks is of paramount importance. Shrinkage affects the roads which are often bumpy—we feel sure it was the bumpy road between Isleham and Ely which broke our car suspension last year, causing our bike rack to break at the end of Walk 71.

That ended Walk no.100, we shall pick up Walk no.101 next time at the ‘Horseshoe’ car park on Moulton Marsh. After partaking of much-needed tea, we drove back to Gedney Drove End to collect our bikes, and thence to the campsite. Not far to drive today.

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