Hidden heritage of the Ouse Washes Landscape

    OuseWashesBy Sara Marshall

The Ouse Washes Landscape in the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Fens is known for its linear countryside, perfect tranquillity and wetland habitats.

CambridgeArchaeologicalThe story starts at the end of the last ice age when Britain was joined to continental Europe and the River Nene and the River Great Ouse were tributaries of the Rhine.

The landscape contained forests, freshwater ponds and lakes and was home to wolves, lynx and elk.

But sea level changes during the Mesolithic period drowned forests and caused peat to form. These rich soils meant that plants and wildlife thrived.

1947FloodsHumans settled in the Fens during the Neolithic and Bronze Age and settlements and ceremonial monuments later became preserved in silt and peat.

Our sophisticated ancestors used timber trackways or log boats to move around the growing marshland. Small salt works in the area expanded to industrial scale and enabled the building of the Fen Causeway, a gravel Roman road and canal system stretching from Peterborough to Denver.

The Anglo-Saxon period saw the conversion of Paganism to Christianity and the relocation of communities onto the island crests, which form the centres of most Fenland villages today.

During the Medieval period, the Fenland resources were controlled by the dominant monasteries and abbeys of Ely, Ramsey, Thorney and Crowland.

The Fenland inhabitants lived from fishing, wildfowling and reed cutting.

EarithBulwarkIt wasn’t until the 1630s that a group of wealthy investors headed by the Earl of Bedford started a large-scale drainage scheme to control the groundwater levels.

Cornelius Vermuyden was brought in to engineer a system using drainage dykes and wind pumps. The local Fen people were fiercely opposed to this as they believed it would disrupt their livelihood.

The Fen Tigers group did all they could to sabotage the efforts, tearing down and setting fire to building work.

However, Vermuyden’s hugely ambitious project was finally complete with the diversion channels of the Old and New Bedford Rivers carrying water more quickly to the Wash.

FenSkatingThe new land was some of the most fertile in the country and the Fens became vital in the production of food for the region.

Much of the area would be flooded if it wasn’t for our local drainage heritage and indeed in 1947 and 1953 there were huge devastating floods.

The whole area has always been rich with distinctive customs such as Molly Dancing and Fen Skating.

MollyDancingA huge programme of festivals, exhibitions and performances take place throughout the year including OuseFest in July.

Discover the mystery of the Fens by visiting the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership’s calendar www.ousewashes.org.uk/whats-on

You can discover more about the Hidden Heritage of the Ouse Washes Landscape at the Annual Conference on Wednesday 25 November 2015. Visit bit.ly/1NrHiuj for more details.

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