Wind powered drainage in the fens

 

 I have lived and worked near, in and around the fens all my life. The battle to reclaim the land from the waters has had a fascination for me ever since I have known about it. In reality to describe it as a battle is to diminish what has really been a war, at times the waters have taken back with ease, that which was won with much hard physical work.

The most honest evaluation is probably that which has been taken is held; mammoth and innovative engineering maintain the status quo.

I have in my lounge a reproduction of a 1645 map of Huntingdonshire, with the Isle of Ely and part of Cambridgeshire. A good portion of Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely are shown as under water with a few towns and villages as islands within the waters, I have another map of about a similar age titled Inumdatum which gives an indication of the extent of the waters.

The drainage of the fens has been achieved over many centuries the long straight waterways (drains), dug mainly by hand. A truly spectacular sight to me is to drive along a road with the river above me on one side above the height of the van and ten twenty feet or more below me on the other side are the fields with crops growing in them.

Hundred Foot Bank, Sutton, Cambs The B1381 road to Earith runs below the New Bedford River level.© Copyright Rodney Burton

 

The photograph shows in an instant the monumental achievement in reclamation of land from the water the land below the road has to be drained by emptying it into a river or drain above it rather than below it. When you realise a cubic metre of water weighs a tonne the colossal scale of the feat becomes more apparent. Every drop of water in that and many drains and rivers in the fens that has been run off from the fields, has to be physically lifted considerable heights to keep the ground dry and usable.

To start with wind was used to power pumps and giant scoop wheels to lift the water then steam, diesel and now electric pumps do the work. With the appearance of wind turbines in the fens, ultimately they are now to a degree being drained again by wind power.

2 responses to this post.

  1. great post – thanks for sharing this. I live just a few minutes walk from the Old and New Bedford Rivers at Earith and even though there’s a little flooding every winter, that doesn’t compare to the respect that i have for the incredible work and innovation that went in to creating the drainage system.

    Reply

    • Thank you for your kind comment, I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond.
      The engineering feat that is the drainage system for the fens is I think largely unrecognised, what in my view makes it truly awesome is that most of the drains were originally dug by hand.
      I live in Whittlesey, originally like Ely, March and Chatteris an island in a vast water logged landscape just a few feet higher than the surrounding waters.
      The copy of the 1645 map of Huntingdonshire shows Bluntisham, Holywell, Colne, St Ives and Over but not Earith.

      Reply

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