On 12 September, fifty Ipswich Society members set out to discover the unique blend of landscape, engineering and history which characterises The Fens. Our first stop, Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum, is in the original pumphouse on the River Lark. It houses an Ipswich-built Vickers Petter diesel pump which drained the fenland here during the first half of the 20th century, pumping water up to the river. After a short excellent talk on the history of fenland drainage, the Vickers Petter was started up for us - impressive, noisy and very effective - and next door. the modem electric/electronic pumphouse keeps up the good work.
Our journey north to Wisbech traversed the peat fen below sea level and then the slightly more elevated silt fen. Bob Markham's commentary helped us to pick out features of this subdued different landscape. Periodically we travelled over slightly raised sections of road, identified by Bob as 'roddens', abandoned river courses left above the fields as the peat has shrunk after drainage. Most of the dwellings in this area have been built on 'roddens' for their greater stability - we saw many tilted telegraph poles and experienced much hummocky subsidence in the road across the peat! At Welney we crossed the man-made Bedford Level which carries water northwards to The Wash along its two great waterways separated by flood meadows. They flow several metres above the peat fen and the banks, needing constant care, are maintained by 'bankers' - a vital occupation in this part of Cambridgeshire.
The Wisbech & Fenland Museum is free. and packed to the rafters with well-labelled specimens. Entering gives an immediate sense of deja-vu, time-travelling to Ipswich Museum as we know it from 140 year old photographs of what is now the Arlington's Restaurant on Museum Street. The two museums have an identical opening date, 1847. Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust and the Kyrle Society (forerunner of our own Civic Societies) was born in Wisbech. 2012 is the centenary of her death - a good time to visit her birthplace, a Grade II* Listed Georgian town house. Born the year after Queen Victoria's accession to the throne, Octavia was an advocate of public open space - as she put it. "Places to sit places to play in. places to stroll in, and places to spend the day in."
We returned home across the Suffolk fenland (yes, we have some) via Lakenheath with a stop for tea at the fine church here. The exterior is a mosaic of building materials from the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk borderlands: clunch. a type of chalk found locally; carstone, brown sandstone from the fen-edge: brown cobbles from ancient river terraces of west Suffolk and grey flints from the fields. The interior takes the breath away- murals as old as 12th century adorn the walls, with St Edmund opposite the door, watching you enter. The church has a crucifix of contemporary design made from bog oak from the fens. Farmers often plough up huge tree trunks out of the peat - remnants of long gone forests many thousands of years old.