When I was first contemplating writing a murder mystery set in the Fens, most people would look at me a bit oddly, as if to say: are you sure that’s such a good idea? After all (the unspoken message went) they’re so very flat and boring.
But they are neither of those things. For a start they aren’t all that flat – especially in the south, where the Isle of Ely dominates the surrounding landscape and can be seen from dozens of miles away. Ely is known locally as The Ship of the Fens because of the way it seems to float across the horizon.
Which is appropriate, because this is a watery landscape where the many ancient dykes, drains and rivers conceal more than archaeology. There are dark secrets, and local communities who retain long memories – some extending back to Cromwell’s time (himself a Fenman) and the English Civil War.
And of course, the Fens aren’t all the same. The silt fens, which are essentially an extension of The Wash – England’s largest bay, were formed by rising seas after the last Ice Age, some twelve thousand years ago, when marine deposits were laid down by storms and high tides. Today, these silt fens are still higher than, and very different to, the peat or Black Fens further inland.
Apart from being slightly raised, the silty fens are also less flat. There are huge mounds, the result of industrial-scale salt extraction in the Middle Ages. And their agricultural history is as rich as their soils, which were were laid down in the Iron Age and later times. Most are classified as Grade 1 by the Soil Survey and many are used for growing high value crops, such as flowers, vegetables and strawberries.
Later, in the Middle Ages, local communities banded together to form groups who carried out urgent drainage work, as and when it was needed. But even though much of the marshland has been drained, there are still bits towards The Wash that are liable to flood, as we witnessed last spring during the North Sea tidal surge.
Sirens and church bells would sound warnings and the sea wall at Sutton Bridge (which we can see from our upstairs windows) came within an inch or two of being overcome. It was very scary.
How much more frightening would it have been if somebody was raiding your house, intent on murder while all that was going on? I know when I’d plan to commit a crime if I had all the time in the world and lived in the Fens.
Of course, The Wash is also one of northern Europe’s most important haven for migratory birds, like these Whooper swans at Welney Washes, the RSPB’s nature reserve. Nice, isn’t it?
Welney would be a great place to dispose of a body, because unlike in other parts, silts are being deposited there, not eroded. Your grave would slowly get deeper, and deeper and deeper.
By contrast, the Black Fens are very much flatter and low-lying, although it has to be admitted that many would not have been quite so low-lying were it not for deep drainage and intensive agriculture, which has allowed the dry peaty soil to blow away, especially in dry springtimes.
An iron post whose top was sunk level with the land surface in 1851, in what is now the Holme Fen Nature Reserve, near Peterborough, today stands about 4 metres above the ground. In other words, four metres of peat have eroded away in a century and a half! But what is really sobering is that those peats originally took around four millennia to accumulate. So if or when the Fens eventually flood as a result of global warming, the waters will be very deep indeed…
But there is another side to the Black Fens. While they are rather rapidly being blown away, there are all sorts of strange things are found out in those open fields, especially when new land is taken into cultivation. The so-called ‘bog oaks’ (actually they’re probably Bronze Age pines) at Holme Fen were ploughed-up nearly ten years ago.
Sometimes a plough catches against something softer, more yielding, which can tear and rip – and I’m not necessarily thinking about fabric.
Alan Cadbury’s first adventure as an archaeologist-turned-detective is recorded in The Lifers’ Club, and was partly set in the silty fens of south Lincolnshire. But in his second adventure he has taken me to the heart of the Black Fens, in a small island near Ely.
This island, which I’m afraid you won’t find on your phone’s iMap, is called Fursby. There’s a dig near the ruined abbey in the park of the big house. But this isn’t any old dig. In fact it’s so special that it becomes the subject of a major ‘live’ television excavation. And, you’ve guessed it, Alan is working on it.
All in all, the Fens are the perfect place to get away with murder, but only if you know the lay of the land very, very well. Some of the fens are rising, some are being blown away, and some will one day be deep under water. So you’d better choose your spot carefully.
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