A Life Before Fen and Sea

In anticipation of his new book, Fen and Sea, archaeologist I.G. Simmons explains how being a wartime evacuee in Lincolnshire inspired this fascinating landscape history of the area.

At the start of the pandemic, it occurred to me that at age 83 I was in a very high risk group for the second time in my life.  The first happened 80 years previously when my parents and I were living on the edge of East London, not a tranquil place to be in 1940. Indeed some of my earliest memories are of nights in the Anderson shelter.  Anyhow, it was decided that I was to be evacuated to some relatives (Actually a great-Aunt and family) who had a farm in east Lincolnshire.  Before long, it also housed my maternal Grandfather and his wife, following a heart attack he suffered as a result of the bombing of Liverpool Street, where he had worked for the LNER.  So the book to appear in 2021 had its origins, so to speak, in a childhood much influenced by particular circumstances. Actually, like many evacuees, I shuffled about a bit, going back south after main Blitz was over but then coming back to the farm when the V-1 plague started, back to London, then fleeing the V-2s which fell rather densely on the east side of the capital.

The farm was intensively worked for the time, producing wheat and potatoes from the soils of the former East Fen.  It was one of a set of farms set up by the County Council from the share of the land it inherited from the fen drainers of the early nineteenth century.  It was down a narrow lane, with another, smaller, farm at a junction a few hundred metres away and a couple of cottages nearby, one of which has disappeared.  Beyond the farm was the Bellwater Drain, another nineteenth century feature, with a cottage against its bank.  Thereafter, there were no dwellings in sight and nearly all movement that did not require a tractor took place by bicycle. My relatives’ children were all in their teens and working on the farm, the local school was deemed unsuitable and so I spent my days largely in solitude and silence except for being taught to read by my grandfather, who died in 1943. So a daily period of solitude and silence got baked in and is still there.

Even after 1945, there were family living near, though the farm passed on to the next generation. My invalided-out uncle Clem and his wife Grace lived for a while in one of the lane’s cottages before running a pub not far away and eventually moving to Wainfleet town, where she became School secretary. So I would visit in school holidays and occasionally write an essay or a fieldwork project based on the area, secure in the knowledge that a marker would not know whether I was getting it right or not: where? where’s that?  But Aunt Grace was responsible for another baked-in element for she bought me a season ticket for the Arena at the Proms in the summer of 1955. That too gets remembered pretty well every day.

Wainfleet 2017_03_04 (28a) Old Fen Bank, Trustee Farm, Bell Water TF 4582 5868

Only when I retired in 2001 did I begin to appreciate the diversity (albeit low-key and has to be searched out) of the local landscapes. For example, if we look at the photograph (which is by courtesy of Chris Belton), the farm I lived at is more or less dead centre, white with a grey roof and opposite two narrow fields, one about twice the length of the other. Now the lane that transects the picture at 45 degrees from about a quarter-way up the left-hand margin, past the farm and up to the Bellwater Drain (45 degrees the other way) is the line of the Old Fen Bank (OFB) that before the 1800s separated The East Fen (i.e. left of the line) from Low Grounds, largely reclaimed from the sea in medieval times. If we had a vertical picture as well, there are e lines of degraded mounds under several fields that I think are former salterns. The OFB is almost paralleled — but not quite – by a field boundary on the Fen side that diverges slightly but then gets more orthogonal once over the Bellwater. This is the line of the Lusdyke, a drain that took water from the River Lymn to the head of Wainfleet Haven. It ran in a wooden trough and was not supposed to leak nor to carry Fen water. It was sold when the Fen was reclaimed.

Much of what you see is Fen, now very productive agricultural land and drained by electric pumps into the Witham. Intensification since the 1950s has enlarged field sizes: the ploughed area comes right up to the backs of the houses on the farm, whereas in the 1940s there was a vegetable garden and an orchard.  The peaty base of the Fen allowed it to shrink considerably when it was first drained and soil shrinkage plus ablation means that the process continues.  Look at a large-scale O.S. map and you will see a mosaic of areas that are now below zero meters Ordnance Datum. In his recent book on The Fens (mostly about the Great Level of Cambridgeshire), Francis Pryor thinks that eventually the area will be flooded. Almost at the top left of the picture is a curved belt of woodland called The Deeps and the pre-drainage maps of the Fen show a series of shallow irregular lakes called Deeps.  The presumption is that they were the remains of peat digging and so analogous to many of the Norfolk Broads. No visible trace remains. Thus, in this one photo, it is clear that there have been massive landscape changes over a long period. The Old Fen Bank is said by some historians to be pre-Conquest in date (I have some doubts) and the farms are mostly twentieth century.  Fen and Sea is nearly all about 1000-1700, for the post-Roman pre-Domesday time is a field for specialists (of whom there are some very creative contributors to the literature). But as far as I am concerned, my pieces of writing – there are some papers as well as this book – ground another arc, linking a part of my childhood with today’ memories and practices. Time for another CD: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘In the Fen Country’ perhaps.

Fen and Sea
By I.G. Simmons

Renowned environmental archaeologist Ian Simmons synthesises detailed research into the landscape history of the coastal area of Lincolnshire between Boston and Skegness. With many excellent illustrations, Simmons chronicles the ways in which this low coast, backed by a wet fen, displays landscapes with significant differences that contradict the commonly accepted notion of this area as ‘flat’ or uniformly ‘the fens’.

Ian Simmons retired from the University of Durham in 2001 and applied himself to the landscape history of the area to which he had been a wartime evacuee. This required different skills from the palynology of earlier years and he was grateful for help with both finance and the interpretation of documents from a number of archives. A number of papers in journals have appeared as well as this book.

Windgather Press | Paperback | £34.99
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