John Oliver, warden for the south east area of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, will give a talk on this topic at our meeting on Thursday, 13th October.
John is based at Willow Tree Fen, between Tongue End and Pode Hole on the road from Baston, where former farmland is now managed as a wetland restoration project, with shallow meres, reed beds and hay meadows, as shown below.
Before complete drainage of Deeping Fen, local people managed its natural resources for centuries. Some parts of the Fen were permanently under water, but slightly higher land provided rich grass and hay crops during the summer. Prosperous local farmers grazed their livestock “in Holland” – mainly cattle and horses bred for sale. Large numbers of cattle from Scotland and Ireland were also brought down to be fattened, and then driven on foot from the Fen to London markets.
Thomas Thorpe of Market Deeping, who died in 1652, referred to “my estate in Great Pursuant within the Manor of Croyland with my fishing field and decoy, containing by estimation 200 acres.” The decoy was a system of netted traps for catching large numbers of wildfowl. Other local people owned “boats in the fen”, portions of nets for fishing and fish trunks – perforated floating boxes for storing live fish. The mesh-size of nets was regulated to conserve young fish stocks.
In waterlogged areas, REEDS could be collected freely and used for thatching houses and haystacks, as well as for fuel. Reed burns fiercely, so was unsuitable for open fires, but its quick heat was ideal for baking bread in brick ovens and making ale. Many Deeping people had “hundredths of reed” stacked in their yards in the 17th century and owned wath bills for cutting them. A bylaw stated that reed could only be cut when of 2 years’ growth.
“LOADS OF BUSSACKS” were also collected and dried for fuel. This was a local term for tussocks – clumps of coarse grass or sedge which grew over 7 feet high. They were free to dig up at certain times of the year, providing the holes were filled afterwards. Bussacks burned with much foul-smelling smoke, but they were valued in this area with few trees, when coal was expensive to transport.
WILLOWS were deliberately planted on banks of rivers and dykes to help stop soil erosion, and cut willow could be used for fencing, baskets etc and the construction of simple buildings. Some local people owned “wanded chairs” made from young shoots of willow.
“FLAGON CHAIRS” were common in the Deepings years ago, with seats made of woven “flags” or rushes. They were cheaper – and maybe more comfortable – than solid oak! Rushes were also used as floor covering, and peeled rushes, dipped in fat, were burned as a cheap alternative to candles.
The history of the draining of Deeping Fen is a long and complicated saga, stretching back to Roman times. Many attempts were made to lessen inundation from rivers flowing through the area. Dikereeves were appointed by fenland parishes to check and maintain the dykes and drains. They hired men to clear drainage channels of weeds and debris several times a year, with landowners being charged “acre silver” according to the acreage they owned abutting dykes.
We hope you will join us to hear John Oliver’s fascinating account of how hundreds of acres are now being returned to fenland.
The meeting starts at 7.30pm in the Conference Centre, Deepings School.
There will be a very short AGM. If any member wishes to raise a point during the AGM, please telephone Keith Simpson in advance – 01778 344553.