Rex Sly’s family have been farming in the fens for several generations, and he is the author of four books about fenland history. He has a deep understanding of this re-claimed land and people’s changing relationship with it. At our meeting on Thursday, 11th April, he will talk about settlements along the fen edge, following the line of the Roman Car Dyke.
That artificial waterway once stretched from the river Nene near Peterborough to the river Witham near Lincoln, though it’s not clear whether the Romans used it for navigation, as well as drainage. The name “Car” is thought to derive from the old English word Carr, meaning an area of fen where alder and willows grow. Its route followed the western edge of the fens, passing through local villages.
The section of the Car Dyke through Deeping was approximately along the line of Godsey Lane. As shown on this modern Ordnance Survey map, it then continued in a straight line across Towngate East to North Field Road.
Only a narrow remnant of the original watercourse remains here, behind houses in Lancaster Way. As shown in the photograph, it could easily be mistaken for an ordinary field drainage ditch, rather than an ancient monument.
When Deeping Fen was surveyed in November 1641, it was described as “a large and spacious common fen or marsh …. some part thereof was overflown by waters … but we guess the same to contain at least ten thousand acres.” Inhabitants of the Deepings, Uffington, Tallington, Baston, Barholm and Stowe had the right to graze animals there during summer months, when water levels receded and left rich grassland.
For centuries, large numbers of cattle, horses and sheep were kept in the Fen, and the processing of animal skins was an important local trade. In 1696, William Sanby, a tanner in Market Deeping had 100 calf skins, 80 sheep skins with wool, and a quantity of horse hair. In 1754, William Boyall was tanning leather on an even larger scale, with hides valued at over £450 – at a time when his riding horse, two saddles and bridles, were worth only £3. Finished leather was made into horse collars, saddles and harness, gloves, upholstery, boots and shoes by generations of Deepings craftsmen. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, that land in the Fen was converted to large scale arable farming.
Rex Sly’s talk starts at 7.30pm in the Conference Centre at Deepings School. Everyone is welcome. There is a £2 charge for non-members.