Postcard from the Fens

Occasionally I will find something unusual or seemingly out of place that piques my interest. I may not even think about it until sometime later, but I’ll find myself diving into the web to discover the origins of what I saw, or just why the hell it’s there. Sometimes such a search will uncover much more than I had anticipated.

A stone’s throw from my home is a local nature reserve and wood where I will go for walks with the family, a chance for my children to find sticks, kick through the leaves or jump in muddy puddles (or be told off for trying to!). On one such walk we happened upon a pair of iron columns. My wife commented that they were like the lamp post in Narnia – in the middle of the wood and completely out of place, only without the lamp.

EntitledSnowFlake, Going Postal
The Holme Fen Posts

I’ve lived near Holme Fen for several years. It’s only a few miles from the A1. It is passed daily by thousands of commuters travelling on the East Coast Main Line which forms the western border of the reserve and until recently I’ve never really given much consideration to the history of the site.

When anyone mentions the fens, it elicits visions of a low, flat featureless and boring landscape of arable land, criss-crossed with drains and ditches and straight, bumpy, notoriously dangerous roads, but this is not how they used to be. The fens were originally a boggy marshland. The Isle of Ely was indeed an island in this vast expanse of reed beds, peat bogs, and marshes. The whole area was crisscrossed with navigable waterways and dotted with shallow lakes, known as meres. One such mere was Whittlesea Mere, which in the late eighteenth century was one of the largest lakes in England at almost 3 miles wide and 6 miles long, with the village of Yaxley to the north, Ramsey to the east and Holme to the west

The Fens were being drained for agriculture long before 1848, when William Wells of Holmewood Hall and a group of local landowners decided to drain Whittelsey Mere, so that they could share the land for growing crops. Holme Fen is on the south western edge of where Whittlesea Mere used to be.

The mere was surrounded by peat bogs, and like a huge sponge they contained vast amounts of water in addition to the water in the Mere itself. William understood that draining the Mere would also result in the draining of the peat bogs, and as the bogs were drained, they would begin to subside. He decided he needed a way of measuring this subsidence.

Underlying the peat is a layer of Oxford clay. Holes were dug in the peat, and the posts (Believed to be obtained from the Crystal Palace) were set into the clay. The posts were cut and capped at ground level. As the Mere was drained, and the land subsided, the posts gradually became exposed.

They are now over 4 meters tall, the land having descended around them. They tower above the Peat, standing incongruously in the middle of the forest. A small monument to Man’s ability to shape and defy nature.

These posts now mark the lowest point on the English mainland, at a mean 9ft below sea level. They are set slightly back from a minor road in the heart of one of the largest and most splendid Silver Birch forests in the country. Home to thousands of different fungi, rare acidic grasses, wetland birds, owls, bats and water mammals, there are plans to reverse some of the drainage and revert the surrounding areas to Mere habitat, securing and expanding upon the last fragments of original fenland. It is hoped that this will encourage an increase in the populations of otters, amphibians and fish, and it is hoped to eventually reintroduce Ospreys in the not too distant future.

This leads me on to another event in the history of Holme Fen:

On the 22nd of November 1940, Pilot Officer Harold Penketh lost his life in a crash having lost control of his Spitfire Mk1 over Holme Fen during a training flight. Harold’s body was recovered and returned to his family but X4593 lay buried in the peat until last year, when the remains were excavated by the Oxford Archaeology trust and the Defence Archaeology Group. There wasn’t much left, but the recovered parts are now being conserved at RAF Wyton, with a view to placing them on display in the planned Great Fen visitor centre.

EntitledSnowFlake, Going Postal
The Merlin engine of Spitfire Mk1 X4593, being recovered from the peat The “Rolls” was smashed from the cylinder head by the force of the impact

A simple stone memorial marks the spot where Pilot Officer Penketh died nearly 77 years ago. He died training to do battle in the skies against the threat of Nazi domination, a destiny unfulfilled.

EntitledSnowFlake, Going Postal
The memorial to Pilot Officer Penketh

At 20 years of age he would have been younger than many of the safe space university students that cry foul over the democratic processes that have resulted in our exit from the EU the election of President Trump. Would these 20 somethings offer themselves up for their country in the same way as Pilot Officer Penketh? There were so many thousands of other young men and women who died or came home bearing the mental and physical scars of war to secure the freedoms and rights that these ungrateful and entitled snowflakes (!) enjoy today and that enable them to express their views. I fear for our youth, but I continue to see examples of sanity, on the street, or in the Twitter feed. Examples of hope in the chaos, young men and women of true spirit, with their eyes open to what is going on outside the political, media and education bubble. I just hope that the rot can be stopped, that our young can embrace their heritage, to be proud to be British once again and to have a Britain that they can be proud of.

© EntitledSnowflake 2017