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Cambridge, and the draining of the Fens

It’s October, which means that I’m in my head planning for another year spending November in a NaNoWriMo haze in addition to the tryptophan-induced sleep coma of Thanksgiving.  In case you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, wherein participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  What you do with that novel afterwards is totally up to you, and since 2009 my finished novels have sat in google docs, languishing and awaiting the day when some great internet purge happens and they are tragically lost.

Except my 2014 book, with which I have been sitting, and ruminating since January, and am setting myself a goal of completing the editing process this month and having it ready to be formatted.  Then, I will spend November writing a new book, and arranging for a cover designer.  I will put everything together and give it a good set of rereads with fresh eyes in December, and publish it by the end of the year.  Hooray!  A NaNoWriMo book that achieves publication!

My book is set in the 16th century with a twist.  Yes, it involves time travel.  It’s a mix of chick lit and time-travel-historical-fiction-lit.  Because I’m trying to cover all the bases.  But, it requires a great deal of research because my big fear is that I’m going to slip up and write Oliver Cromwell instead of Thomas Cromwell, and then all my credibility will be shot.

The novel also takes place in Cambridge, which is one of my favorite cities in the entire world.  But the land surrounding Cambridge was much different in the 1540’s than it is today.  Because a marvel of engineering hadn’t happened yet.  Namely: The Draining of the Fens.

Cambridgeshire, and East Anglia in general, is known as the Fens – marshy wetlands with lots of fish and fowl readily available.  The land around the fens is incredibly nutrient rich, and could provide exceptional soil for growing crops.  The Romans were the first to try some rudimentary draining techniques, but by the late middle ages all of their infrastructure had crumbled, and nothing remained of the reclaimed soil.  Additionally, the area was prone to floods, which could end tragically for anyone living there.

What life was like before the fens were drained

What life was like before the fens were drained

In Cambridge today people go punting on the Cam in boats with long sticks which they use to push off the ground of the shallow river, and propel the boat forward.  It’s a fun thing to do now – you relax in a boat on a Summer evening and enjoy the view of all the Colleges passing you by while drinking Pimms and eating strawberries and cream.  But before the fens were drained, punting would have been a much more common way of necessary transportation between villages.

The Earl of Bedford led the charge to build a system to drain the fens in the years leading up to the English Civil War, in the 1630’s.  He brought over a Dutch engineer,Vermuyden, and King Charles I supported it.  Oliver Cromwell, from Ely in the fens, would have been supportive if it wasn’t for the King’s involvement (politics trumped common sense even 400 years ago).  After Charles was executed, Cromwell magically saw reason, and went back to supporting the project.

Many Fenlanders were skeptical of the project, worried that their livelihoods were going to disappear.  They would vandalize the dykes, and find other ways to thwart the projects.  But by the end of the 17th century the opposition had largely fallen away, and the project was nearly completed.

Wind engines were originally used as the power source,, with their great sails scooping water up and across into higher drains. Later, steam pumps powered these windmills instead, followed by diesel and electric pumps as time went on. Over the years, as the Fens still kept sinking, new sluices were built and drainage is now mechanical.  In 1947 none of the drainage measures in place could cope with terrible flooding, and many parts of the Fen land were completely flooded.