Ramsey and District U3A


A warm welcome to all our members

Our chairman, Enid, was unable to attend so our vice-chairman, Sheila Gilbert-Hill, took over her duties for the afternoon. Usual safety notices were read out. Sheila then reminded members that the Christmas meeting will be for members only and tickets were on sale today and would be available again at the November meeting. The party is Festive Frivolities and a buffet would be served on arrival so she suggested that members did not have lunch before coming. Any dietary requirements were to be advised prior to the event. There will be in-house entertainment and a quiz.

April 12th to 16th 2018 the Holiday Group have planned a trip to the bulb-fields, a deposit of £75 per person to reserve a place. If you would like to join the trip see Enid/Terry Hubbard.  Also from 11th to 14th September 2018, the Holiday Group are planning a visit to France to visit WW1 sites.  The approximate cost is £500 and again see Enid/Terry for further details if you would like to join, then a £10 non-refundable deposit will be required. Our September trip will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of WW1, so hotels are booking quickly for this period.

Sheila then introduced our speaker for the afternoon, researcher, lecturer and historian Mike Petty MBE to talk to us on Taming the Fens.  Mike explained that he had been a lecturer at Cambridge University and an historian for 50 years from 1964-2014.

Mike went on to explain how the people of the Fens made their living off the land and were very inhospitable to outsiders.  At the time of King Charles a lot of the wealthy people wanted to become landowners and were certain they could drain the Fens.  A map showed the Fens in 1574 with two rivers, one from Cambridge to Littleport, which then divided into lots of little ditches and the Great Ouse from Bedford to Earith, which then headed north out at Wisbech.  They decided they would build a channel that linked the two rivers.  It was John Popham who first had this vision.

In order to drain the Fens they needed a workforce to dig the 20 mile length from Earith to Wisbech, which later changed to King’s Lynn.  Although the fen people at first did not want to work for the landowners, once they agreed to pay them to work they agreed.  Finally the work was done and they let the water in, and it burst the banks.  It was a disaster and the fen people did not get paid.

Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England. He was commissioned by the Crown in the 1650s to drain the Fens, introducing the innovation of constructing washes, to allow periodic flooding of the area by excess waters. An unintended consequence was the shrinking of the peat as it dried, resulting in a drop of land levels below the rivers and drains, and renewed seasonal flooding.  Hence water on the field could not get away so wind pumps were put in at the end of the 1600s and wind mills were seen all over the Fens.  Drainage eventually failed and in the 1830’s investment was put in for the development of steam-powered pumps and the landscape became dominated by big chimneys.  However, the more the land is drained the more it shrinks and it is purported to shrink the height of a man in the life of a man, i.e. 50 inches in 50 years.

Where two rivers meet there will always be a build-up of silt, clogging up the rivers and by the 1930s the pumps could no longer maintain the rivers as was needed and diesel pumps came into operation.  At Ramsey Forty Foot on the Forty Foot Drain there is a very good example of a wind-powered, steam-powered and diesel-powered pump sitting side by side.

The landscape of the Fens has always been a battle of the banks and for the main part the battle has been successful.  In 1939 Poland invaded and we found ourselves at war. The Fens were invaded but this time by children sent out from London who knew nothing of the Fens.  Large areas of fenland were concreted to construct airfields which were required to fight the war, the areas of flat land assisting the heavy bombers to get airborne.  Denver Sluice is the lynchpin of the Fens and we were extremely lucky that Germany never attempted to bomb it and flood the area.  However, in 1947 nature did this for itself.  It was a bitterly cold winter and the soil had frozen, which was then snowed upon.  When the snow melted it had nowhere to go as the soil was frozen and over 100 square miles of Fenland was flooded.  Families were told to ‘flit’ as tidal water was coming in from King’s Lynn and the bank at Over had burst and water flooded the land washing over the roofs of the bungalows.  Army tanks had to be used to make a dam and pumps were brought in from Holland to help take water out to the rivers and claim the land back.  Buildings were destroyed and had to be rebuilt; some farmers had crops the following Spring, but others were not so lucky and had to accept charity.  Major work on another sluice, the Tail Sluice, built at one end of the Cut Off Channel which was dug from Denver to King’s Lynn following the 1947 floods.  Soil is also changing as it not only evaporates but gets blown away in Fen blows durin

Fenland farming is undergoing a revolution. Hundreds of acres of rich, black soil that has been nurtured by generations of farmers with the assistance of wind pumps, steam pumps, diesel pumps and – now – electric pumps are growing not crops of sugar beet, celery or wheat but sunshine.  Looking from the hides at Kingfisher Bridge you can see in one direction buzzards, in another lakes full of duck and herons and in a third long grey rows of solar panels. Nature still ultimately controls flooding and we should learn lessons from the past;  listen to those who are still alive today and who remember the 1947 floods.  Despite all the technological improvements to the Fens we should not be complacent.


The competition letter was T and 1st place went to Mary Dockerty with her group of Traps and 2nd place went to David Cusworth with a Telephone taken from the Meldreth railway junction when it was automated.

Mike Lewis with many thanks to Jane Cusworth for taking notes