THE FEN COUNTIES
 BETWEEN the counties of Lincoln and Norfolk there is a
broad inlet of the sea called "The Wash," and round
its low marshy shores lie the "Fens," which stretch far
inland into the three shires of Northampton,
Cambridge, and Huntingdon.
Soil which is always soaked with water is a /en, or, as
it is more often called, a bog or a marsh; indeed, the
name Fens only belongs to this one great eastern %
level, which stretches fifty miles north and south and
twenty or thirty inland.
The Fen country is dreary indeed to people who are used
to hills. It presents a dead level everywhere,
stretching away to the far-off horizon. There is never
so much as a hedge to vary the scene; nothing but the
straight, gleaming water-lines, often broad and deep as
rivers, which cut and score the country in every
direction. These are the dykes or drains, which are
bordered by high green turf-banks. Here and there is a
windmill or a steam-engine to pump up the water into
the dykes, in which it often rises higher than the
surrounding land. Long lines of pollard willows, all
just like one another, stretch away upon these banks by
the never-ending dykes. Where hedges should be, waving
sedges hide the water in the broad ditches which part
field from field.
Dull as you would think the country from this
description, the view from any of these same dyke-banks
on an autumn day, a bright, sunny day, is simply
 glorious. You are in the midst of a wide sea of golden
corn or of deep green pasture, which stretches away out
of sight on every side. There are patches of barren
swamp, the haunts of coot and heron, where reeds and
rushes grow and wildfowl swarm; but, on the whole,
there is no richer land in England, no land which bears
more bountiful crops of goodly corn. Certainly there is
no part of England where man deserves a better harvest
or does more to earn it; for Nature, if left to
herself, would make all this precious land, which now
brings forth bread for thousands, a soaking bog, into
which a man might sink to his neck.
This fen country is not only very flat, but it lies
very low, hardly a few feet above the sea-level. Low
shores slope down to the Wash; they are so low at the
east end of it that the sea would come in were it not
kept out by earthen mounds. This piece of Lincoln is
called Holland, or hollow-land, like the Holland over
the sea, where the people have even more trouble to
keep their heads above water.
The four rivers, Witham, Welland, Ness, and Ouse, which
flow into the Wash, find very little fall in the land
to help their waters on. You know how much easier it is
for water to run off a slope than off a level. Thus the
rivers are very slow in carrying their own proper
waters to the sea; and when heavy rains come they
overflow their banks, and the Fens are flooded.
There is one other reason why this fen country is wet
and spongy. If you have ever made mud pies you know how
nicely they hold water—that it will not soak through.
The surface of the Fens is covered with dark brown, or
black, crumbly peat, composed chiefly of decayed leaves
and branches. This peat, which
 makes the very best soil when it is properly dug and
looked after, lies in a mud pie; that is, there is a
layer of clay underneath it through which water cannot
pass. Now you can understand why the Fens should be so
swampy: the water cannot flow off because the land is
flat, has so little slope; it cannot sink far into the
earth because the clay holds it. So there it would lie,
filling the peat en the surface, and making the whole
country an unwholesome swamp, but that men come to the
aid of Nature, and make ways for the water to escape.
All the wonderful dykes which cross the land everywhere
are channels which have been dug for the waste water to
fall into. Through these it at last finds its way to
the sea; and, drained in this way, this eastern level
is no longer a swamp, but a most fertile district.
In the Saxon days, and later, much of the Fens belonged
to rich abbeys; the monks drained the land, and the
vine, and corn, and abundance of all good things
rewarded their labour. In those days a great deal of
"English history" took place in these flat fens.
By-and-by, after Henry VIII. had turned the monks
adrift, the dykes and" drains got out of order, and the
mouths of the four rivers became choked up so that
their waters could not escape. The sea-banks were
neglected, and the sea broke through; and the whole
district became full of stagnant pools and spongy
earth, unwholesome and useless.
A great part of the Fens, measuring forty miles each
way, and including a part of each of the five Fen
counties, is called the Bedford Level. Francis, Duke of
Bedford, in the reign of Charles I., thought it a pity
that so much good land should lie waste, so he got some
other persons to join with him, and they formed
 a company for raising banks and digging dykes in the
Fens. The Old Bedford Eiver and the New Bedford Biver
were both made by this company. They run side by side,
a mile apart; they are both twenty-one miles long, and
the New River is a hundred feet wide. Countless drains
have been cut since these were made, called learns,
cuts, dykes, eaux, or droves.
The northern half of Cambridge, as well as part of
Huntingdon, is in the Isle of Ely, which is not an
island out in the open sea, but was called an isle
because all round it there were once rivers or
waterways. A wild, out-of-the-way tract it was at one
time, which only those who knew the way through the
marshes could get at. The Great Eastern Railway carries
you through the Isle now, and the only sign left of the
old wild marshes is that the whole island is cut up by
dykes into four-cornered fens, each fen bearing the
name of the village or town close by.
Crowland, in Northampton, was once upon such another
island, only a much smaller one; and to it, as well as
to Ely, many a tale belongs.