I know that the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are not to everyone’s taste, but I like them: the big skies, the big flat fields, the church towers on the horizon, the windmills, the drains and levels and rivers with their locks and sluices and pumping stations: the whole vast engineering accomplishment of it all. But they do have long boring roads, and visiting them once or twice a year is probably enough.
Martin Malins of East Grinstead Cycling Club organized a “Double Dutch” 200 km audax, starting at Huntingdon, and visiting March, King’s Lynn, Spalding and Whittlesey. He wrote, “This ride was inspired by two things; firstly my love of the flat terrain of the Fens in springtime and secondly by the Jonathan Meades 1997 TV documentary Even Further Abroad: Double Dutch which explores this unique region mostly reclaimed from The Wash by Dutch settlers who have left their mark in the landscape architecture and flora.”
The section from Stowbridge to King’s Lynn along the River Great Ouse was the highlight of the ride for me. On the low road through Wiggenhall St Mary Magdelen, looking up at the dike and realising how much of this rich farmland is slightly below sea level. Crossing the river and its parallel, canalised relief channel, watching the sun glint on the water. The cycle path behind the King’s Lynn power station along the top of the dike, with the two towers of St Margaret’s Church visible on the horizon.
The next section, up to Holbeach St Matthew, was a bit of a drag into the north-easterly headwind, but once we turned the corner we raced past the daffodil and tulip fields of Holbeach Bank with the wind at our tails.
Parts of Spalding are very Dutch: with a generous amount of imagination you could suppose that London Road, with its gabled houses lined up on both sides of a waterway (the River Welland) was in a suburb of Amsterdam.
South of Spalding there’s a very fine cycle path to Crowland Abbey that runs along a dike beside the River Welland. After Crowland, though, there was a long dull section on the B1040. When there’s 15 km or more to the next junction or landmark, the spirit starts to droop. But I guess this kind of thing can’t be avoided.
Incomplete list of waterways crossed or paralleled on this ride: High Lode; Forty Foot Drain; River Nene (old course) (twice); Sixteen Foot Drain; Popham’s Eau; Well Creek; Common Lode; River Great Ouse; Great Ouse relief channel; River Nar (twice); River Great Ouse (again); Nene outlet cut; Lutton Leam; Fleet Haven; Whaplode River; Moulton River; Moulton Mere Drain; Coronation Channel; River Welland (twice); New River; New South Eau; Thorney River; River Nene (new course); Delph Dike; Morton’s Leam; King’s Dike; Bevill’s Leam; River Nene (old course) (again).
The 17th century antiquarian William Camden described the fens before they were drained:1
Beneath Peterburgh the river Aufon or Nen, which by this time is gone from his spring-head much about forty five miles, and carrieth along with him all rils, brookes and land flouds occasioned by raine that hee hath taken into his chanels, is divided sundry waies. And finding no way to cary his streame, by spreading his waters all abroad in winter time, yea and otherwhiles most part of the yeare, overfloweth all the plaine country, so as it seemeth to bee nothing but a vast sea lying even and level, with some few Islands that beare up their heads and appeere above the water. The cause of such inundation the people inhabiting thereby alledge to bee this, for that of the three chanels or drains by which so great store of water was wont to be issued into the sea, the first that went directly into the sea by Thorney Abbey and then a part by Clow Crosse and Crowland, the second also by the trench cut out by Morton Bishop of Ely, called the New Leam, and then by Wisbich, have a long time beene forlet2 and neglected, and so the third, which goeth down by Horsey-bridge, Walesmer, Ramsey-mere and Salters-load, is not able to receive so much water, whereby it breaketh forth with more violence upon the flats adjoyning. And the country complaineth for trespasse done unto them, as well by those that have not scoured the said draines as by them that have turned the same aside to their private uses, and as the Reatines3 said sometime, so doe they, That Nature herselfe hath well provided for Mans use, in that shee hath given all rivers their courses and issues, and as well their inlets into the Sea, as their heads and springes.
There were, I think, around thirty cyclists on the ride,4 and it seemed like they all must have overtaken me, some several times. (Accurate navigation for the win!) The sheer flatness of the route (not a countour line to be crossed, except for short sections near the start and finish) meant that fixed gear bikes were out in force. I rode with Tony and Gary for much of the ride as far as Spalding (apart from a navigational disagreement near King’s Lynn), and then with the Hertfordshire wheelers for a bit. Tony kindly rode back to Cambridge with me along the guided busway.
I had 270 km (168 miles) for the day.
↩ From Britannia of 1607 (Northamptonshire §14). The English translation is from 1610, by Philemon Holland.
↩ Forlet, adj., left to decay [OED].
↩ The Reatines were the Sabine inhabitants of Reate in classical antiquity (now Rieti in central Italy). The allusion is to Tacitus, Annals 1.79 [bracketed additions are mine]:
A question was then [AD 15] raised in the Senate by Arruntius and Ateius whether, in order to restrain the inundations of the Tiber, the rivers and lakes which swell its waters should be diverted from their courses. A hearing was given to embassies from the municipal towns and colonies, and the people of Florentia [modern Florence] begged that the Clanis [Chiana] might not be turned out of its channel and made to flow into the Arnus [Arno], as that would bring ruin on themselves. Similar arguments were used by the inhabitants of Interamna [Terni]. The most fruitful plains of Italy, they said, would be destroyed if the river Nar [Nera] (for this was the plan proposed) were to be divided into several streams and overflow the country. Nor did the people of Reate remain silent. They remonstrated against the closing up of the Veline lake [now the Velino river], where it empties itself into the Nar, “as it would burst in a flood on the entire neighbourhood. Nature had admirably provided for human interests in having assigned to rivers their mouths, their channels, and their limits, as well as their sources. Regard, too, must be paid to the different religions of the allies, who had dedicated sacred rites, groves, and altars to the rivers of their country. Tiber himself would be altogether unwilling to be deprived of his neighbour streams and to flow with less glory.” Either the entreaties of the colonies, or the difficulty of the work or superstitious motives prevailed, and they yielded to Piso’s opinion, who declared himself against any change.
↩ There were 42 finishers, more than I counted, but according to reports on yacf there were some late starters who didn’t get to Huntingdon until after 08:00.