Fenland folk

Words by:
Colin Smale (www.fotolincs.com)
Featured in:
November 2016

Think of the fens and fenland folk and you probably imagine mud, water, lofty reeds, winters of ice, snow, bitter cold and locals dropping like flies. Did they perchance have a dark secret?
The following is a description, a pretty bleak description, written by Sir William Dugdale (Dugdale’s Embanking and Draining) in the 1600s about the fens prior to their drainage and reclamation:
‘And if we weigh the great inconvenience which these overflowings have produced, certainly the advantage by the general draining ought the more to be prized; for in the winter-time, when the ice is strong enough to hinder passage of boats, and yet not able to bear a man, the inhabitants upon the hards and the banks within the fens can have no help for food, nor comfort for body or soul; no woman aid in her travail, no means to baptise a child, or partake of the Communion, nor supply of any necessity, saving what those poor desolate places do afford; and what expectation of health can there be to the bodies of men, where there is no element good? The air being for the most part cloudy, gross and full of rotten harrs; the water putrid and muddy, yea, full of loathsome vermin; the earth, spongy and boggy, and the fire, noisome by the stink of smoaky hassocks.’

Two hundred years later Macaulay (Macaulay’s History of England 1855) describes the inhabitants thus: ‘In that dreary region, covered by vast flights of wildfowl, a half savage population, known by the name of The Breedlings then led an amphibious life, sometimes wading, sometimes rowing from one islet of firm ground to another.’

Was it really like that, was it really so desolate because if it was, those poor wretched folk must have died in droves! Delving into the historic records, I get the distinct impression that it suited those wily fenmen and their families to give the rest of the world the impression that the fens were dank dismal places where nobody would want to live willingly and especially not want to visit on ‘official business’!

I wondered, while reading those dreary accounts, if the writers had actually visited those places in midwinter? Did they imagine, from the comfort of their own glowing fireplace in some London abode over a glass of Madeira that that must be what it is like simply because they lived in such a different world of shops, warm fires, servants and warming pans?

Let’s just reconsider those ‘images’ they and we may have of Fenland Lincolnshire. Those families that had lived there for generations were well used to nature’s life-cycle, of the seasons and what each season could provide.

We know they had ‘boats’ – boats have been used there since the Bronze Age. They were surrounded by tall phragmites reeds, perfect for thatching; they had peat, reeds and washed up trees and timber for fires; fish and all manner of wildfowl to eat; many of them kept horses, cattle or sheep, so there was wool, hides, milk and cheese as well as wholesome meat and I just wonder if they also had a few tasty rabbits on that grazing land? Their cattle and sheep must have had decent grazing during the summer months and so these knowledgeable fenmen would surely cut and store some of this fodder to feed their beasts during the hard winter months.

That outpost, Fenland England, especially in the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, was absolutely buzzing with mammals and birds. Imagine the egg harvest they had from such birds as swans, common cranes, plovers, redshanks, spoonbills, oystercatchers, godwits, ruff, terns… Beavers were plentiful up until the sixteenth century and of course there were otters.

Some, like William of Malmesbury did know how prolific the food was there but for some reason this news got ‘buried’ in myth and rotten harrs! In the Domesday book of 1086, William of Malmesbury wrote: ‘here is such quantities of fish as to cause astonishment to strangers.’

Oh yes, life for those shrewd fenland folk was pretty darn good compared to many others in ‘olde’ England, no ‘poor laws’ or workhouses for them, no children up chimneys!

If these fenmen could build wattle and daub walled houses and thatch the roofs with reeds that were all around them then they could easily make barns to house their livestock during the wintertime. There would be willows growing there for sure and it would be very simple for them to make fyke traps to catch fish, as has been practised since the Bronze Age and still goes on today in small pockets off the east coast.

If elders (Sambucus nigra) grew there (and I cannot imagine they didn’t), they would surely brew elderberry wine for the soul and elderberry syrup to fend off colds in the winter? Those ‘poor’ fenland families were rich in local knowledge and even richer in the quality of life that those ‘townies’, many living impoverished lives could not even imagine. These fenmen could make boats, nets, fish traps, traps to catch wild birds and many of them had guns.

During the nineteenth century some of them had punt guns which could dispatch a flock of swimming duck/geese or a feeding flock of plover in one shot. It was quite normal to kill at least fifty birds with one shot and sometimes as many as ninety! If, after a day’s hunting you come home with fifty duck, geese or swans that inevitably means you don’t have to risk your life out on the marsh in a small boat very often, maybe only three or four times during the whole of the winter.

In the sixteenth century Bishop Godwin wrote of Lincolnshire: ‘Lincolnshire may be termed the aviary of England for the wild-foule therein, remarkable for their plenty, variety and deliciousnesse!’

So let’s part those musty cobwebbed reeds of time and take a peek at the fens from around the tenth century. Abandon all your modern technology, your iPads, radios and televisions and just listen… can you hear them, can you hear on the wind those winter visitors arriving high above you on a thousand wings? Who on a cold winter’s night has not heard those enigmatic calls of wild geese and not felt the hairs on the back of their neck tingle with some kind of primeval excitement?

Those calls never fail to move us; haunting evocative sounds that take us right back to the beginning of time. Imagine what they meant to the fenmen, they must have sounded like a dinner gong!

Even before they had guns they would have been able to catch good numbers of geese and birds of all kinds with clap nets. They had all manner of nets and traps including those famous duck decoys. According to Bishop Godwin, ‘three thousand mallards with “birds of that kind” have been caught (netted) in one single draught.’

I imagine here they were using decoy ponds and dogs. These were huge netting funnels and were permanent structures used each year. A brown dog usually named ‘Piper’ (resembling a fox) was supposed to go into the netting tunnel and the ducks/geese would go after it. As the tunnel narrowed, the birds were trapped.

If they were catching duck in such large numbers then surely they were taking them to market, bartering them for things not available on those ‘rotten harrs’ such as gunpowder or cooking utensils?

Fenmen would have of necessity been acute observers of nature, they had to be; they would mark the regular feeding spots of flocks of geese and return later with their nets. Birds such as geese are creatures of habit; if they have found a good food source then they will return daily until that source has gone. Very quickly they would set up a pair of clap nets or wait with their gun and conceal themselves until the geese return. Although I have no proof, I feel sure that they would have fashioned some decoy geese from reeds, to further entice the geese down to where they wanted them.

It was not only geese that fell prey to the clap net, they would also catch cranes, ducks, plover and even flocks of larks which they would entice from the sky with a lark glass sometimes known as a ‘lark mirror’.

Never heard of one? That is because they have gone out of use, their design and use has almost been lost to the mists of time. Herein lies a contemporary story that truly divides today’s generation from that past.

I wanted to find a lark glass to photograph it. I put the word out and eventually discovered that there was one in The Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln, the perfect county to find one of course. The curator, Sara Basquill, was so enthusiastic and could not have been more helpful. She emerged from the museum’s ‘innards’ with rather a large cardboard box about two feet square.

She carefully unpacked it and immediately it was obvious that someone in recent times had attempted to lovingly restore it but either had little or no idea how it actually worked, or had not passed that information on. The wooden roof shaped section on the top with the embedded small mirrors was clearly well used and totally original but that was as far as it got as this object was presented, all the rest of it was new wood.

You will notice a small peg which, when pulled, spins the top section making the mirrors flash like bird’s wings in the sunlight. Those three black steps were never a part of it but although still not original, the upright with the metal spike that sits on top would have been much like the original. That spike would have been rammed firmly into the ground so that when the fowler pulled on the string it would not fall over, which it certainly would have done if it had been sitting on that block. The little peg would have been a loop in order to tie on the correct length of string, depending on how far away the fowler was hiding from the lark glass. The museum staff were not sure how this actually worked and so understandably but mistakenly assumed that although some of it was new wood it was all accurate and was used ‘as seen’.

We discussed at some length how it might have worked and now they are having a rethink about it’s current presentation. See how one generation can lose touch with another generation and how history can be lost?

So how did the fowler use this? Open areas of pasture attract large flocks of larks, buntings and finches during the winter months. These small birds make a fine meal, as we know from our contemporary European cousins! The lark glass would be placed out in the open while the fowler hid in some undergrowth, gun by his side. When he heard or saw a flock of birds coming he would gently pull on the string and the mirrors would flash like fluttering wings and the flock would whiffle down in range of the gun or a pair of clap nets.

Its action is probably better understood when described as a ‘horizontal yo-yo’ inasmuch as when the string had been pulled out, momentum and the skill of the fowler allowed the string to re-wind, so he did not have to show himself by re-winding it.
Of course the length of string would depend on how far away from the lark mirror he was hiding.

The dimensions of this lark glass are fourteen inches across by seventeen inches high.

Let’s examine some of their other trapping items to better understand how they achieved success. The clap net is a rectangular panel of fine netting that was tied between two sturdy poles under tension and laid flat on the ground. Used as a pair, each net was held down with a wooden peg on the end of a line. When the line was pulled the nets were released, one side flew over slightly before the other one. The reason for this was because when birds take off they always take off into the wind and so the first net would be upwind of them. When the net rose the larks/buntings would fly up and into the wind to be met with this net coming over them and so some of them would quickly about turn and head the other way but by then the second net was about to envelop them but there would always be some that still escaped.

The size of the clap net was arbitrary depending on the quarry, which could be anything up to the size of geese. It may have been as small as 12ft x 6ft for larks or as large as 30ft x 15ft or even more for those larger birds. It could be used singly but is much more likely to have been used as a pair because as one net on its own springs up into the air the birds take flight away from it but if two nets are used then they are caught in the middle.

In my late teens and early twenties I used to go wildfowling on the Lincolnshire marshes during the winter. One day I came upon a fellow wild-fowler who had obviously seen a great many winters. He began to recount stories of his life on the marshes and I found him fascinating to listen to. Suddenly he looked up and I saw a flock of lapwings coming our way.

“They used to be fair game and good eating,” he whispered and then he said: “watch”.

As the flock flew up the estuary he whistled them. It was a quavering downward trill that in no way resembled the call of the lapwing whatsoever but wouldn’t you know it, they all banked over and headed toward us. They came well within shot but of course no shot was fired thank goodness. However, I am so glad I came across that gent. That call he showed me that worked so well is not a thing that can really be written down in words but I pass it down the generations so that at least the information link is still there, albeit fragile.

Considering the wide variety of food available to these families, let me reveal a foodie truth not known to many here in the UK. Of course taste is subjective but the sight of some things can be a turn-off and the very idea of eating an eel is horrific to many folk today but let me assure you that very little tastes better than skinned fried eel. Once skinned and cut into chunks and fried, they are absolute heaven to eat.

The fenmen could easily make eel traps from the willows that grew there but here’s another trick to catch them and show how easy it is to catch them. Stuff a sack with some straw, leave the mouth of the sack half open, weight it down and leave it in the dyke for a few hours. When you return, grab hold of the end of the rope and quickly haul it up out of the water. It should have a few eels in it; eels love to squirm about in there for some reason but you will have caught yourself a lovely meal. Sadly, today, eels are not as numerous as they once were.

So those old fenland families, those ‘breedlings’ had warm dry homes to live in, plenty of wildfowl, fish, meat, eggs and they could even sell their surplus food for the few items not found there. They would have been well aware of what life was like in the towns. Would you have let on how well you lived in those days? Would they have swapped their lives for a townie’s life?

Sadly but inevitably the face of the fens finally changed after 1762 when Parliament decreed the fens should be drained and reclaimed and so another page in history is turned but on a cold winter’s night, you can still be transported back in time to the sounds of those wild geese under the moon.

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