Monday, 25 July 2016

From Punt to Plough (Book)

I've just finished reading From Punt to Plough by Rex Sly, subtitled A History of The Fens. We have lived in the Cambridgeshire Fens since 2004 and I had previously read bits and pieces about the fens, but this book provides a much fuller history.

Written by a farmer, it takes a farmers point of view, which is fair enough as it was his ancestors who shaped the fens as we know them today. From the early days of scraping an existence from the land, which was invariably flooded, up to the present day when the area represents one of the most important agricultural regions in the country.

It is a story of man's battle with nature as he attempted to drain the fens to provide rich arable land, and how nature didn't concede easily. It's a story of engineering, of wind-driven pumps, steam driven pumps and modern diesel and electrical machines. It's a continuing story, as the drained fenland sinks and increased urbanisation increases the outflow of water into the catchment areas, requiring a constant re-evaluation of the capabilities of the pumps and the drainage system to cope.

And, of course, there is the more modern conservationist phenomenon of wanting to restore parts of the fens back to their original state, something a 'fen man' finds hard to understand given the efforts and sacrifices made by his ancestors to recover the land in the first place.

It is a very interesting book that explores the influence of the church in early management of the fens, then the crown, and then the 'adventurers', people who we would perhaps today call entrepreneurs, who were prepared to invest in schemes to release land where the risks of failure were always present. Unlike the modern day investors who often have little or no interest in what they're investing, other than whether or not it will offer a quick return.

The Fens may look plain and uninteresting, but they are far from it.

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