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England - In The Lincolnshire Fens

( Originally Published 1910 )

BE-COBWEBBED as is the face of England with railway lines, there still remain a few tracts of land where the steel net-work is less closely woven. This is notably the case in that triangular corner of the south of Lincoln-shire known as the Fens.

Taken as a whole, that county is less familiar to the native or the visitor than any other district of England. Save for its capital city, and an isolated town here and there, Lincolnshire stands either strangely outside the pale of intimate acquaintance or is known only to be mis-known. Especially is this true of the Fens. Notwithstanding the spread of knowledge and the increase of travel, nine persons out of ten still probably labour under the delusion that " to live in Lincolnshire means little short of floundering in a swamp and shivering with ague." It is beyond question that " the Fens have obtained a world wide notoriety; and a general, though very erroneous, impression prevails among those who do not know the county, that this part of Lincolnshire is a dull and dreary land, to be avoided by all except those whom necessity or the calls of business compel to visit its unattractive scenery."

How tenaciously an ill reputation persists ! Today's opinion of the Fens is little more than an echo of that entertained successively by the Roman and Norman conquerors of Britain. Judging from casual remarks in Tacitus and other writers, when the Romans descended on Britain this district was little more than a vast morass with a few scattered islands on which the Fen folk passed a semi amphibious existence. No wonder the district became a camp of refuge for the Britons. The hunted Britons, as Marcellinus records, " not dwelling in the towns but in cottages within fenny places, compassed with thick woods, having hidden whatsoever they had most estimation of, did more annoyance to the wearied Romans than they received from them."

Centuries later the Norman invaders were held at bay as their Roman forerunners had been. When William the Conqueror had all the rest of England at his feet, the Fens remained unsubdued. " What the rock and defile were to the mountaineer, the reed field and mere were to the Fenman his home, the source of his subsistence, and his defence in seasons of oppression or misfortune." Hither, then, as to a final stronghold, resorted the last Saxon defiers of the Norman invaders. " This land," as Dugdale noted, " environed with fens and reed plecks was impassable ; so that they feared not the invasion of an enemy, and in con-sequence of the strength of this place, by reason of the said water encompassing it, divers of the principal nobility of the English nation had recourse unto it as their greatest refuge against the strength and power of the Norman Conqueror."

In the annals of patrotism there are no more stirring pages than those which tell how Here-ward, the last of the English, resisted the power of William the Conqueror in the Fens of Lincoln-shire. For seven long years, as Kingsley tells, he and his stout-hearted followers held their own against the Norman invader, and fought till there were none left to fight. " Their bones lay white on every island in the Fens ; their corpses rotted on the gallows beneath every Norman keep ; their few survivors crawled into monasteries, with eyes picked out, or hands and feet cut off ; or took to the wild woods as strong outlaws. . . . But they never really bent their necks to the Norman yoke."

Romans and Normans, then, had good cause to hold the Fens in abhorrence. But that the evil repute of those far-off times should persist in these changed and peaceful years is inexcusable. All those qualities which made the Fens an ideal refuge for the oppressed have dis-appeared. Long centuries ago they were dyked and drained, tilled and fenced, until now they have " a beauty as of the sea, of boundless expanse and freedom. For always, from the foot of the wolds," continues Kingsley, " the green flat stretched away, illimitable, to an horizon where, from the roundness of the earth, the distant trees and islands were hulled down like ships at sea. The firm horse-fen lay, bright green, along the foot of the wold ; beyond it, the browner peat, or deep fen ; and among it dark velvet alder beds, long lines of reed-rond, emersed in spring and golden under the autumn sun; shining river-reaches ; broad meres dotted with a million fowl, while the cattle waded along their edges after the rich sedge-grass, or wallowed in the mire through the hot summer day. Here and there, too, upon the far horizon, rose a tall line of ashen trees, marking some island of firm rich soil. Here and there, too, as at Ramsey and Crowland, the huge ashes had disappeared before the axes of the monks, and a minster tower rose over the fen, amid orchards, gardens, cornfields, pastures, with here and there a tree left standing for shade, ` Painted with flowers in the spring,' with ` pleasant shores embosomed in still lakes,' as the monk-chronicler of Ramsey has it, those islands seemed to such as the monk terrestrial paradises. Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the open sea; and what vastness gave, and still gives, such effects of cloudland, of sunrise and sun-set, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles."

Strangely enough, it was not left to Kingsley to discover the beauty of the Fens. Despite the popular impression that this district is " a dull and dreary land," it would be possible to compile an anthology in its praise. For example, so long ago as the twelfth century Henry of Huntington wrote : " This fenny country is very pleasant and agreeable to the eye, watered by many rivers which run through it, and adorned with many roads and islands." Earlier still William of Malmsbury described the Fens as " a very paradise and a heaven for the beauty and delight thereof, the very marshes bearing goodly trees. . . . There is such abundance of fish as to cause astonishment to strangers, while natives laugh at their surprise. Water fowl are so plentiful that persons may not only assuage their hunger with both sorts of food, but can eat to satisfy for a penny." Nor should the eulogy of Fuller be overlooked, whose quaint verdict runs thus : " As God hath, to use the apostle's phrase, tempered the body together, not making all eye or all ear, but assigning each member the proper office thereof, so the same Providence hath so wisely blended the benefits of this county that, take collective Lincolnshire and it is defective in nothing."

Naturally, neither of these encomiums touches upon just that characteristic of the Fens which has the most potent charm for the visitor today. All that Henry of Huntingdon, and William of Malmsbury, and Charles Kingsley have written in praise of the peculiar natural beauty of the Fens is strictly true ; here may be enjoyed as sunny skies, as clear starlight-nights, as gorgeous cloudscapes, as in any district of England ; but this peaceful, remote land has a more subtle attraction still. Nowhere in England is it possible to come into such close contact with a time and a people belonging so essentially to the past. " Between us and the old English," as Froude has remarked in sentences of rare charm, " there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive ; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of mediaeval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world."

Thanks to its aloofness from the outside world, which is guarded by the sparsity of railway communication, the Fen district of Lincolnshire knows little of the changes wrought by the passing of time. Here the centuries have followed each other in almost alterationless succession. Since those years, remote in themselves, when the Fens were drained, when these marshy acres were reclaimed from the dominion of wide-spreading waters, when the wayward rivers were restrained within high banks, and the haunts of fish and water-fowl were transformed into golden cornfields, the aspect of the country-side has known no change. For still longer years has this been true of the handiwork of man.

To visit Crowland in a sympathetic spirit is to step back into the vanished world of the old English. Even if the pilgrim makes such a concession to modern methods as to order his approach from the nearest railway station, that railway station is so inconspicuous, so slumberous for most of the day, and so soon out of sight and hearing, that the dominance of the present need not persist for long. As he traverses the miles of level Fenland that intervene it will be strange if his spirit is not rightly attuned for the unalloyed enjoyment which Crowland has in store. Far away on the horizon the tall grey tower of Crowland Abbey rears itself out of a verdant landscape, " a poem in stone, laden with ancient legend and fraught with misty history." Nor will the wayfarer fail to be impressed by that brooding silence which a sympathetic pilgrim noted as the most striking quality of the district. " On every side the level Fenland stretched broad as the sea, and to the eye appearing almost as broad and free; and from all this vast low- land tract came no sound except the hardly to be distinguished mellow murmuring of the wind among the nearer sedges and trees. The river flowed on below us in sluggish contentment with-out even an audible gurgle ; no birds were singing, and, as far as we could see, there were no birds to sing; and in the midst of this profound stillness our very voices seemed preternaturally loud."

On the waters of that sluggish river, however, the Welland which moves ever on to the sea between its weed and willow-veiled banks the eye which has gazed upon the past can behold the shadowy outlines of the barge which, nine centuries ago, bore the monk attended bier of Hereward to its rest in the minster of the Fens.

And on by Porsand and by Asendyke,
By winding reaches on, and shining meres
Between grey reed-ronds and green alder-beds,
A dirge of monks and wail of women rose
In vain to Heaven for the last Englishman.

Nor will the imagination rest on that picture as its remotest goal. Passing lightly over the years it will gaze back four other centuries, and recall how Guthlac, a brave yet gentle youth of the royal race of Mercia, betook himself hither that he might make his peace with God. Nigh twelve centuries have passed since this royal recluse found a biographer through whose vivid pages we can re-picture the " fen of unmeasured mickleness " to which Guthlac fled. " There stretch out unmeasured marshes, now a swart waterpool, now foul running streams, and eke many islands and reeds, and hillocks, and thickets, and with manifold windings, wide and long, it spreads out up to the northern sea."

Equally direct is the story this biographer tells to account for Guthlac seeking refuge here. With his dawning manhood there came the memory of the great deeds heroes had wrought, and he forthwith resolved to emulate their exploits. So Guthlac gathered to his standard a troop of daring spirits, and for nine winters he and his men ravaged the country far and wide. But suddenly there came a change. " It happened one night, on coming back from an outfaring, as he rested his weary limbs, that he thought over many things in his mind, and he was suddenly moved with the awe of God and his heart was filled within with ghostly love ; and when he awoke, he thought on the old kings that were of yore, who, through mindfulness of wretched death and the sore outgoing of a sinful life, forsook the world., and he saw of a sudden vanish away all the great wealth they had, and his own life hasten and hurry to an end, and he vowed to God that he would be his servant, and arising when it was day signed him-self with the sign of Christ's rood."

In such wise Guthlac became the founder of Crowland Abbey. At first he sought refuge in the monastery at Pepton, but, resolving to become an anchorite, it was not long ere he made enquiry as to some remote, desolate spot to which he could retire. At this juncture he met a Fenman named Tatwine, who painted an appalling picture of a secret island known to himself. Many had attempted to inhabit it, so Tatwine declared, " but could not for the strange and uncouth monsters and several terrors with which they were affrighted." Apparently Guthlac's interest in the place increased in proportion as Tatwine depicted its gruesome qualities, and the graphic describer was at length prevailed upon to convey the royal youth thither. It proved to be a small island in the heart of the Fens, and here Guthlac built himself a house and chapel, close to the site of the present half-ruined Abbey.

Guthlac took up his abode at Crowland in 697, and seventeen years later he died. If his biographer is to be believed, the " strange and uncouth monsters " resented his intrusion. Hardly had he built his rude hut than, " being awoke in the night time, betwixt his hours of prayer, as he was accustomed, of a sudden he discerned his cell to be full of black troops of unclean spirits, which crept in under the door, as also at chinks and holes, and coming in, both out of the sky and from the earth, filled the air as it were with dark clouds." Lest the sceptical should dismiss these unclean spirits as mere figments of the imagination, the biographer gravely records that they " first bound the holy man ; and drew him out of his cell, and cast him over head and ears into the dirty fen ; and having so done, carried him through the most rough and troublesome parts thereof, drawing him amongst brambles and briers for the tearing of his limbs."

But, happily, there is a brighter side to Guthlac's life at Crowland. If he had bad dreams, which were probably distorted recollections of the cruelties he and his band had inflicted in their lawless raids, he did not lack compensation. The ravens of the Fens were at his command, and the fishes and the wild beasts. When talking one day with his friend Wilfrith, two swallows suddenly flew into the room, and perching now on the shoulders and anon on the breast and arms and knees of Guthlac, filled the place with melody. To the surprised enquiry of his visitor Guthlac answered, " Hast thou never learnt, brother Wilfrith, in holy writ, that the wild deer and the wild birds were nearer to him who hath led his life after the will of God ? "

Nor was that all. In the less objective realm of spirit land the unclean monsters were met for Guthlac by radiant opponents. Especially was this so when he came to die. Though the " whirring arrow-storm " of death smote hard on the anchorite's spirit, a visitant of light enabled him to withstand the shock and fortified him for victory. Even his breath in that hour of trial was " as the blowing herbs in summer time, which each in its own stead winsome o'er the meadows, dropping honey, sweetly smell."

Two years after Guthlac passed away Ethel-bald, King of Mercia, built a monastery to his memory, endowing it with the island of Crow-land and the adjacent Fenland. Several centuries later, however, that building was destroyed by fire, thus making way for the present more enduring structure, the foundations of which were laid in the early days of the twelfth century. How greatly in the meantime the fame of Guthlac and Crowland had increased is evident from the fact that two abbots, two earls, one hundred knights and more than five thousand people gathered for the laying of the first stone of the new abbey.

Seven centuries have dimmed the architectural glory of Crowland Abbey. Although Cromwell was here in the early days of the Civil War, his presence being necessary to raise the siege of the place, for a rare exception he is not saddled with responsibility for the decaying condition of the building. That is probably accounted for by the flowing of the tide of life elsewhere. One section of the building is still in use as the parish church, but the glorious nave is a thing of the past, only the gaunt framework of its massive walls surviving to convey some suggestion of its spacious proportions. Time, too, has wrought havoc with the west front of the building, the tracery of one window having wholly disappeared and many of the surviving niches been denuded of their figures. Not-withstanding these irreparable losses, sufficient of this historic building remains to feed the imagination and enable it to reconstruct unforgettable pictures of a memorable past.

Besides, Crowland does not depend alone upon its Abbey for its power to project the visitor back into the vanished world of the old English. Within a stone's throw of the ancient minster, stranded high and dry in the main street of this remote little town, is a relic of the past the like of which can be seen nowhere else in the world. This is the celebrated tri-angular bridge, perhaps the most interesting curiosity in the annals of architecture. Some amusing and ingenious theories have been advanced to account for the erection of such a singular structure as a bridge with three arches having one centre for all. But the solution of the problem is simple. Long centuries ago the river Welland divided into two streams at this point, and as three roads converged here the old builders surmounted the difficulty by building an arch for each stream and combining the three arches at what should have been the apex of each. This clever device is of hoary antiquity ; a charter of the remote year 943 makes mention of Crowland's " triangular bridge " but the present successor of that novel structure was probably built in the fourteenth century. As the causeway over the bridge is only eight feet wide, and moreover exceedingly steep, it was obviously adapted for foot and horse passengers only.

Wander whither he will among the Fens of Lincolnshire the visitor need fear no disturbance of that sense of communion with the past which Crowland creates. Everything seems touched with " the golden stain of time." Even such a building as Gretford Hall, the mullioned windows of which have thrown their image into their watery mirror since the days of Queen Elizabeth, seems a modern structure in this land of ancient abbeys and churches and dwellings. No district in England can excel the Fenland for the beauty and age of its ecclesiastical architecture. Here a village will dis-play a parish church of the graceful early English period, there another keeps careful custody of a rural temple which dates back to Norman times.

Nor is it greatly different with the home dwellings of the Fen folk. Those who builded for these peaceful people built for the centuries. Generation after generation has known no other home than such as greet the wayfarer wherever he wanders. Something, too, of the quiet, confident stability of this unique country-side is suggested by the sturdy, centuries-old bridges which span the frequent rivers. These waterways also are a reflex of the lives spent by their reed-fringed banks. Under the summer sky, in the radiance of moon or starlight, and in the briefer gleam and longer gloom of winter days, their flowing to the sea is ever " without haste, without rest."

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