Tuesday, 11 Dec 2018

The Fens. East Anglia

The Fens

Years ago the Fens were marshes that flooded a lot, but when they were drained they became the most fertile land in Britain. They are flat, and here the challenge to the cyclist is from the wind not from hills, but the flatness creates a huge sky and an open horizon. They are also criss-crossed by a beguiling network of lanes, so many and so varied that as well as being a prescriptive route I hope this ride serves as an invitation to explore Fenland again later. The start is in Wisbech, the capital of the Fens and once a wealthy port, as you can see from the grand houses lining the River Ouse. The town’s history and wealth are based on Fen drainage, but there were those who objected to it, known as the Fen Tigers. They feared that the drainage would change their way of life – which it did, but it was a hard and brutish life.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 1

The Fens. East Anglia

Holland had shown that drained marshland could be very productive, so the Earl of Bedford set Cornelius Vermuyden to work on draining vast areas of his land. The locals sabotaged much of Vermuyden’s work during the Civil War, but when Oliver Cromwell took over the country at the end of the war he redoubled efforts to drain the Fens and created the landscape we see today. The ride heads for the Wash, crossing the Ouse at Sutton Bridge, which can be busy with traffic, but then you return to the quiet, winding lanes. These wander around the Wash, where the salt marsh looks very much how the whole of the Fens used to be.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 2

The Fens. East Anglia

Today the Fens are about agriculture on an industrial scale, but what is grown here has changed in recent years. Holbeach and Spalding once produced vast quantities of cut flowers, tulips mainly, in a business that rivalled the Dutch and was celebrated each year with parades of floats decorated with tulips. The parades still go on, but with tulip petals, a by-product of bulb growing, which is the focus of the flower industry here now; and in some years, crêpe paper has to be used instead. The vast, colourful fields of May tulips have been replaced by sugar beet, potatoes, rapeseed and other staples.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 3

The Fens. East Anglia

The next section goes south towards Peterborough, but on your way look left to the network of tiny lanes east of the crescent formed by Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. I didn’t put them in this ride because a route would be too complicated to describe, but they are the true Fen roads. Narrow, straight, accompanied by water, they link the Fen villages and fields, a fine tracery on the map with just a few preserved windmills dotted around them. Windmills operated the first drainage pumps before steam engines and diesel took over. Now electric-powered pumping stations keep the Fens relatively dry. Most fields are below the level of the roads, too, and in places they are below sea level. This happened because as the peaty soil dried, it shrank, and because it shrank below the level of some rivers, their embankments had to be built higher, leading to the classic Fen scenery.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 4

The Fens. East Anglia

It is scenery that has captured many minds, including those of authors such as Charles Kingsley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Philip Pullman, as well as local storytellers, in whom the flat landscape, mists and mystery inspired supernatural fantasies. The Fens are full of ghosts, strange tales, and things half seen and half imagined. Head north-east on the B198 from Wisbech town centre and turn left just before the A47. Follow this road to Walpole St Andrew, where you turn left and then right to the A17. Turn left onto the A17, and at Sutton Bridge go straight on at the roundabout and then turn right. Follow this road through Guy’s Head to Gedney Drove End, where you turn left onto the B1359. Follow this road to Gedney, and at the roundabout turn right onto the A17. Turn left onto the B1515 and ride to the centre of Holbeach.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 5

The Fens. East Anglia

Turn left onto the B1168, then right onto the B1165 and follow this road to Spalding. Ride through Spalding town centre, then follow signs north to Pinchbeck. Turn left in Pinchbeck on the B1180, then turn left onto the A151 and continue straight at Pode Hole, where the A151 bends sharp left to the A16. Turn left on the A16 and cross three rivers to turn right at the roundabout on the A16. Turn right and go through Crowland on the B1166 and follow this road to Market Deeping. Turn left at Deeping Gate, go through Northborough and follow signs to Waterfowl World, where you turn left onto the B1443. Turn right onto the B1040 at the A47 junction and ride through Thorney to Whittlesey. There, turn left onto the A605 and follow this to the A141. Turn left onto the A141, then left onto the A47 and first right onto the B1187. At Parson Drove turn right onto the B1166 and follow this road until it joins the B1169 back into Wisbech.

The Fens. East Anglia - photo 6

The Fens. East Anglia

Start and Finish. The Fens: Wisbech
Getting There. The Fens: Wisbech is on the A47, 19 miles north-east of Peterborough. It has a rail link with Peterborough through March, and with Cambridge through March and Ely.
Bike Shop. The Fens: The Bike Shop on Market Street
Cafe. The Fens: The Marina Cafe in Harbour Square
Local Delicacy. The Fens: Fenland celery

“Best 100-Mile Bike Routes”

Chris Sidwells

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