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Margins of the East Fen: Historic Landscape Evolution


If you send drafts of papers to the editors of academic journals then their referees often give the impression that they are thinking "where?" Away from the increasingly well-connected city of Lincoln, most towns are small and non-touristy Grimsby's fishing industry has largely gone and Skegness is increasingly reliant on static caravan-users in a short season. The railway from Grantham via Boston to Skegness survives as a sort of post-Beeching miracle and east of Lincoln in Lindsey there is about 2km of dual carriageway, between Gunby Corner and the turn to Ingoldmells. Boston has grown better-off on the intensive agriculture of its hinterland and is culturally diverse but in general it is interesting that 'East Lindsey' was for a time on the government's list of places needing regeneration via a casino.

Within East Lindsey, the territory around Wainfleet, extending south towards Wrangle, east into Croft, north along the Lymn and west into the East Fen is a part of this region. For the purposes of this work this block of land and water has been called "South-East Lindsey" and referred to as SEL.

One likely consequence of being on the side-lines has been a relative paucity of systematic historical research for the period before the 20th century. Studies of the evolution of the post-Roman landscape of the stretch of terrain bounded by the Wolds, the Lincolnshire Marsh and the ridge of dry land from Keal to Boston (as seen for example from Tattershall Castle's roof or the churchyard at West Keal) exemplifies this tendency. True, the medieval history of Boston (in the 13th century high among the kingdom's major cities) has been investigated, as has the Roman influence upon the layout of Horncastle; Spilsby has a statue of the unfortunate Sir John Franklin (1786 - 1847). The great stretch of the East Fen, now one of the high-production agricultural heartlands of the EU, was of great interest to the renowned Sir Joseph Banks (1743 - 1820) but he never wrote anything systematic about it. There are sets of papers from local historians, excavations of Roman, Saxon and Medieval sites, and references in the major regional history series but detailed work on place-names has not been published for the Wapentakes of Candleshoe and Skirbeck. The major exceptions to these largely isolated studies are the relevant publications of the Fenland Survey Project (1981 - 1989), which although rooted in prehistory include material on later times. The Project did not reach north of the Holland-Lindsey boundary, however, and so part of the East Fen, the coastal parishes as far north as Ingoldmells and the fen-marsh marginal parishes like Little Steeping and Bratoft were not explored.

The same gap in systematic treatment is true, not surprisingly, of Wainfleet, the largest settlement in the area. It has been of interest to local, regional and national historians, of course. Stukeley thought in 1776 that there was an important Roman town, probably a port, which he decided was called Vainona and the Ordnance Survey was sufficiently convinced of the idea to include it on its 19th century maps, and to label the footpath along the crest of the Tofts from Wainfleet to Wrangle as a Roman Road. The knowledge that Wainfleet had been a port of sufficient consequence to contribute three ships to one of Edward III's wartime fleets has spawned attempts to locate the actual harbour; the assignment of a royal charter in 1458 and the building of Magdalen School in 1484 by William of Waynflete (1398 - 1486, Bishop of Winchester and founder of Magdalen College Oxford), has focussed attention on aspects of the town's history. Yet there has been little or no attempt to link these phenomena outwards, as it were, to the surroundings: to the evolution of the coastline which must have been critical for the foundation, maintenance and decline of the port for example. Nor to its relation with the East Fen which in its unreclaimed state presented opportunities in the shape of resources like summer grazing and wild foods but also disasters as a source of floods. In all this, the management of water and in particular the control of the river Lymn, bearing the runoff from part of the southern Wolds, was important. The regional landscape was to a large extent defined by water.

The present work is an attempt to give some shape to the evolution of the landscape around Wainfleet and the northern part of the East Fen between Saxon times and about 1750 AD. It is important to emphasize this approach since it does not claim to be a thorough economic history, still less a chronicle of the landlords and major families, albeit both will come into the narratives presented. Rather, it keeps asking 'where?' (was that dam, did the drains go, was the peat dug from?) and what would a contemporary map have shown? Can we make a decent reconstruction using today's maps as a base? Is it possible to draw a series of summary maps that show how the modern landscape has evolved from a starting-point of an embayment of the Wash dominated by salt-marsh and fresh-water fen? That this is a opus in progress is emphasised by the fact that the maps are sketch-maps of a working kind and not finished cartography: there is usually more work to be done on them.

Obviously, the answer here is a 'yes' although an admission of sketchy information for some parts of the story is necessary from the start. Nowhere is this more so than for the town of Wainfleet All Saints itself. Documentary evidence for its site, situation and function has mostly to be inferred from accounts of other places such as Boston, and from commands issued by royalty, the earls of Lincoln and sheriffs which had a wider remit (such as Commissions to look into sea-banks) and occasional wills and probate enquiries. Apart from a thirteenth century set of regulations for the port and the decline acknowledged in the 1458 charter, the town and its organization is virtually absent from the documentary record. Court Rolls exist but deal with individuals and their payments, and the monastery of Bury St Edmunds has a number of relevant charters but the town as we now see it forms something of a Wainfleet-shaped hole in the documents. Somehow, the relevant archive of a key manorial owner or owners (the Kime family, the Earls of Lincoln, the Duchy of Lancaster and Bardney Abbey are all possible candidates) has disappeared off the scene rather than into the store-rooms of the British Library, the National Archive or the Lincolnshire Archives. If any reader knows better then we need to hear about it, even though the news will be likely greeted with some annoyance.

The original intention of this work was to focus on the origins and development of the town of Wainfleet and to move out from there as far as was needed to provide additional data and explanations. In the event that ambition was difficult to fulfil in any narrow sense but yet led to other data and information of considerable regional interest. So like many a research project, the result is different from what was envisaged at the outset but still close enough to the theme to be offered a public airing.

One constant has been the area under consideration. In most accounts Wainfleet stands on the border between the Lincolnshire Marsh to the north, the East Fen to the west and the coastal marshes bordering the Wash to the south. Yet as a look at an OS topographic map such as the 1:50,000 series or at a satellite image of the region shows a rather more complex situation. Because of the linking effect of the Lymn (before and after the New Cut in the nineteenth century) then the edge of the Wolds is part of the regional scene, for example, and south-west from Wainfleet to Wrangle there is a line of raised silts called the Tofts which are a distinct landscape element. The picture can be complicated by noticing that in both Lincoln Marsh north of Wainfleet and in the parishes to the south of the town (Wainfleet St Mary, Friskney and Wrangle) there are large areas more or less devoid of medieval settlement: great empty areas with only large modern agricultural production units forming the built environment. So while the town of Wainfleet has been the starting point for the present studies, it connections have reached well outside the boundaries of the urban fabric of both past and present. For example, at least until the eighteenth century the East Fen acted as an unpredictable store of water that might flood much of the Low Grounds to its east; the Wolds contributed much of that water and from the 12th century the routing of it so as to maximize its utility in the town was of concern to the Lords of the town; the build-up of salt waste on the Tofts (even if it was not their prime cause) created new cultivable land; the reclamation of salt-marsh south from Skegness brought new lands but also made the channel of Wainfleet Haven ever less useful to shipping. The sand dunes of Seacroft also acted as a shelter for the accumulation of salt-marsh in Wainfleet St Mary, on the south side of Wainfleet Haven.

Another set of boundaries relates to time. At the early end, it would be possible to gather up what is known about prehistory (as was done so thoroughly for areas to the south by the Fenland Project) and add in the known and speculative Roman data and then broaden out into documented times. To give some greater coherence to the narrative however, it was decided to start more or less when the Romans withdrew. The Roman period in the Fenland in particular is of great interest and significance and has thus attracted a good wedge of scholarship; but any additions to the knowledge base are most likely to come from archaeology, and digging is not an option here. The late Roman period (ca 4th century AD) carries another marker, for it seems to have been the time of a rise in sea-level. Quite how widespread this was in eastern England is not agreed by all the relevant workers but there seems to have been enough stratigraphy from the Late Holocene to suggest a marine incursion into the embayment now occupied by the region of current interest so that tidal waters would have reached around some of the marsh hummocks like Hogsthorpe, around the foot of the Burgh mound and against the Wolds at Halton Holgate, East Keal, and the highest parts of the Sibsey ridge. Horncastle is often put forward as a coastal military installation. The embayment might have been open to the Wash or be sheltered by a set of sand-bars and there is general agreement that the coastline north of Skegness stood some distance (estimates vary from hundred of metres to as much as 4 - 6km) east of its present location as late as medieval times.

This formation of land and sea seems to make a good place to begin: a kind of tabula rasa in natural terms which is mirrored by the coming of a new culture in the form of Germanic peoples,1 for whom the general term is 'Saxon' and who having passed a no doubt rough-and-ready citizenship test are usually called 'Anglo-Saxon'. After the Adventus Saxonum there is no single boundary-making event or process which might act as a cut-off point. As with most histories, the density of material gets higher as the present approaches and in a landscape approach to the work the earliest maps of the Ordnance Survey might be a blanket datum-line. However, again to make a more cohesive narrative the story has been allowed to fizzle out sometime about 1750. This allows mention of some of the first major reclamations of salt-marsh either side of Wainfleet Haven and a tentative look at the role of windmills (then called 'engines') in the drainage of low-lying ground outside true fen. Although coal was by then in use for domestic purposes and small-scale industry, the full regional impact in the shape of steam-powered pumps was yet to come. So the concentration is upon pre-industrial times. Within the bracket of AD 500 - 1750, emphases tend to vary with the density of documentary evidence: the Bethlem archive has a good number of charters from the fifteenth century for instance. There is no doubt more evidence in Domesday Book (DB) than is easily extracted by anybody except the scholarly equivalents of George Smiley.2 Material such as aerial photos and detailed OS maps are in a sense time-free since their patterns are usually interpreted with a hypothesis in mind, in contrast to the purer observation of a Latin text.

All these matters are considered in more detail at an appropriate point or if necessary in Appendices. Section 4 is devoted to the nature of the source material used in later sections and so can be omitted by those familiar with their use. For many readers however one or more of the techniques and sources will be unfamiliar and so it is hoped that this exposition will be useful. If nothing else it may expose deficiencies in the understanding of the author.

New Publications

Because the web format does not allow easy insertion and renumbering of footnotes, a few publications are noted below which are of recent origin and are useful in a general way rather than at a definite point in the text.

For the North Sea Area and its Margins

G. Bankoff, The 'English Lowlands' and the North Sea Basin System: A History of Shared Risk, Environment and History 19, 2013, 3-37.
R. Van De Noort, North Sea Archaeologies: a Maritime Biography, 10,000 BC to AD 1500, Oxford: OUP 2011.

S. Ooshuizen Tradition and Transformation in Anglo-Saxon England: Common Rights and Landscape, London:Bloomsbury Academic, 2013
E. Thoen + 6 others (eds),
Landscapes or Seascapes? The history of the coastal environment in the North Sea area reconsidered, Turnhout: Brepols 2013, CORN publication series 13.

Sea-Level changes

B. Cracknell, "Outrageous Waves". Global Warming and Coastal Change in Britain through Two Thousand Years, Chichester: Phillimore, 2005.
R. Duck, This Shrinking Land. Climate Change and Britain's Coasts, Dundee: Dundee University Press, 2011.

The Fenland

I.D. Rotherham, The Lost Fens. England's Greatest Ecological Disaster, Stroud: The History Press, 2013.
C. Gerrard and artists, The Great Fen. Artists for Nature in England. Langtoft: Langford Press, 2006.

1 P. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire, Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, Historu of Lincolnshire vol 3, 1998; K. Leahy, Lindsey: The Archaeology of an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, Charleston SC: The History Press, 2008.
2 As in D. Roffe, Domesday. The Inquest and the Book, Oxford: OUP, 2000, and Decoding Domesday, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.