The Fens and Flooding

The plight of householders and farmers overwhelmed by the water on the Somerset Levels touched the hearts of everyone around the country. Yet despite the two months of record-breaking rainfall, the Fen Edge area appeared fairly normal. Was this luck or good planning?

Some of the fields looked very wet and there was a lot of mud around but you’d expect that after the rain we’d endured. But the eastern fenland area is an area of high flood risk, so why didn’t the water rise – and not drain away – as happened in the Somerset Levels? The circumstances are not the same, according to Cottenham resident Mike Mason. He believes the name of the Dutch drainage expert Cornelius Vermuyden should be engraved upon every heart in the Fen Edge.

It was Vermuyden who in the 1650s built dykes, new channels and sluices to drain the original marshes and meres which had extended from the coast to Cambridge and Peterborough. These works have been improved on over the centuries by pumping stations to lift water from the low level fens into the high level embanked rivers running through them, making flood protection more reliable. Mike, a county councillor for Cottenham, Histon and Impington with a history of involvement with drainage, is a member of the Anglian Central Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (CRFCC).

Flood and water management is a complex subject with wide variations in regional rainfall and river catchment characteristics. The pastures of the Somerset Levels cannot therefore be easily compared with the largely arable peat lands of the South or Middle Level of the fens. The Environment Agency report for January said this was the wettest month on record for the Bedford Ouse and Cam Catchments and the second wettest for Central Area overall.

While flooding in the fens has been avoided this year, the cost borne by the local drainage ratepayers and taxpayers will be high in terms of electricity and fuel costs associated with many hours of pumping. Flood defences at Kings Lynn and Denver sluice were severely tested and were actually breached at Lowestoft by the recent east coast tidal surge. We should not be complacent about the effects of climate change, says Mike.

Vermuyden’s motto on the crest of the South Cambridgeshire District Council reads “Niet Zonder Arbyt” which translates (from old Dutch) as “nothing without work”. As Mike says, the Fen Edge flood defence system is an example of that motto, so luck and planning and many years of capital investment came into it.

Wendy Dear