The Fens, that great chunk of eastern England extending from Boston in Lincolnshire right down to Cambridge, encompass some of the most productive farmland in Europe. Give or take the occasional hillock, this pancake-flat, treeless terrain has been painstakingly reclaimed from the marshes and swamps which once drained into the intrusive stump of The Wash, a process that has taken almost two thousand years. In earlier times, outsiders were often amazed by the dreadful conditions hereabouts, but they did spawn the distinctive culture of the so-called fen-slodgers, who embanked small portions of marsh to create pastureland and fields, supplementing their diets by catching fish and fowl and gathering reed and sedge for thatching and fuel. This local economy was threatened by the large-scale land reclamation schemes of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and time and again the fenlanders sabotaged progress by breaking down new banks and dams. But the odds were stacked against the saboteurs, and a succession of great landowners eventually drained huge tracts of the fenland – and by the 1790s the fen slodgers’ way of life had all but disappeared. Nonetheless, the Lincolnshire Fens remain a distinctive area, with a scattering of introverted little villages spread across the flatlands within easy striking distance of the A17. Several of these villages are distinguished by their imposing medieval churches – St Mary Magdalene’s in Gedney and St Mary’s in Long Sutton for example – and their soaring spires are seen to best advantage in the pale, watery sunlight and wide skies of the fenland evening.
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Heading south from Lincoln, it’s about seventeen miles to the A17, which runs east across the Lincolnshire Fens bound for King’s Lynn. En route, it slips past the scattered hamlet of GEDNEY, where the massive tower of St Mary Magdalene intercepts the fenland landscape. Seen from a distance, the church seems almost magical, or at least mystical, its imposing lines so much in contrast with its fen-flat surroundings. Close up, the three-aisled nave is simply beautiful, its battery of windows lighting the exquisite Renaissance alabaster effigies of Adlard and Cassandra Welby, who, in death, face each other on the south wall near the chancel.
There’s more ecclesiastical excitement just a mile or two to the east of Gedney in LONG SUTTON, a modest farming centre that limps along the road until it reaches its trim Market Place. Here, the church of St Mary has preserved many of its Norman features, with its arcaded tower supporting the oldest lead spire in the country, dating from around 1200. Look out also for the striking stained-glass windows. Long Sutton once lay on the edge of the five-mile-wide mouth of the River Nene, where it emptied into The Wash. This was the most treacherous part of the road from Lincoln to Norfolk, and locals had to guide travellers across the mud flats and marshes on horseback. In 1831, the River Nene was embanked and then spanned with a wooden bridge at Sutton Bridge, a hamlet just two miles east of Long Sutton – and a few miles from King’s Lynn. The present swing bridge, with its nifty central tower, was completed in 1894.