Ivan Watson, denseness history here on the eastern edge of the British Isles of the of the North Atlantic archipelago, there lies the Fed. Well, they used to lie, in fact, still kind of like the fence. One of the last great wildernesses in England. We've systematically drained inclosed, brought under the plow and turned into arable land through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Now, to go there, you wouldn't believe that they'd once been a giant Delta River delta full of birdlife and and other kinds of flora and fauna.
There's still a wonderful place to go, but it can feel like a fairly sterile industrial agricultural setting. Now, on this podcast, actually thrilled to have James Boyce is a multi award winning Australian history, but he used to live a long time ago on the edge of the fence. He's got a personal connection with it as well. And he makes these fascinating comparisons between the colonization, the eradication of of of native life and and practices in the fence and what was going on in the rest of the world, as well as the European imperialists stretched their reach across the globe.
This is such a fascinating book. It's a fascinating topic. I hope you enjoy this podcast. If you want to go and watch programs about the early modern period, there's plenty on TV. It's like Netflix for history. You just sign up history at dot TV, a small subscription. All of it goes on. The amazing programs are producing at the moment. We got several in production, too many in production. It's been quite a busy few weeks.
Lots of new programs coming up, lots of new podcasts. So please head over there. If you use the code pod one, pod one, you get a month of freeing a second month for just one pound euro dollar. So please enjoy this podcast with James Boyce.
James, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Oh, thanks for having me, Dad. There are so many people listening to this podcast in the U.K. and around the world who won't know about the phone. Tell me what they would have looked like a thousand years ago and their scale. Yes.
Well, even if you visited the fence, you might not know what they look like, even even 200 years ago. I mean, they were they were the last lowland wilderness of England, a vast wetland area of a million plus acres in eastern England. The rivers of central England used to to to where I still do that flow into the wash in the North Sea. But that happened before the drainage occurred. They used to become like a delta, perhaps.
I mean, if you imagine images of the Amazon, you're probably closer to to what the Fens was like than the time ordered agricultural landscape. It is now. The rivers would all sort of form into a vast wetland marsh losing their way, meandering this way, and that the largest lowland lakes in England. So it was the waters would recede often in the in the summer months. So you'd have beautiful, rich summer pastures would form. And in the winter those areas would flood again.
There are always small islands, so we still remember them by the name. So people might have heard of Eyerly, the Isle of Ely, which is now still a beautiful cathedral town. It's called the Isle of Ely because it used to be an island. So these those areas were only just above sea level where the where the villages were. Most of the country was around at sea level. These days, a lot of it's below sea level, ironically enough, but it's kept dry and it's now one of the richest farming districts in England, a transformed land that we really that was drained before photography.
So we only know what it's like from the descriptions of it and from paintings, of course, and from poetry and other other forms of literature and to some extent from cultural memory. But it was a vast wetland wonderland, one of the while a landscape. I mean, the largest lake in England and was later was Whittlesey. Mia only drowned in the early 1950s, but that's that that that was one of the last parts of the fence that was lost was Whittlesey me better.
But there is an attempt at reclamation these days.
Now, if you're looking for Fenland now, it was a million acres. Is there anything left? There's over 99 per cent of the fence has been drained.
But there are you still get snippets and you can still I mean, in most of the water is gone. The rivers themselves have been tamed into what are effectively canals.
But you there are one of the earliest nature reserves in England, is there. That was that was preserved back in the late 19th century. But also this attempted restoration going on as I needed to briefly before, to reclaim only a small area, but ecologically significant area. But it's not only about water. I think what's left I mean, the people who live in the fence talk about the atmosphere of the place that's been preserved. It's the vast skies.
It's very different from other areas of England because of the the flatness, the feeling of vast open space, the feeling of the sky being all around you. I mean, it's still has I would say that the soul of the place is still there. And the waters, it's always been a sense of provisional landscape. And the waters are coming back in certain areas because of, you know, we can talk about later. But certainly environmental realities, it's no longer technology is no longer all powerful and all triumphant.
And people are having to learn again, as they've always done in this area, to live with the waters. So there's a sense of that relationship with the land that you have to have in that area is still there.
There's some fascinating Bronze Age archaeology from there with with cryonics people living on on sort of still stilted communities and dug up both. So and do we need to think of this Delta area? I mean, when when do we start having sources for it? What are the Romans what do the Anglo Saxon, the early, you know, early medieval paid, what do they make of this land? And is it tamed or is it considered wild and wilderness?
Well, it's it's there are the Romans. They do attempt some drainage, some drainage attempts, so it has a history through all the sort of famous invasions, if you like, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxon, the Normans, the the Vikings, they all sort of leave their presence in the area. I mean, one of the things we need to remember, I mean, people we have a sort of negative we carry certain negative associations with the idea of the swamp still in our culture to this day and think that that must have been a sort of fairly barbaric sort of area.
But most of human civilizations have actually emerged in wetlands. If you think of the Euphrates, you think of the Nile, you think of the Yangtze. Do you think in India as well? And it's not by coincidence because wetlands are a very rich, diverse food sources. So it's not you're just not relying on one one food source and you realize there's a whole variety of fish, fish and game and also farming, farming co-exist. I mean, we used to think that human human beings progressed from hunter gatherer through to farmer and there was some sort of stage of progress.
But of course, we're understanding now that the richest societies, the most the most culturally rich societies are usually combine hunter gathering and farming. And the two there's not some sort of sharp line between the two in human progress. And wetlands are perfect for that. So that they're in these these areas, like the defence going back thousands of years, you have farming and you have Hunter gathering and you have stable, secure food supplies which are support large human populations with with a good standard of living.
But they are also very good for defence, of course. So, I mean, these different invading groups come through. They're not easy to conquer. So you have this continuity of what I would call indigenous culture. So sure. The Romans come. Sure. The Anglo-Saxon scamps, you know, they we have the great movement into the fence of the great monastic houses as well, you know, through the Middle Ages, very famous monasteries set up there.
But the these people don't penetrate that far into the remote marshlands where you can see a continuity of culture. So it's not like the Romans come and then when then we start again and then the Anglo Saxons come and then we start again, that there's there's a lot more emphasis now. And what I explain in the book on the continuity of local people, ordinary people actually adapt, they resist, they accommodate, they do deals with, they benefit from.
Sometimes they resist, you know, these different series of invasions. And you have this remarkable indigenous culture that carries on through these through these different invasions. History is not just made by the invader. It's you know, we need to remember the agency of the local people and the people are adapted and know the land and know how to live with these waters are obviously in the best place to survive these different invasions.
Just hugely important is the fact that just across the North Sea there, you've got this other massive riverine estuary.
I don't know if that's a word. I like it, though, culture. I looked at a map of Holland, the coast of Holland, 500 years ago, and it is unrecognisable to today.
It's completely insane, isn't it? So I guess these two great estuaries facing each other and there was communication there. So when does everything is there is a or is there a particular sort of jumping off point for for the assault on this natural environment, on this space?
Yeah, well, the what happens in the 17th century is very different from whatever's what's happened before. And the Dutch, as you allude to, the key, they they've developed sort of new drainage techniques. But the other thing that's that central is the rise of the centralised state, the power of the of the English central government, because, you know, even though we talk about England before that and as we talk about other nation states starting to emerge, the reality for ordinary people living in in various regions is that they the national state doesn't mean all that much at that point.
Their primary identity and belonging, their primary loyalties, is it much more local regional level? But as as the national state starts, it starts to increase in its power. The Stuart Kings looking for new sources of revenue. And they they they do deals seek to do deals with with war, basically, they're sort of really Catullus. They're called adventurers who and some of the major landowners to drain the fins or drain big parts of the fence. And in return, the the the associated process, its drainage.
And it'll also be enclosure and enclosure in English. History, of course, doesn't mean just putting up a fence or a hedgerow. What it means is removing all the traditional customary rights over the use of that land and turning them essentially into private property in the modern sense of the word on the owner. I've got full rights over it. You haven't. You local people can no longer access the land without my permission. It's mine now. You know, if you're going to if you're going to farm it, you're going to be my tenant.
So this process of effectively privatisation of the fence goes hand in hand with drainage of the fence and is pursued by the by the Stuart Kings with some powerful local landowners basically doing a deal with each other. And this is fought this is resisted by the local people. It gets the story gets very complicated because the English civil war breaks out and people might might not know that Oliver Cromwell came from the fence. And Cromwell in this great dispute between the Stuart Kings and the and parliament that we know that broke out into war.
The fense become a major part of that conflict because the the the local people are so angry at their dispossession at the at the invasion of their land. I mean, it's a story of empire, really. I mean, it's it's quite interesting that this this year, it's you know, it's 400 years since the Mayflower departed Plymouth for the for the New World. It's the 400 anniversary that that famous departure of the Pilgrim Fathers. And this what was happening in terms of the conquest of the new world was also happening internally in England, the dispossession of traditional people through enclosure and in the Fens.
It's most noticeable because the because you do had this war of resistance by the by the commoners to defend their common rights, to defend their food sources, to defend their community. And they fight it in all the way indigenous people fight it. I mean, they they destroy the drainage works. They seek allies where they can find them, you know, whether that's initially in parliament, parliamentary forces or others. They use the courts. They use legal processes the same as indigenous people do around the world.
It's not just a case of armed resistance. So you get this multifarious forms of resistance. And in in certain areas, they're very successful. It's not all not all a complete failure in other areas. The those who are draining the land and enclosing the land win out and the struggle goes on in other forms.
But it's I mean, I'm an Australian historian. I mean, I've studied the frontier in Australia. And more in the similarities, though, we're just struck me. I mean, it was we I mean, just because these people are English, I mean, it does make a difference to be English. I'm not saying there's no difference between having a white skin and being Aboriginal. I mean, these all these different different contexts do matter.
But there are also many more similarities than is normally normally recognised between the story of empire.
These new father, Ted Stamps from my post are fantastic. You can use them to send anything. I'm going to send poor Mr Benson back as whistle Oh, no, I just couldn't I could send a letter to Father Larry. You can never get him on the phone. No, wait. I've got to attend a Father's Day card to Bishop Brennan. He'd love that. Send laughs and phone send off with Father Ted Stamps from your post office or on post.com slash father Ted Post for your world.
You think today you're doing it, the lottery isn't there and you are poor, you pick your numbers by just shaking your phone nice. And maybe then you think, well, if someone's going to win, why not me? Shake, pick and play with the new app, The National Lottery. It could be you play responsibly, play for fun.
That's a fascinating way of looking. I've never thought about that. But I was up in Durham and we were looking at the for the podcast. We're looking at the gigantic number of Scottish prisoners that were taken prisoner at the Battle of Dunbar by Cromwell kept in Durham Cathedral, which was deconsecrated the prison. You can still see the urine stains on the floor. And apparently many of them were then sent to the fence and their names survived. So they would they were taken as forced laborers in the enclosure.
Approach of forced labour is partly because they couldn't get the local people to do the work. So that was one of the one of the most effective forms of resistance, because, of course, in 17th century, this drainage work, digging these new these new channels, you know, these new new strike striking the rivers, basically, they're digging it out by hand and it's very labor intensive and the local people are refusing to participate and they actually do help some of those Scots escape as well.
It's quite hard to keep them at the task. I mean, it's this sort of landscape is not easy to subdue. I mean, effectively, it's forms of guerrilla warfare that are going on. I mean, during the during the under the cover of darkness, I mean, all sorts of destruction, all sorts of the drainage works could be filled in the you know, the waters can be laid out. They know the way the waters work. They can reach flood areas.
They can send cattle into the into the new into the new farmlands. You know, they can destroy crops with their animals. They can use arson fire. There's it's a it's a it's a pretty ferocious struggle. And Cromwell effectively sort of changes sides, really, the radical wing of the the English Civil War back the commoners that the people might have heard of, the levelers, these this more radical wing of the English civil war that Cromwell suppresses and that the parliamentary troops stationed in this area to try and assert order.
But the struggle goes on right through. And in some areas, the commoners reclaim the land, destroy the drainage works. Settlers are brought in colonizers. So the parallels with the new world are carried even further because again, the local people don't want to be the good tenant. Farmers pay paying the rent and they bring in, ironically enough, religious Protestant religious refugees from France and Flanders who are seeking the persecution by by their Catholic overlords. And they come in to be the sort of Calvinist Calvinist tenant farmers, much like the the Pilgrim Fathers are being over in the new world.
They're seeking religious freedom and they're seeking to sort of civilize the land is and the people that the local the local people of the fence are being described as savages, disorderly the land and the people are seen in need of redemption. So there's so many so many parallels between this story going on in eastern England and what and what is going on across the Atlantic.
When is the real I mean, presumably 18th and 19th century, they can start to get industrial on it and they the French start disappearing even quicker, do they? When is the period of maximum destruction?
Defence turns out to be a little bit different from Holland.
The Dutch engineers don't don't don't know the country as well as they think they do because the waters start to return. And the reason is because the rich peat that the Finns are famous for, this beautiful, deep, deep, rich pizza got meters down, which of course, so highly productive and turns it into, you know, the grows the crops so well. The problem is that this peat, when it's dried out, when it's exposed to the air, it decomposes and it starts to sink.
So the land literally subsides.
And that means that you do day to do more and more pump pumping to get the water out because it was only so marginally above sea level before it soon sinks below sea level. So by the end of the 17th century, the water it's a lot of these areas are starting to flood again. And so they bring in bring in, of course, windmills. But windmills during the course of the 18th century are not proving up to the task either. So the area is sort of turning into a lot of it is turning to mixed farming marsh area.
And it's really not until the steam power comes in in the early 19th century and then more and more powerful steam engines are developed during the course of the 19th century, that they finally achieve a victory or what seems to be a permanent victory over the waters. But the paradox of the fins that the more successful the drainage, the more successful you are keeping the waters out, the greater the problem becomes, the greater the subsistence becomes and the the the greater the energy costs.
And also, of course, the fertility of the soil declines over time as you lose more of the peat. So you have you have less productive land and higher energy costs. So it's the 19th century when they stay in power, when they believe they achieve a permanent victory. But I don't think there'd be too many engineers working in the fields now, local farmers or local people who would quite depict it in that way.
Well, and the ultimate paradox is, yeah, there is the is the carbon emissions of energy causing sea level rise. So there's many paradoxes.
Yes, it's a it's a circular. That's a really interesting point, Dan. And it's one that didn't occur to me so much when I was writing it. But someone was pointing out since as well that it's a sector that the industrial revolution, which seems to solve the problem, has also caused the rising sea levels, which is going to make ultimately we had to learn to live with the waters. There's not going to be. And that's what's happening.
I mean, there's some terrific projects like the Great Fynn Project, which is the the largest of the restoration work. And they're drawing on traditional knowledge. They're not it's scientific knowledge, certainly. And they're working with with engineers and in the scientists and the ecologists. But they're also looking back at how people traditionally lived with these waters. It's always been a human managed landscape. So certain areas are allowed to be being flooded at certain times of the year.
Rates are being cut at certain times of the year. Certain areas are being grazed at certain times of the year. And you have the they're trying to learn again. So it's not a case of some areas being returned to to to nature and some areas are being farmed. But how do you integrate these? How do you create a landscape that works for nature and that works for people? And, you know, so in this way, it's a microcosm of what we've got to do and as a planet, as you know, as human beings, of how we've got to learn to live with nature rather than trying to defeat the waters, how do we how do we live with these natural forces?
And that's the fences. That's always been how they you know, the indigenous people of the fence have lived in this area over thousands of years. And that's what we're learning to do again. So it's sort of a it's a work in it's a no, it's not like that. History has come to an end in the 19th century with these with these great super powerful steam engines and the draining of Whittlesey metre in in the early 1950s, which seemed to symbolize the end of the Fens.
So if you go to the phones today, those big, huge sweeping farmlands that are so famous, oh, they're massive pumps just pumping water out of those the whole time.
Yeah, they're having to.
So there's massive pumps working. It's a very sophisticated operation. I mean, it's quite amazing to walk in in it's a highly industrialized agricultural landscape. Much of it. I mean, still, the beautiful, traditional, beautiful old villages are still there and really cathedral still there and and the to walk in nice fields. And you say you look up, you can't even see the river because it's metres above your head, it's flowing above your head. And there's a whole series of drainage ditches and dikes and systems that really are getting the water from that ground level up into those rivers, which can be, as I say, a few metres above your head.
It's very strange, very strange to be to be standing in a in a field and not actually able to see the the water in the in the river flowing above your head. But obviously, the energy costs of this a significant and as you in the north as the North Sea is, is is in that area. That's the old land bridge across to Europe. I mean, it's only 10000 years ago that you could walk across there. So the the wash is quite shallow where these rivers drain into.
And so it's getting the water out is not straightforward. It involves it involves high energy costs. And while agricultural prices, food prices are high and they can afford that, that's. One thing, but, you know, we've also got the uncertainty, of course, in Britain of leaving the EU and some of those agricultural subsidies that farmers will have to adapt to that it's a very uncertain time to build a sea wall all around around the coast. But what's exciting, I think, is that it is, again, like what we're having to do in Australia here with the bushfires we're looking at.
I mean, people are going back in the history. They're talking to indigenous people. They're looking at how they lived with the reality of fire in this environment and how they did bushfire management. How do we live in this this particular piece of earth? Yes, in a time of rising temperatures, but also drawing on traditional knowledge as well as scientific knowledge. And that's that's what's going on in the in the Fens as well. So it's a it's a story of challenges, but also a story of inspiration and history.
I think you to know that people have cared for country and defended country and resisted the destruction of the country, cared for their home over, you know, over thousands of years. This is not something new that we're having today, not something that's just a 21st century challenge. We can draw on that ancestral memory, that ancestral knowledge in in the enormous struggles that we're facing today. I mean, what matters to me very much and what I've tried to do in the book is that not to write sort of technologically determinist history, it's sort of often this resistance to the drainage in history books has been written.
There's all these old fashioned country folk not, you know, not adapting to the modern times. It might have been unfortunate to lose this landscape, but it was always going to happen. In the end, progress was always going to win out. If history is not like that, these people were not just victims of an all powerful imperial state or just victims of the power of technology. I mean, in some areas they resisted the drainage for 200 years.
You know, that that's that's not a bad effort.
And it's in the way, you know, we can draw, we can draw, we can draw encouragement and strength from that story.
Well, amazing. Thank you very much. I feel encouraged and strengthened and I want to go and visit. I've been friends for a while and we go and visit now. So thank you. You've inspired me. You your book is called.
It's called Imperial Mud The Fight for the Fence. And I call it Imperial Mud because I do position the story in this context of empire. It what's going on in eastern England has so many parallels with what was going on in across the new world and the, you know, a present, the people as indigenous people caring for their country in relationship to their country. I talk a lot about the common what the common mate, which was much more than just certain rights.
I talk about relationship to the land, relationship to each other, again, something that's familiar in indigenous stories around the world.
Well, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Did you find in the history of our country. I want me to answer just a quick request, it's so annoying and I hate it when I just do this, but now I'm doing it. I hate myself. Please, please go into iTunes, where you get your podcasts and give us a five star rating interview. It really helps basically boost the job, which is good, and then more people listen, which is nice.
So if you could do that, I'd be very grateful. I understand if you don't subscribe to my TV channel understanding about my calendar, but this is free. Come on. Do me a favor. Thanks.