By Ruth Levene
Prior to drainage, the undrained fens in Lincolnshire held a rich and complex life and ecology: ‘Fen Slodgers’ were the fen dwellers of those times, described as:
“half amphibious beings who got their living by fishing and fowling”.
William Henry Wheeler in his book ‘A History of the Fens of South Lincolnshire’ (1896) goes on to describe them as
“liv [ing] in huts, erected on the mounds scattered amongst the chain of lakes which were bordered with a thick crop of reeds, their only way of access to one another and of communication with the towns and villages near, being by small boats or canoes, which they paddled along with a pole, and also used in their fishing and fowling expeditions. These men were violently apposed to any attempts to alter the state of the fens, believing they ha a kind of vested interest in the fishing and fowling, by which they gained their scanty subsistence. Although their condition was very miserable, they never the less enjoyed a sort of wild liberty amidst the watery wastes, which they were not disposed to give up. Though they might alternatively burn and shiver with ague, and become prematurely bowed and twisted with rheumatism, still the fen was their native land, such as it was and their only source of subsistence, precious though it might be.
The Fens were their commons, on which their geese grazed. They furnished them with food, thought the finding of thereof was full of adventures and hazard. What cared the fenman for the drowning of the land? Did not the water bring them fish, and the fish attract them wild fowl, which they could snare and shoot. Thus the proposal to drain the fens and convert them into wholesome and fruitful lands, however important in national point of view, as enlarging the resources and increasing the wealth of the country, had no attraction what so ever in the eyes of the slodgers. They muttered their discontent, and everywhere met the reclaimers with opposition, and frequently assembled to fill up the cuts which the labourers had dug, and to pull down the banks which they had constructed; and to such an extent was this carried that in some places the men had frequently to work under the protection of an armed guard. But their numbers were too few, and they were too widely scattered to make any combined effort at resistance” .
In A Field of Wheat, equal value was placed upon experiencing, doing, being and sensing Middle Field and its history as upon learning through facts. The collective’s members were invited to fling themselves over the cross drain that divides the field in two, as once a fenlander would have leaped it on his way to check his fish traps, bring in the eels, or perhaps attend a service at the church. We learned that this innovative form of navigation eventually became the olympic sport of pole vaulting.
Thank you to collective member Aldous Everard who kindly made us a pole of our own.