The fens were once a mysterious world apart; a vast land of water and peat bogs splattered with tiny islands where the only way to get around was by lone punts and other such water craft. A silent world, in which other worldly mists eerily swirled in and out of the lives of the fishermen, fowlers and reed cutters as they endeavoured to walk about on wooden stilts when the waters rose dangerously high. Even now long after the draining; the fens do seem to remain a world apart, open, flat, peat blackened and with dykes and embankments that weave their way silently across a ghostly landscape. The feel of a once vast water world still lingers on in the collective memories of today’s fenland folk and many tales are told of witches, sprites, boggarts, will o’the wisp and other strange folk. The many strange place names of the fenland towns and villages that often suggest the ‘ways of old’ seem to have their own tales to tell, tales still waiting to be told. Echoes of the past are everywhere and often time itself appears to have stood totally still. But what of the fenland people themselves and the real, often hard lives they once lived? I hope to be able to give you an insight, a brief glimpse into the winter customs and traditions of the fens.

The Icy Fens

The Icy Fens

At the turn of the last century it was still a hard way of life in the fens, with little or no luxuries, especially at Christmas. Home made paper chains and holly would decorate the sparse rooms at Christmas and piles of logs filled the hearths and the rooms would always have a smokey air about them. It was always crisply cold outside and everyone huddled around the crackling hearth after a long hard day working on the land. Christmas trees; if you could afford one, and many couldn’t would be decorated with sugar mice, fir cones, and even tiny real candles on metal clip holders. Lots and lots of shimmering tinsel would be hung over the tree, something the children always loved doing and even clumps of cotton wool were scattered on the branches to imitate snow. The aroma of fresh pine filled the household but one never dressed the tree before christmas eve and on coming downstairs on christmas morning, gasps of delight would fill the house as the children of the household caught first site of the glittering bedecked tree. It was as if a magical winter fairyland had indeed appeared before one and all. Homemade cakes and puddings filled the kitchen shelves and the luxury of the day would be a box of dates, a dish of nuts, an orange or an apple, all washed down with ginger wine. Usually the Christmas dinner would be a goose or a chicken, plucked and fully prepared in the home kitchen on Christmas Eve, after the children were sent early to bed. It was nothing unusual in those days for the women folk to be up to their elbows in giblets! On Christmas evening the pleasures were simple – lots of roast chestnuts, hot mince pies and a cup of cocoa whilst playing dominos, draughts and the good old favourite, I Spy.

The Yule tree

The Yule tree

A hard fenland winter always meant good skating though and 1814 was one such a winter, when the usually sluggish River Cam became a beautiful sheet of smooth, shinning ice, all the way down to Ely. It was a strange sight to see the skaters in their caps and gowns on their steel propellers, whirling away under Clare Hall, Gerard’s Hostel and Trinity Bridges, their usually formal gowns streaming out behind them. The fens used to produce some of the finest speed skaters in the country and anyone who has lived in the fens for a long time will no doubt be familiar with the tradition of fen skating. These events were an important event and regularly drew huge crowds and according to a local newspaper report of the time, over six thousand people gathered on Whittlesey Mere on the Monday after Christmas in 1840, both to skate themselves and to watch 16 of the best runners of the day compete for the prize money of £10. An exciting event in every ones eyes, mark my words. And the only accidents reported afterwards were damaged noses and darkened eyes in consequence of fouling or the skaters running into each other!

The little fenland village of Welney boasts the honour of having the fastest speed skaters of all time. All of them having learnt their art on that swampy piece of ground known as Welney Wash. In the 1890’s skaters came from as far afield as Norway and Holland. In those days the winters certainly lived up to their name and produced enough ice each year to last long enough for the fenland skaters to acquire great skills and Cambridgeshire was indeed an ideal nursery for skaters because of its many long, open stretches of water. And the fen folks would often use the ice to go about their daily business, especially when the roads so often became impassable. What a breathtaking sight it must have been to see these skaters flying over the ice at a speed of nine or ten miles an hour as part of their daily lives. Indeed the ice became a lifeline; linking village to village and skaters could easily cover forty to seventy miles a day. My own grandfather who hailed from Wicken was also a fenland skater, indeed a champion of his day. His rusty old skates, left hanging on a hook in the back shed, would have been taken down and worn again with pride as he honed his skills by skating all the way from Wicken in the fens all the way down to the River Cam in Cambridge.

Fen Skating

Fen Skating

Many more tales are told of the fenland skaters and of individual achievements and of weeks and weeks of solid frost – what would we make of it now I wonder and just how would we cope? It somehow seems kind of fun to get the chance to try this almost forgotten fenland sport. Interestingly enough, the very cold winter of 2009 through to 2010 again saw the revival of the fenland skaters. For the first time in decades the fens froze over allowing skaters onto the ice in areas such as Earith in Cambridgeshire. Long forgotten skills were revived and skaters who thought they would never experience the thrill of the open ice again took out of storage their old skates and found themselves competing with old and young alike again for the title of speed skater of the fens. Let’s hope then that this tradition along with many others continues to make a welcomed return every few years, thus keeping alive the unique history of the watery fenlands.

Old Father Christmas

Old Father Christmas

Researched from “A Fenland Christmas” by Chris Carling (incl. exerts from Celia Dale, Mabel Demaine, Revd H I C Blake, Frances Collinwood) Compiled with many extra personal childhood and family reminiscences and research from ‘yours truly’ J