Category: Local History

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 (or so it seemed) 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, ispy.

The Yule tree

The Yule tree

My own personal memories of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, was of decorating our real christmas tree bought from Ely market or the local greengrocers; they always smelled so fresh and the whole house permeated with the refreshing smell of pine. I remember decorating our tree, which always stood in the front room, in front of the window. The front room in those days was always kept ‘for best’ so one always knew it was a special occasion when it was time to dress the tree. I remember dressing the tree with pink and white sugar mice and glass colouful baubles and icicles; we used real candles on the tree in those days, in metal clip-on candle holders, although i dont really remember actually lighting them! I remember covering the boughs of the tree with old fashioned shimmerng tinsle strands and slewing cotton wool balls all over it too. Paper christmas angels lovingly created at school were also placed upon the tree. Of course we children always enjoyed making our own decorations, including seemingly miles and miles of paper chains all stuck together individually by us children working hard at it in the kitchen. The best decorations however, were always saved for the front room. I remember that front room always being so chilly and the smokey smell of ‘coke’ fuel wafting around the room as it slowly warmed up, all being a part of those christmas memories.

In those days the ladies of the house always gutted and prepared the christmas bird, usually chicken or goose, themselves and we children delighted in being horrified at the bloody site of our mother being ‘up to her elbows’ in giblets and blood! I do remember one time that my Nan visited from London and seeing both Nan and Mum in the skullery plucking frantically away at a large white goose, while the skullery floor grew thick with feathers! All this sort of thing would have been carried out on christmas eve. I rememember too the sausage rolls and mince pies cooking and of course on christmas morning the smell of the christmas bird in the oven and all the wonderful herby aromas.

We placed gifts from friends and family tantalisingly around the base of the tree and were always allowed to open just one present on christmas eve, which we did with great excitement and anticipation. Upstairs though we hung up a large white pillowcase at the end of the bed and also one of our own knitted knee-socks. I always loved to recieve books and painting materials, and i remember two of my best ever presents being my wind up Hornby train set and my conjurers set. It was a simpler time in those days, but very precious. In our little knitted stocking we would find small gifts, chocolates, nuts and tangerines; these items simple in themselves always seems so magical and precious on christmas morning.

Nan and Grandad from London were often with us in Ely for christmas, yet Dad often arrived late for christmas dinner, as he worked at Ely Sugar Beet Factory and this time was the busiest time of the year, for it was the time of the sugar beet ‘campaign’ and dad worked shifts as did all the workers there.  They worked hard on the sugar beet harvest and there were no special compensations – christmas or no christmas! For a tea-time treat mum often made a snowman out of an old preserving croc; she would cover it with sheets of cotton wool and created a round head out of cotton wool with a hat on it, for it. She would then fill it with extra treats for our annual tea-time lucky dip whiich was all great fun. In the evening i remember toasting chesnuts on the open fire on the old black coal shovel and watching them hiss and burst! The adults and older children drank egg nog, while the younger ones corona, and we enjoyed a feast of dates, nuts and tangerines; only usually obtained at christmas time!. Of course there was no tv in those days but we did have a radio and thrilled to the seasonal dramas which usually included a good old childrens drama. If we were to play games it would have been ispy, passing the parcel or musical chairs. All in all on looking back they were very simple days, but very, very magical and special days too. There was a tangible ‘feeling’ in the air on christmas day in those far off childhood times. I dont know if it was because i always saw the magic in everything, but what i do know is that i picked up on the magic at the time and remembered the magic as it was, not just as a rose covered memory looking back. Simple time yet very precious times that somehow seem to be from another almost forgotten world these days…..

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


From the ‘Keeper of Scrolls’

Updated December 2019

The Lord of Misrule Holds Court

The Lord of Misrule Holds Court

Revivals of old customs are not restricted to modern times. The ‘Lord of Misrule’ had his heyday in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when he presided over the revels lasting from All Hallow’s Eve until Twelfth Night. In Cambridge in 1868 a somewhat sedate revival of this tradition was held in the Guildhall.

The Invitation:


Thursday, January 2nd, 1868
In the Holly Bower with Yule-Log and head of Boar
will he keep his Festival.

Before him will his lieges take their merry pastime, bells will they jingle, puppets will they play, carols will they sing, at the Quintain will they tilt; in wonder may they be dissolved.

To Shovel Board, to Fox and Goose, and to othere ye games of ancientry and joyaunce does he invite his guests.

In the midst of his Court will rise a tree of marvellous fruit, from whose branches, in place of leaves, gauds and gems shall spring, the droppings whereof shall be transformed into work of cunning craftswomen.

To revive the energies of his liege-men and servants, the Lord of Misrule will provide drink from China, berries from Ceylon and flesh of pig
The charge to prepare this Festival is given to the Wardens, Sidesmen and their fellows of St Michael. A tribute of One Shilling current coin of the realm will be demanded. None will be allowed to enter the doors of the Hall who cannot produce a pass to certify that the tribute has been paid.

Whereas, moreover, the Christmas Tree of the Lord of Misrule produces wondrous fruits, he recommends that the other coins be brought in the pocket, that exchanges may be effected, and memorials of the Yule festival of 1867 be preserved by his lieges.

The Festival will commence at six o’ clock.

The Event (as reported by the Cambridge Chronicle)

The Soiree and Christmas festival announced by St Michael’s parish took place in the Guildhall on Thursday evening. The entertainment was of a novel kind and thoroughly Christmas-like; there was a Christmas jollity on the platform; there was a Christmas air pervading the audience; there was a decidedly Christmas savour in the refreshment stall, and in the boar’s head which graced the table; even the dissolving views were on Christmas subjects.

With over six hundred people present, the entertainment was altogether a great success. From six o’clock till seven the audience promenaded to the strains of an excellent band provided by Mr Sippel, and in investing current coins of the realm at the Christmas tree and at the stall for the sale of an abundance of pretty and useful articles, eagerly pressed by the young ladies, who proved themselves such capital saleswomen, in fact perfectly irresistible.

At seven a procession of singers marched on the orchestra where had been erected a spacious bower for the reception of the Lord of Misrule. His lordship took his seat, with the hobbyhorse and dragon on either side, the lady singers, all similarly habited in Christmas costume, being on the right, the gentlemen on the left. His lordship delivered an appropriate prologue, inviting his guests to partake in the revels, and was followed by an exceedingly good selection of carols, very well sang. This, we might say, was the principle feature of the evening.

Then the spectators were invited to various games and to a Marionette Exhibition, but unfortunately, owing to the sudden indisposition of the young lady who was to have worked the puppets, the exhibition could not take place.

Another selection of music followed and a festive collection of dissolving views concluded the entertainment. We should mention that the Revd. G Weldon and the Senior Churchwarden of St Michael’s gave two short readings which were, we fear, very indistinctly heard. Nevertheless, the whole affair was extremely well managed and reflected great credit on all concerned.

(Taken from Cambridge Chronicle, 4th Jan 1868 as featured in “A Fenland Christmas” by Chris Carling)

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