A certain sadness is pardonable to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction bring blessings to the human race. Reason and conscience tell us, that it is right and good that the Great Fen should have become, instead of a waste and howling wilderness, a garden of the Lord, where
‘All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,
Smells of the coming summer.’
And yet the fancy may linger, without blame, over the shining meres, the golden reed-beds, the countless water-fowl, the strange and gaudy insects, the wild nature, the mystery, the majesty–for mystery and majesty there were–which haunted the deep fens for many a hundred years. Little thinks the Scotsman, whirled down by the Great Northern Railway from Peterborough to Huntingdon, what a grand place, even twenty years ago, was that Holme and Whittlesea, which is now but a black, unsightly, steaming flat, from which the meres and reed- beds of the old world are gone, while the corn and roots of the new world have not as yet taken their place.
But grand enough it was, that black ugly place, when backed by Caistor Hanglands and Holme Wood, and the patches of the primaeval forest; while dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon, where the coot clanked, and the bittern boomed, and the sedge-bird, not content with its own sweet song, mocked the notes of all the birds around; while high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see. Far off, upon the silver mere, would rise a puff of smoke from a punt, invisible from its flatness and its white paint. Then down the wind came the boom of the great stanchion-gun; and after that sound another sound, louder as it neared; a cry as of all the bells of Cambridge, and all the hounds of Cottesmore; and overhead rushed and whirled the skein of terrified wild-fowl, screaming, piping, clacking, croaking, filling the air with the hoarse rattle of their wings, while clear above all sounded the wild whistle of the curlew, and the trumpet note of the great wild swan.
They are all gone now. No longer do the ruffs trample the sedge into a hard floor in their fighting-rings, while the sober reeves stand round, admiring the tournament of their lovers, gay with ears and tippets, no two of them alike. Gone are ruffs and reeves, spoonbills, bitterns, avosets; the very snipe, one hears, disdains to breed. Gone, too, not only from Whittlesea but from the whole world, is that most exquisite of English butterflies, Lycaena dispar–the great copper; and many a curious insect more. Ah, well, at least we shall have wheat and mutton instead, and no more typhus and ague; and, it is to be hoped, no more brandy-drinking and opium-eating; and children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen; a place wherein one heard of ‘unexampled instances of longevity,’ for the same reason that one hears of them in savage tribes–that few lived to old age at all, save those iron constitutions which nothing could break down.
And now, when the bold Fen-men, who had been fighting water by the help of wind, have given up the more capricious element for that more manageable servant fire; have replaced their wind-mills by steam- engines, which will work in all weathers; and have pumped the whole fen dry–even too dry, as the last hot summer proved; when the only bit of the primaeval wilderness left, as far as I know, is 200 acres of sweet sedge and Lastraea thelypteris in Wicken Fen: there can be no harm in lingering awhile over the past, and telling of what the Great Fen was, and how it came to be that great flat which reaches (roughly speaking) from Cambridge to Peterborough on the south-west side, to Lynn and Tattershall on the north-east, some forty miles and more each way.