Eric Ennion grew up in the village of Burwell, on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens, and in 1926 he joined his father in medical practice there.
The photograph dates from around the turn of the century. Harlech House, where Eric and his family lived, was at 'Doctor's Corner', just along this
road into the village from the station.
As he wrote in Adventurers Fen – his classic portrait of the area – “I always had the fen at my front door. Its birds and plants and insects, my fellow countrymen, their stories, crafts and ways have been mine to explore since childhood. School, university, hospital, holidays, took me away but never for long enough to break the spell.”
It was Burwell Fen which he loved and studied; it formed the southern section of Adventurers Fen, south of Burwell Lode. Its chequered history made it far more interesting than the National Trust land to the north. Still managed for traditional fen industries at the turn of the century, “improvements” were soon underway but the agricultural recessions of the 1920's and 30's led to nature taking over again.
There was an exceptional flood in the winter of 1936-37 and the following spring Eric wrote this account of conditions there. It first appeared in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in June 1937 and is reprinted in One Man's Birds. The illustrations are from Eric Ennion's studio reference collection.
Burwell Fen, July 1934, 85 x 165 mm
A Duck Marsh in the Cambridge Fens
By E A R Ennion
Approach from where you will, you do not realize 'til you are on it that the marsh differs from surrounding fen. For miles around, this green land looks dead level save for the banks of the main drainage channels – the lodes – which carry water from the upland springs to prevent it flooding-out the fen.
During the past winter these lodes were taxed to the uttermost for weeks on end. They held, save for a minor breakaway here and there, but water managed to seep through or lap over low sections of the bank when cross-winds and high tides combined against them. This water, increased by abnormal rains, spread across the flat acres of black soil and rushy grazing between the lodes. The fields lay waterlogged; the maze of ditches, drains and interlines around them filled to the brim and stood sullenly for weeks on end. Slowly the pumps and the power of the sun lowered the level; tractors got to work again and seed was sown. Peewits nesting on what were islands had their eggs broken by the wheels. Gulls fed royally on fish left stranded in the drying pools.
In time the fen achieved its normal spring complexion, but an observant man might see a distant cloud of gulls wheeling where no fresh-turned soil lay underneath. A glint of water might persuade him to investigate: and only then would he discover that two hundred acres of the fen still lay under at least four feet of water. This marsh lies too low to be drained like its environs and even in a normal season is partly flooded for more than half the year. Most of its water is hidden by reeds and sedges which, in turn, hide an amazing wealth of waterfowl.
Conditions this year have so favoured them that the gulls alone have increased from a dozen to close on two hundred pairs. I found nests everywhere: most of them built on the great clumps of sedge growing in deep water, some anchored where sturdy tufts of rush lay just awash, others on bushes, framework of hides, or floating planks – when camping there 'gulls eggs and bacon' was often on the menu of my evening meal, though they're not so good as coot's or waterhen's!
Ducks are the chief concern – eleven different kinds have visited the marsh and five of them to breed. Shelduck, teal and one cock wigeon stayed well on into May and I had seen gadwall and pintail previously. Mallards are the first to lead their ducklings to the water; then all the drakes retire to the seclusion of the tallest reedbeds. A passing heron or a harrier would put a hundred on the wing at once. Presently the first shoveler duck is noticed with a brood. The white breasts and scapulars of the drakes become patched with the dull plumage of eclipse and they too seek the reeds – once I counted thirty-one together.
By now the pochards are beginning to bring off their broods: one duck appeared proudly with thirteen (from her well marked dress, an ancient dame). At least a dozen tufted ducks had spent the winter here and two pairs stayed. I had watched them drift away in couples from the main flock on the open water, for longer and longer intervals as spring advanced. By Mayday both pairs had settled down in their respective corners of the marsh. I found a nest with two dark olive-brown eggs in the heart of a big sedge clump standing in five feet of water on May 23rd.
Teal, in winter, are present sometimes in larger numbers than any other kind of duck but do not often breed. The gap is filled by garganey, this year by half a dozen pairs – these little duck are most attractive: they fly round, frequently with sunshine gleaming on the broad white head-stripe and pale wings. Their call note sounds like the creaking of the wooden screw of an old linen press, turned with deliberate care: they make a reedy quack as well.
Garganey and shoveler in flight have a trick of arching the neck and stiffening the wings for a moment as if elbowing themselves up on the air to get a better view. The former is the last to bring her young ones to the shelter of the reeds – so thick by now that it is difficult to watch any ducks at all.
Burwell Fen was reclaimed for agriculture in 1941-42 as part of the war effort – something Eric accepted as inevitable, since it had once been
productive agricultural land. In 2001 the National Trust was able to buy Burwell Fen Farm and has restored the fen to wetland - a change in fortune
which would have surprised and delighted him.
The following article, which Eric wrote in June 1942, forms a delightful postscript to the reclamation of the fen. There is no indication that it was ever published which, given the sting in the tail, perhaps is not surprising. The line drawing of North Street, Burwell, is from the revised and enlarged edition of Adventurers Fen.
The King Goes By
By “Country Doctor”
The news came through a little after breakfast: “He's coming through the village” – “He's going to look at the new-drained fen before he goes to the Derby” – “He'll be here at eleven – at twelve o'clock – before he has lunch at Newmarket”.
Nobody knows where the news came from; nobody knows anything, but they've got it all taped somehow. The village hums with rumour. Everyone is out-o'-doors, standing by their cottage gates, gathering at the corners, wandering up and down in twos and threes, enquiring of policemen – the policemen from the villages all round called in to man the route and stand by the many crossroads.
A police car dashes up the street – draws up – the sergeant inside has a word with one of the constables on duty. The big black car glides away. The constable counters the questions flung at him with masterly evasion. Is it news of the King, or the latest tip for the Derby? Nobody's any the wiser but it sets off a new wave of rumours: “He's gone round the fen” – “He's going down the river in a motor boat” – “He's inspecting the Land Girls” – “He won't come till this afternoon, on his way home from the races”.
Presently the policeman saunters casually across – I'd passed him in first aid a week ago. “They won't be here just yet, Sir – still busy down by the ferry”. Time to slip out in the car and see half-a-dozen patients. The straggling two mile stretch of village street is all on tiptoe – gay with a hasty show of flags and bunting. There is the butcher and the grocer; the baker, cap awry and floury apron; a couple of Special Constables in consultation, feeling most important; a shrilling crowd of children near the blacksmith's, waving little Union Jacks and tremendously excited.
“Can't I go out, Doctor?” – “Couldn't they push my bed along beside the window?” – “He's feeling so much better this morning, Doctor, that he's just gone up-street for an airing” – and he with a new-set plaster put on overnight for a fractured ankle.
The King has seen yet another corner of his kingdom spring to life again – a strip of England, derelict a year ago, now cleared of its reeds and bushes, drained of its water, stripped of its clutter, all parcelled out in brand new fields and bright new ditches – rich brown acres, reclaimed trim and level, growing wheat and beans and sugar beet already. And he's seen something of his Land Army, tanned and laughing, workmanlike in khaki, girls who not so very long ago were clerks and typists, factory hands, cinema attendants, beauty parlour experts. He's seen new American tractors, drills and cultivators. He's been over miles of new concrete roadways that were not in existence eighteen months ago – not even on paper. He has passed through a countryside at work to win the war, through villages lined with eager gatherings of his people.
The police car passes through again, more slowly this time. The sergeant and the driver both have a tense alert expression on their faces. Another car follows with a higher official in a peaked cap, very trim and competent in his dark blue and silver-braided uniform. There is new excitement in the air, a stir in the crowd, a sense of near expectancy – a murmur of faraway cheering. A roar breaks out from further down the street; it grows louder every minute, rising and falling. Every face is drawn towards it. Ten seconds lull and then the Royal car rounds the corner – loyalty, pent up all the morning, crashes out. Cheers echo and re-echo round the clunch walls of the village – “the King, the Queen”. May it prove of some slight compensation to their Majesties for the oversight on Big Game's part to win the Derby.
The card from which the view of the station and bridge is taken is postmarked '06 and was sold by B M Morley, The Chemist's Stores, Burwell, Cambs.
Text and all other images © The Estate of E A R Ennion
Introductory text © Bob Walthew
Shovelers, Burwell Fen May 1934
25 x 35 mm, 20 x 15 mm and 25 x 45 mm.