Our local rivers and waterways have on the whole formed originally through natural processes. However over the centuries man has tried to tame and shape them for his use. In and out of Bourne we have the remains of the Car Dyke built by the Romans to link up the rivers Nene and Witham. It’s now a shadow on the landscape when once it was a busy artery for boats transporting goods and ferrying legionnaires around East Anglia. When the Romans left it fell out of use for a while then revived briefly in the late so called Dark Ages and then went out of permanent use shortly after.
Hundreds of years later in the 1600s, the Earl of Bedford commissioned a Dutch engineer called Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the wetland of the fens and turn them into the rich farmland we know today. As rivers were either bypassed or diverted with new waterways named “drains”, local fenland people found their former way of life was changing. With the removal of reedbeds and the resulting diminished number of wildfowl which sustained their livelihoods, protests started to become so violent that Oliver Cromwell sent the army in so that the drainage work could continue.
Thankfully today the drains and rivers are peaceful and, save the odd tractor, a lot quieter. But we are still living with the consequences of that grand vision for the fens. With the drainage came access to very fertile peat soil. Over the centuries this soil started to dry out, the surface of the fields then started to shrink and then lower. For example at a place called Holme Fen, not too far from Bourne, in the space of 120 years the land dropped 4 metres. Hence when walking alongside the Forty Foot Drain, you find yourself walking above the surrounding landscape. Like the original drainage in the 1630s this has ecological and financial implications for us today. Some scientists think that continually pumping water off these fields and into the rivers is an expensive exercise. As the soil erodes away, the original fertility is being lost and the resultant increase use of fertiliser plus the cost of keeping the land drained, they say it will become too unprofitable to continue in the not too distant future. Some conservationists point out that this water diversion has lead to a loss of some habitats for wildlife, especially for birds, and that we should have more nature reserves like those at Willow Tree Fen or Thurlby Fen, where the land is allowed to flood. Some groups want to go even further: that the pumping should stop and rivers allowed to flow unrestrained by drains so the whole fens becomes one giant wetland once again, given back over to nature. An extreme viewpoint perhaps, in view of the consequences for people who live and work there.
On my walk, though, these thoughts were not on my mental radar. I was lost in the tranquillity of the place. Following the river as it passed rosy red brick farms, newly ploughed black fields, ancient willows, and under stone humpback bridges built in the time of a King George, I felt as if I walking in a painting by Constable. Watching the wildlife along the bank, the group of geese flying in a V formation, the gentle breeze waving the sword blade like leaves of the rushes and the solitary lanky heron skulking in the weeds all added to the ambience of the afternoon. Sitting down and listening to the universal, unique tinkling sound of water running over a few rocks, with that quiet chit chat of the birds in the poplar trees in the background, I soon found myself unwinding and forgetting the stresses of the week. Something Beethoven had written came to mind. He had written in a letter that “woods, trees and rock give the response man longs for”. I think he was on to something. Recently it has been said that a walk in the countryside is “nature’s Prozac”. That could be true to a point. While it certainly doesn’t solve our problems, interacting with the natural world does give us a breather from everyday life. The intake of fresh air and the physical exercise when out recreationally walking has been shown to benefit us physically and mentally. A walk can help put problems in perspective; up until the early part of the twentieth century in universities a walk in the country with the college dons was part of a student’s schedule where they could discuss any difficulties the student was having. A walk is an effective stress buster.
But you don’t need to be a student or have problems to enjoy a good stroll. A walk in Bourne’s countryside, whether by a river or not, gives everyone to a chance to rejuvenate and discover their local area.
What’s more it’s free.