North of Cambridge stretch the Fens, an area of marshland extending more than 1,350 square miles (3,500 sq. km). The Romans founded many settlements here, growing grain and winning sea salt along the coast. To create more arable land, they started cutting drainage canals in some of the marshes; these also served as transportation routes. But it was not until the 17th century that the Dutchman Sir Cornelius Vermuyden actually succeeded in reclaiming extensive tracts of marshland for farming.
Initially there were unforeseen problems: when the water was drained, the peat moors sank to such an extent that windmill-operated pumps had to be used to get water into the main canals. In the 19th century, the windmills were replaced by steam engines. At Stretham, near Ely, one of these old engine houses is still standing. But the efforts paid off: today, the fields of the fens are among the most productive in the country.
On the western edge of the fens is the pleasant town of Huntingdon, where Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599. In nearby St. Ives, a 15th-century stone bridge crosses the Ouse. The small chapel in the middle of the bridge is one of four surviving medieval bridge churches in the country. In Kimbolton you can see the castle where Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, spent her last years.
North of Huntingdon is the village of Stilton. Actually, this village never actually produced cheese; but in the Bell Inn, a major stopping-point on the road to London, the Leicestershire and Fenland farmers came to send off their wares south, including their cheese, which thus became known as “Stilton cheese.”
Peterborough today is an industrial town with modern shopping arcades in the city center. In 654, an abbey was founded on a swampy site, and the impressive 12th-century cathedral stands on this spot today. The bones of St. Oswald and particularly of St. Thomas a Becket made the former abbey church (Peterborough was not promoted to a bishopric until 1541) a place of pilgrimage and brought great prosperity to the abbey.
The cathedral is famed for its west faqade with three giant portals 78 feet high (24 m). Striking, too, is the spacious majesty of the interior, where heavy arcades and serrated arches show a strong Norman influence. The painted wooden ceiling is one of the most elaborate in the country. The cathedral is also where Catherine of Aragon is buried.
On the river nearby there are a number of historical buildings, including St. John’s Church, the Guildhall and the Customs House. The Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery has some archaeological exhibits of interest.
East of Peterborough is Wisbech, the area’s most architecturally interesting city after Cambridge. Georgian houses along the canal hearken back to their Dutch models. Peckover House, an 18th-century town house on the North Brink bridge, is one of the most attractive examples of the Georgian style. The owner Jonathan Peckover, a Quaker, founded his own bank, which later become Barclays Bank. Wisbech is a seaport, too, and the surrounding tulip fields and orchards turn the area into a sea of flowers in the spring.
Northeast of Cambridge is the enchanting town of Ely with its famous cathedral. The name Ely means eel island, with the -y coming from the Old English for island (other forms are -ey and -ea, reflected in many London place-names); and the city really did rise like an island about 65 feet (20 m) above the marshlands before they were drained. You have the best view of the cathedral from the northwest, from where you can clearly discern the building’s quite considerable bulk (536 ft/164 m long, 216 ft/66 m high). Building started in the 11 th century and was completed after 107 years. In the 14th century, the crossing-tower collapsed and was replaced by an octagonal wooden steeple with a lantern.
An excellent example of Norman sculpture is the Prior’s Gate in the west aisle. The tympanum shows Christ presiding at the Last Judgment. Opposite the west facade is the 17th-century Bishop’s Palace. An attractive walk leads from the cathedral along the Ouse to Cherry Hill Park.
South of Ely at Soham is the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, where you can get a sense of the original flora and fauna of the fen marshlands. As the reserve has not been drained, the ground here is higher than elsewhere.