Cowbit stands just 10 feet above sea level, protected from the Welland floodplain known as Cowbit Wash by a huge earthwork called, appropriately enough, Barrier Bank.
This photo, taken from the drained land below the Bank – famously used for ice-skating contests on frozen floodwaters – gives an indication of the scale of the fenland drainage works. Cowbit church tower does not dominate the landscape here. Sunk into the earth over the centuries – see how far below the road is the 15th century tower door – it peeps humbly over the protective bank that has kept building and people safe from floods and similar acts of God.
In 1856, the First Series of the Ordnance Survey mapped Cowbit, the Wash and the surrounding area. Not so much has changed in the subsequent 160 years, and the map nicely shows the relationship of river, land and fen, the little village holding to the bank where it has been so long.
In 1947, a cameraman for British Pathé shot this unused film of what happens when the dykes are overwhelmed.
When you climb onto the roof of Whaplode church tower – which requires some acrobatics, these days – you get a breathtaking view of the Lincolnshire fenlands, as far north as Boston, 12 miles away, where the Stump rises on the horizon.
To the west, is the spire of Moulton, a mile away as the crows fly, half an hour on foot. Four miles further on, Spalding church can be seen. If Pinchbeck people had added a spire to their church tower, you’d see that too (but given the alarming angle at which it leans, they were probably wise to restrain their ambitions).
To the east, barely two miles from Whaplode, is Holbeach, then Fleet, Gedney and Sutton St. Mary (Long Sutton) on the edge of the old marshlands separating Lincolnshire from Norfolk. It’s 14 miles from Spalding to Sutton, along the road that marks where sand banks once separated freshwater fen from saltwater marsh. Those 14 miles are studded by eight churches as fine as you could wish to see, each one vying to match, if not outshine, its neighbour. It must have been impressive to reach Whaplode by boat in 1300, and see this line of towers and spires marking the shoreline of England: here was a rich and confident land. Now, the parishes of Whaplode and Moulton have been combined into a single benefice, with Moulton Chapel and Holbeach St Johns. For the first time in a thousand years, these close but independent communities will be served by a single minister. With the recent appointment of the Rev. Julie Timings a new chapter of shared fellowship begins, though the pride in local identity that created each of these unique churches will surely not diminish.
My thanks to everyone I met at Whaplode on Friday and particularly to Roy Willingham for his help in organising the day.
‘Because the land is level it need not be supposed that it is ugly; on the contrary there is a charm in the expansiveness of the landscapes which the natives sadly miss when they are obliged to live in a hilly country where the horizon is always close at hand and the sky is much limited. To the visitor, as a rule, it is the great cloudscapes and the vastness of the dome of heaven of the Fens which makes the greatest appeal, for one is able to see the most astonishing groupings of shadow-filled cumulus clouds when the wind is bringing the great creamy-white masses across the deep azure of the zenith.’
Gordon Home, Through the Chilterns to the Fens (1925)
When Tom Eckersley made this design for British Railways in 1961, the great age of the railway poster was almost gone. For fifty years at least, some of the best artists of their day had been commissioned by the railway companies, London Transport, motoring organisations and others to produce work that perfectly combined form and function. The commercial interests of the commissioner was restrained by the cultural interests of the artist.
This poster simplifies Lincolnshire to fields, trees, sheep, church and sky. Above all, it reinforces the idea of flatness, though it makes it beautiful. And it does it with witty nods to current trends in painting: Piet Mondrian’s abstract grids and the flatness sought by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. But even in this modernity, the ancient church remains the focal point, holding everything together.
Churches have been part of the English landscape for so long that they’re easily taken for granted. After all, every village has one. They define the parish, English administration’s basic unit. In rural areas, where later building hasn’t grown up to obscure them, they’re still the most prominent buildings. It is their spires and towers that you see from a distance, marking place.
That familiarity can make it hard to see what extraordinary creations they are. Take something as plain as stone. A stone church looks right, normal, what you’d expect. The Fens are full of them, big, handsome and intricately decorated or small and friendly-looking. Each one made of silvery-grey limestone.
But remember: this is Fenland. Until humans got to work, this was a soft place where earth and water existed in an eternal embrace, shifting and slippery. Only the drains and sluices and pumping stations, and the constant vigilance of those who manage them, keep this land from returning to its ousy nature.
So if there was nothing here to build with, except reeds for thatch, where did all this stone come from?
In SW Lincolnshire, where the county meets Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, lies some of the finest building stone in England. Oolitic limestone from Barnack was used to build many of the best churches in East Anglia, including Crowland Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral.
And it was the same water that allowed people to bring that heavy stone from Barnack and other quarries to build churches in the fens, in a search of permanence in an unstable world. The fabric of every Fenland church has been carried by barge on waters of the Great Ouse and the Nene and the Welland and all their multiple tributaries. This seeming stability depends on movement.
Today, you can visit the old quarries of Barnack, which are a designated National Nature Reserve with the poetic name ‘Hills and Holes’, and wonder at the labour involved in prising the rock from this land and floating it away to build churches among the Fens.