Timeline of Upwell history

The area around Three Holes and Upwell used to be a swamp, and would have looked a lot like Wicken Fen, near Soham in Cambridgeshire does today. Local people travelled on boats and fished for eels. They did not want the fens drained, as they would lose their fishing and trapping livelihood. The earliest reports of Upwell talk about flooding and drain digging, but the locals pulled down these drains because they wanted to keep fishing. The major landowners decided that there was good cheap fertile land if only they could get at it, and that it could be given away to buy favours.

The Romans

The Welle stream was the main outflow of the Ouse and the Nene rivers, from Cambridge and Bedford and fed into the sea at Wisbech. The Old Croft River ran through or over Three Holes – in flood it could be a mile wide. It was the main route across the fens to Ely, so had a lot of traffic. The Romans, the Saxon Barons, then the Monks, used the Welle to carry grain to and from Ely.

The Romans built a road through the area, did some farming around Upwell, and tried to fix the flooding. Later, the church and the Priories were built on reasonably dry land, but the whole area flooded, silted up and flooded again. Today the roads are full of pot holes, with hillocks or roddins between them, which are the silty remains of the old streams that once ran over the peat.

The Romans made a start in draining the Fens, putting in various canals and roads. According to Steve Calton, archaeology shows Roman field markings through Christchurch, Upwell Outwell, Three Holes and Nordelph, suggesting arable farming right next to the Fen causeway, their main route through the fens. Corn drying ovens have been found near the Sixteen Foot Drain in Upwell.

The Romans left in 407, leaving the fenland to go back to the swamp.

850 AD

In 850, piratical Danes entered the Wash and came down the Old Croft River
via Upwell, headed for looting in Ely. They were defeated after a major battle,
but some settled.

The Normans

The Norman invasion began in 1066, and they captured most of England within four years, except for Ely, which was protected by the marshes and water. Hereward the Wake, from Peterborough, banded together the local chiefs and legend has it that they met in Upwell Church to discuss defence. They were eventually overcome and Hereward fled to John Hartley’s farm, although at the time, it was the Wide lake, that stretched to Lakesend. Hereward stayed there until the heat died down.

The Doomsday Book of 1086 tells us that in the manor of Well, or Wella (in other words Upwell) 20 fishermen gave 60,000 eels a year to the monks. Eels were the currency of the area until 1130. It must have been quite wealthy as they also had 71 ploughs, a lot of machinery for a small place.


The point at Upwell town’s end where Three Holes Bridge now stands was called Wadingstowe or Wadyngstow. This was at least from the early 1200s, according to Reverend Richard Jeans, in his history of Upwell.1 I don’t know of the origin – it is possible that the ‘stowe’ or crossing near the present Red Hart pub could be waded across.


By 1350, there were about 400 to 500 people living in Upwell, but numbers halved with the Black Death. At this time, the villagers lived in small huts with a thatched roof and a hole in the roof in the centre for the smoke for the fires to escape.

The village was quite wealthy, as it had arable land for corn, and corn and sheep were exported through Lynn to the Baltic region, Germany and Norway.

The 1600s

The Little Lode did not stop all the flooding, so they then dug what is now the Well Creek. There were still major floods, so Sir John Popham cut a drain from the Welle River to Nordelph.

“the covetous and bluddie Popham……he is cursed of all the poor of
that part of England”

according to a petition to the King in 1606.

Although the locals did not like it, the Commissioners of Sewers, however, thought that Popham had done a great job, calling it “an excellent peace of work”. The name changed in 1609, six years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, when the commissioners at the Ely Session of Sewers decided:

“We do decree that the dam standing over the said river next unto
Welle causey shall be taken up and in the same place a bridge of good and sufficient
brick be there placed, ten foote in breadth for passage of carts. Three arches
each 8 foote broad with three sufficient doors to shut in time of necessity
and want of water for the navigation through the town of Well, and further that
there shall be hanged a chain or bar of iron so that noe boats may pass through.”

This original Three Holes Bridge stood to the West of the present location
of the Red Hart Inn. The locals still managed to block the Popham’s Eau as the
bridge doors were never opened and it filled up with weeds. Cornelius Vermuden
had already had a go at successfully draining Holland, so he was brought in,
much against the wishes of the locals, to drain the fens. He cut the new and
old Bedford Rivers between 1630 and 1650. These were very successful in increasing
the value of the land, but not for long, as the peat surface went down by about
ten or twelve feet as the land dried out. The next plan was for windmills, to
keep the flooding at bay, but the peat continued to sink as the drainage became
more effective. By about 1800 some areas were watery wastes and ague, or fen
fever was common. Steam-pumping stations began to take over from 1810.

[1] Richard Jeans. Upwell History of A Fenland Village, Elspeth Press, 1987.


  • Hi William,
    As you so rightly say, much of this information comes from Richard Jeans’ book, but also much comes from stories of people living in the area. Oral history is fascinating, and I particularly like the story about the headless horseman that used to visit Beaupre Hall. My grandmother’s aunt was adamant that there was a blood stain on the floor there that they could not get out (she was in service there) however hard they scrubbed, because as soon as they removed it, it came back again.
    Some other snippets of information are taken from Newspaper reports, which are notoriously unreliable, and that is why I always give the source of the information.

  • Hi Andrew,
    I don’t have any information about the Roman period but please pass any on if you find out anything. I do know that the farmers locally used to dig up Roman bits and pieces from along the line of what we thought was the Roman road.

  • Andrew, I did read some years ago about a possible fort/large Roman settlement found near Three Holes. The crop marks looked very impressive and some high status archaeology was found according to the press release. I tried to verify this with the County archaeologists but they kept very quiet.

  • Hello
    Generally speaking you have the area described for casual
    browsing by the inquisitive wanting to learn a little about
    this part of Fenland.

    However, I am sorry to tell you there are many errors contained with
    your text that will mislead serious students of “Welle”

    I have not read through your information completely as I picked up on
    so many points that are not correct.
    The most obvious is: You have said the “Well Creek was dug to relieve
    We can prove the Well Creek is naturally a creek branch off the Well Stream
    and dates from at least the Neolithic period. (Check out maps created by
    the Great Fen Project)
    The Croft River never existed (as a River) before 1864.
    Whilst the Rev Jeans did an excellent job in recording some of Fenland’s history
    he made some errors which is simply illustrated by the initiated .
    You will notice from my books: The River running from Outwell to Salter’s Lode is
    not called the Croft Creek!
    William P Smith

  • From reading your research, which has been valuable to my studies as an archaeologist, my own research is pointing me towards the study of the Roman field systems, settlements, commerce and trade of the Upwell Fen earlier Imperial estates. Any information of this location you would like to share would be , gratefully, appreciated. Many thanks. Andrew Wood.

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