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 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.
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 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 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.