Built around 290BC and lasting in part until the 14th century, the Lighthouse of Pharos close to Alexandria in Egypt was the one Wonder that had a practical use – using its mirror in the upper section, light could be beamed some 35 miles into the Mediterranean, guiding ships back home safely. Towering high into the sky, wind turbines have had their own practical use – latterly to create energy, but long ago to help drain land for agriculture.
The Great Level at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Welney.
If we go back to the Middle Ages, the Fens, that ‘Great Level’ containing The Wash, Peterborough and Ely, would be a very different landscape to today. Imagine some pastures and meadows, but mostly treacherous swamps, ooze, mire and a jungle of vegetation.
The Romans, great engineers that they were, had drained it before, building seabanks and cutting dykes between Cambridge and Lincoln, but on their departure the work quickly fell into disrepair and Nature took over again.
The Fens weren’t a place one would choose to live – but many did, eking a meagre subsistence from fishing, fowling, the gathering of reeds and rushes, the cutting of peat, making salt on the seashore, and grazing animals on patches of pasture and meadow.
The Norman Invasion was hampered here by Anglo Saxon rebel Hereward the Wake who lead the resistance from the Isle of Ely and was able to use the inhospitable terrain to his advantage. To show who was in charge, King William constructed the magnificent Ely Cathedral.
The Berney Arms High Mill is the tallest windmill in Norfolk. Built in 1865, it was originally designed to grind chalk and clay to make concrete clinker but changed to a drainage windpump in 1883.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the 4th Earl of Bedford, a fen landowner, brought together a group of well-heeled gentlemen to drain the Fens. They became known as The Venturers – because they were ‘adventuring’ their capital.
This group secured the services of Cornelius Vermuyden and under the Dutchman’s direction, cuts, drains and sluices were made. The going wasn’t easy, but by 1652 the area was known as the Bedford Level was finally secured. Rich land was exposed that had never seen a plough.
Vermuyden was later to be knighted by Charles II, but at the time he hadn’t realised that through draining the land, the surface of the peat would be lower than the rivers into which water was meant to drain. River banks were made higher but artificial drainage became a necessity.
View from Horsey Windpump of the channel that runs into Horsey Mere.
Water had to be pumped from one drain to another. How? By windmills, of course, inspired by Vermuyden’s Holland. Hundreds of them (although, strictly speaking, they’re windpumps). In the 18th century they reigned supreme across the Fens, and in the great level between Great Yarmouth and Acle.
Fantail on top of the Horsey Windpump, Norfolk. The windpump was built in 1912 and is now a grade two listed building. Restoration work means the cap and sails are turning again for the first time since 1943.
The Fens kept up technical advances – windpower taken over by steam and, just before the Great War, diesel engines. The advances brought prosperity and improved standards of living. Viewed from above now, the Fens would be straight lines of drainage dykes eventually leading to the Wash, cut through a landscape of well-tilled fields of wheat, potatoes, fruit and sugar beet.
Wind turbines in the North Sea off Great Yarmouth, with St Nicholas Minster in the foreground.
And now we have a ‘windmill’ of another type – the wind turbine, with its own practical use of creating electricity. Stare out at the North Sea horizon from most parts of the Norfolk coast and you’ll see windfarms.