The town of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire prides itself on its connection with the Fens, the primeval flatlands of huge freshwater lakes, interspersed with reed beds and small settlements clinging to the occasional patches of high ground. The truth is, of course, that these Fens have been Fens in name only for two hundred years or more, since the great engineers and speculators of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drained the meres to make it the finest farming land in Britain.
Locals – and geologists – will quickly set you right on the fact that Wisbech sits on the very northern edge of the old Fenland. To the north of the town was Marshland, which was still wet, flat and featureless, but with the crucial difference that the water was salt water, and the reclaimed land was very different from the fertile peat of the Fens.
Wisbech sits on the River Nene, which rises on a lonely hill in Northamptonshire, and flows into The Wash some ten miles north of Wisbech. In medieval times, the outflow of the Nene was a treacherous delta of ever-changing creeks and channels, and it is part of folklore that King John’s baggage train was swept to its doom when local guides took a chance with a capricious incoming tide. By the mid nineteenth century, however, a succession of engineers had imposed their will over nature, and the river from Wisbech to the sea was safely confined between high banks.
In the autumn of 1885, a man murdered his wife by the banks of the river. Listen to the podcast to hear the full story. Be warned – the story ends in a grisly and gruesome manner.