Black fen they call it round here. Black — for the peaty soil; black — for the mood of the area, for its history and for its future.
— Mary Chamberlain, Fenwomen, 1975
I sat huddled around the wood-burning stove with Denzil. It was early March, and winter was reluctant to leave. A bone-chilling dampness hung in the air and squelched underfoot. Denzil and I were glad to be by the fire, clutching our mugs of tea, spoons sticking up like radio masts. We had done this together many times before. Denzil is one of the old-time agrarian farmers I have been visiting and photographing for ten years now. We caught up with each other’s news, our conversation punctuated with long silences as Denzil thought about what I was telling him. I explained that I had been commissioned to produce a new photo essay for a book called Fenwomen. “Fenwomen,” Denzil repeated, extending the syllables as if he were summoning a mythical goddess to rise up out of the black peat of the surrounding fields. “There’s not many of them left — real fenwomen. They’ve all gone now,” he said.
Denzil was born in the fens and has remained there. He grew up among fenwomen and for many years he worked with them on the land. As a young boy he remembers seeing gangs of women riding their bicycles through the village on the way to work in the fields. “Hardy old women they were, bent over in the fields with their short-hoes chopping out sugar beet. They worked out in all weathers, sacks tied around their waists. But for some reason,” Denzil said, slightly perplexed, “they mostly didn’t wear stockings.”
In 1972, Mary Chamberlain, then a twenty-five-year-old historian beginning her career, moved to the isolated village of Isleham in Cambridgeshire. She soon realized that the experiences of the village women would tell much about the harsh reality of life in the fens, so she took her tape recorder and began to interview them. The result, Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in a English Village (1975), was the first book published by the feminist Virago Press. As Mary says, in an introduction to the latest edition, the book tells of “women as labourers and labourers’ wives, whose daily toil for the survival of themselves and their families had never been acknowledged, much less lauded.” The fen landscape is a recurring theme, shaping who the women are and what they do. As one of the women — who after living in Isleham for eight years was still considered an outsider — says of her fellow villagers: “These people belong here, to the land.”
From a distance, under the towering sky, Isleham appears like a mirage. It seems incongruous that a village should be located in the middle of such a flat desolate landscape. The main road to the village runs for almost six miles like an artery through the land. Occasionally an unpaved drove branches off, providing access to a house, farm buildings or fields deep in the middle of the fen. The presence of water is constant. Driving across this landscape feels like crossing a great sea. The road undulates from the ever-shifting land, tossing the car like a small boat. A complex network of dykes and drains criss-crosses the fields, the murky waters rising and falling as the fenland locks and pumping stations work to prevent flooding. And all around is an abundance of crops which fight for space with an encroaching wildness of weeds and bushes that grow thick and fast out of the fertile earth. Once a marshy swamp, this landscape would probably not exist as it does today without the pioneering work of Cornelius Vermuyden and his fellow Dutch engineers, who in 1626 began draining the fens with the support of King Charles I. Covering an area of almost 1,500 square miles in Eastern England, the fens are one of the world’s largest areas of reclaimed land.
It has been more than 30 years since Mary Chamberlain interviewed the fenwomen of Isleham. Many things have changed in that time, but as I walked the village streets and the nearby fields, it was clear that Isleham’s strong sense of place is still shaped by the mysterious flatland that surrounds it. I was enchanted by the often unexpected encounters I had while photographing here. But I came to realize that it was a place I would never fully understand.