Cat no. 570

Looking at Britain: The Fens

Running time20:31 Black & White Sound 1961 Fens, Fens

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Life in the Fens with an emphasis on its agriculture.


Portrait of a PlaceTelevision

This film begins with Geoffrey Johnson Smith indicating the Fenland area on a map of the U.K. Aerial views of the Fenland follow with the camera car speeding along. The film shows crops being hoed by machine and then by a small army of women. A stationary baler is used to bale hay and groups of women are seen at work in fields of tulips and strawberries. Some of the women wear traditional frilled headgear to protect their heads and necks from the sun. There are general shots of farm machinery, including a harrow. The next sequence covers the drainage of the Fens, introduced with a panning Fenland shot. To show that this is an on-going process a floating steam dredger is seen at work clearing a drain. A montage sequence shows several Fenland wind pumps, including a six sail windmill at Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire. The exterior and interiors of a steam pumping station and a diesel pumping station are shown as well as an electric pumping machine. This sequence ends with shots of the sluice gates on the Great Ouse at Denver Sluice.

There are shots of Ely and the Cathedral. The introductory long shots are taken from the Stuntney Causeway to the South of the City. There are closer shots of the Cathedral taken from vantage points in the City. One of these shows a bus travelling along The Gallery. The shrinkage of the Fens is illustrated by houses with cracked walls and tilted cottages. There is a shot of what were once semi-detached cottages that have split in two. Some houses have doors as much as six feet above ground level and have had to build steps up to the door.There are shots illustrating a Fen Blow and film of flood scenes at Hilgay in 1947 and shots of the A1011 flooded at Welney. A new drainage channel is shown under construction.A sequence shows man and women feeding young celery plants into an automatic planter, pulled by a crawler tractor. Potatoes are harvested; lifted by machine and then picked by women. They are riddled and weighed on site. Sugar beet is lifted using a beet harvester and taken away by lorry within fifteen minutes. The trailer in this sequence is marked with the name F.G. Starling. There are shots of crops being sprayed, including an orchard near Wisbech. Finally there is a sequence showing women picking and weighing strawberries and gooseberries.

Background Information:

As the film says, the Wash at Welney is frequently flooded to relieve pressure on more productive land. Even at the end of the twentieth century, diversions are in frequent use to avoid the flooded road. Flood signs in the area are permanent and covered or uncovered as required. Farm workers used to operate a scam whereby they sat on the fence waiting for a car, assuring the driver that the flood was passable. When he got stuck in the middle they would charge to fetch a tractor and pull him out.The film commentary says that school students would spend part of their holidays here (picking strawberries) to earn extra money. This is a politically correct statement. The strawberry season isn't in the school holidays. However, it was 'traditional' for students from Wisbech Grammar School to take a week off during the strawberry season to go fruit picking. Geoffrey Johnson-Smith became a Conservative MP.

Featured Buildings:

Ely Cathedral

BBC Schools

Tom Slessor

Alan Jonas

Barry Toovey

Geoffrey Johnson Smith

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