Sometime approximately three thousand years ago, some villagers decided to build a causeway across the marsh by driving in wood pilings about five feet apart and filling in the space between them. Over the next four hundred years, their descendants expanded the project creating five rows of timbers about six feet apart.Their descendants continued to use the causeway, quite probably for some religious purposes, for the next 600 years. The land was much lower than today. Debris gradually covered the area creating an anaerobic peat bog that preserved the wood. In medieval times, the fens were put behind dikes (our GPS said we were six feet below sea level) and drained for pasture. The causeway and associated artifacts remained hidden until Francis Pryor discovered them in 1982. Today there remain over 60,000 timbers extending over a kilometer long.
The park was much more elaborate than we anticipated. When we checked in at the Visitor Center, we were offered a tour of the “Mast Farm Boats” for an extra two pounds. It was a great investment, as we were the only ones on the tour, and our enthusiastic guide took us over the entire site.We were fortunate to be there on a day when the boats were available to the public. The Must Farm is a couple miles from Flag Fen in an area where clay has long been dug out to make bricks. As the clay was removed, it became a prime archeological site, first for dinosaur bones and later for the discovery of a bronze age farm on pilings which burned and sank into the muck with all its household goods. And then only a few years ago, eight log boats up to 28 feet long were found in a former riverbed.
Were the boats left exposed to the air, they would soon crumble to dust. So they are housed in a 40 degree Fahrenheit room balanced on rolls of Styrofoam with Styrofoam blocks inside to provide sidewall support. They are carefully sprayed with water to keep them moist. And gradually, the water will be replaced with a plastic substance to permanently preserve and support the wood. As a young woman sprayed them, she uncovered one next to the window where we were standing, and we could even see a patch installed by some bronze age craftsman some 3500 years ago.Some of the timbers have been left exposed in the Preservation Hall where they are constantly kept under a spray of water.
The oldest wheel in England, weapons and jewelry that were placed in the water undamaged presumably for religious reasons, and an ancient eel trap similar to those used in modern times are all found in their museum.There are recreations of bronze age and iron age settlements and a “Fen Bog Garden,” a recreation of the plants and environment in the bronze age. We only saw a covered portion of a Roman road that runs through the area, but the brochure said there is one exposed section.
There was a pen with sheep. The sheep looked much like goats, and we were told they are as genetically close to bronze age sheep as is possible. When I realized they shed and the wool was collected not sheared, I was reminded of the iron age farm we saw in Stavanger, Norway.
Longthorpe Tower was next on our agenda. I had read it had one of the most complete and important sets of 14th century domestic wall paintings in northern Europe. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I first saw it. The tower is small. It was just the living quarters of the knights who owned the manor. The paintings are very faded.
But then, I realized we were looking at 500-year old wall decorations on a tower built in 1300. A woman substituting for the regular docent didn’t know much more than we did, but between us looking at various brochures we began to identify animals and birds, the wheel of life, the nativity and other symbolic paintings. Then Alie and I walked to the upper level where there was a good explanation of 14th century life and she was able to try on a knight’s helmet (my head was too fat).
Our final stop of the day was at the Cathedral in Peterborough. It is huge and, like Shrewsbury, has attached remains of an abbey destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII. There was much to see, but we were interested to see the spot that once held the body of Mary Queen of Scots on the opposite side of the choir from where Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, still lies.
It was a good day for pilgrims in search of the unexpected and the new.