The DREADGE Trip: A Day in the English Fens
by A. Cuthbertson
Strange confluences of events and ideas can lead one to places rarely visited… this weekend, I found myself somewhere rarely visited indeed. What started as an offhand comment from my girlfriend - “did you ever think about actually going to the Cambridgeshire Fens and visiting these places that Dreadge might have been set?” - ended up being a full excursion and an excellent use of the Platinum Jubilee holiday in the UK.
Oddly, I had not actually been to the Fens, nor anywhere near them. An odd bit of trivia that had been at the back of my mind for years - that England used to have vast boglands, but they were intentionally drained to produce more farmland - developed into the writing of Dreadge after getting involved with the Bizarchives, almost exactly a year ago.
So, on Sunday, we set off. We ducked under bunting, sidestepped cardboard cutouts of the Queen, escaped the crowds, and got out into the quiet of the Fens. A perfectly atmospheric day, in stark contrast to the recent summer sun; we were pleasantly enveloped by mist and light, drizzly rain. Visibility was low. Birdsong and the soft sploshing of the waterways were all that could be heard for miles around.
“When we arrived, the first thing that struck me was the mist. It lay like a dense carpet over the village, obscuring the buildings from view. Its probing fingers reached around every corner, pried open every window, and rapped softly at every door…
It was warm, thick, humid fog. I felt like I was chewing it. Was this what it was like all the time out here, I thought? How miserable. How did they keep anything dry? You could see the droplets running down the sides of their sad little buildings.”
I may have been a bit harsh in my estimation of the Fenlands here… it’s actually quite lovely. In my defense, the dank, boggy marshlands that existed before the Fens were drained probably weren’t all that lovely. And lovely places with friendly locals don’t make for the best Lovecraftian horror settings, do they?
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we found at Stretham Old Engine.
We started in Cambridge, got to Ely, from there to the small town of Stretham, and finally to our destination: the Old Engine. Drainage engines like this were the inspiration for Van Buskirk’s massive machine, the titular D.R.E.A.D.G.E., and this one in particular proved invaluable when doing research into the real-life Fen drainage project, the surrounding area, and its history. It was a pleasing synchronicity to actually be here one year later.
It was built in 1831, and it is the last of the steam-powered pumping stations that were used to drain these Fens. In its day, it had over 100 sister-engines; now, it’s a museum piece, and it doesn’t even run on steam! It’s been plugged into the grid, and now runs from electricity.
It doesn’t pump any more, having had its last day of full operation in 1947, but the machinery can still be switched on for display purposes. Our highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide Malcolm did just that for us, and it was wonderful to wander around watching all the pumps and pistons and wheels at work.
The engine is now run by volunteers, and is only open for ten very specific days in the whole of 2022. A sad disinterest in the genuine history of this land, and the people and machines who shaped it, is perhaps to blame for its relative unpopularity as an attraction. Our guide bemoaned the apathy shown towards this fantastic piece of heritage, and I empathised.
He was happy, however, to have somebody to talk to about the engine, how it worked, all of its various parts, and he was thrilled that I had done some research myself for the novella Dreadge.
Interestingly, he told us that paranormal investigators sometimes gather at the Engine. They lock themselves in at night, tape over the keyholes and gaps in the door frame, and hunt for ghosts. One of them reportedly went into a trance. And once somebody came down for a similar reason to me; they were writing a murder novel set in the Fens.
So I’m not the first one to recognise the spooky potential of these marshes as a setting, with its will-o-the-wisps and its watery, sometimes bleak, always mysterious atmosphere.
Sadly, although perhaps for the best, there was a distinct lack of Lovecraftian horrors from beyond the abyss. Not on the day I visited, at least. Perhaps the stars weren’t properly aligned… or perhaps these malevolent entities were put off by all the bunting.
The hostile Fenmen found in the story, ready to sabotage the Dutch engineer’s project, were inspired by real-life activists who tried to sabotage these very Fens from being drained. Being fishermen and bird-catchers, they relied on them for their livelihood.
They did indeed call themselves the Fen Tigers, although their actions were limited to breaking dams and filling in dykes - they were quite a lot less murderous than they appear in the story. The Fenland flag features a tiger, seen below, in a nod to this interesting slice of history.
The village of Wicken, found in Wicken Fen, was the inspiration for “Wickern”. Again, it’s quite a lot nicer than the hellhole I made it out to be, but if one can’t take some artistic liberties when writing historical Lovecraftian horror, when can they be taken?
As for the long-term impacts of draining the Fens, it depends who you ask. Bogs are now widely thought to be the best carbon-capture systems available, and ecological projects are underway to try to restore some of this natural wetland for that purpose.
There are those who would say they played a crucial role in England’s imperial dominance. After all, when the Fens were first successfully drained, England gained access to acres upon acres of new farmland to feed its ongoing industrial revolution.
Then, of course, there are those who believe that the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race, and to many species of beautiful butterflies besides.
In certain pubs, you may even find an old lunatic, grumbling to himself and anybody who’ll listen about the apocalyptic doom that’ll come about as a result of these mad Dutch drainage experiments. It’s probably safe to ignore him. Buy him a pint to hear his tale… or buy him one to shut him up. Either way, he’ll be grateful for the distraction from the horrors he saw out in the Fens.
If you think any of this sounds interesting, and you haven’t read Dreadge yet, you can find it alongside another novella in the collection “A Cosmic Horror Double Feature: Dreadge and Prestwick’s Project”, available on Amazon (use your own country’s Amazon site for cheaper shipping): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cosmic-Horror-Double-Feature-Prestwicks-ebook/dp/B09N28MP8B
You can also check out Stretham Old Engine at: strethamoldengine.com
Frequent contributor Arbogast wrote an excellent review of the book here:
Thanks to Maja the Bee for the photo editing.