Striding out into the fens on Sunday morning for a long walk with the dog, the plight of the poor flooded folk of the Somerset levels came to mind.
Large parts of the area near where I live are at or just above sea level and it’s easy to see how, if the drainage system failed, we could suffer a similar fate to our West Country cousins.
I can’t say conditions were particularly good on Sunday; the paths and tracks were pretty soggy, there were many large pools of standing water and I don’t suppose any of the fields will see a tractor for some time – but it was a long way from being flooded.
So what’s the difference between us and Somerset?
It seems we were lucky that long ago the wealthy landowners of this region were keen to accumulate a bit more wealth and a bit more land and invested large amounts of cash to create a drainage system that works.
It’s no coincidence that this was largely designed by a Dutch engineer – Cornelius Vermuyden. As we all know, the Dutch know a thing or two about keeping their feet dry.
Of course, Vermuyden’s plans have been built upon and improved over the centuries and now I think we feel pretty secure in our homes, though the recent tidal surge proved that no-one, particularly those living near the coast, is totally immune to flooding.
It’s not until you’re out in the fens that you realise how complicated the whole process of keeping them dry is. At one point on Sunday, I was walking alongside an embankment which held back a lode (or drain) the size of a small river, the surface of which was level with my head. To my left, far below, was a deep channel which carried water underneath the other drain, while criss-crossing the whole area a series of other, smaller ditches were feeding into these. On the horizon, pumping stations stood ready to lift water from lower levels into the main river channel.
I regularly see teams from the beleaguered Environment Agency maintaining these waterways, keeping them clear of vegetation and removing silt and debris and very grateful I am too. Their job is no doubt made easier by the forethought of the men in whose muddy footsteps they follow.
FOOTNOTE: This column was written before Friday’s downpour which saw several areas around Bury St Edmunds affected by flooding.