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Fenlands (1945)


Main image of Fenlands (1945)
35mm, black and white, 19 mins
DirectorKen Annakin
Production CompanyGreenpark Productions
SponsorsMinistry of Information
 Ministry of Agriculture
PhotographyPeter Hennessy

A portrait of the Fenlands of East Anglia, and how they were transformed from foul-smelling swamps into the most intensively farmed land in Britain.

Show full synopsis

The future director of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) pays tribute here to the less heralded but no less impressive achievements of the Fenland watermen.

Their job is to regulate the drainage of the East Anglian fens - originally a collection of evil-smelling peat bogs turned into exceptionally productive farmland thanks to an intricate network of channels, dikes, washes and sluices dating back to the seventeenth century and initially created by Dutchmen, whose native topography is very similar. But with much of the Fenlands below sea level, the watermen are constantly challenged by the elements, the presence of reeds acting as a permanent reminder that the ancient swamps aren't so far away.

Ken Annakin's film, made for the Ministry of Information's The Pattern of Britain series, marries Peter Hennessy's evocative landscape photography to a series of descriptive voiceovers. After setting the scene with the aid of animated maps and diagrams, the narrator largely takes a back seat, letting a waterman, a farmer and an ambitious farmhand tell their own vividly painted stories ("In winter we get such mud as you never see anywhere else in the country - our soft lake soil churns up like jam, and the carts sink axle-deep").

For all the progress of technology, with light railways making a huge difference to the Fenland economy, there's also a wistful sense of things passing as we briefly glimpse the old marshmen at work hunting wildfowl and gathering sedge for thatching - a traditional way of life that's practically extinct.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Draining the fens (3:01)
2. The marsh men (2:08)
3. A farmer's view (3:55)
Complete film (17:27)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Summer on the Farm (1943)
Annakin, Ken (1914-2009)