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Wisbech







Wisbech is one of those towns which has gained little if anything from modern development, but repays the visitor who takes the trouble to explore the old town. The developments top manage traffic around and across the central bridge did the town few favours; the modern bypass takes much of the traffic away from the town, but finding the parish church of St Peter and St Paul makes a good starting point for exploration on foot.



Set in the flat and low-lying lands of the fens, Wisbech was founded at a crossing point of the Nene, but the site was far from ideal for settlement. It was in effect a port on the Wash, at the lowest point to cross the river, but the gradual silting of the river transferred that role to King's Lynn.


Fen settlement was often on 'islands' of slightly higher land, and where possible other land would be reclaimed. Such reclaimed land is evident in the area to the west of Wisbech. The name Wisbech is partially derived from the Saxon word bece meaning 'stream'. Even these settlement 'islands', perhaps a metre or two above the surrounding land, would occasionally be flooded, and modern Wisbech suffered even up to the great storm of 1953.


The town was sufficiently established in Norman times to warrant William the Conqueror building a castle, to dominate the surrounding countryside and try to deal with such men as Hereward the Wake. The Norman motte of the castle does not stand today, but later 'castles' were built on the site and controlled the layout of the town in later years. The Old Market of the town was the original medieval trading centre, but was eventually overtaken by the current market place - a role in which it continues twice weekly.


The development of the main town of Wisbech was constrained by the river with, as we have indicated, both flooding and silting playing their part. It would be in the 17th century that the major co-ordinated drainage scheme of the Fens brought significant improvements, but their were local initiatives in the medieval period. Bishop Morton's Leam of 1490 moved the waters of the river Nene from Peterborough eastwards towards Wisbech. Samuel Lewis's Topographical Gazetteer of 1831 says,"To prevent subsequent inundations, commissions were issued, from time to time, to enforce the repair of banks and sewers. The most important work of this kind, executed before the time of James I, was the great channel made by Bishop Morton, which carried off the overflowings of the Nene, and furnished water-carriage from Wisbeach (sic) to Peterborough." Bishop Morton - of Ely - is to be credited with understanding that straight channels were an answer to overflowing rivers, the stream flowing faster and being less prone to silting, as well as providing a more direct routing of excess water to the sea.


It would be 1630 before the offer of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the fens would be accepted by the Earl of Bedford and supported by him and thirteen other "Gentlemen Adventurers". Vermuyden's first scheme relieved the wandering course of the river Ouse, and a later scheme stored flood water which could be released at appropriate times. The success of these schemes improved farming potential through the fens, and Wisbech entered a period of prosperity. A further scheme of drainage canals constructed around 1800 led to another period of growth for the town, and many of the buildings features in the town today date from those times, in particular the fine Georgian buildings.


The roadways on either side of the river became known as the "North and South Brinks", and the buildings of the Brinks remain a highlight of Wisbech's architecture. They were built as landowners, merchants and warehouse owners benefited from the increase in trade. Likewise the Crescent and the current Castle were built by local builder and speculator Joseph Medworth in 1816. Their continued period feel has led to their use by modern film makers to provide the setting for period dramas. The North Brink at its centre has Peckover House, presented to the National Trust in 1948; it has particularly fine internal features. With Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust being born in Wisbech, it was perhaps an appropriate gift by the Peckover family.


The parish church of St Peter and St Paul features a number of architectural features. Some date from the late 12th century; at the other end of the time scale is Victorian stained glass and some more modern fittings. The double nave can be rather confusing to the visitor joining a service at the church!


The first railway stations, Wisbech and Wisbech Harbour East, were opened in 1847 and 1848 respectively, the later only being a freight station. The Peterborough, Wisbech and Sutton railway company opened Wisbech St Mary, Wisbech Harbour North and Wisbech stations to freight and passengers in 1866; they later became part of the Midland and Great Northern Railway and then the LNER. The building of this range of rail facilities is an indication of the importance of Wisbech as an agricultural and small port and transshipment centre in the middle of the 19th century, but all fell victim to the 1960s closures.


Today Wisbech remains an administrative, service and trading centre for the important agricultural economy of the fens; whilst being a town of Cambridgeshire it is also on the border with Norfolk and much of its trade comes from that side of the town.

 



The present market place is still home to a twice weekly market and a number of other special events




The Brinks, a fine run of Georgian houses beside the river Nene, with Peckover House the jewel at its centre




Whilst the building which now carries the name "The Castle" is by no means of the scale of the original Norman castle, it is on the same site




The Thomas Clarkson memorial stands boldly, if somewhat besieged by traffic, to remind passers-by of his work to abolish the slave trade in the 19th century





Part of the Crescent, which forms a circle around the site of the motte of the Norman castle

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