Soham Mere & Drainage of The Fens

The Fens 1640 - Maps By J Bleau 1645 (North points East)

If we turn to the Domesday Survey (1086) the name of the parish is spelt Soeham or Seaham, then at a much later time as Seham. In other manuscripts it is given variously as Soame, Shoame, Swoham, Some and Saham, and a charter mentions the town as Soegham  Probably the earliest official mention of Soham was made in A.D. 972 concerning the grants of land at Rettendon, Soham and Ditton. "Soeg" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "sagt" meaning drenched. These two words come from the root verb seen in Anglo-Saxon called "sigan" - to soak or drain. "Sigan" is also connected with the Icelandic word "saggi", meaning moisture or dampness, so it would suggest that Soegham was a culmination of two words, either drenched or soaked and hamlet and this would make sense considering the amount of water in the vicinity at that period.

The names of Eye Hill, Eau Fen and Soham Mere indicate that these regions, now cultivated, were once a level of watery waste which, through their natural produce in fish and wildfowl, were useful to the economy of Soham. Soham was i.e. before the Fens were drained, a seaport town with a particularly helpful water link to King's Lynn and The Wash, via the Ouse. Docks have been located on the site of Soham goods yard to prove this theory. Soham became a prosperous port and trade centre during the medieval period. Soham Mere is spoken of as once having been the largest fresh water lake in England but this is debatable, Whittlesey Mere once claiming to be the largest lake in southern England.

Soham MereSoham Mere, Painted by Vernet, Engraved by CJ Beck in the 1700's (Cambridgeshire Collection)

For many centuries the route to Ely was by boat across Soham Mere and over the Fens until windmills were introduced to drain the fens by lifting the water to maintain levels. Some of these windmills had been in existence since the early 18th century and must have presented an inspiring view. With the arrival of the steam pumping engines in the late 19th century, the Mere was finally drained completely and the reclaimed land used for farming. The site of these and other meres have yielded prolific crops for almost 150 years, the soil being extraordinarily fertile. A note from a chapter taken from "On Soils" published in 1813 reads:  On the east of the town (Soham) a black sandy moor, lying upon a gravel; the remainder a deep, rich black mould lying upon a blue clay or gault or clunch. Pasture extensive of first quality; a large tract also of second quality. The mere, formerly a lake - now drained and cultivated and the soil a mixture of vegetable matter and brown clay - contains about 1,400 acres".

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