The changing face of the Isle
Standing here 100 years ago you might be hit by a train
The path you are standing on was once a railway track. Opened in 1903, it was a branch line running from Haxey Junction on the main Doncaster to Lincoln line through Epworth and Crowle to Goole. There were a few passenger trains but the line mostly carried agricultural produce and peat from Hatfield and Thorne. After gradually running down, the line closed completely in 1965. Before the track was built there was no embankment, just the flat fields you can see on either side. The picture shows the construction of the cutting through Haxey about a mile south of this spot.
Standing here 2000 years ago you would be in a forest
Up until about 2000 years ago much of this area was dense forest. It is thought the Romans were responsible for cutting and burning it down to avoid ambush. (Remnants of burnt tree stumps have been found). The loss of the trees coincided with a rise in sea level, with the result that this low lying land around you was often under water, particularly in the winter.
The River Trent, The Idle, The Torne and The Don did not follow the routes they take now but they meandered freely over this flat, low landscape. A boat was often essential to travel between the high ground of Haxey to Wroot or Doncaster. This flooded marsh land was a rich source of fish and wildfowl, important sources of food and income for local inhabitants, especially in the winter. In summer, some land dried out providing common pasture for their animals.
Draining the land
For hundreds of years attempts had been made to control the rivers and drain the land. In about 1627 a Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, began a huge project to drain the land from Thorne and Hatfield across to the Trent and down to West Stockwith in the south. Vermuyden and his backers were given a third of the land drained, a third went to the crown, the commoners keeping only a third of the poorer land.
Then there were riots
The locals lost a major food source and they felt betrayed. Houses were burnt down, drainage workers attacked, beaten and killed, river banks and sluices were broken. Violence was widespread. Such was the depth of feeling that this violent opposition persisted on and off for another 80 years.
Flax (used to make linen and canvas) and hemp (used to make ropes) has been grown here from very early times but, following the drainage, it became very important as additional income for locals.
The Isle of Axholme was also famous for celery growing, a very important crop until fairly recently.
After the land was drained warping was introduced in these fields around you. That is controlled seasonal flooding of the fields, opening sluice gates on the drains, allowing fine silt to be deposited. Up to 300mm of sediment accumulating in a single year. These warp lands are of very high quality, growing crops such as cereals, oilseed rape, potatoes, carrots and sugar beet.
The history of these low lying fields around you here contrasts with the strip farming of the higher land of the original “Isle”. Although many of the strips have been amalgamated into large fields, evidence of them can still be seen.