Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Prick Willow, Prick Willow

Please forgive me for going anorak for today's post.

Unforgivable, of course, unless you are a fellow anorak.

Today, I wanted to mention the Prickwillow Drainage Museum.

The mere name conjures visions of plumbing through the ages - yawn.

In fact, it has a healthy dose of classic, monster pump engines for the powerheads amongst us.

The Fens is a great place - its wild, untamed (flat) and quite different. More Holland than England, it has a special place in our hearts and we are sorry to leave it.

Originally a huge marshland, it was populated by little communities clinging to the bits above water. The town names hold a clue - "y", "ey" at the end, denote island e.g. El-y.

The area continued to be wilderness until the 17th century, when a group of businessmen led by the Duke of Bedford looked at draining the area to provide productive farmland.

A Dutch engineer, Vermuyden was employed and gradually, the Fens started to receive the attention of a myriad of pumping devices.

At the beginning, they were windmill driven and the similarity with the low countries of Holland and Belgium, was only too apparent.

At the turn of the 20th century, diesel/oil engines were introduced.

The main problem in the Fens is that the land is lower than the sea, so the excess water from rainfall, etc has to be pumped up to river level, in order to flush it out through the estuaries.

The main ditches (officially called drains) which convey water from the farms to the pumping stations and the stations themselves, are in the control of local Internal Drainage Boards.
This is paid for by a Drainage Rate or tax that is levied annually on every hectare of land and house (via council tax) within the area of the particular Drainage Board.

Water can also be let back into the drains from the river, during the summer, to provide water for crop irrigation.

About 25% of the total rainfall cannot be used by farming and has to be pumped away into the rivers each year.  
This means that without pumping stations, rain would flood the area at a rate of about 125mm (5 inches) per year.

Although pumping is mainly carried out using automatic electric pumps these days, there are still some diesel engine pumps, to back up the electric ones at times of heavy rain or mains power failure. Some pumps even have gearboxes, to allow them to be driven by tractors in an emergency.

The Prickwillow Museum is a pumping house, but the museum part of it houses some unique engines.

They have a 1924 Mirrlees Blast-injection engine which is believed to be the only remaining working example. This type of engine uses air pressure at 800 p.s.i to blow fuel into the cylinder using an atomiser. Instead of a controlled explosion as is used in most conventional diesel engines, there is more of a slow burn which lasts for 10% of the power stroke.

Exhibits also include a 210 Litre Vickers Petter 2-stroke diesel and a Ruston and Hornsby 19-Litre Flat Single 4-stroke diesel, both built some 80 years ago.

Peter Carter, the only remaining eel catcher in East Anglia, will be giving a talk at the museum about his art on May 17th.

He will be firing his 11-foot long punt gun from his 17-foot floating punt and the engines will be run at intervals during the afternoon.

Prickwillow Museum is easy to find - the postcode for those of you with car satnavs is CB7 4UN.

Incidentally, The "Prick" in Prickwillow is believed to refer to the "prickets" of willow, which are long, thin skewers often used to make thatch. These are quite prevalent around the Fens.

1 comment:

  1. A cup of tea at this great little museum is always a must when we've been cruising in the area, especially as there's a mooring right across the road. Oddly, for such a one-horse town PW boasts a couple of interesting modern houses down at the opposite end of the village. One (the Black Barn I think) has won architectural awards.


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