Dry and mighty!
PUBLISHED: 12:12 02 November 2007 | UPDATED: 20:12 01 June 2010
FOR nearly 200 years, it kept the low-lying sea of peat that stretches south of the River Nene dry. Now the great pumps of Waldersea are silent and builders are moving in to convert the towering engine houses into homes. An era ended when the diesel pumps
FOR nearly 200 years, it kept the low-lying sea of peat that stretches south of the River Nene dry.
Now the great pumps of Waldersea are silent and builders are moving in to convert the towering engine houses into homes.
An era ended when the diesel pumps were decommissioned and the network of dykes which collected water to be diverted into the Nene were re-routed to a new automatic electric pumping station.
As well as making Waldersea redundant, it meant people were no longer required to be on-site 24 hours a day, keeping an eye on water levels, fuel supplies and oil pressures.
For four generations, the pumps across the Fens were tended by the Wheatley family, who led an existence straight from the pages of Graham Swift's Waterland.
Herbert Wheatley was born at the pumping station in 1927 and lived in the cottage behind it until 2001 when it was bought by Cambridgeshire Historic Buildings Trust. Before Waldersea, his father, Herbert senior, ran a pumping station on the Forty Foot Drain.
"I started here when I was 17 or so, after school. I just drifted into it, I suppose," he said. "I can remember when father had three brothers at pumping stations, so it was in the family really.
"He was born at Floods Ferry, near Benwick, and there have been at least four generations work the pumping stations. That sort of thing went on in those days."
Mr Wheatley said life was hard for the pump-minders and their families but the low-lying landscape, much of it below sea level, would soon flood without them.
"It was steam when I started," he said. "I was a fireman on the boilers. It was hard work but you didn't really think about it.
"If you had a heavy rainfall then there would be a lot of work. In 1947, everywhere was flooded, we were continuously working for weeks and we had to call in for help. It was bad in the 1953 floods, too.
"When father retired in 1965 the steam pump had been scrapped and we had the diesels. The diesels made it easier because you had to fire up the boilers on the steam engines."
Mr Wheatley, now living in Walpole St Andrew, said he had accepted the property, once remote but now close to the A47, on the southern outskirts of Wisbech, was being converted into properties.
Property developer David Housden and his daughter Anna Rogers are restoring the old steam pumping station, built in 1827 and the newer diesel pump house, built in 1953.
The scheme includes a rooftop garden, veranda alongside the drain and possibly a swimming pool.