Below sea level

I was very lucky to be in East Anglia on the day when the Prickwillow Drainage Pump was running for the last time in 2012.  It doesn’t actually do the pumping to drain the fens any more, however its restoration and maintenance has resulted in a lovely little museum of drainage pumps in Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire. This part of England had been marshland for centuries until in the 1650s a decided effort was made to drain the marshes and start farming the land below sea level.  Dutch engineers were hired to help and since then, the fenland can be clearly identified by its channels of water above head height when standing in fields.  When looking at the satellite image of Prickwillow, you will see two such channels in parallel  the first and second Bedford rivers, respectively dug out on the orders of the first and second Dukes of Bedford. You get a sense of the height difference between the water level in the river behind me when taking this picture and the water level in the drain.

How the drainage works
How the drainage works nowadays

The museum holds a number of two-stroke and 4-stroke engines as well as diesel powered ones, all of which had started their lives pumping water out of the fens to make the land farmable, albeit below sea-level. For someone who loves going to see these things in action, you’d have thought I’d understand the difference between these engine types a bit better, however I’m limited to knowing that diesel engines don’t have spark plugs.  This is not for want of either my father, my uncles or my boyfriend patiently explaining the difference in the chemical reaction creating the energy powering the pistons, it’s just that it doesn’t actually make a difference to how I live my life so I quickly forget it again.  The museum staff did their best to help me learn, with these models of diesel and petrol engines on display

Petrol engine
Moving model of a petrol engine
Model of a diesel engine
Model of a diesel engine

If you want to understand how these engines work, the team at Prickwillow will spend as much time with you as you need to help you understand why two-stroke engines were initially preferred (size & efficiency) to power drainage pumps but that now diesel has taken over.


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