Nevertheless, while agriculture in East Anglia no longer has such a big part in the working lives of people, it has changed and diversified, and still plays a vital economic role in the region. The Domesday survey makes many references to the production of wheat, malt and honey in the county, while barley for malt was grown in large quantities in the south in the sixteenth century. By the 1700s Cambridgeshire still had a mixed pastoral economy of crops, cattle and sheep-rearing, benefiting from the rich soil in the north. This gradually gave way to arable farming, with saffron, a crocus used for dyestuffs, being extensively cultivated in the eighteenth century. Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Gazetteer of 1831 describes the county as producing an ‘abundant supply of corn’, with the Fenland area being particularly productive, especially for oats, hemp and flax. Dairy farming was predominant around the south Cambridgeshire parishes of Soham, Littleport and Willingham, with the butter sold in London markets called ‘Cambridge’ butter. Cambridge had become one of the country’s most celebrated commercial centres by the thirteenth century.
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This is exemplified by the renowned annual Stourbridge Fair held on the village common. This ran until 1834, attracting people from as far afield as the Low Countries, and traders buying and selling everything from silk to hops. At its peak, it was the largest fair in Europe and believed to be the inspiration for John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress. Like many other areas, Cambridgeshire saw its share of protests and riots over the introduction of machinery, low wages and enclosure of common land. Farmers in several villages were initially unwilling to support parliamentary enclosure, with some villages like Soham never becoming formally enclosed at all. Littleport was the site of riots in 1816 when labourers from the area, facing rising unemployment, low wages and soaring food prices, attacked houses and people in the area. Five of the rioters were hanged and buried in a common grave at St Mary’s Church and are commemorated in a plaque there.
In 2016, a film commemorating the 200-year anniversary was produced by the Field Theatre Group. See the Littleport Society for more information on the riots and local history projects (www.littleportsociety.org.uk). The late nineteenth century saw much of the land in the county put down to pasture and some was practically abandoned. In contrast, market gardening thrived from the late nineteenth century, with some of these gardens converted into garden centres in the twentieth century.
Large flocks of sheep were still kept, partly for fertilizing the ground, while some landowners specialized in rarer breeds such as merino sheep. However, the keeping of livestock gradually declined in the twentieth century. Other crops were introduced from the 1930s, including mustard and sugar beet. There was a revival of arable farming in cereal producing areas in the late twentieth century, with barley often being the main crop. Market towns like St Ives in the west of Cambridgeshire were of vital importance in facilitating trade. A market still takes place there every Monday, providing a continuous link back to those of the Middle Ages. For generations much of the fens was only accessible by boat.
The Isle of Ely takes its name from the eels filling the surrounding waters. These formed a principal element of the diet of the monks, who had a community on the island from the seventh century. When Hilgay was recorded in the Domesday Book as one of only two settlements in the Norfolk Fens, it was described as a low hill rising out of surrounding marshland. The stagnant waters of the fens gave off an obnoxious vapour which was believed to induce a form of malarial fever known as fen ague. In the nineteenth century Fenland inhabitants began taking opium-based medicines to relieve the pains of this illness. This was so prevalent that one Wisbech-based pharmacist was recorded as keeping over forty gallons of laudanum in stock in 1894. The Romans attempted to control this landscape by building large causeways out of oak trunks, chalk and gravel.