3.7 Cross section The Wash

1. Map of the cross- section

Cross section in the Wash Area (blue)

The Wash is found on the east coast of middle England. The Wash crosses a government regional boundary between East Midlands in the north-western section and East of England found in the more eastern part of The Wash.  The shoreline is shared between the counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk but the maritime influenced hinterland also reaches into the county of Cambridgeshire, all three counties are overseen by a county council. Below these two tiers of government is a third and then a fourth. The third tier is the five local planning authorities of East Lindsey District, Boston Borough, South Holland District, Fenland District and Borough of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk Councils. Finally there are the parish councils which consist of approximately 40 bodies around The Wash.
The major towns and villages are situated on a ridge known as the Townlands or in the eastern part of The Wash on uplands. These include the two historic ports of Boston and King’s Lynn, the seaside resorts of Skegness and Hunstanton, and the market towns of Spalding, Holbeach and Wisbech. There are many small villages and farmstead spread throughout the area.
The boundary between land and sea tends to be a man-made sea embankment (sea dyke) with rich farmland on one side and expanses of saltmarsh, sand and mudflats on the other. This is not strictly for all of The Wash but the majority. There are dune systems and sandy beaches at Skegness and Old Hunstanton, sandstone cliffs at Hunstanton, pebbly beaches at Snettisham and Heacham. The beaches tend to be defended through renourishment programmes and a few hard defences, and there are as of yet no hard defences in front of the cliffs.

2. Description

The Wash area could be described quite simply as a large, shallow embayment with five estuaries surrounded by a hinterland of fenland, but defined in slightly more detail, there are various characteristic landscape types which in broad terms can be split into:

Coastal and marine environments: open water, saltmarsh, sand and mudflats, dunes, beaches, cliff and estuaries. These are strongly influenced by the tide and thus inputs of saltwater from the sea and lesser so freshwater from the five rivers of Steeping, Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse (west to east). This open, wild land and seascape seems untouched by man, bar where the sea embankments define the land-sea boundary, and it continually changes with the ebb and flow of the tides.

Where land and sea merge, Freiston in Lincolnshire
Courtesy: WESG/Jon Watson









The reclaimed land provides for rich agricultural and horticultural production
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism


Reclaimed land: land that was gradually reclaimed from the marine and fluvial environments including reclaimed fen, marsh and estuaries. This is now characterised by being prime agricultural and horticultural land with over 80% of the soils being classified as Grade 1, the highest concentration in the UK. Crop coverage includes brassicas, flower bulbs, beet, potatoes and other field and salad vegetables with some cereals on the lower grade soils.

Townlands: the settlements of the hinterlands generally follow an historic development pattern that represents higher ground amongst the historic marshes. These historic towns and villages were originally established as coastal or inland ports for trade in salt, wool, wine and more through the ages.

Spalding, an historic market town, sits on the banks of the River Welland
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism


Uplands: situated only on the eastern shores of The Wash and dominated by large estate ran arable and grassland farms with some remnant forestry. Further inland and then cropping out at the east coast at the very mouth of The Wash is the red and white striped sandstone cliffs eventually giving way to a sand dune system.


The cliff line that cuts along the coast at Hunstanton and progresses southward
Courtesy: WESG/Borough Council of King's Lynn & West Norfolk


3. Historic character

The Wash and its hinterlands tell the story of man’s development in the area and the constant fight/change between land and sea. This cultural landscape is illustrated in many ways from the small mounds often seen cropping up in the otherwise flat landscape indicating an ancient saltern to scar left from prehistoric field patterns that can be seen from the air today. The following will provide a brief tour.

 Prehistoric - Saxon

The heritage reflects the diversity of the natural environment. In the lowland areas substantial episodes of fresh and salt water flooding has largely buried earlier prehistoric remains beneath clay, peat and silt. Occasionally remains of mesolithic to bronze age date occur on islands within the fenland but such episodes are increasingly rare towards the coast. Towards the end of the Iron Age there was an expansion eastward and numerous salt-making sites of transitional Roman date appear, particularly around Spalding. Early and middle Saxon sites occur within the transect with artefact scattered throughout and cropmarks in the fields illustrating the sites today.

One of the many mounds that depict an historic salt-making site
Courtesy: WESG/LCC










Now the heritage begins to become more visible; earthwork remains of castles and manorial sites are frequent within the coastal parishes, some surviving as earthworks in the fens. From this period and possibly as early as the 8th century flood banks herald the reclamation of fen and marsh alike. Salt-making develops once more as a major industry along the numerous havens and coastal areas, subsequent sea embankments (dykes) fossilising the resultant undulating landscapes. The villages are renowned for their medieval churches. Spalding is the major town within the western section of the transect which historically developed as a major local port and trading centre from its late Saxon origins and, although it was not as important as the international trading centres such as Boston and Kings Lynn, it can boast some excellent medieval buildings, often hidden behind later facades, and an excellent archaeological legacy. As with many major ports it suffered decline at the end of the medieval period but a resurgence associated with the large scale drainage of the fenland and the development of the agricultural landscape lead to further development resulting in excellent streetscapes of Georgian and later town houses and warehouses lining the river which can still be seen today. King’s Lynn, in the eastern section of the transect, remains an active port today but historically it was highly important for trading with Europe and many fine examples of buildings from the Hanseatic League days still remain.

The historic waterfront of King's Lynn
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism




Later times and built heritage

The area contains some of the earliest brick buildings in the country, notably the Boston Guildhall although outside of the transect. King’s Lynn still has evidence in the form of old brick pits of its importance in the early brick making days.  But most of the surviving stock is of the 18th and 19th century relating to agricultural expansion made possible by the new reclamations resulting in grand farmhouses and associated farm buildings being common. Changes in agricultural practices over the years have meant that many buildings are now redundant and falling into disrepair, but they are a most important element of The Wash landscapes.
Windmills are particularly prominent, although in various states of disrepair, as are nonconformist chapels. The Wash was an important area in the development of the non-conformist movements and there are a host of chapels of various ages and states of repair.

Moulton Mill has the tallest mil tower in the UK. This image is before it was recently restored which was overseen by the local community
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism

The industrial revolution, while hardly touching these largely rural and agriculturally based communities did leave a rich heritage of railway buildings and structures. Naturally the area also has a considerable network of drainage and flood defence features, some originating from the monastic drainage schemes of the medieval period but most dating from the 17th century onwards. They form an intrinsic part of the landscape and differ in character between landscape zones, being much more organic in the siltlands and marshes than in the fens. These are associated with pumping stations and other infrastructure, some of which enjoy legal protection today. The Wash coast was also seen as of strategic importance in the preparations against invasion during the World War II and the coastal areas are littered with remains of pill boxes, prisoner of war camps and resistance hideouts.

Pumping Station at Pode Hole
Courtesy: WESG/LCC






Maritime Heritage

The maritime heritage consists not only of wrecks of all ages from the medieval period through to planes from the World Wars, but also of the buried prehistoric landscapes, which are occasionally exposed as in the example of Holme timber circle, and the saltmaking sites along the Lindsey Marsh, although both are outside the transect.

Maritime history being brought back to life in The Wash in 2004: visiting Kieler Hansakogge
Courtesy: WESG/Cameron Wilson







Wrecks are found throughout including in the rivers, such as this
in the River
Witham ocally known as the Haven, just outside of the transect
Courtesy: WESG/Jon Watson

SWOT analysis



  • Diversity of the cultural and built heritage

  • Abundance of still existing cultural and built heritage

  • Relative uniqueness within the United Kingdom

  • Protection of designated sites, such as Scheduled Ancient Monuments

  • Planning policies to protect villages and landscape character associated with Conservations Areas and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

  • Often tranquil setting


  • Mostly the wider landscape context of a designated site is not recognised e.g. boundary is to focused without buffer zones

  • Legislation allows for various class consents on designated sites which can have a damaging effect, such as ploughing

  • Lack of political will and corporate responsibility

  • Lack of information and/or integrated information systems


  • Co-ordinated data collection via further aerial mapping and further development of Historic Environment Record Centres

  • Historic Landscape Characterisation and Extensive Urban Surveys to be used to help produce supplementary planning guidance and guide stewardship schemes = spatial planning

  • Use of stewardship schemes, such as the new agri-environment scheme Entry and Higher Level Scheme

  • Government’s historic environment review provides opportunities to close legislative loop holes. The development of a Marine Bill and national Integrated Coastal Zone Management Strategy will also improve management and protection of our heritage.

  • To recognise our heritage beyond that of just a structure but as part of the landscape via influencing the above opportunities

  • Growing interest in the public to manage and maintain our cultural and historic heritage

  • Interpretation, raising awareness and restoration projects to encourage local community to take ownership and increase local pride. Preferably bottom-up approach.

  • To use cultural and historic heritage as a catalyst for sustainable economic regeneration and diversification, as is being achieved at Moulton Mill.


  • Climate change and predicted sea level rise and increased storminess

  • While cultural and built heritage is relatively abundant, it is under immense pressure from redevelopment or neglect, as follows:

  • Drainage, water transfer schemes and desiccation

  • Pond creation for winter storage reservoirs and fishing lakes

  • Agricultural and horticultural practices e.g. ploughing and glasshouse expansion

  • Absentee owners so enforcement to safeguard building can not be served

  • Flood Risk Management schemes beyond those of basic drainage

  • Increased, non-sustainable leisure and tourism activities/developments

  • Piecemeal development and urban creep

  • Infrastructure improvements including to roads, ports, marinas, navigational waterways

  • Energy production via traditional methods or renewable energy technologies

  • Development of new nature reserves and nature conservation management techniques

Farming practices can damage our archaeological interests, but through agri- environment schemes this issue could be tackled
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism






The rich reclaimed land supports a busy bulb industry
Courtesy: WESG/Fens Tourism

5. Conclusion

The trend is one with a positive outlook for cultural and historic heritage within The Wash through to regional and national level. The Wash Estuary Strategy Group recently completed a wide ranging review process consulting extensively with the stakeholders to develop an integrated management plan for the area which has a whole series of policies to help protect and enhance the cultural landscape and historic environment assets of the area. At a regional level the two spatial planning strategies recognised to some degree the wealth of historic environment assets we have and nationally there are various reviews, bills and strategies being developed to amalgamate and integrate the laws and designation procedure protecting our built heritage and the wider cultural landscape, which in hand with the changes to agri-environment schemes will make a positive impact on the management of our ‘treasure.’

But more needs to be done starting with improving our knowledge of what we have and ensuring this is recorded in a usable and purposeful way. Continued work with local communities is essential to achieve most of the policies set out within The Wash plan, be that the various sectors that are present and influencing their practices or inspiring a local group to take on the management of their heritage. Also continued lobbying and responding to relevant local to national government is essential to ensure that the historic environment is taken into consideration in all planning aspects. All of this requires stakeholder involvement and commitment and co-ordination to ensure that everyone is going in the right direction, thus a historic environment action plan developed in a collaborative way based on sound knowledge of our stock is probably the best way forward. Hence, working in partnership with the Lancewad Plan partners to develop such practices.

A statue of just one of the great explorers from The Wash, Vancouver, found in   King's Lynn
Courtesy: WESG/Borough Council of King's Lynn & West Norfol