From farmer to acclaimed writer on Fens’ history

Rex Sly
Rex Sly
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FENLAND farmer Rex Sly says he doesn’t look back, yet he has written three books on the history of the Fens with his own family’s past woven in.

The narrative of all three – From Punt to Plough, Fenland Families, and the latest, Soil in their Souls – spans the full 750,000 fertile acres bounded by the Fen-edge communities of Lincoln, Bourne, Stamford, Peterborough, Ramsey and Ely.

The first book covers the story of drainage and the landscape, the second the generations of Fenland family businesses from brewers to builders, clockmakers to coal merchants, funeral directors to fishermen, and the third is all about farmers and farming.

Rex believes he’s the first local historian to have attempted to cover the Fens in their entirety, and that’s why, he modestly suggests, his books have hit the jackpot, gaining a reputable publisher, strong sales and a reach well beyond the local area.

At home in Turfpits Farm, Crowland, he said: “I see life as a series of beginnings, I don’t look back, personally. But ten generations of the Sly family have farmed in the Fens and we have this soil in our souls.

“We pass it on from one generation to the next, it’s how we make our living.

“I never intended becoming a writer but since our farm evolved from mixed to arable, we have time on our hands between November and June.

“As a family we sit on Internal Drainage Boards and around 2000 when I was 60 I thought it would be good to document the drainage of the Fens, looking at every bridge, pumping station, sluice and dyke.

“When I was younger I was too busy doing things to read much, but now I read a lot, especially history, and as well as the drainage boards’ records I go through the archives in Lincoln, the Russell Family archives at Bedford and have found much material at local museums in the Fens.

“I collected hundreds of photos and papers, and Christine Hanson at Bookmark, in Spalding put me in touch with Suttons Publishing, who have been my publishers in different incarnations since – they’re now called The History Press.

“They suggested a history of the Fens, which I went away and wrote. “The commissioning editor liked it but said it needed restructuring and allocated me a proof editor who helped enormously.

“She’d ring me sometimes when we were busy on the farm and I’d take the proofs with me on the tractor so when the phone rang, I’d stop it and we’d go through them together.

“From Punt to Plough was published in 2003, Fenland Families in 2007 and the latest, Soil in the Souls, was launched at Bookmark in November. The first print run sold out in no time so a second was rushed through in time for Christmas.”

Rex’s great-grandfather lost all his land amid the agricultural depression before the First World War, when even the Duke of Bedford was forced to sell 20,000 acres because his tenant farmers couldn’t pay the rent.

But Rex’s father and two brothers set about reviving the family fortunes and in 1927 jointly rented Turfpits Farm from the Church, gradually renting or buying more land as the years went by.

By the time he was growing up, his uncles had moved to farms of their own and the family firm had amicably “de-merged” – a pattern later followed by Rex and his surviving three brothers, leaving him in sole charge at Turfpits in 1989.

The farm, now wholly arable, is run by his son James, with Rex’s help seven days a week in the busy months. The family is completed by wife Stephanie and daughter Belinda, who has a shop in Stamford.

It wasn’t a soft upbringing in the 1940s and 50s - the young Slys were sent to a Catholic boarding school in Sussex at seven and expected to get out of their school uniforms and into overalls to work as soon as they arrived home at the end of term.

The death of his brother Bernard at 13, killed in a tractor accident on the farm, still makes Rex wince with pain at the memory.

And the dangers inherent in mechanisation, with fewer people working bigger machines for very long hours, were cruelly brought home when nephew Peter Sly was killed while pea-vining.

All the Sly boys were brought up with working horses on the farm and rode as soon as they could sit astride then hunted with the Belvoir hunt, an interest Rex followed up by becoming Joint Master of the Fitzwilliam Hunt for six years in the 1980s.

Their father grew wheat, potatoes and peas and had a herd of Lincoln Red cattle, there was a pig in the sty and their mother kept domestic fowls for pocket money.

Rex followed his schooling with sound training at Cirencester Agricultural College, then it was home to Turfpits Farm and building up the business with his brothers.

Rex misses flying a Piper Cherokee four-seater he used to keep on the farm.

He said: “Of an evening I’d get in the plane and go for a spin around the fields.

“From the air you can pick out the old roddens which farmers call silt hills, where the old marsh creeks silted up thousands of years ago. Fen history is laid out before you.”