By Margaret Long
After the drainage of the Whittlesey Mere in 1851, land was bought and people made their living from farming in the black and most fertile lands in England around Holme, Farcet and Ramsey Fens. These farms sprung up and were very isolated but the communities were large.
Holme Church is on the western edge of the fens, so the Vicar of Holme, the Rev. Broke, decided it would be a good idea to have a church on a boat to visit various areas, which were called ‘stations’. In the isolated fens, instead of people making their way to the parish church in Holme, across the flat and dangerous areas, a trip that would have only been safe in the light Summer evenings, St Withburga’s, the ‘Fenland Ark’ would come to them. The Rev. Brooke would ride out on his horse to the planned meeting points at the stations to perform his service.
Mr. Starling the boatbuilder, built the craft, which was launched in 1879. A horse called ‘Boxer’ pulled the boat from a tow path along the bank. Inside, the boat was fitted out with pews, lecturns and an organ. Flags were hoisted instead of the ringing of bells to let the people know that the floating church was ready to take the congregation. Holy Communion was conducted on board and baptisms carried out. The Ark had an altar, a font, and a good seating capacity. Even Christmas celebrations were held on the vessel.
The vessel was 30 feet long and about 10 feet wide and could accommodate up to 50 worshippers. It had several large windows which could be folded upwards to allow people on the bank to hear and take part in services. A Floating Church choir was made up from three families and bible classes were held on the vessel and needlework classed for girls.
Special baptism cards were issued and people were very proud of the fact that they had been baptised on The Fenland Ark.
The Middle Level drainage system formed the main routes for the Ark and stopping points or stations were visited in rotation.
Sadly the boat was not in service for very long due to lack of attendance and financial problems. It was later sold and used as a pleasure craft and now lies at the bottom of the River Nene at Peterborough.
The Fenland Ark is depicted on the Holme village sign.