Photo gallery: EA beefs up flood defences as waters rise on Welney Washes in Norfolk

You can only admire Cornelius Vermuyden, the great dutch drainer who turned the tide three centuries ago, as his masterpiece becomes an inland sea.

But as the departing year was named the wettest-ever over the weekend, the waters were rising perilously high in the Welney Washes.

As they lapped around the Middle Level Barrier Bank, Environment Agency engineers deployed a barrage held in place with giant sandbags to bolster flood defences.

The A1101 has long disappeared under six feet of flood water, leaving the main route across this part of the Fens impassible. Just the tops of the scrub willows and the odd half-submerged road sign mark its course.

Engineers fear the road which cuts through the flood bank, as it enters Welney, could leave the low-lying village vulnerable if levels continue to rise.

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'The level is 3m above sea level,' said Graham Verrier, the EA's area flood risk manager for the Great Ouse catchment. 'The road runs over the Middle Level Barrier Bank, which keeps the water in the washes, where we want it.

'This is precautionary, we just want to make sure it's in place so if the levels start to rise it's here ready.'

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Welney Washes fill each winter as the man-made River Delph rises and bursts its banks. Hundreds of acres between the drain and Hundred Foot River flood, becoming a haven for wildfowl and during colder winters, a giant open air ice rink.

But as the drainers reclaimed vast areas of the Fens, they didn't realise the peat would shrink. Centuries later far-flung villages have sunk below sea level.

With the water in the swollen Delph a good six feet higher than Welney's sprawl of homes, the risks are obvious.

'Everyone's worried,' said engineer Mike Smith, 69, as he surveyed the choppy scene. 'I'm from Tipps End, if this floods, Tipps End's going to flood.'

The waters briefly rose this high in 2007. Since then, the pumping station at Welmore Sluice, near Salter's Lode, has been beefed up. But there's a limit how much water the pumps can unload into the silted Ouse between tides.

With the rest of the system brim-full after weeks and weeks of rain, the Great Ouse Relief Channel has been brought into daily use between tides.

Huge tree trunks and a flotilla of wildfowlers' decoy ducks bob in the flotsam pushed against Welney Bridge. A brisk westerly bowls white horses across the washes, waves building under leaden skies.

Mr Verrier admitted he admired his dutch counterpart, whose drains and their overspill reservoirs still do what they say on the tin 300 years later - with a little helping hand.

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