Perhaps in no better way can I more graphically bring before you the immense work of the monks than by giving you a picture of the fen district of Southampton before Thorney Abbey was founded, and then reading you the description of this abbey by the great Bishop of Tyre, William of Malmesbury. Southampton is a peninsula making down between the mouths of the Itchen and the Test or Anton into the tide-swept channel that separates it from the Isle of Wight. It was nothing but a vast morass. The fens in the seventh century were probably like the forests at the mouth of the Mississippi or the swamp shores of the Carolinas. It was a labyrinth of black, wandering streams; broad lagoons, morasses submerged every spring- tide; vast beds of reed and sedge and fern; vast copses of willow, alder and gray poplar, rooted in the floating peat, which was swallowing up slowly, all-devouring, yet all-preserving, the forests of fir and oak, ash and poplar, hazel and yew, which had once grown in that low, rank soil. Trees torn down by flood and storm floated and lodged in rafts, damming the waters back upon the land. Streams bewildered in the forests changed their channels, mingling silt and sand with the black soil of the peat. Nature left to herself ran into wild riot and chaos more and more, till the whole fen became one dismal swamp.
Four or five centuries later William of Malmesbury visits the place and leaves us this charming picture of the change: “It is a counterfeit of Paradise, where the gentleness and purity of heaven appear already to be reflected. In the midst of the fens rise groves of trees which seem to touch the stars with their tall and slender tops; the charmed eye wanders over a sea of verdant herbage, the foot which treads the wide meadows meets with no obstacle in its path. Not an inch of land as far as the eye can reach lies uncultivated. Here the soil is hidden by fruit trees; there by vines stretched upon the ground or trailed on trellises. Nature and art rival each other, the one supplying all that the other forgets to produce. O deep and pleasant solitude! Thou hast been given by God to the monks, so that their mortal life may daily bring them nearer to heaven.”
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)