Traversing the Fens
June 7, 2012 § 14 Comments
Driving the A17 across the Fens this morning, I retrod the same old comparisons between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Apologies to the latter, I’m afraid: the journey always tends along the same emotional trajectory, as wending lanes, cobbstone villages and salt-scoured boards pointing ‘To the Sea’ are left behind, and the horizons draw back and back across damp green plains, polythene, all day breakfast stops and caravanserai.
So much for the acquisitional tourist’s approach – the reasons for those Islingtonians and Hampstovians who have miraculously survived the chill penury of the current collapse pitching up at Wells and Cley and Downham Market with their hampers and their Farrow & Ball. Cricket, nice beer, owls: who wouldn’t?
However, have a wander round the second-hand bookshops and art galleries of Norfolk (and there are many). Absolutely loads of ‘sketches’, ‘scenes’ and the like. Everyone thinking locally, and acting it. Which is ideal for that second home: somewhere to walk the dog and the kids, jog along the beach. No phone signals, even. But for poetry? Yes, I know, I was pushing the merits of Edward Thomas, that most local of poets, in the last post. Yet much of Thomas’ work derives its emotional power from a lifting of the eyes beyond the lanes and barns: to the bird-filled horizons of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, to the next spring, to the trenches.
And of course, Thomas moved through the landscape, by and large, on his feet. Rural England was more populous then – but walking through a territory would take him off-grid, as it were, for as long as he needed (for his art if not always for his peace of mind). Three miles could be a limitless expanse, let alone thirty.
When you turn onto the A17 outside King’s Lynn, it is sixty (largely single-carriaged) miles to Newark. The trucks draw together, the landscape spreads away, boundary lines grow fewer and less arbitrary (I’m reminded of the ways land is ‘sectioned’ in ‘New’ World territories), the idea of the farm shifts, upscaling from the human to the mechanistic (to the point where there appear to be no farmhouses). The birds along the road are predators and scavengers. There are no pastures: pigs predominate in their vast, bare shanties. There are huge churches: Lincolnshire villages were wealthy, once. But standing in this landscape, they are marooned.
But perhaps this vast emptiness of the Fens offers something to poets in today’s rushing world that the villages of Norfolk or Oxfordshire can no longer do (at least, in the many times when we don’t have the opportunity to get the boots on). Two hours’ traversing of an unpeopled Lincolnshire in a car probably won’t offer the emotional dilation of a heathland trek; but it does afford a raising of the eyes to the horizon.