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.


§ 14 Responses to Traversing the Fens

  • JIM CARUTH says:

    I know what you mean Rob, but what those particular counties lack on the ground so to speak (and I go back again to W S Sebald and his bleak landscapes of Suffolk) they make up with such immense skys. Nowhere else in the UK will you have such dramatic canvasses of cloud – look at Constables work – more of it was about the sky at that moment than the small figure on the back of a cart.
    I suppose the fault with many of us when we are observing the landscape (whether it is rural or urban) is that we don’t lift our eyes up.


  • Rob Hindle says:

    You’re probably right, Jim – though the Lincolnshire skies are immense, too. I think my interest was piqued by the emptiness of the Fens encouraging my eyes out to the horizon (and the sky) – whereas the variety and human scale of North Norfolk (more Breughel than Constable, perhaps?) kept the focus on the everyday.

    (All of which suggests a rather grandiose notion of the focus of poetry: but my reference to Thomas hopefully makes the point that it is the human as part of the wider panorama (physical, temporal, emotional etc) that I consider as the significant locus of poetry).

    • Penny says:

      I made that journey, along the A17, for 25 years as my toddlers grew to adulthood and my mother slowly aged. For me it was a very human landscape; we had a story for every mile. We sat in traffic queues through the eighties while the endless road was painstakingly widened to become a speedy dual carriageway only to be narrrowed again when fashions changed. The white lines slowed us down and once more the everlasting journey became a hypnotic meditation. I measure the journey in 20 minute chunks from the now bypassed winding village, past the airfield with the flying carrot, the picnic spot and five sailed windmill, the swing bridge and on past vast glass houses full of lettuce,

      The dual carriageway around Long Sutton is temptation after many miles stuck behind a caravan, but then you miss the wooden spired church where my mother lost a glove . You will not stop at the house clearance repository, where I broke down on a hot and dusty day and thereafter punctuated my progress to rescue unwanted gems: a sewing machine, a stack of LPs, an Edwardian vase.

      Over the Ouse and onward, the African Violet centre welcoming us to Kings Lynn and soon we are on the A10, with only the last lap to the apple orchard that marks the road, not to home, but to the haven my mother found in the little town of Downham where the soil is rich, the digging is light and the roses smell extra sweet. It has changed since she moved there. It used to be a town for the old but young families moved in bringing life but now teenagers are trapped with little hope for the future.

      After fifteen years we moved even further away, up to Newcastle, just to make the journey longer. And it was my pleasure and pain to make the five hour drive down through North Yorkshire, past the sleeping dragon to the east of the A1 and across the wondrous Humber Bridge, an extraordinarily beautiful structure which may have bankrupted the city but always lifted my soul as I passed over the expanse of water into the secret land of Lincolnshire where the best potatoes grow and the roads are very straight. With some concentration, this being before the days of sat nav, I could find my way to Boston, where houses cannot now be sold for flood risk and townsfolk are trapped waiting for the sea to reclaim the land. To join the A17 at the swing bridge was to feel a rush of emotion and anticipation of the cup of tea and hug from my slowly shrinking mother.

      She’s gone now. And my children are grown and flown. I make that journey only in my imagination, thinking of the nameless still living and growing under that endless, awesome sky surrounded by all that borrowed land and tall, tall trees still standing against the wind. The skies change with the hour as time flows by, backwards or forwards at my will: sunset, starlight, dark leaden clouds or the sad morning mist on a February day.

      • Rob Hindle says:

        You express it much better than I was able to, Penny: human stories, small in a huge landscape, tracing across and back, scoring/scouring their ways. A wonderful cartography.

      • Carolyn says:

        I lived and worked on the edge of the Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire Fens long before I had turned to creative writing. Colin Sutherill was born there and has written wonderful poems about the farming history and characters who lived there. I’ll forward this post to him …

  • Damian Smyth says:

    Rob, isn’t there that funny fixation currently with empty territory? A revival of interest in Antartica for instance, which has the character of being empty with just the imaginary tourist of the reader or filmmaker or viewer in it. All that secret spying on animals that naturalists get up to – what the world is like without us there. I don’t think any landscape means a damn without people in it. I’m not even sure it exists in any meaningful way. There’s a fetish for ‘countryside’, rural idylls of a sort which certain people, usually those with disposable income, transfer themselves to at a certain stage of their lives. Escape to the Country and all that. Poets have been doing that too recently, depositing themselves in ‘countryside’ and responding to ‘it’. Though Horace is an example way back, he was actually returning, wasn’t he? He wasn’t vacationing, any more than Wordsworth, and even if the vacation happens to last for the whole twilight years, there’s an unavoidable attitude and a mindset which is an aerial view. There’s a cute sort of postmodern visiting that goes on among poets in landscape – the more wry and observant they are, the more they are botanists rather than ‘farmers’, the higher the value of the verse, the more sophisticated the sensibility. Ted Hughes managed a real commerce with the world as he lived in it without at all patronising it – because he lived it and lived in it. It would have been like patronising himself. RS Thomas too, and many others. But aren’t they all a little quaint in the poetry world? Aren’t they a bit too immersed for their own good? There seems to be a current delight in tramping the rural byways or the canals or the moors or the mountainy walks and it’s hard to do that with our BAs and MAs, when what’s required is a deliberate embracing of the world there, with its endurance and nastiness and its hardship too as well as the picturesque. Poets can only be alongside that world, at best, rather than in it completely as if they had never seen what’s over the hill – but that’s better by far than the day tripper or the holiday cottager poets, before they move back in the next volume to recounting the details of their personal lives. But Breughel’s alongside. So is Constable. It’s alright being that way. (Good stuff. I don’t know the Fens.)

    • Rob Hindle says:

      I think you’re right about the one-way street of the academy. Ironic that our fascinations can tend to lead us into study of, rather than existence in, place. Perhaps the current interest in landscape among poets – certainly mine – is that it can take us into a mode of experience which is less considered / reflective / analytical and more immediate. We jump a wall and head out across a field, start to look up and around, to listen to the smaller sounds that the A17 has drowned out.

      Or we go back – as Penny has – to earlier journeys, illuminated by those points (the wooden church, the rose garden, the bridges over and into pasts) which have brightened in amber and become as rich as those symbols (‘Church with tower’, ‘Marsh or salting’, ‘Battlefield (with date)’) that filled the treasure maps of my childhood.

      • Brian Lewis says:

        Very interesting post and comment thread. As a non-driver, I was particularly struck by Penny’s account of a distance become intimate, paced and scaled according to personal, familial measures, the detail rich and immediate. While there’s much to be said for the contact with landscape that one makes through walking, I’m wary of the tendency to decry other forms of transport as being less ‘authentic’ or ‘immersive’. Foot, cycle, car, rail: each of these modes offers something to reward attention and reflection.

        It’s worth considering the role of the car windscreen in allowing certain ideas of landscape (or landscapes) to develop and be sustained over great distances. Both walking and driving (for prolonged periods) tend towards the meditative (particularly when the journeys are unaccompanied, or made in silence). Rob’s agricultural survey is a good example of watchful motoring: noting how, as the road pushes north, the ‘traditional’ farm gives way to the industrial and intensive. Observations of this kind are beyond the scope of a walk (even a long walk).

        Damian makes some excellent points regarding the current preoccupation (infatuation?) with unviable territory. Over the years, I’ve made a number of visits to the east of England: Kent, Essex, Suffolk. I lived in Colchester for a few years in the 1990s, but didn’t explore the surrounding area; it was the idea of the east that drew me back, a fascination with the white spaces around Shoeburyness (as mapped by the Ordnance Survey), a need to reconcile (or attempt to reconcile) the absence of mapped detail with the detail on the ground. I knew that the blanks were reserved for the MOD, and that much of this territory would be inaccessible. My walks were, therefore, frequently circumscribed by security fences, checkpoints and barriers; I was often struck by the contrast between the density and flow of population on the ‘civilian’ side and the apparent absence of activity on the other. The militarised landscape is no less human for being ’emptied out’ in this way, of course; human agency has (re)shaped the ground, its uses and features. It is also acutely responsive to trespass, as I discovered when loitering near Foulness Island (former Trident depot, amongst other things), and found the supposedly ‘depopulated’ marshes suddenly bristling with Qinetic contractors.

        The ‘unviable’ landscape with which most of us are familiar (at least as an archetype) is, of course, the isolated rural idyll identified by Damian; unviable because of the levels of disposable income and logistical support needed to make it attainable, desirable, sustainable. When the retreat threatens to become a trap, the car is on hand to offer an exit to the city. For people in Downham and Boston (many of whom will depend on public transport to get around) it’s a different story; the viability of these communities is threatened by demographic changes and coastal erosion respectively, a slow, painful ’emptying out’ of the landscape that resists any attempts to romanticise it.

  • Penny says:

    It’s really interesting to read the threads and different perspectives. Location, location, location is a one way socio-economic game. I know I will never be able to return to live in my birthplace or move out to the countryside and it would be easy to be resent those who can down-size to a lifestyle in East Anglia that many could never achieve even if they wanted to. However, I consider myself fortunate that circumstances have brought me here. And blessed that I have reason to be constantly travelling, up and down, back and forth across our rich and varied land. England, and even Britain, is so tiny, even though it can seem vast. I thought some of my journeys were epic until I went to Australia where the landscape was bewildering in its alien monotony. As I touched down in rainy Manchester I thrilled with delight to be coming home. The hills of Sheffield are a comforting embrace. I feel safe here.

  • Rob Hindle says:

    This is a cracking conversation! A real sense of place (crossed / felt / immersed within / returned to). One thing about such landscapes as the Fens (as well as tidal reaches and other susceptible territories): they make you think…

  • Colin Sutherill says:

    For me, the issue is never people v places because not only do people live in landscapes but, certainly for a born fenlander like myself, landscapes shape people. Lincolnshire does get a raw deal and not only from, as Rob says, the metropolitan set and their current obsession with Norfolk. For many, the fens are synonymous with Cambridgeshire, but South Lincs’s skies are equally scary and those pencil-line perspectives even more zen-like. But do get off the A17, some of you guys and explore the secret villages of Gedney Drove End and Dawsmere, Bicker, Moulton, Weston Hills, etc, etc. This is a lost land where there are still plenty of smallholders working their fields virtually single-handedly, spending days on end with only the sky for company. It’s no wonder landscape messes with our minds.

  • Rob Hindle says:

    Thanks Colin – I am intrigued by the likes of Bicker, Tydd Gote, Surfleet Seas End. I don’t know if you know my Spence Broughton poems, some of which are set around Martin nr Sleaford?

    Place of water and wet earth,
    stink of beets and cabbages.
    There are fields made here
    that sink each winter in an inland sea.
    There is occasional, terrible tragedy.

    • Colin Sutherill says:

      You say “Spence Broughton poems” in the plural. I must read more. By the way, I’m probably related to Spence Broughton. I’m a Broughton on my mother’s side and a distant relative who does family history is convinced there’s a link.

      • Rob Hindle says:

        Longbarrow Press published The Purging of Spence Broughton – a sequence – in 2009. We are hoping to re-issue it in October with an event at Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival.

        In fact, I met a descendent, Tim Newton, a couple of weeks ago. Had a good chat about the man – and read a few poems in the bear pit in Sheffield Botanical Gardens!

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