Leaving the Fens

It’s Thursday 10 May – Ascension Day – and we’re stuck at Titchmarsh Lock. Where is Alan when you want him? The Environmental Agency are gadding around the country – so they say – looking for parts for the gear box that operates the guillotine gate. We might be here days.

So now’s the opportunity to catch up with posts. There’s been no reception up to now. At least that’s working. Sort of. Not enough to send photos, I’m afraid. So I’ll post anyway, and edit the piccies in later.

We go back a day or two, to Bank Holiday Monday – the hottest on record – which saw TLA serviced at Fox’s Marina and then heading off up the Nene (Old Course), with steep banks on either side, through the narrow waterway that becomes Whittlesey Dyke, to Ashline Lock.

There we were told that there was no mooring space left in Whittlesey, and no mooring between here and Stanground Lock, on the outskirts of Peterborough. Resourceful as ever, we negotiated the very tight bend (5 point turn) and moored against the railing and concrete wall on Riverside Way and hoped none of the local residents would object. The lichens on the wall were beautiful.

A walk into Whittlesey town, and there was one shop open, so we bought provisions and then settled down for a quiet afternoon and evening in the heat. The may blossom is just about to burst; birdsong all around as I write.

I’m giving Iris Murdoch a rest and have turned to Mark Cocker’s Our Place. I’m deep in his analysis of the National Trust and its founders, and how it’s been high-jacked by those concerned to preserve our heritage, rather than campaign to save the wildlife and environments. His first chapter is all about his place, Blackwater, which he bought in 2012 – five acres of floodplain in the parish of Postwick in North Norfolk – where he’s restoring the dykes to fresh water from the dark noxious sludge that comes with the encroaching woodland. Viv, on her small property in Panxworth, which can’t be far from Cocker’s home, tells me she’s doing the same with the sedge and ditches around her small cottage. I say she should make contact with Cocker. They’d have much in common.

As Viv and I have travelled these dykes and waterways of the Middle Level, it’s impressive just how much work goes into sustaining these dykes and waterlands. It’s a constant battle against the natural environment to keep the water at bay, in dyke and leam and ditch. I’m shocked, though, at the cost to the wildlife. As Cocker points out, the extraordinary natural abundances of wild vegetation and protein for the fenlanders – reeds, sedge, herbage, flags, fish, ruff, plovers, godwits, cranes, herons, duck, geese, swans – were all lost as a result of drainage. An entire way of life gone for ever. It’s true that our baseline is what we grow up with, and so it’s hard to imagine the biodiversity and rich flora and fauna of past times – but as Cocker intends, it’s important to remember, to inspire us to work for a different future when today’s depletion is only a memory of a sad episode in this nature-loving nation’s past.

He records a lament from 1620, as the drainage of the fens began – the Powte’s Complaint (the powte was a once-abundant fish).

The  poem indicates the tremendous upheaval and dispossession of the enclosures of the commons that began in the 17C and continued through to the 19C – and fen drainage was how it happened on these middle levels through which we chug.
I’m with Cocker in his passion to create the commons we once had, where something of the enormous variety of environments can develop again. He is worth reading – along with other nature writers today, who all cry aloud for the same attention to be paid to the natural beauty of our national home.

We are about to leave the Fenland Rivers, and begin our voyage along the Nene, from Peterborough to Northampton. We shall see the countryside around, instead of interminable steep, green banks, behind which the land stretches away, flat and drained, for miles on either side, with only the odd house roof and farm to be seen above the dyke.

I’ll be sorry to leave this once-watery land. Wicken Fen shows what’s possible for more of it, as Cocker restores his Blackwater.

One thought on “Leaving the Fens

  1. Marjorie Duffield

    I am enjoying your travel blogs.I look forward to seeing you and Peter at St Michael’s church in Workington.God bless you both.

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