Peterborough to Wansford

Tuesday 8 May 2018.

Stanground Lock marks the end of the Fenland Rivers, and the beginning of the Nene. Peterborough Cathedral is the sight that greets your eyes as the guillotine lock gate rises, and a visit to the city and its wonderful church marked the transition.

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The river is full, and broad now, as we moor alongside the water front, and make our way up into the Cathedral Close.

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It’s an ancient site – there was a monastery here from 655, which was destroyed by the Vikings in 870 (the same onslaught that murdered St Edmund in Suffolk), and rebuilt in the 10C. Hereward the Wake attacked the Abbey in 1069; there was a fire in 1116, and it was rebuilt in its present form between 1118 and 1238. The Gothic west front is glorious –

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it engages the eye with dramatic intent, taking you from the depths of the three arches to the statues that gaze down upon you. The Nave extends away, with a stunning diamond ceiling.

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I drop into the office to see if the new Dean, Chris Dalliston is around. He was Dean of Newcastle, and has stepped in to turn around the fortunes of Peterborough. It hit the news a year or so ago, prompting a Cathedrals’ Review into the leadership and management of these iconic buildings. Peterborough is a tough place to run – like all Cathedrals they rely on visitors, and apart from the Cathedral, there’s not much reason to visit Peterborough – compared with other Cathedral cities. Chris is on his way back from Leeds, and will be going straight into a Finance Meeting, says his PA. The life of a Dean today. I leave my best wishes.

We visited Katharine of Aragon’s grave who died in nearby Kimbolton Castle, dying, as she lived, still convinced of the indissolubility of her marriage to Henry VIII, despite his divorce of her to marry Ann Boleyn, with his rejection of the authority of the Pope and declaration of his headship of the English church.

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Her burial there might have influenced Henry favourably to make the Abbey a Cathedral, and the Abbot, John Chambers, the first Bishop. Mary Queen of Scots was here, briefly, too, after death, before her son James I removed her body to Westminster Abbey in 1612. We go on, tomorrow, to Fotheringay, where she was executed.

Stopping in Peterborough gave me the chance to meet with Natalie Watson who lives in the Cathedral close. We find each other at Becket’s, with the West Front full in view. Natalie is the commissioning publisher for the book I’ve just finished, Full of Character, which will come out either in November, or January. We discussed the relative merits of before or after Christmas; possible venues for launches and the cover which I’m hoping will be a beautiful image of synapses firing off in the brain, looking like stars.

We wondered who to approach for endorsements, bandying around the names Iain McGilchrist, Nicky Morgan, Matthew Parker, Charlie Brooker, David Lammy – be great to get any of these. She’s pleased with it, which is a relief.

Back on board, and we head up river, following a light green narrow boat Sophia, to the first lock at Orton. It’s a stunning river, with green park and trees galore on either side. I hear – and then see! – a cuckoo. Common terns are fishing all around. Crested grebes, peewits, cormorants, moorhens – the birds seem more abundant than on the Fenland waters. I read in Mark Cocker’s book

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that Great Crested Grebe numbers fell to only 32 breeding pairs in the 1860s, owing to the popularity of their feathers for the hat trade. Numbers are now in the region of 6,000 breeding pairs. It’s a gorgeous bird, with its strange crest, dramatic spear of a beak and striking colours.

We’re happy to be alongside Sophia as we tackle Orton Lock together. The couple live on board, and cruise the river pretty much continuously. They show us the ropes, and give us really helpful tips as we anticipate the 37 locks ahead. They also warn us not to be too ambitious with the distances – Fotheringay is six hours away. They advise us to moor up at Wansford. So on we go to Water Newton Lock which is simply beautiful, with its mill and manor house, close by the church. Long lawns and the light stone of the houses, and already England feels very different to the fens.

The greens of early May are breath-taking along the Nene, as it meanders through meadows and woods. We push on, to Wansford where the mooring is already taken, and through the small town, mooring just below Wansford Lock, ready to go through first thing tomorrow. It’s later than we thought, as we settle down to spare ribs, stuffed mushroom and peppers – a great concoction by Viv.

The weather’s turning – it won’t be so hot tomorrow.

 

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.

Party in Prickwillow

Peter thought it would be a great idea to start the great voyage on the River Lark.

It flows through Bury St Edmunds, for a start, and out into the River Great Ouse beyond Prickwillow.DSC_2078 (1)

The boat’s name, another reason. So the idea of a gathering to bless the boat on her way grew, and people were invited, including The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, erstwhile Bishop of Leicester, who agreed to provide an episcopal blessing.

Saturday 5 May dawned hot and sunny, and the preparations began, with the excellent help of Hubert and Judy, my father and stepmother, and the Caterers Simper’s Kitchen.

Jez and his crew was the first to arrive in Scholar Gypsy. They’d moored at Tom Holes down river over night. Jonty is emerging from the hatch. DSC_2082

Molly, Hannah, Jez, Jonty, Stephen and Tom were a fantastic help serving food and drinks …

… and providing bunting. Molly is a year 6 teacher, and her class had read the blog and each had designed their own ‘flag’ for bunting. I loved them – from the first which reads “You are old but not too old to have a second life. May God be with you”, to “Have a good life in your new boat, which is rising up higher and higher every time you rise”, “Good luck, Mrs Vicar, I hope you will travel the world successfullIMG_3184y. Never give up”, “Ride with peace, Don’t ride in the dark. Ride in peace, Ride like a lark”. “Live an amazing life, And make it a thrill; Relax on the river, Keep it chill” – Thank you, year 6!! I’m really glad you’re following the blog. The bunting is now up, permanently, in The Lark Ascending.

Simon, who owns Scholar Gypsy, arrived, walked from Ely along the old causeway that follows the course of the ancient River Lark, and gradually we were all gathered.

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Tracey and Gary came from Fox Narrowboats in March.

The Lark Ascending is the 123rd boat they’ve built there, and it was wonderful they joined us … we’ve had happy holidays over the last few years on their hire boats.

And so many East Anglian friends – from old days at King’s School Ely, to friends from St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Cambridge, Ipswich, and very special, my sister Vanessa and brother Nick.

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Before the blessing a cello and violin emerged from Scholar Gypsy, and Vaughan Williams sounded out across the water – a memorable performance of The Lark Ascending – thank you, musicians!

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Bishop Tim was suitably and ceremoniously attired in mitre and cope, and his words captured the occasion perfectly; with a blessing IMG_3159 conveyed in word and river water splashed liberally on Peter and me …

… and the boat, inside and out.

 

 

 

 

 

Then a joy ride for those who wanted down stream, with drama from Jonty who left TLA by suspending himself from the rail bridge to wait for Scholar Gypsy.

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When all the guests had gone, Peter headed off for Mirfield, and both boats chugged down the Lark to join the Great Ouse and off towards Denver. At 7 pm we moored up against the bank, and watched the sun set over the fens as we tucked into a BBQ on the bank.

Chocolates and songs on board ended a perfect day.

Thank you to everyone who made it so, and especially to all those who brought little presents.

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Lillias August, whose image crowns this blog, painted a watercolour for the day.

It was her birthday, though she didn’t let on until afterwards.

It was also Keith and Viola’s 45th Wedding Anniversary …

… so much to celebrate on a wonderful day.

The greatest thankfulness goes to Peter who is the love of my heart.

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Ely

Ely is so deeply familiar. I know its faces, streets and trees; the stones shout aloud.

This visit was a goodbye in many ways. Seven years in Bury St Edmunds was a return to East Anglia after time in St Andrews, Cambridge, London, Manchester and Bradford, and this summer Peter and I head north again. Away from more than Suffolk.

I spent the 1970s in Ely, and the town thrives today, no longer the grumpy little place I remember. The market is wonderful; the riverside a great place to moor, the antiques warehIMG_3091ouse a treasure trove. This weekend there’s an Eel Festival,so we’re going to miss the parade of eels (acrylic) through the town with other eely games. At this time of the year, everything is blooming, as now the sun shines – all is green, green and full of blossom. The park looks wonderful; all those stately old trees many of which I climbed as a child; including the old London plane tree, always ‘the wonky tree’ in my mind (where I had my first kiss, aged 10) which still flourishes in the Dean’s Meadow.

I walk along the close, past the gate to home, IMG_3093and the long garden squeezed between the Bishop’s House and the Priory, where we had hedgehogs galore back then, and where mum was always digging up signs of monastic living from centuries ago – oyster shells, fragments of this and that. The old pear tree espaliered against the top wall, where one spring I put a milk bottle over a growing pear until there it was, trapped inside, freedom only possible when it rotted, or the bottle broke. And there, the drawing room window, through which I’d blast Rolled Gold. The Bishop then, Ted Roberts, never complained. Perhaps he liked it.

The Cathedral now is resplendent with a lovely new altar and furniture IMG_3097– thanks to a legacy from the Rt Revd Peter and Jean Walker. He was Bishop of Ely from 1978 – 1989. I remember his wisdom as I began to explore my own vocation to priesthood. How he talked of the priest, the preacher, the prophet and the pastor, how each needs to be owned and developed as a gift. The altar is a great memorial. It is octagonal, and seems to have been lowered from the Octagon above; a lovely rich colour and shape that holds the space perfectly, without drawing attention unnecessarily to itself. Elegant, contemporary and fitting. I gather the old choir stalls (which were new and radical in the 70s) are gone to Halifax Minster and my friend Hilary Barber.

Morning Prayer and the following mass each morning give me the chance to catch up with Canon Jessica and Dean Mark, and Canon Vicky came to supper after Evensong on Wednesday evening. The office is said reverently and seriously, with silence and care, with a real sense of this being the heart of the corporate life of the Cathedral. The girls’ choir, singing on Wednesday, sounded pure and strong. Mark and I talked of Canon Joe Hawes, a good friend of his, who will be the next Dean of St Edmundsbury. He will do a great job; and that makes it easier to say goodbye to Suffolk and the Cathedral there. I’m preaching in Ely in October, and very much looking forward to coming back. Ely and its close has so many memories. Not all of them happy – it wasn’t always easy to grow up there, surrounded by school and Cathedral close. Every time I return, I lay one or two more ghosts. They are in good company, I think to myself, as during Morning Prayer I contemplated the final resting place of the ossa of the seven 10C and 11C bishops and martyrs, some “caesus a Dani” in Bishop West’s Chapel. Ely takes to ghosts; it knows what to do with them.

After prayers, I walk the familiar way that each Tuesday morning I went, like snail, to my flute lesson. Philly Jane is an old and dear friend. I had the privilege of taking the funeral last September of her late husband John, who had valiantly persevered each week as I laboured away, always guilty at my lack of practice. He made lutes, and was ordained later in life. We read George Herbert’s Aaron’s Drest at the funeral. Their home was a haven at times during my teenage years – the alternative home everyone needs at times. The need now: a washing machine.

On her kitchen wall a picture by John Glover of Ely Market. IMG_3099Thursday morning found Viv and me there, finding all sorts of useful and edible things, and then, on the way back to the river, yet another visit to Cutlacks, who have seen a lot of us this week, and it’s great they are still there, a family concern. We’ve done a lot of kitting out of the boat this week. It’s so satisfying, to do little jobs that leave you feeling slightly more sorted.

Scholar Gypsy passes on her way along the river. Simon is off to Little Thetford to do some writing, but will join us at Prickwillow on Saturday. Good to put a face to the father of Jez, a friend of my son Jonty. I must read the Matthew Arnold sometime. I think of Michael Collins Persse in Geelong, Australia, and his poignant memoire of his dear Oxford friend, another scholar gypsy. Michael started at Geelong Grammar School the same day as my father did, two Poms from England in the 1960s. He’s still going strong, with his great archive of books. When HRH Prince Charles finished at Gordonstoun, he went to GGS, and Michael took special care of him, coaching him for Cambridge. I’m looking forward to seeing over Scholar Gypsy, curious to see how Simon has created and sorted the space.

We’d done the charity shops on Wednesday morning in the rain, and it was great to bump into and catch up with Gill who now teaches as King’s Ely. We were at St Andrews University together in the 1980s. And back on the boat, King’s Ely girls and boys are out in sculls, pairs and fours, and canoes, coached by a member of staff who was there when I was a pupil in the 1970s. Some things really don’t change.

The boat houses have, though. Cambridge University has theirs, further down the river, sporting their sponsorship from a large American bank.

Kingfishers, crested grebes, swans, swallows, geese and duck with young, heron – the bird life is still there; but oh, I feel the pressure wild life suffers today. Eels, for instance. Plentiful in the 1970s, when my brother used to catch them, alongside the bream, perch, tench and gudgeon. It was good to see a great crested grebe catch and eat a fish just there, a few yards away from the boat.

As we travel through the towns of England, I’m keeping an eye on rough sleepers – another symptom of contemporary Western lifestyles that can be so brutal on the vulnerable, and careless of resources – people and environment. There were at least four we saw in Ely. Do support the Church Housing Trust with a donation.

Toppings wasn’t there in the 70s. It’s a great book shop, bucking the trend of internet shopping, secure in its reputation for books and coffee. Viv and I sat amongst the art books and poetry, and I showed her my purchases. Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear – a signed first edition! Her treatment of Bewick the bird engraver was brilliant, so I can’t wait to read this. Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland – which seems appropriate, with weather so important to us just now; Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? (I passionately hope so); and more Iris Murdoch as I read all her novels. Already ticked off are The Bell, The Sea, The Sea; Nuns and Soldiers; The Italian Girl, and now, just finished, her strange last novel Jackson’s Dilemma. Written when her dementia had begun to set in, as John Bayley records, it seems as if she is already losing the plot. It is held, but only just – and does Jackson represent her growing enigma to herself? We never get to the bottom of him; never quite understand his dilemma. I’m not sorry to finish it. Though perhaps my reading was clouded by the knowledge of her dementia. What if I had read it, unaware? What did I miss because of my pre-judgement? Novels take you in; or we hold back. I held back on this one, not quite trusting Murdoch to be Murdoch. Do I do that with people? With myself? Perhaps inevitably. It’s The Philosopher’s Pupil next. I feel safer as I anticipate this one.

Good bye to Ely. It’s a place I’ll always visit with strange and deep layers of knowledge. I have abided and dwelt there during formative years. Such knowledge cannot be unknown. I know myself as I was then (or think I do), and as I am now, and the conversation is always worth it.

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A Peroxide Shade of Grey

“So you a couple then?”

The inevitable question of Viv and me, as we are both in our late fifties and look like we might be.

It comes as we’re side-by-side with another boat, in the lock at Denver Sluice. It’s a deep lock, cavernous, with enormous guillotine gates each end to stop the tide flooding through into the River Great Ouse. We’ve just pushed up, full throttle, against the tide of the Bedford River that goes straight and direct to Earith. The tide’s not as high as yesterday’s as the Springs wane with the moon. It feels like an achievement, to pull into the lock without mishap, without bumping their boat or worse. (The evening before we’d pulled in behind them to moor – very carefully – even though they hadn’t left enough space, so we had nudged them. He’d emerged some minutes later and grumbled about the ‘terrific bump’ we’d given them. I’d exclaimed my denial, with a justified sense of pride, and asked him to move his boat on a bit, which he’d done, now friendly. It doesn’t do to apologise.)

Viv was in the bow, alongside the woman on the boat; I was at the tiller, chatting to the bloke. Viv had asked if she lived on board. He did, she didn’t, ‘but I come for the voyages,’ she giggled.

Viv explained that no, ‘that’s Frankie; she’s married to Peter and he would be joining us for the weekend on Friday;’ she was married to Sally, who lived in Norfolk.

The turn to the personal invited an exchange of information. The woman stage-whispered something, Les Dawson style.

“Sorry,” Viv apologised. “I didn’t catch that.”

“He’s the master; I’m the slave,” she repeated, audibly this time.

We couldn’t hear any of this, the ‘master’ and I, a boat’s length away down the lock. Viv covered her surprise and said something non-committal, not sure if she wanted to hear any more, but definitely intrigued.

“That’s right. He’s the master. He thinks he’s in control, but I know better!” She chortled. “We’re into BDSM.”

The woman was in her early sixties, with peroxide blond hair pulled back carelessly into a pig tail – a strange shade of grey. She was buxom and jolly. He looked like Jeremy Corbyn.

Later, as we drove away, with them in pursuit (or so it seemed), we googled BDSM. We had got the SM bit, but weren’t sure what the BD stood for. We know now. And you’ll know too, shortly, I’m sure, if you don’t know already, as you turn to Google. You don’t have to – there’s a community out there, or so Wikipedia claims, of folk into all sorts of bondage and domination.

I felt rather innocent. And happy to stay that way.

Narrowboats offer a surprising degree of freedom. You’re always on the move so there’s no neighbours to gossip, only strangers to tell. And once you’re on board, you retreat into a private space, most of it under the water line. Who knows what goes on in all those boats moored alongside the river and canal banks throughout the land? We moor up at Ely four hours later and find ourselves speculating, as we wondered if they would catch us up. I somehow didn’t want to meet them again. When you receive information like that, it sticks in your mind. Rather unpleasantly, I found, as I controlled my thoughts. I found myself, now and then, starting down a lubricated slippery slope that I didn’t want to slide.

It’s a potent privacy that narrowboats offer. Each boa,t a subculture. A way of getting away from normal routines and indulging the wayfaring instinct that travellers know, and creating your own purpose. Stepping off the quay, out of normality and onto the water where things are submerged and flow at different speeds and temperatures, the deeper you go.

I wonder at the numbers who live aboard – whether anyone knows. Perhaps that’s a question for More or Less.

Paul might have some idea. Paul’s the lock keeper at Salter’s Lode. He’s been there 25 years now. He went on to talk me through the hazards of this tidal lock as we waited for the water to drop enough for the boat to have clearance under the guillotine. I asked him if the sandbank was still there, on the approach to the Denver lock. We’d almost grounded on it last year. He said it had been dredged, so to head straight into the lock, or moor at the pontoon. He grumbled about the authorities – how he kept asking them to provide a map of the river. ‘There’s a tree halfway along on the Left, so stick to the Right. They won’t provide a map’, he said. That’ll make them liable. ‘Last year I saw a boat that almost went over. It was coming down on the tide and turned, as you have to do, across the flow. It got caught and almost rolled. I thought it had. I thought they were goners. So did they. Screaming in fear they were. The water came up to the windows, imagine that. My whole body reacted with the shock’, said Paul. Not much shocks him. ‘It’ll take a death for them to sit up and do something. And then it’ll be to spend tens of thousands getting in consultants who won’t have a clue.’

He waved as we did the turn out of the lock and up stream.

Wednesdays must be his day off. Because there he was, as Viv and I did the charity shops in Ely, coming out of Scope with his missus. (His gate into the Lock-keeper’s house says ‘No Parking. Wife Grazing’.) I didn’t say hallo. Days off are days off.

First night aboard at Salter’s Lode

Monday, the last night of April, is the first night sleeping aboard.

We’re moored up at Salter’s Lode on Well Creek, waiting to cross the tidal section and through Denver Sluice lock, onto the River Great Ouse. It was a cold and windy passage from March, once we said goodbye to Tracey and Alan at Fox Narrowboats, through the town with its riverside gardens and boathouses, and out onto the Fen of the Middle Levels.

Viv experienced her first lock at Marmont Priory Lock, as we were helped by the Lock-keeper, and on we went, undecided whether to stop as we yearned for the warmth of the woodburner.

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But we pushed on, and finally moored up at Salter’s Lode at about 8 pm.

Originally there was a Roman Road from Swaffham and the Devil’s Dyke to Denver and from there, on older silts, over the fens we travelled through – Upwell, Outwell and Nordelph – to March, Whittlesey, Stanground to Peterborough. The Romans started the process of draining this area, but their works fell into disrepair and the land reverted to watery bog and fen – its natural state. Now, as we drove along (‘driving’ is correct word for narrow boats) we were often many feet above the surrounding land and houses. The peat soil has shrunk, or blown, and depleted.

The story of the draining of the fens and the forming of the waterways that we travelled on Monday and through this week as we go towards the river Lark is a long and fascinating one. By the 13C and 14C as the estuary at Wisbech became clogged, the Nene and the Western Ouse flowed increasingly along Well Creek, though navigation was obstructed at Outwell. The Bishop of Ely, John Morton, built Morton’s Leam in 1478 to carry the Nene from Stanground in Peterborough to Guyhirn – setting the precedent for all the major 17C drainage works. In 1605 Sr John Popham, hated by the people for taking their land, cut a straight Popham’s Eau northeast of March to the Well Creek.

But a more regional vision was needed, and in 1630 a group of landowners approached Francis 4th Earl of Bedford and Sir Cornelius Vermuyden was appointed. Between 1631 and 1637 Vermuyden improved many existing drains and built the Bedford River which ran from the new sluice at Earith to Salter’s Lode.

This Mayday morning we will drive through the lock that stops the tidal water flooding up Well Creek and out onto that tidal Bedford River, taking the rising tide a third of a mile upriver to Denver Sluice, and through the lock there onto the River Great Ouse.

This massive sluice is testament to human effort to keep the water at bay. The floods of 1953, and again in 1998, leave you wondering, though, just how long it will be before the advice of the Board of Agriculture in 1925 becomes reality that  the Fenland ‘return to primeval conditions’. The land is farmed extensively, beyond viability with the soil now exhausted in many areas. Throughout the river basins that feed the Fenland Rivers industrial and residential developments continue, the paved areas feeding the water faster into the rivers. Ever more efficient agricultural drainage has the same effect. As climate change means greater rainfall, all this water has to find its way to the sea over land which is below sea level, in rivers whose gradients are decreasing and whose flood plains have been reduced. It makes you wonder what the future holds.

High Tide is at 10 am this morning, and an hour before, under instruction from Lock-keeper Paul, we will enter the lock and watch the water rise until there’s enough to take us out onto the tidal stretch. The flooding water will speed us up river, a short distance, before we swing around the sand bank and bring TLA alongside the waiting quay to go through the lock that sits alongside the massive sluice that keeps out the salt, and controls the water throughout the Fenlands.

When we get to Ely – our destination for this evening – I’m going to buy a copy of Graham Swift’s Waterland (a visit to the brilliant bookshop Toppings is obviously required). It’s a great novel about these parts, weaving together the history of the drainage of the fens, the story of the eel, and the tragic account of past events, all of which capture the strangeness of this watery land.

As I wake this morning, already I’m used to the motion that is a constant reminder that we are in a different element now; no longer on sure foundations. Now we are aware of weather, wind and flow.

It’s always a temptation to try and see the bottom – to look over the side and watch for fish. William Wordsworth recalls hanging over a slow-moving boat, solacing himself

With such discoveries as his eye can make

Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,

Sees many beauteous sights – weeds, fishes, flowers,

Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,

Yet often is perplexed, and cannot part

The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,

Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth

Of the clear flood, from things which there abide

In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam

Of his own image …

Too often all we see is our own image – the eternal narcissus. We fail to see more deeply into the weeds, fishes, the pebbles that lie at the bottom. You can just see the bottom of Well Creek. Much easier, as Wordsworth writes of Lake District skies, are the reflections of the clouds. As the dawn begins this morning, and Viv takes the dogs Sid and Molly out, the sky is blue; but we’re set for more cloud. The weather matters more when you’re afloat.

Living on water, writing on water, takes us into the subaqueous rich muddiness and life, deep within the stream that flows within us, swirling with stuff we’d often much rather remained submerged.

St Teresa of Avila contrasted the streams she found within her:

It is as if we were to look at a very clear stream, in a bed of crystal, reflecting the sun’s rays, and then to see a very muddy stream, in an earthly bed, and overshadowed by clouds.

The elements mix at the bottom of the river below us – earth becomes water, then water into air, to become the clouds, reflected as we gaze. It stirs stuff, living on a narrow boat.

My first real thoughts about God were watery ones. Like Catherine of Siena I thought the love of God was best likened to the wideness of the sea, extending beyond the horizon. All we can hope to do is capture a little of that love to ourselves, I thought, as a harbour holds the tidal flow for a little while, and lets it go again. As we cross the only stretch of tidal water The Lark Ascending is ever likely to know, contemplating the human achievement that has held the sea away over the centuries, I’m left wondering about our need to control. Perhaps better to let the flow go where it will.

I wrote this sonnet a few years ago, after reading Thomas Traherne.

And does the sea itself flow in your veins?

The pounding waves that thunder, suck and draw

the shore? The surf that licks the sand, then drains

away, and then, each tide, comes back for more?

Always the same: a vast similitude

of motion, a heaving, breathing, seething power

that meets, explores, expresses every mood.

Now it reflects the light, some joy-filled hour,

when radiance – jouissance – dances the deep.

Or now the darkness of a grieving sigh

that tunes itself to the distant sob and weep

that pulls forever between the sea and sky.

Traherne thought so. To know the world aright,

the sea flows there, an inner sound and sight.

God’s grace breaks through, because God’s grace is already there, in sea, and tree, in stars, and wild, undomesticated nature. God’ grace breaks through, because the whole world is sacramental. This land knows God and responds with jouissance, with rapture, with vibrant atom. And also, perhaps, with flood and water that cannot be kept at bay for ever.

(with thanks to Andrew Hunter Blair’s Fenland Waterways, 2016)