This is an article which recently appeared in the Caught By The River fanzine ‘An Antidote to Indifference.’
As I get out of the car, a light rain falls from the sulky, monochrome stratus cloud overhanging the Wash from its low-lying South-East facing shore, to the North-West facing chalk cliffs at Hunstanton. Behind me the Fens stretch inland through Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Also behind me, as I set out along the banks of the sea wall, which pen the mouth of the river Nene between them, is the Sir Peter Scott Lighthouse; actually these are the first few paces of the Sir Peter Scott Walk. Here, from 1933 until the start of war in 1939, one of our best-known conservationists lived. The son of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, Peter Scott was a keen wildfowler who came to love the wildness of the Fens, and founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as a result. Both hunter and conservationist, he symbolises the contrasts of this landscape, its inhabitants, its remoteness and its wildlife.
The sea wall stretches into the distance before me like a timeline. It is featureless and straight. Any change in direction is geometric: an obtuse angle of a few degrees. The Romans undertook some management of this landscape many hundreds of years before Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden carried out the extensive draining of the Fens on a scale not believed possible in the seventeenth century. This has been a managed landscape for a very long time.
That the Fens can be a difficult landscape to engage with is undeniable. In some people’s imaginations a fenland landscape is a dark, dank one: lonely country lanes intersecting unwelcoming villages surrounded by a fog-obscured marsh. That may be over-dramatising the case in point, but fens and marshes have traditionally been the haunt of the hidden, the nameless, the criminal. In Great Expectations Abel Magwitch appears from the ‘Dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard,’ the ‘distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing.’ Hinterland, that oft-over-used word from the German meaning ‘behind land,’ is a word that suits perfectly the fens and marshes that separate land and sea. These are the edges: the edges of society, of the habitable. But the fear of a nameless, ageless terror from the fen is older than Dickens.
The single existing manuscript of Beowulf was penned around the tenth century, passed down verbally for the preceding five or six hundred years. In Shamus Heany’s wonderful translation it is an epic, alliterative story of good and evil, light and dark, honesty and cowardice. What must it have been like gathered round the flickering firelight, as the storyteller recounted the horrors of the hall of Hrothgar? Of Grendel’s approach ‘off the moors, down through the mist-bands…greedily loping,’ of how he ‘grabbed and mauled a man… bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps.’ Later, after Beowulf has fought the monster and ripped off his arm as a trophy, the ‘monstrous hell-bride,’ that is Grendel’s mother comes for revenge, and after seizing back her son’s arm she heads ‘for the fen.’
This is a landscape of contrasts; not the spectacular geological contrasts of mountains, or the jagged traverse from land to sea the Jurassic Coast provides, but still a landscape of characterful contrasts. One that affects you slowly but surely, like a stored whiskey steeps the oak of a barrel. The trapezoid permanence of the sea wall is as final a demarcation line between man’s domain and nature’s as the Berlin wall was to the East and West of the city. To my right is straight lines, obtuse angles, the fastness of man; to my left the salt marsh with its sinuous sweeps, and the wilful, infinite, randomness of nature. This may be a landscape which sees few people, especially in the bleak heart of Winter as now, and it may in places — particularly the salt marsh and the Wash — be what could be called wild, but the Fens themselves are probably the most managed landscape we have. It was the Anglian ice sheet, several hundred metres thick, which was originally responsible for flattening the soft, sedimentary rocks here, not man. What we have done however, is claim land from nature. One of the watch-words of ecology in recent years has been re-wilding: the process of allowing formerly managed areas to lapse back to their natural state. Land claiming here in the Fens is the exact opposite, it is taming and un-wilding. Since the Saxons, approximately a hundred-thousand hectares have been tamed for agriculture. It seems as well as encroaching on existing land for development schemes and the like, we have actually had to create new land from wild stock; hybridising salt marsh with dry land to create the rich agricultural mural that is the Fens as we know them today. The Fens themselves are genetically modified farmland.
The Wash is a place of beauty and raw nature; where crepuscular light woven from great, towering cloudscapes shines on shallow seas and sand banks; where flocks of innumerable waders cloud the sky, where peregrines stoop, and the haunting call of the pinkfooted geese echoes. The Wash National Nature Reserve is the largest Site of Special Scientific Interest in England. It is designated a Special Area of Conservation, and holds the highest international conservation status under the Ramsar Treaty for wetlands. Habitat includes intertidal mud and sand flats, ten-per-cent of the total UK salt marsh, coastal lagoons, reefs and shingle structures. It contains the largest peak number of birds of any estuarine system in Great Britain; four fifths of the English common seal population breed here; it is a nursery to juvenile fish of many species.
Half a mile or so inland from me a tractor is re-straightening lines, authenticating our occupancy of the land. A raptor rises over the sea wall some way ahead. At first I think marsh harrier, but through the binoculars I spot the tell-tale white rump of a female hen harrier. These rare birds nest in upland moorland, but in the Winter they head to coastal habitat such as this to take advantage of the swelling numbers of migrant birds. I’ve seen females in several locations in Norfolk, but when a male rises up over the sea wall in the female’s wake I’m thrilled. It is another contrast to add to this landscape. The grey plumage and black-flared wing-tips of the male is not the drab grey of the overhead cloud, but a luminous grey, a grey that lights up the landscape, and sharpens it to a point of immediacy before me. Landscape alone is enough, but it is our observations and our participation with landscape, whether physical or emotional, which validate it further, give it its purpose and credibility.
As I walk on towards the river Great Ouse and the town of King’s Lynn I notice some of the larger creeks in the salt marsh are bridged by the odd plank, and there is a line of white-topped posts I presume show a safe path for the wildfowlers that have hunted here, in one way or another, for many hundreds, and probably thousands of years. Some of the villages that fringe the marshes have age-old rights of wildfowling, and some of the wildfowlers I know would as soon give up their lives as their right to shoot the odd brace of duck or goose. It is not the driven pheasant shooting of inland with bags of two, three or four hundred birds a day. Often, after crouching in a creek for hours in the chill of a Fenland dawn, a wildfowler will head home without even having fired a shot, and every bird that is shot will feed family or friends.
The sea wall begins its sharpest turn since I left the mouth of the Nene as King’s Lynn hoves into view on the far bank of the river Great Ouse. There has been a ferry running between West Lynn and King’s Lynn since 1285, and it is this rarely seen face that the town shows the river which is by far its most attractive. The days when Lynn was a member of the Hanseatic League, with international trading links stretching thousands of miles, making the port one of the most important in the country, are long gone, though the docks and the surrounding medieval architecture still reflect it.
From the Nene to the Ouse — the length of the Peter Scott walk — I have been surrounded by wildness on the one hand and civilisation on the other, and I have walked the actual dividing line between the two. A wildness exists here on the fringes of cultivation; a wildness that is cut in two by our hybridisation of two habitats. Though the sea wall separates them, the Fens and the Wash are intertwined like multiple strands of DNA, and related by water, by land, by memory, by tradition, by people, by history. It is a landscape under attack on two fronts: from the North comes the wind, the waves, and the creeping sedimentation they and the tides bring, while from the South the constant pangs of an agricultural industry hungry for more land. It is this final contrast between nature and man which focuses this landscape for me as I step aboard the ferry to King’s Lynn.