Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Flatlands and thunderstorms

No blogging for three days! I've been either out or busy. Let's press on with the holiday report, and get it nailed. I want to move on to new stuff.

After visiting A--- I went off to Crowland.

Imagine a north-south coastline, an ancient sea shore if you like, which is now far inland. Well, places like Peterborough are on the edge of that. This 'ancient shore' marks the very edge of the East Midlands. Eastwards used to be very low land that might get flooded by the sea, a region of water and land that was never quite dry. Crowland is there. In the Fens.

The Fens are Eastern England's equivalent of the Dutch lowlands that were progressively reclaimed from the sea and became very productive farmland - famously the Zuider Zee. As in Holland, rivers were straightened, lots of drainage dykes dug, and embankments were raised to keep the river water and the ever-threatening sea off the farmland, which in some spots is indeed below sea level. Pumps have always been necessary to get rid of the water. Once windmills did the job. Nowadays of course it's all-electric. It has taken centuries to create this very low, very flat landscape, which is largely given over to ploughed land and the intensive and efficient farming of single crops.

'Fenland' originally implied a distinctive soggy area, half water, half small islands that were difficult to get at except by boats or easily-defended causeways. It was a place very attractive to ecclesiastical communities, and cathedrals, abbeys and priories came into being here and there. In time, as the land became drained, villages grew into towns; but it's still not a well-populated area. The villages tend to be spaced out along straight roads, lacking an obvious centre. There are few towns really worth the name, and often you don't get near them because they have been by-passed. All you notice, as you drive along the straight roads, is the endless farmland, studded with isolated clumps of trees which indicate where people live. The trees are there to provide shelter from the constant wind. Without them, this landscape would be desolate indeed.

Above all, you notice the sky. It's immense. There is nothing to compare to an Eastern England sky.

I did not visit the fens before the 1990s. They were terra incognita. They exercised a peculiar fascination over me. Those straight roads on the map, with their inexplicable kinks and sudden corners. The odd placenames. Waterways everywhere. My closest acquaintance was the vision evoked in my imagination by Dorothy L Sayers' novel The Nine Tailors, about Lord Peter Wimsey's sleuthing in a traditional fenland village, which features a flood at the end.

The approach to Crowland from the west brings you first to a wide river, the Welland, the same river that flows gently through green meadows at Stamford, but is now forced to hurry its way to the Wash between high banks.

The river looks full to brimming in this super-flat, barely-above-sea-level tract of countryside. It doesn't look inviting as a recreational facility, but this is where Crowland Slipway is. I can't easily imagine getting a rowing boat or canoe out, and enjoying an hour or two here. You'd be frozen to death, for one thing, because it's so exposed. That water tower is Crowland's Number Three tourist attraction. Let's admire it:

Adjacent is a pub, and (can you believe it?) a caravan site for touring types like myself to use. Both below the level of the river. Would I stay there? No way! I will grant that when I was there the sun shone brightly, and that the sky was blue - indeed of radiant hue - but the wind was keen, the inside of Fiona was snug, and I didn't linger.

Over the river bridge, and Crowland comes into view. To be fair, one part of Crowland had already been in view for some time: its Abbey, which is so tall that you can see it a long way off. The rest was buried in trees. I left Fiona to shiver just off the town centre. First thing, Crowland's Number Two tourist attraction. This is the Trinity Bridge, a medieval bridge with three ways up onto it. Two rivers once met in the middle of town, and the bridge was made the way it was so that a single structure could connect the three bits of land at the same time. An economical idea, but it does involve a steep slope (or actual steps up) on each of its three approaches, and it's useless for wheeled traffic. For some time, the rivers have been diverted, and it now stands high and dry as a town centrepiece. The underneath has become a kind of shelter, albeit a draughty one. However, the thing is unique, and I'd say worth one visit. Although these shots might save you the trouble:

Sated? Let's now look at tourist attraction Number One. It's the Abbey. The old name for Crowland is Croyland, and the church authorities have retained the old name, so that it's called Croyland Abbey. It's certainly imposing, especially compared to the rest of what is on offer at Crowland:

After Crowland, I drove out into the farmland, ending up on a lonely minor road south of a place called Shepeau Stow. Sunset was coming on, and the sky was getting darker. I contemplated an anvil-shaped thunderstorm cloud. It looked very threatening:

I stayed there a little while. Just me and the wind, and that cloud. Someone would be getting a soaking. It was a very desolate spot. It was extraordinary how the theatrical, fast-moving sky was such a complete contrast to the dreary flatlands below.

Why would you ever choose to live here? I agree that marshlands and levels can have a magic of sorts, but these stark, manufactured wastes lack something essential. They are not the product of thousands of years of human habitation. They have a temporary feel. They do not make you feel safe and secure. And of course, they shouldn't be there. If the sluices malfunctioned and the pumps failed, or the sea surged too much, it would all be under water, just swamps and reeds. Just as it was when Hereward The Wake waged guerilla warfare against the Normans from the Isle of Ely, in the years after the 1066 Conquest. I was not sorry to turn Fiona onto the A16, get through Peterborough, and head westwards on the A47 into proper countryside. I left the storm cloud behind on the flatlands.


  1. Very interesting post, Lucy. I always enjoy your travel posts and the pictures. I long to return to a holiday in England. I absolutely enjoyed my last visit. When you and Coline post these pictures, I just add them to the list of the many beautiful places to visit!

    Calie xx

  2. I wonder why the authorities don't attempt to fill the land with 'clean' waste and then cover it all with soil. After a few years the land would build up higher than sea level. Large concrete retaining walls hidden behind boulders and rocks would keep everything in place. If the can build islands in Dubai from scratch they have the technology to do land reclamation here. As ever it is down to cost and inclination I suspect.

    Shirley Anne x

    1. 'Nothing to compare to an eastern sky'? On the west coast the sky is completely unobstructed.......it is The Irish Sea!

      Shirley Anne x


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