It’s the first thing you see. Coming in by road or rail it’s the biggest thing on the horizon.
They call it the Ship of the Fens. It’s a big ship, a container ship or an oil tanker, with a long, flat profile except for the bulk of the west tower and the blob of the lantern; perhaps it’s even more like a steam locomotive missing the funnel.
But that’s only one side of it, or perhaps two: south and north. Come from the west, the way I do most days, you see the lopsided, broken west front, a stark diagonal line where the north-west tower ought to be. Cross the green and you meet an incongruous-but-somehow-not Crimean war cannon.
In the town, you look up, and there’s the octagon peering over the rooftops.
Walk out to the north-west, towards Little Downham, and look back, and the cathedral is more like the submarine of the Fens, emerging from the folds of ground in a geographical peculiarity I still don’t quite understand.
If you’re down by the river on a sunny day, you can look across the meadows and the railway line to see it hovering on the higher ground in a kind of fairy-tale lightness of glittering glass and flying buttresses that leaves Neuschwanstein in the shade.
It isn’t fussy: you can see it from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s and the station and the Fens and the top floor of Topping’s. The whole city huddles around it.
Inside, the light congregates at the crossing, flowing in from the nave and the choir and the north and south transepts, running up and down the octagon like the angels going up and down Jacob’s ladder.
Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.
Figuratively, I have been in Verona.
I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.
Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.
Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).
BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.
Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.
Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)
I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.
One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.
Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’
… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!
Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.
I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:
… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…
After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?
Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.
The name is a little misleading. Oh, it’s the road that takes you into the West Fen, but there’s as much north as there is west in the direction.
I take my life in my hands and cross the A10, and immediately drop down below sea level. This is a low, flat land. At this time of year it’s deep brown or bright green: vast breadths of ploughed soil, and young shoots. The sky above is an inverted bowl of cloud, pearly grey, dull.
It was a Dutchman who drained the marshes. Cornelius Vermuyden. The last time I walked down to the quay there was a paper picture of him in the window of the art gallery, armed with shovel and plans, and staring down Hereward the Wake across a broad drain. Hereward wouldn’t recognise the place. Vermuyden wins. For the moment. The Netherlands aren’t that far away, across the North Sea, but everything’s that far away, these days. In my head, Jacques Brel sings about the towers of Bruges and Ghent, mijn platte land, mijn Vlaanderland. Ahead of me, there’s Coveney church; behind me, the cathedral and St Mary’s.
The road surface is broken again and again by grooves in the tarmac. If I were on a bike, they’d be murder on the wrists; in a car, they’d induce motion sickness; on foot, I only notice them by eye. To my right is a ditch deeper than I am tall. Every now and again I have to hop up onto the verge to show willing when the cars pass. I don’t entirely trust it. On the other side of the road, an intermittent hedge provides some shelter from the wind. It’s hard to judge distance. Those white blobs: swans or sheep?
The tractors are big here. I remarked to a friend who grew up in Devon how big tractors have become; she thinks they were always big here. There’s room for them to be. The fields and roads of my childhood (the Marches, and then the Isle of Wight) wouldn’t fit these monsters.
I get a little closer to the white blobs. Swans. They’re too clean, their edges too well-defined, to be sheep. Big, though. Are the swans bigger here, too?
The road progresses in a series of right angles. Every now and again there’s a farm. Ebenezer (O, the deep, deep love of Jesus – but I can’t remember any more of the words than that, and wander off into Here is love vast as the ocean), Hale Fen Farm, the one that’s marked on the map as Frogs Abbey but which doesn’t have a name board. Tall willow trees, mud-spattered, and a mud-sodden teddy bear abandoned underneath them. I really cannot go rescuing muddy teddy bears from the side of the road, but I’m only just sufficiently hard-hearted to leave it.
It’s only a few days into Lent. I think about the wilderness. No barren land, this; its featurelessness is what makes it such hospitable farmland. Forty days and forty nights. My mind still switches from the harsh fifths of Aus der Tiefe to the gentle thirds and tones of Buckland at verse four, and it’s six years since I’ve been in a choir that had that trick. So shall we have peace divine…
There’s plenty of warning of the sharp steep hill into Coveney: you can see it from miles away, but it calls for some adjustment in pace, effort.Because I’m not on a bike today, I can saunter along the pavement and stop to read the information board. Coveney: Old English: village in the bay. Before all this was fields, the higher ground that Little Downham and Ely and Sutton sit on a ridge in the marsh, a horseshoe-shaped cove, with Coveney an island in the middle of it.
If I were on a bike, I’d go on, follow my nose, follow a drove until it petered out into a sharp-stoned path and I gave up for fear of a puncture, or until it met a main road. As it is, I sit on a bench to eat a couple of ginger biscuits and drink some water before turning back towards home. The daffodils are coming out. Down the hill again, and south-east, or, at least, what averages out to south-east, between all this right-angled corners. From this dead straight road through dead flat fields I suddenly see what the Old English meant. Ely crowns the ridge ahead of me, and there I am in the bay, down on the seabed. Little by little, walk by walk, I’m beginning to get my head around it, this platte land.
One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.
Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets,gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.
So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each othervirtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.
At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.
Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.
Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.
Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.
Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.
Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.
Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.
Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.
At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.
If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.
And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.