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.
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.
I’ve always loved stars, loved looking up into the night sky to see more and more pinpricks of light becoming visible to my adjusting eye.
My ability to recognise the constellations has been limited, however; I’ve known Orion, the Plough/Great Bear/Saucepan, and Cassiopaeia for years, but others have been trickier. Bootes has broad shoulders and slim ankles. The big square one might be some combination of Perseus and Andromeda. My knowledge remains sadly lacking.
What’s really helped has been having a phone with enough memory to cope with Stellarium. (The fact that it has a camera with settings advanced enough to cope with stars has also been a bonus.)
This year I’ve added Cygnus, sort of. There it is, dropping behind our neighbour’s garage. And the planets have been big and bright and hanging around in the same place for long enough that I’ve got used to them. Here are Jupiter and Saturn over the Solent in July. The moon is at the right and looking a bit lopsided; Jupiter is the bright speck about a quarter of the way in from the left; Saturn is just visible as a point about halfway between Jupiter and the left-hand edge.
More recently, Mars has been looking very handsome in the south-east.
I could say that this year, when I haven’t really been going anywhere, I’ve been more aware of the stars, but I’m not sure that would be true. I haven’t had my evening bike rides home alongside the Cam, with Orion huge over the opposite bank; I haven’t paused in the back garden to look up before unlocking the shed.
I think, though, that I’ve become more aware of the here and now, and of the stars as a marker, a backdrop, a map, have wanted to know more. Much as I’m grateful for Stellarium, I’m also delighted by this analogue guide to the night sky. The rivet at the Pole Star allows the transparent window to be moved according to the time, day, and month: here I’ve set it at the time I took the photo at the top of this post.
And I’ve been fascinated by the way that humans relate to them. I’ve been reading this book, a history of astronomy that has itself been overtaken by history, one chapter every Sunday afternoon over the last couple of months. I’m still with Copernicus and Galileo, jumping through a new paradigm shift every week.
Also on Sunday afternoons, I’ve been reading back issues of hidden europe magazine. This week I read about a village called Groβmugl, just outside Vienna, which has become popular as a stargazing site, and where:
locals sometimes refer to the village as ‘Groβmugl an der Milchstraβe’ (Groβmugl on the Milky Way)
“On a Starry Night”, hidden europe issue 54, spring 2018
Well, I immediately wanted to go there (some day, some day, I’ve already promised myself a return to Vienna), but it resonated on a deeper level than that. Like a child adding as many lines as possible to their address, I thought that this could be here, too.
I’ve been reading a lot of travel writing lately, as well as novels set in places that are quite a way away from where I am. Most of it’s several decades old: I’m finding it quite reassuring, in a contrary kind of way, to read about places that wouldn’t be there any more, or wouldn’t be the same, even if I could get to them. When I went to Vienna, it was nothing like the way Eva Ibbotson describes it (though I was in a dreadful mood, and should probably go back there and stay longer). At the moment my bedtime book is My Family and Other Animals. Was Corfu ever the way Durrell describes it? I’m sure it isn’t now. I’m not in the mood for Bill Bryson, though I might move on to Paul Theroux. The exception is the latest edition of Hidden Europe magazine, which describes travel only a few months old, trips that I might replicate some day.
Anyway, here’s another place we can’t get to.
Orsinia is the setting for Ursula K. Le Guin’s Malafrena, and the supplemental Orsinian Tales. Le Guin had such a wide range that it seems meaningless to say, this isn’t what you’d normally expect from her. What I mean is, this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy: it’s a historical novel. It’s a portrait of the same doomed idealism as Les Misérables, and a fierce love of home.
In actual fact I read Orsinian Tales first, and might almost recommend that others do that too. Malafrena is very immersive, locked into the events and attitudes of one particular point in history. Orsinian Tales roves several centuries in either direction, across several social classes, and, I suppose, genres.
Orsinia breaks one of the ground rules of this blog series, in that it’s difficult to triangulate its geographical location. Some people on the internet seem pretty sure it’s meant to be on top of Hungary, others, (what would have been at the time of writing) Czechoslovakia. Personally, I think of it as being Slovenia. There’s a story in Orsinian Tales that’s set on the karst, which in my head is a Slovenian thing.
But I’m short on places beginning with O, and what Le Guin does do is tie it very firmly into European history. The events of Malafrena are informed, driven almost, by the country’s relationship with the Austrian empire. The first story in Orsinian Tales is actually set in Paris, during the Cold War, and follows an Orsinian’s decision to defect. The next one jumps back eight hundred years, to the uneasy introduction of Christianity, in a locality that’s recognisable, or will become recognisable, from Malafrena. The internal consistency of Orsinia feels trustworthy, and its external relationship with the Europe we know is plausible, and really, once you’re over the border, why worry?
Across one night of March the wind from the frozen eastern plains dropped and a humid wind rose up from the south. The rain turned warm and large. In the morning weeds were pushing up between the stones of the courtyard, the city’s fountains ran full and noisy, voices carried further down the streets, the sky was dotted with small bluish clouds. That night Lisha and Givan followed one of the Rákava lovers’ walks, out through the East Gate to the ruins of a guard tower; and there in the cold and starlight he asked her to marry him. She looked out to the great falling darkness of the Hill and plains, and back to the lights of the city half hidden by the broken outer wall.
Or, in another story,
The road led east from Krasnoy through farmlands and past villages to a grey-walled town over which rose the fortress-like tower of an old church. The villages and the town were on maps and he had seen them once from the train: Raskofiu, Ranne, Malenne, Sorg: they were real places, none over fifty miles from the city. But in his mind he walked to them on foot and it was long ago, early in the last century, perhaps, for there were no cars on the road nor even railroad crossings. He walked along in rain or sunlight on the country road towards Sorg where at evening he would rest. He would go to an inn down the street from the stout six-sided tower of the church.
And here’s Itale, the hero of Malafrena:
The road led up and over one of the long, low rises of land that made up the immense level of the plain. So gradual was the ascent that slope and summit were all one. Itale stopped and looked back. Aisnar lay five or six miles away, made entire by distance, tile roofs red in the declining light, the calm towers of the cathedral rising above blue shadow. Near where he stood was the ruin of a hut, a few stones and rain-rotted planks. He sat down there on what had been a doorstep or a hearthstone, between the city and the sun. The blowing of the country wind had finally blown his thoughts away.
I have many more pages bookmarked, but I think perhaps I’d better stop there, and really, all of them show the same thing. There’s history in the geography, and geography in the history, and stories in both of them.