Hyperlocal travel writing: West Fen Road

A very flat green field dotted with large white birds under a pearly grey sky

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.

Deep grass-edged ditch alongside a single-track road running along flat arable farmland. Cathedral tower on the horizon.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the path alongside the A10

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 other virtually, 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.

Pale blue morning sky with moody purple, pink and apricot clouds over twentieth century detached houses, bare winter trees, a shining tarmac path, and dull grass

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.

December Reflections 24: one year ago

reproduction of a 1610 map of Buckinghamshire

One year ago, I was somewhere in Bedfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, or possibly Hertfordshire, visiting in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. I’d taken the train straight up there from London, and I think we all hopped straight into the car and went to pick up my stepmother-in-law’s brother and then all went to see her brother. There was a lot of travelling that afternoon, anyway. No planes (I haven’t flown since 2007), but trains and automobiles, by all means.

This year, not so much.

It occurred to me earlier just how much travelling there is in the Gospel accounts of the nativity. Mary, going to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem. Or from Bethlehem to Egypt. The Magi, travelling from the east, via Jerusalem. Even the shepherds go even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that is come to pass. The Gospels disagree about who travels where, but they both agree there’s a lot of travelling. Matthew and Luke, both knowing that Bethlehem is important, both knowing they’ve got to get everybody there somehow, but not sure whether to start them off there and move them to Nazareth later or throw in a census to get them out of Nazareth. I sympathise.

As my Playmobil crib figures hop from bookshelf to bookshelf, traversing the length of the sitting room, I don’t seem to be going very much further myself. This evening I’m travelling vicariously with NORAD Santa. In a normal year I’d be clocking up over a hundred miles every weekday. That all ground to a halt in the middle of March. Actually, I hadn’t done so badly. Work had sent me to Manchester, and then I managed a dash to Bristol for what must have been one of the last full-scale weddings. I’d gone north. I’d gone west. South would come later.

I’m sad not to be seeing people. My in-laws are in tier 4 now; we’ll be in it ourselves from Boxing Day; and such of my family as wasn’t in tier 4 will be moving from tier 1 to tier 3. This isn’t such a wrench as it has been for some people, as we’ve done Christmas on our own before. And goodness knows I’m well off compared to the poor hauliers waiting at Dover. It’s more the not knowing when I will see people again.

Which is not to say that I haven’t found value in staying still, or in traversing the same short distance over and over again. I wrote, some time in the first lockdown,

this time is reminding me very much of my childhood: all the household is at home all the time; there are columbines and copper beech and swelling fruit in the garden; I can hear a cock crowing. Encountering civilisation is a bit of a palaver. I spend most of my time barefoot. Going on holiday is a very remote possibility and will be the Isle of Wight if it ever does happen. People who I love very much are a long way away from where I am, and there’s no prospect of seeing them soon.

I did make it to the Isle of Wight; my middle brother drove up with his fiancée and picked me up. And the journey was the way they always used to be: leaving very early in the chill of a clear summer morning that’s going to be hot later, heading south through long shadows.

Until we got to the ferry terminal, where they were still advertising the Isle of Wight Festival which was never going to happen this year, and there was another brother in the queue…

Soon, soon, we’ll be able to do all that again. And it’s worth waiting for.

December Reflections 17: things I missed

plastic tumbler with blue design representing the various things that go on at Ventnor Fringe Festival

I did make it to Ventnor, and was very glad to do so, but of course the Fringe was cancelled. I was able to see my family, but I missed the buzz and the music and the hanging around at the Book Bus drinking Belgian beer until it was time to go and watch something strange or brilliant or completely whack. There were a lot of holes in the calendar this year: Ventnor Fringe; our housewarming party; the Discworld convention; the national Ultreya. Whole months went by without my looking at the calendar at all.

I missed the things I’d promised myself I’d do more of – live theatre, yes (I saw two operas in two weeks back in February, though I wasn’t intending to maintain that ratio), but ice skating, too, cinema (we live five minutes from a cinema now!), taking trains to places on the Continent. I missed the things I took for granted: a pint at the pub, being able to sing in church.

I’ve said a few times that I’m quite prepared to continue being an antisocial cow for as long as it takes, and that’s true. But there are things I’m missing a lot, and I shall be very glad to do them again when it’s safe.

December Reflections 7: on my wish list

map showing most of western Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with major rail routes

I’ve been trying to take a trip down the Rhine ever since 2018 – when I got very close, but was thwarted by train delays. In 2019 we were saving to buy a house, and also just weren’t very efficient. 2020 – well, no. I was quite sufficiently twitchy about going to the Isle of Wight: crossing any international borders would have been too much.

And I have to admit that things aren’t looking great for 2021, either. (Plan B for next year is to hire a car and see how many of the Great Little Trains of Wales we can get around.)

Still, we’ve put together a convincing itinerary; we just need to find a convincing week-and-a-bit to slot it into. Maybe that’ll be next year. Maybe it’ll be some other time. Anyway, the Rhine is staying on my wishlist until I actually manage it.

December Reflections 1: star

a deep blue night sky with three stars in an inverted T shape seen over a pitched roof

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.

Seascape at twilight with a bright full moon lighting up a stretch of sea at the right of shot, two ships, and, at the left, one bright speck, and one just-visible point of light

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.

Philips' 'Planisphere' - a star map with a transparent section revealing the stars visible at a particular time

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.

hardback copy of 'And there was light' by Rudolf Thiel held up in front of the same roof as in the first photo, but in daylight)

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.

With love from Ely-on-the-Milky-Way,

Kathleen

#TBR20: wrap-up

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I finished reading my twentieth book of the year yesterday morning: The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin. Here’s the full list:

1. Lying in Bed – Polly Samson
2. The Thrift Book – India Knight
3. Daughters of Darkness: lesbian vampire stories – ed. Pam Keesey
4. Trumpet – Jackie Kay
5. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
6. A Poet’s Bazaar: a journey to Greece, Turkey & up the Danube – Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton
7. The Years – Virginia Woolf
8. Malafrena – Ursula K. Le Guin
9. The Scarlet Seed – Edith Pargeter
10. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
11. Stress Family Robinson – Adrian Plass
12. What Remains and other stories – Christa Wolf, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rik Takvorian
13. The Debutante – Kathleen Tessaro
14. Reaching Out – Francisco Jiménez
15. The Two Pound Tram – William Newton
16. Provenance – Ann Leckie
17. The Star of Kazan – Eva Ibbotson
18. Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor
19. The Silent Boy – Lois Lowry
20. The Invisible Woman – Claire Tomalin

It’s now April, so I’m almost exactly on time for the #TBR20 challenge. I committed to reading only books I already owned for the first three months of the year, and also for the first twenty books I read.

And I’ve just discovered, going back through Goodreads to put the links in, that I’d forgotten The Ghostly Lover, which should have gone in between Station Eleven and A Poet’s Bazaar. So I could have written this post on Friday instead. Never mind.

It’s an interesting picture, and I’m amused by the distinctly Mittel to Eastern European flavour that’s emerging. The Eva Ibbotson and the Patrick Leigh Fermor were deliberate choices – I was looking for nostalgia for a Europe that no longer exists to be visited even if I had been able to get to it. So were Andersen’s journey and Christa Wolf’s Berlin: they count towards the #EU27 project too. But they echo Le Guin’s Orsinia (which will get its own post, soon), and some of the lesbian vampires too.

Some of those are books I wanted to get read so that I could get them out of the house: six of them have now moved on via BookCrossing. Two were books that I’d started reading in 2019 (Provenance was my bedtime book, so I was only reading a few pages at a time; Malafrena my lunchtime one.) There are a couple of shorter books for school aged children which I read to hurry things along: Reaching Out was fairly dull, but The Silent Boy did some clever things with the form.

I’d been putting off The Two Pound Tram in case something awful happened to the tram (it did, but it wasn’t Death by Newbery Medal territory). Giovanni’s Room was something I’d been meaning to read for ages. I picked up The Years when I was packing to move and didn’t seal that box until I’d finished it. Inevitably, I suppose, some of these were things I might have read sooner if I’d known how much I’d like them, and some of them were things that I could just as well have done without.

And now I’m off to buy three books for three different book clubs or readalongs. (Madam, Will You TalkThe Flat Share, and An Experiment in Love.) I’m behind the curve on all of them, but I’m sure I’ll be able to catch up. Actually, I think I might have read the Hilary Mantel before. I certainly don’t own a copy, though…

A Poet’s Bazaar (Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton) #EU27project

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On Friday I thought that I really ought to get going on the EU27 project before Article 50 became irrevocable and the wheels were set in motion for leaving the EU. This was one of (I think) two options that I had readily available, and as a narrative of a European travelling in Europe it seemed particularly appropriate in itself.

This book covers Andersen’s journey south from Copenhagen, via Germany, Italy, Malta and Greece, to Turkey, and back again up the Danube, in the early 1840s. It’s very much a travel narrative, but we don’t forget about Andersen the teller of fairy tales. Occasionally a particular landmark results in a self-contained story embedded within the text; sometimes Andersen remarks that some experience might prompt a story; most often it’s his lovely lucid style that reminds us that this man knew how to tell a story.

Sometimes his experiences felt very familiar to me, and I was pleased when he reached Pressburg (Bratislava in my time) and his boat moored in a stretch of the Danube that I’ve looked out over. And this, though it’s from the very earliest days of rail travel, captures exactly what I like about travelling by train:

Just look out! The nearest fields go by in an arrow-swift stream, grass and plants run into each other – one has the feeling of standing outside the globe and watching it turn. It hurts one’s eyes to look for too long in the same direction; but if you look somewhat farther away, other things do not move any quicker than we see them move when we are driving at a good pace, and farther out on the horizon everything seems to stand still – one has a view and impression of the whole district.

This is precisely how one should travel through flat country. It is as though towns lie close together, now one, now another! The ordinary travellers on the by-roads seem to be stationary. Horses in front of carts lift their feet but seem to put them down again in the same place – and so we have gone by them.

Replace that horse and cart with a car, and that’s still what a train journey feels like. At other times, it’s evident how much things have changed – not least when Andersen talks to some of his fellow travellers about the most famous Dane in history. They agree this is Tycho Brahe; nowadays, of course, it would be Andersen himself. On the practical level, Andersen’s journey is hampered by ten days of quarantine, and in certain places on the Danube his boat has to be pulled upstream by teams of men on the shore. Earlier in the journey, he learns that there’s considerable unrest in Rumelia (now part of Romania), there are rumours that the couriers of the post from Belgrade to Constantinople have been murdered, and he wonders whether to cancel the Danube leg altogether. I got a distinct sense of a Europe that has always been in turmoil at one or more of its edges.

There are inevitably a few ‘man of his time’ moments, including a particularly eyebrow-raising visit to the slave market in Constantinople. Leaving those aside, however, it’s a very enjoyable read, and makes me think that I’d enjoy swapping travellers’ tales with Hans Christian Andersen.

This counts for Denmark in the #EU27project. And it’s my sixth book of the year/in the TBR20.

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December Reflections 20: memorable meal in 2019

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We went to Lille in March: one last (as we thought) chance to go to mainland Europe before it became a whole lot more hassle. As things worked out, that was the last time, and I doubt we’ll manage to get our act together in January, so…

Anyway. We stayed in an apartment in the Wazemmes district of Lille, which felt more like a place where people actually live and work than many other places I’ve been to. Which was great: there was a covered market, and in the mornings our hosts brought us fresh croissants in a paper bag. What it didn’t have so much of – at least on a Wednesday night – was places to eat, as we discovered when we headed down the rue Léon Gambetta (pretty much every settlement in France has a rue Léon Gambetta somewhere or other) in search of food. We walked for quite a while without finding anywhere that took our fancy, and eventually resolved to go a little bit further and then turn back.

That’s an approach that either works for me, or else fails horribly. In this case it worked beautifully. Le Chat Qui Fume was just off rue Léon Gambetta, at the intersection where we’d resolved on turning back. It was a pleasant place, quiet, dimly lit. We had it to ourselves for the first quarter of an hour or so. Maroilles is a very pungent cheese, and a local speciality. It was fantastically good in a gratin with potatoes and bacon. Afterwards, I tried genièvre, and liked it. As the name suggests, it’s related to gin, but it’s harsher and smokier, more like whisky.

It was a good trip for food and drink in general, actually. There were the mussels. There were the crêpes. And, my goodness, there were the beers.

December Reflections 19: cold

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September 2019. A trip we’d been planning ever since we heard the world road cycling championships were going to be in Yorkshire this year.

On most days we went to the finish line in Harrogate.  For the women’s time trial, we went to the start of the route, in Ripon. It was a funny old week, weather-wise. There was one day of blazing sunshine, and then several of rain. This was one of those rainy days.

We went to Ripon and skirted several puddles; ate some lunch; waited for the start of the event, which was delayed due to the weather; visited the cathedral; watched the cyclists leave; watched part of the rest of the course on the big screen; watched part of Labour conference on the big screen when the coverage got a bit confused…

Got cold.

One of the things that I particularly love about cycling – as a spectator, rather than a participant, I mean – is the way that you can, without paying a penny, turn up at the side of an ordinary road and watch some of the best sportspeople in the world pass by within a few feet of you. The World Championships joins a list including the Olympics, the Tour of Britain, the Women’s Tour, and the Tour de France that I’ve managed to see without even having to leave the country. Not to mention the Tour Series, which was so very much right there that I turned up to it by accident, and that’s how I got into cycling in the first place.

Anyway, it’s worth getting a bit chilly for.