April 1, 2012

Life in the English fens

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:08 am by Susan

People often ask me what it’s like living in the fens so I thought this month I would take a moment to answer. I live in a small village with a church, a pub, a Montessori nursery and a primary school. There used to be a post office but like so many in rural areas it closed a few years ago. Several houses on the outskirts of the village have large plots of land and sell their surplus produce, so it’s possible to buy vegetables, honey, eggs, fruit, jam, herbs, flowers and pork without clocking up more than a bike-mile or two.

The church is beautiful, the current building dating back to the 14th century, though there are records of a church on the site as early as 1232, and the likelihood of one as far back as the Norman Conquest. Like most village churches with a small congregation, the present building is in need of a great deal of repair for which there is no money. The situation was not helped by the theft of the lead flashing from the roof last year, which will cost many thousands of pounds to restore. What is particularly dispiriting about this crime is that the stolen lead is only worth a fraction of its replacement cost. Metal theft is now so common in the United Kingdom it is almost impossible to insure against.

Several of the houses in the village date back to Elizabethan times with wattle and daub walls supported by vertical and diagonal timbers. Many homes in the village still have rooves thatched with Norfolk reeds. There is of course plenty of more recent building, including box-shaped 1960’s houses, and a number of new estates. One of the biggest of these remembers the names of the Dutchmen (such as Vermuyden) who drained the fens in its street names.

The village is skirted by a number of fenland worlds. One side is bordered by industrial farmland broken by the infamous A14: 128 miles of dual carriageway connecting Felixstowe Port to the M1/M6 interchange in the Midlands. To the West the village is flanked by a business park, to the East by more villages.

To the North there is wetland, though even this is largely man-made. Bordering the Great Ouse river is a nature reserve of some 270 acres, built around four lakes created from exhausted gravel pits. The reserve was bought in 1997 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the lakes are now home to some 200 species, including Gadwall, Wigeon, Pintail, Goldeneye, Smew, Coot and Bittern. Visitors from Huntingdon or Cambridge can arrive on a special guided bus which travels through the heart of the reserve on straight concrete runners. The busway is part of a controversial local transport improvement scheme that has so far cost the tax payer £181 million.

There are footpaths between the lakes, and areas where it’s possible to look out and watch the graceful sail of swans on the water or the aerial acrobatics of hobbies overhead. One of my favourite places is a clump of brambles in between two ash trees at the end of one of the entrance lanes, where dozens, sometimes hundreds, of starlings congregate. The noise they make is hard to describe (halfway between the raucous whistling of a football crowd and the crackle and roar of a swift-spreading fire) but listening to it is like standing in a gale of head-rinsing wind.

If you’re stuck inside and can’t get out to hear birdsong, there’s a recording of starlings here

When I’m tired from writing, it often seems possible to hear in the starlings’ clamour a thousand new inspiring conversations.