on the road again

Many years ago, I had a rather whimsical ambition, and I’m pleased to say it was one that I managed to realise before it had the chance to fade or drift or slide away, or whatever it is that ambitions do when they go. It was, and it seems rather odd writing this now having forgotten about it for so long, to find one of those long straight desert roads that go up and down over hills into the far distance, or before they’re eaten by the heat haze, and lie down on it, eyes closed, for a full minute, fearless of the approach of traffic. Not exactly opening the batting for England or becoming a millionaire, I admit, but such is the nature of wishing. Fortunately, as I say, I fell upon the opportunity to scratch this particular itch; while driving through Arizona, the desert highway shifted and sloughed off its bounds and became limitless. The sky was immeasurably huge. The vanishing point evaporated into the shimmer and I stopped my car, got out, walked to the centre line, lay down and took the thing on. I lasted the full minute, I am sure, and maybe beyond that. I can remember the weight of the heat, the hardness of the tarmac, and the car, a bright white rental, gleaming too shinily as I opened my eyes and I stood back up. Satisfying.

So satisfying, I guess, that it resulted in that aspiration being forgotten; like the road in the far distance, dematerialising.

But, since then, I’ve maintained a soft spot for the roads that are less travelled. At home, they’re easy to find, albeit on a less grand scale. The fen roads of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and Lincolnshire afford much lonesome driving or walking. As often as not they’re referred to as droves, although that’s a universal term, and not just one that the East can lay claim to. These are roads or tracks for droving, for owners of livestock to take their assets to market, or, possibly, to and from seasonal pasture. Many of them follow the most ancient marks we have made upon the land; like churches sited on pagan temples, we rarely stray from the patterns our most distant ancestors made in the soil. And out where the skies are biggest and the only breaks on the horizon are church spires or poplars, these droves are straight because they know where they’re headed.

This is Long Drove, an unimaginatively monikered track, that stretches NE/SW through the borders of the Cambridgeshire fenland. This is the start of the flat country with Cambridge and, dammit, the rest of the world just ten miles south, but back out there all is reclaimed and fought-over and hard-worked by generations of farmers and navigators and engineers. And right here, now metalled up to a point, but on some stretches most definitely not, still bumpy and prone to breaking up, this road has been here for hundreds of years. Servicing the farms and small-holdings south of Ely, ploughing toward the larger richer villages with access to Cambridge; it eventually joins up with the Great Ouse, where a large marina, a direct link to the channels that headed out to Kings Lynn and the sea, would have offloaded goods from Europe and the North. Along the drove, also, gravel pits, now set aside for landfill, and the ghosts of a couple of standalone pubs that would have seen a lot of robust business from a lot of robust patrons. The huge, rambling Twentypence Inn that hung on into living memory, its footprint marking the spot where the river and the drove met, is gone finally, now a developed site for a handful of houses.

It is the most Spring like of evenings, the equinox indeed, and into the bright blue the so-called supermoon is passing full and glaring and nacreous. This is its closest perigree for years. Is it any larger than normal? I couldn’t swear to it. It is no less beautiful, of course. As the day gives in  and the light shifts, it is still low, but that barely matters out here and the view is terrific. In March, we’re almost always that little bit closer anyway, which is why we have Spring tides, but there are no more extraordinary effects than the ones Selene bestows day in day out. No earthquakes, no storms, no tsunamis. Homer instructed the Muses to sing about the moon, her “heaven-set glow” and the “great beauty arising under her radiance”. Tiny wheels spinning in the immense machinery. The trammelled pathways of the cosmos. Here again, here again.

Fabulously, a Barn Owl and a Short-eared Owl share the stage at one and the same time, one spectrally silent and like a beam of light itself, the other an undulating swooping flurry keeping to the shadows of the hedgerow. I am either too slow or too amazed to use the camera.

Scrambling through the hedge, there is what I can only imagine is a very deep pond on the site of the old gravel pits. Not so long ago, it was believed by some that pools, tarns or meres were interconnected by tunnels. Folk tales recounted how ducks would dive under the surface only to seemingly vanish, and yet in the next village one would pop up as if from nowhere, transported magically by some unknown conduit. This stems from the fact that different ducks feed in different ways; watch a Mallard, it goes all ends up with its backside pointing skywards, but a Pochard, that lovely russet-headed diving duck, pops entirely under, for what seems an age, only to reappear (if you’re concentrating) several yards away in whatever direction it feels necessary. Easy to lose, easy to wonder if something unusual isn’t happening. Out on the pond there is a duck and drake Gadwall.

Gadwalls can be elusive creatures, and here in England, for much of the year, not at all common. Some records will indicate there are less than 900 in the warmer months, but in the Winter this figure is multiplied many times over as, from harsher northern climes they take their cue, that immutable, baffling and wonderful intuition, that fierce compulsion, and they head here. Thousands of generations following the same route, leaving the cold gnashing waves of whatever lonely shore they call home only to return there – once again, once again – in the Spring. An old story retold, an old route retrod.

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white dream

Open up your maps, ladies and gents, and head for Cambridgeshire. Straight North from London, and stop when you get to the Wash. Whoa. Then go back down a bit.  Bit further. That should do it. What will strike you, apart from the fact that the map maker has forgotten to include any contour lines whatsoever, is a couple of bizarre blue features, perfectly straight lines travelling between Downham Market, south west to Earith. These are the New and Old Bedford Rivers and they’ve been there for well over three and a half centuries.

It was Sir Cornelius Vermuyden who helped mould this unique environment. He didn’t, as many believe, reclaim the land of the Great Fen all by himself (that was the result of generations of labyrinthine watercourse work, exhaustingly byzantine dyke-cutting and ditch-digging that created a network of drainage which stole tens of thousands of acres from the sea), but instead he built upon the work already in place, perfecting it on an industrial scale, by constructing these immense channels. And between them lie the Ouse Washes, a vast swathe of untouched soak-ready floodplain; a delicately balanced ecosystem and a fascinating habitat.

In the winter months, prone to the winds and rains that lash in from the East it can be a bleakly informative location. Because this, this thin middle strip, twenty miles long and just a mile wide, is an isolated world. Separated from the rich, black-soiled farmland that spreads out to the horizon, by the rivers that have worked so efficiently for so long (since before the Civil War indeed), this is what all of this huge sky-hugging landscape must have once looked like.

Today, the lagoon, along the shoreline of which the bird hides are dotted, is surely as full as it can get, but no, not according to the old boy I chat to. In fact, despite there being barely a scrap of land visible, just a slim, muddy spit filled with godwits and lapwing, this is pretty good for February. We’re still allowed across the bridge, after all. I guess he has a point.

In truth, I had already had a good day simply by stepping out of the car. On the ground nearby, a chattering cluster of Reed Buntings, handsome noisy little fellows with speckly bodies and stirringly bold black heads, like the Praetorian guard of sparrows. And out toward the Lady Fen, back in the direction of Ely, quartering the scrubby farmland for mice or voles, there is a blonde-headed Marsh Harrier, following perfect killing lines, hunting with a mathematical chill.

But these are bit players. On the Ouse Washes, you know really that you’ve come for the swans. Thousands of them.

There are myths worldwide: Helen of Troy was conceived when her mother, Leda the Queen of Sparta, was seduced by Zeus in the guise of swan; in Ireland, the Children of Lir are transformed into swans for 900 years; in Norse tales, the very first swans drink from a scared fountain in Asgard whose water was so pure it turned everything white; in Hinduism, the definition of saintliness, exemplified by the ability of swan feathers to stay dry even in water, is to be in the world but not attached to it, and so the birds are considered the vehicles of many deities. Wherever you go to find a reference to the swan it is to encounter their simple ability to define something truly complex: their otherness. And here, in front of you, on this chill winter’s morning, that notion is delivered to you on an epic scale.

Usually, there are three kinds here. The larger Mute Swan, our native bird, the biggest, the most feathered bird we have and, if you believe the old stories, a silent beast right up until the moment before death, whereupon it sings the most cruelly beautiful song imaginable before passing away, a tale that gives us the phrase ‘swan song’, of course. And then there are its smaller, visiting cousins, the Bewick’s and the Whooper. Both are distinct from the Mute in that where the larger resident will have an orange and black bill, these are blessed with the bolder bright yellow and black. Bewick’s swans fly in mostly from Russia, the Whoopers from Iceland, although here, today, it seems the Icelanders have won a temporary territory squabble as I’m told they’ve bullied their Eastern competitors off, sending them to roost a few miles down river. It is, regardless of whether we are a few hundred short, a busy day out there. The world is predominantly white. That’s a lot of saintliness.

Out of the main hide, I head along the path toward the smaller observation huts, but sections here have been cordoned off because of the high water levels and so I nip up onto the bank between two coppiced willows and scan out across the flooded plain. I’m far enough down now to have a stretch of water before me that’s almost clear of swans, although one or two yellow-billed souls float by. I wonder if they’re the put-upon Russians. The bank slips down towards a brief pebbly margin before hitting the cold water.

There is a swan reference that appeals to me more than Spirit or Otherness, although perhaps it’s just a different example of the same, perhaps it’s just a more secular version of that. To get here, I’ve just driven from Ely, that little pimple on the horizon a few miles south, its cathedral known locally – and here’s that overriding sense again of continually needing to conquer the landscape – as the Ship of the Fens. Ely was one of the last outposts of resistance against the invading Normans. It’s a different cathedral now, a French one, a replacement for the squat Saxon church of St Etheldreda, all grand columns, vast ceiling spaces and rounded arches, and, as a reminder of the subjugation and as a statement of intent, this one has battlements and castle walls. It is a fortress as much as a church.

Ely’s resistance took the form of a siege five years after the invasion, but it was as the Normans recovered from their first battle, in 1066 of course, that Edith Swannesha, also known as Edith the Gentle Swan, is remembered. Edith was what is euphemistically known as the King’s consort. She bore Harold several children and was with him for 20 years. Her common name is a misinterpretation of her nickname from the Old English, but it is lovely nevertheless; from swann hnecca we get Edith Swan Neck.

Edith’s steadfastness and loyalty to Harold lasted beyond his death. After the battle, the Normans mutilated the bodies of English soldiers, and Harold’s in particular. Ignoring a personal plea from Harold’s mother to William himself, the invading army refused to surrender his body for burial. Edith Swan Neck, it is said, picked her way through the mess of bodies to search for the man she alone would be able to recognise, knowing, as no-one else could, the specific tattoos and scars that he bore on his chest. Because of Edith’s ability to identify Harold’s body, it was possible for the monks at Waltham Abbey to give him a Christian burial. Apocryphal, possibly, but yes, thinking about it as the cold seeps into me and I begin to wonder about hearth and home, I guess that story does have something of the Spirit and Otherness about it.

Time to go. I walk along the side of the lagoon with the fierce wind tightening my face and head into the chill.