We have been reclaiming land from the Wash for thousands of years. Now a square-mouthed bay between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, it has gradually been pegged back from a much larger tidal estuary that not only reached as far as Cambridge, but in full flood would affect hundreds of square miles of land abutting the low-lying areas connected to the Rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse. The extending and expanding of ancient salterns, some of which can still be seen, gradually helped to start the reclamation of the land and the process continued as recently as the 1970s. Towns and villages that were once coastal are now miles inland; King’s Lynn, six hundred years ago the third most important port in the country after London and Southampton, is now 7 miles from the open water along the Great Ouse.
Gedney Long Drove sits beneath the long straight Southern edge of the Wash. It is pretty much as close as you can get to the sea without trekking through miles of sucking mud and saltmarsh. It is a quiet place, modest, but on a late sunny Summer’s day as pleasant spot as you might hope. It is the seaside but not the seaside. There’s nothing commercial here, and the water isn’t visible, nevertheless it has that empty air, that open feeling of the brink and the loss of boundary. There will be a new kind of horizon to find.
In the empty car park I switch the engine off and immediately there is a keening of gulls. A signpost points toward Hunstanton, some 15 miles and a county border away. A popular destination for Cambridge escapees; in the same way that Londoners would flee to Brighton or Margate, sunny Hunny was very much the easy day trip option. Alongside, a rare municipal joke: “Amsterdam 215 miles”.
The path leads across a field to a false rise. Once reached and ascended, not the sea, but another set of fields and another bank further ahead. Of course this makes sense. This is the last of the land taken from the sea (it is rich and black and clearly spectacularly fecund). Vast farming franchises as well as hundreds of smaller businesses operate in these lowlands. A fifth of all agricultural produce from the UK comes from this area. It is a vital spot.
As with most field edge walks, it takes a series of seemingly self-defeating right-angle turns to lurch toward a destination. Another long bank rises. Along this, towers, most likely premises shared by various environmental or meteorological agencies. As I reach the bank, three Egrets, startled, fly up, catch the wind and buff out across to the sea.
I imagine. The sea is vanished in the heat haze. Between me and it there is the saltmarsh. Fed by large sedimentary rivers into a tidal bay, the marsh is vast. It is ideal for salt tolerant plants like samphire, and wading birds. There are mudflats and sand banks out there, and they’re covered with Godwits, Dunlin, Sandpipers. I had heard that Spoonbills might be seen, too, but if there are I cannot pick them out.
Across to my right the Norfolk coast, a little hillier than Lincolnshire, rises in a dark line. Just at the limit of my binoculars’ capabilities, a few white and grey and red specks indicate Hunstanton. Closer in, just a couple of miles out, an odd structure, a perfectly circular island that looks like an ancient barrow. This is the Outer Trial Bank, an artificial island, constructed during the 1970s as an experiment into freshwater off-shore reservoirs. It failed, the water salinating quickly, and is now a nature reserve.
The Egrets have long gone, and the birds out on the bank have moved off in a great tumultuous phalanx and are now too distant to observe with any certainty. Returning to the car, I decide to head further along the Southern edge of the bay. The weather is holding up, and although windy, a vivacious bright sky cascades pure white clouds from horizon to horizon.
The road lurches again and to the East an arrow straight channel appears. This is the outfall of the River Nene. On its banks, splendid twin lighthouses, but never used as such, face each other. They were built in 1831 to mark a grand entrance to the channel. A century later the structure on the East shore was, for a time, the home of Sir Peter Scott.
It is an unquiet stretch. Downriver, eight hundred years ago, near what is now the village of Tydd St Mary, the village of Dalproon, after a vast storm, is said to have broken away from the land to slide beneath the opaque swell. There are similar stories all along this coast. Of Frismerk on the Spurn head, Ravenser, Tharlsethorpe. Most recently, and in this instance, importantly, verifiable, is Dunwich, some remnants of which remain. Typically, when the weather and tides permit, the belief persists that the church bells of these stolen communities might still be heard. The ghost of a sound, a ridiculously romantic notion.
When he was still at school, Gerard Manley Hopkins won a prize, for a poem he called A Vision of Mermaids. It’s a precocious bouncing piece, an ambitious thing, and although the style doesn’t really indicate a move toward the thrilling, vaulting, even downright ambiguous phrasing of much later works, nevertheless it’s still wonderfully exuberant and rich. There is a silky, dark little phrase right at the end, where he follows the Siren’s call as it drops beneath the waves, reclaimed:
Now ringing clarion-clear to whence it rose
Slumber’d at last in one sweet, deep, heart-broken close.
I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to Hopkins properly, by an English teacher who knew how not to scare us off. Pied Beauty (“Glory be to God for dappled things”) before The Windhover, which is the sensible way of doing things. And yes, I can recall even thirty plus years later, reading the line, “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim” again and again, because it made me stumble across the words. Which of course was the point; it is what he wants you to do, because although you’re falling it’s with and into something soft and forgiving. It is a poem that, the first time of reading, will unseat even the most careful of readers, the poetry of running downhill with your eyes shut and a smile on your face.
The intention is even stronger and more effective in The Windhover. You will know the very first phrase, a startling, sparkling concoction, even if you’re certain that you won’t:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,-the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
The subject – of course – the kestrel, our most successful raptor and, you could argue, most distinctive bird. For Hopkins, it is Christ on the Cross, the divine mirrored in nature and the everyday, a thing of beauty subordinate to God but reflecting Him just by being. There’s “no wonder of it” says Hopkins, and yet from “sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine”. That move from the earthy and the mundane to light and colour is spectacular.
The bird lands in front of me as I try to frame the lighthouses along the Nene. Isn’t this how we know them? From childhood trips, our first bird outside the garden? It is a clear and common connection. The hawk’s roadside cafe, the hard shoulder, voles and field mice plucked from the obscuring grass, which (anyway) we’re not watching, because the bird grabs our attention. Even if we race past we are distracted, never not impressed. The wingtips a-blur, head stock still. From the cruciform hovering position he swoops and arcs through the air like a sheet of foolscap coming to rest. Left then right, in diminishing sagging flections, precisely calculating he lands, and to my delight just there. Just there. Right in front of me.
Falco tinnunculus, the taxonomy dictates, the “little bell-ringing hawk”. Perfect. He is wonderfully dainty, much smaller and more delicate than you might expect. He looks back and regards me. In a moment he’ll be gone, for now he shuffles on the branch. Sunflower yellow legs grip and ungrip, nerves firing a warning which he heeds.
He’s gone, low across a fallow field, the chestnut mantle merging and losing him in a moment.
Nothing can exceed that. I am happy to lose this thread. Home.