nothing stands that stood before

It has taken me almost thirty years of living out East, but finally I found myself bridling to catch that old and lazy gripe, “it’s all flat and boring ’round here,” passed around with the ease of simple conventional truth.

Flat, I’ll accept.

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My companions, incomers all, for many diasporas merge and mingle here, threw it in as a space filler, a conversational tic. I guess it wasn’t supposed to mean anything, really, and I certainly don’t think it was said to irritate (I don’t think it was said in the expectation of any reaction, quite honestly), but it reminded me, and I’m going back to my own origin story here to some degree, of an old beer advert from my childhood. Now, I can’t remember whose beer – it may have been John Smith’s or Sam Smith’s or any one of the Smiths – but from what I recall, a group of hikers has descended from the fells toward a picturesque pub, and as they down a pint amid the clamour of blokey fireside camaraderie, the poetic and distracted member of their group (there’s always one), cod tyke accent splattering vowels all over the shop, takes a last lingering look at the valley view and says, “by, it’s all flat and boring outside Yorkshire” and “I could sit here and drink it in all day.”

I think I have less and less traction with that attitude now because I know I held it myself when I first came here (splattering vowels all over the shop) and now I have the zeal of a convert. And there’s nothing worse than that.

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But this landscape has educated me. I have dragged myself from my warm bed before the dawn too many times to not allow it and its unique spell – which grows in the casting – to seep into me. Clear sight and vast horizons, this “hideous fen of huge bigness” with its black soil eating the light, the breadth of dazzling skies that seem too vast to contemplate, and no climbing necessary to see any of it. It is not that the landscape is not filled. It is filled with space and air and the sheer trembling beauty of the empty, and it would be a dull mistake and criminally unimaginative to consider that boring.

I’m being harsh in that judgement, of course, but here, especially here, where so much land has to be coerced from the hostile grasp of nature, surely that ground so unhappily and strenuously won (and for the most part diligently and continuously watched over and monitored, too) deserves to be fiercely appreciated.

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I will have to concede that these views then won’t include the drizzle dirty valleys of counties fortunate enough to boast hills and mountains (although I can find you valleys enough along the spreading flood plains and misty river bends) but prospects and spectacles abound. In particular, the discovery of church towers and steeples, which are so much more visible here. St Andrews at Sutton-in-the-Isle, a parish church just a few miles from Ely, can, approaching from the West, with its extraordinary and extraordinarily tall pepperpot tower, overshadow even the great cathedral itself. And that great Norman fortress of God, so perfectly and affectionately declared the Ship of the Fens, surely one of the wonders of the Medieval world, rides the great sea of black and green with a breathtaking prominence. Approach it from Stuntney, a hamlet just a mile or so out on the city’s Eastern side, where there is a striking reveal, the banks and cuts of the road dropping away at just the right point, and at precisely the most dramatic angle that it seems to have been choreographed simply in order to take one’s breath away.

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There are examples all across this landscape. Clear sight, long roads, perfect views. Cottenham All Saints fulfills these criteria quite wonderfully. Sitting at the confluence of several long approach roads, it perches on a small mound above the fen, visible for miles. The tower is relatively new, built in a couple of years after 1617, when the old steeple collapsed during a storm. Cottenham, always a fairly wealthy village of good size and close to Cambridge, rebuilt the tower, changing the colour and make-up of the stone, employing red and pink and orange brick halfway up. But that is not the most distinctive thing. Atop the tower are the four extraordinary pinnacles, great bulbous ogees covered in crocketing that draw the eye straight to the top.

A switch clicks when I see them. I do not need to call it to mind, Housman’s 40th verse from A Shropshire Lad pushes its way to the front:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

It has something to do with the almost literal association with spires, of course (of course it does) but I think there is more to it than that. It’s not impossible to think that Housman may even have known the church, he did after all spend the last twenty five years of his life at Trinity College where he was a Professor of Latin, but for me the association is ingrained in the way the poem develops.

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It is only two short stanzas long. The next runs:

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

There’s a slightly bucolic air at the end, it is a little sorrowful, almost indulgent, lamenting a past that has been painted over with pastoral longing. The poet George Szirtes tackles this well about Housman, and you see it often throughout A Shropshire Lad: “something – a feeling – takes him and hurls him through the plate-glass window of language, then he calms down and rationalises it.” It is this “sense of startlement” that grabs you, that grabs him, at the outset, those few glorious astute lines, and where the words really sing and dance, before he starts to breathe and stop and think it through.

The truly wonderful thing, though, the aspect that I think he captures perfectly is the feeling of recognition when the grey and the green and the blue and the black wash away for a few moments and a new view appears. A new spire, a new tower, a break in the trees, a dawning. An awareness of distant endeavour, community. The great empty speaking. That tingling sensation when you know you’re seeing something for the first time, even if you’ve seen it a thousand times before.

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You see it. You see.

These fields of the very green, the fecund dark, dominions of a cold sea battled over and borrowed. The horizons move here; they’re not entirely ours. The past and the present come together on these plains and for now our lives criss-cross the ocean floor. Standing on the cold drove, watching the fen wind ripple across the grass, our monuments to help and praise and determination and faith planted, they separate and dissociate from the distance. They’re clear across the empty space now. See. The great, empty, filled and teeming space.

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