Larks Ascending in the Fen Country

Over in Peterborough for a week’s training. The first day over, I drove out into the fens, that ever strange (to a northerner) yet beguiling landscape. Roads that run Roman straight for miles, or twist and turn sharply for no apparent reason; flat as far as the eye can see and beyond, the only raised land the straight lines of dykes; vast fields, some a lush green, some bare, the naked earth dark, while others are a yellow wash of daffodils; many places or streets that have “drove” in their names, like French Drove, Hull’s Drove, Falls Drove, Dog Drove, or my favourite: Milk and Honey Drove; straightened enclosed watercourses called drains or cuts. And the huge skies. A landscape that baffled, even repelled, me the first time I encountered it twenty years ago. Having always lived near hills or mountains, this vast flatness was a complete mystery, with its seemingly infinite horizons, where sometimes even trees were unusual. Even now, it still surprises me when I see it, though I’ve now been here a few times. This flatness still seems strange, almost wrong.

I was looking for traces of the abandoned railway line that ran from March to Spalding. I didn’t have the local OS map so had to rely on the road atlas. I found two old stations: French Drove & Gedney Hill (in the middle of nowhere) with both the building and the signal box lived in, with two armless signal posts close by, leaning drunkenly; and another at Cowbit (pronounced “cubitt” I understand), the signal box extant and covered in scaffolding, the station an immaculate dwelling, its platform still standing. Such a shame I didn’t bring my proper camera, with only the one on the phone.

After the second day was done, I headed out again. It was warm and sunny. I stopped the car by a level crossing, and stood there in the sun. On the moments when the breeze fell away, I could feel real heat on my face. A rediscovery of a favourite thing, thought lost for years, then serendipitously found in the bottom of a drawer; or a lost friend met again after many years: some minutes of frantic catch-up conversation, then fall into gentle silence, contented in each other’s company. Though the signal box declared the crossing to be St James Deeping, the name of the village was Deeping St James, which was confirmed by a newer railway sign on the fence. After a few minutes, the signaller climbed down the stairs in his high-vis jacket and languidly pushed the gates closed across the narrow road and bolted them shut. Back in his box, levers clanked and the old signal jerked upwards. Once the train had glided past, and with the gates open again, the road resumed its late afternoon slumbers. Such a timeless scene, one that has been happening several times a day for over a hundred years, though there is no longer a station for the trains to stop at.

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Deeping St James is one of a few villages with “Deeping ” in their name, along with Market Deeping and Deeping St Nicholas. Some road signs, as I’ve seen elsewhere, refer to them collectively as “The Deepings”. I lingered a few more minutes then drove on. Through the quiet village centre with its fine grey church, then the road followed the river Welland, glittering in the sunshine. Swans were gliding along its gently rippling waters, close to what looked like a sluice, partly choked with weed. I passed Deeping St Nicholas, then turned onto the road towards Crowland. This too ran Roman straight between wide fields. I pulled over again, next to a field of bare, dark earth. And in the silence, drifting down the great azure canopy of sky, a skylark’s song. Gentle, delicate notes falling on and around me like the softest, warmest rain, or a shower of April blossoms. It’s a sound that puts me in mind of a sweltering mid-summer day in the Derbyshire hills. No wind at all, even on the top of Mam Tor, the hang-gliders failing to take off. Roasted by the climb from Edale, I lay back in the baked dry grass and listened to the larks’ song, the birds either invisible or tiny dots high above in a sky of milky haze.

And now I hear them for the first time this year, and in a landscape that couldn’t be more different. The day at work hadn’t gone well, and my mood had sunk well below periscope depth. First the sun, and now the birdsong helped to lift it. The lark’s “silver chains of sound” also brought Vaughan-Williams’ beautiful piece The Lark Ascending into my head. The notes of this mingled in my mind with the birds’ and I gradually calmed. Bobbing gently in a boat in Hickling Broad in the sun, the wind rattling the dry sedge, another afternoon of heat.

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My final pausing place was on Gunthorpe Road, near Newborough. This narrow lane runs straight for a mile or so, but is uneven, with much bouncing in the dips. The wind had risen and was enough to sway the car, a trusty old ship softly rolling in a limpid sea. A few yards from the lane, a small overgrown hump the remains of some building. All that was standing was an irregular column of battered red bricks, with too little left to provide any clue of what it had been. On the way here I had passed tulip farms, though none were in flower yet. I wonder what a kaleidoscope of colour there would be if I came back in a few weeks? Between gusts, more birds: larks, a great tit, a cockerel and the strange dot-matrix squawk of a pheasant.

A couple more days, and I would be able to go home, a hundred miles to the north west. There would be much cursing and annoyance on the drive and I would end it in a bad temper and relief that it was over. A shabby city long past its best set between the sometimes steep sides of the Trent valley. Another landscape formed by water, but one very different to the Fens. These brief visits hadn’t reduced my sense of strangeness, but as I left, I knew I would come back. Come back and sit once again by the straight road, feel the breeze straight off the North Sea and look towards the measureless horizon. And beneath the huge skies, forget awhile.

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