by Colin Williams
“There is in Britain a fen of immense size. There are immense marshes, now a black pool of water, now foul running streams, and also many islands, and reeds and with manifold windings wide and long…”
“Manifold windings wide and long…” The words play over and over in my mind as I walk the peaty bank of the straight fenland river. This is a place that can play tricks with the imagination and the eye. With its dizzying lines of perspective it is a landscape set aside by many as being a place that is difficult to capture, whether in words or art or song. It is the floating world – an unsteady land of contradictions. It is stark, brooding and storied, layered thickly with half-truths, horror and a very particular beauty. And it is my landscape – the place I was born and raised and the place I come back to. The remorseless horizons can bring (to some, at least) a forbidding sense of discomfort, but when all’s said and done it has an obvious and visceral effect and I’m helplessly in thrall to it.
For all the years I’ve walked beside the meres, locks, sluices and marsh it’s been my recurring daydream of this being an underwater marshland as it was before reclamation. And because of the water it was once so much more than flat. It was a place of inland islands. There are no islands in the fens anymore, although you can see them well enough. They are still there where they’ve always been in places like Ely and Crowland. But now they’ve lost their island status having had the water taken away from them; they’ve been robbed of their definition. Their purpose has been drained.
Nonetheless, in the moted schoolrooms of my childhood the fenland knack for storytelling had lost none of its potency:
“Now there was in the said island a burial mound raised upon earth which yore comers to the waste had dug open, in hopes of treasure; in the side of this a place was dug as it were a sort of cistern, and in this Guthlac began to dwell, after building a house over it.”
St Guthlac of Crowland: holy man and island dwelling hermit. To a great extent his story is overshadowed in modern legend by his celebrity island contemporaries such as St Cuthbert. But Guthlac was different. He was local. He was my saint. A patron saint of everything the fens stands for: solitude, sky, water, beauty and wind. As such I thought he had an authenticity that the more famous saints lacked. He was the cool saint, the unsung hero, the real thing. His is a story of island isloation in the vast acreage of the 7th century fenland landscape, and my head swam with its possibilities.
I’ve walked the fenland islands. In the marshes beyond the sea wall west of King’s Lynn lies a man-made grass-covered barrow, not containing the bones of men but once containing scientific measuring equipment. It was built in the 1960s when ambitious engineers and governements considered damming the whole of the Wash in the name of industrial progress. Now it sits alone in the marsh and, should you scramble to the top, as I did frequently as a young man, you can see nothing on three sides but mud, samphire and skies.
The son of nobleman, Guthlac was 26 when, in the year 699, “he embarked on a vessel and they went through the wild fens till they came to the spot which is called Crowland … situated in the midst of the waste of the fen, very obscure.” There, alone and raving with marsh fever he lived the rest of his life doing, it is said, frequent battle with “the accursed demons there” as well as the bitterest of privations and ague.
In school, itself floating on a fen some 20 miles away from Crowland, we were read Felix’s Life of St Guthlac and thrilled to the description of his life on the small island. Cycling out to my island and then inland to the meres and sluices of the Great and Middle Levels I was riveted by the legends of Guthlac and the birds. Ravens did his bidding and swallows alighted on his shoulders and sang. The demons he fought were described as having “filthy beards, wild eyes, foul mouths, twisted jaws, thick lips, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, spread mouths, raucous cries”. Since then I have watched cranes, rails and bitterns and begin to wonder whether these birds were heard as demonic cries in the absolute darkness of Guthlac’s marshland hermitage. In other histories of the fens, the people, living with rheumatic fever in squalid conditions, have been given similar descriptions. Were these the demons of Guthlac’s febrile imagination?
Now, as I revisit these same wide spaces it seems so clear to me that these are the half-truths and stories that mean the fens have an immediacy that other landscapes don’t. In his book Ancient Land: Sacred Whale Tom Lowenstein recounts the whale hunting stories and legends of the Inuit of Tikigaq. To them they are not legends, the stories actually happen every year during the whale hunt. They themselves are a continuation of the myth. I feel the same way about the fens.
Stories like Guthlac’s are so close to the surface. The isolation is still there to be found. The great brooding skies are there to be felt. And the restlessness of the place means that it’s impossible for me to interpret it in a way of my choosing. The very history of the place is written into the horizon and scratched into the dykes and is repeated over and over and over. Even without the water it’s an island. It is common for people to say they’re going ‘out into’ the fens, as if it sits apart from any other place, as if they’re plunging into water that is gone but still tangible. So many people give up trying to reach it properly as it seems to give them nothing back. But Guthlac sought his peace here and its hold over me means I will continue to follow him there.
Colin Williams is a writer who explores our relationship with the landscape and its wildlife. He grew up on the open country of Norfolk’s fens with a childhood full of nature but now lives on the chalk downs of Hampshire. He’s worked as a conservationist and wildlife guide and his first book, Shadows in the Hay will be published in 2014. Read more at www.colin-williams.com.