Fenland

In which I discover a wilderness on my doorstep and possibly meet a celebrity…

We’re particularly fortunate to live where we do: it is rural enough to be quiet and pleasant, yet close enough to towns to not be remote. Mrs P and I can be in London in an hour or at the coast within two. One part of the country where we have done little exploring is on our doorstep: the Fens of Cambridgeshire and West Norfolk. Last summer we took a day trip to see what they had to offer.

Fenland is a large region of marshes in Cambridgeshire. First drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th Century. The land is wet and low lying, most of it below sea level, and guarded by sluice gates that keep the tides at bay. Drainage is provided by a series of irrigation trenches that criss-cross the landscape. These flow into large ‘drains’ that take water away from the reclaimed land. The marshes, once drained left behind a rich silt; now one of the richest arable lands in the country. They are remote and atmospheric. In winter they are often covered by a thick fog. They have given inspiration to a number of writers, among them Anthony Trollope, Charles Kingsley, MR James and Graham Swift, whose ‘Waterworld’ is set in a Fenland landscape.

One of the authors I was in search of today was Dorothy L Sayers: best known as a writer of crime fiction. She began writing crime in 1920, with her first book featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, an upper-class, gentlemen detective, who appeared in eleven novels. She also wrote a series of books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime solving novelist and, later, Peter Wimsey’s love interest. Additionally, she translated several medieval romances, including the Divine Comedy and wrote essays exploring Christian theology. Her Christian faith comes through in her work but it is not conservative: she actively attacks Nazi ideology and her female characters are forthright and independent; some critics have praised the nascent feminism in her work.

Bluntisham Rectory: childhood home of Dorothy L Sayers

She was born in Oxford in 1863, Where her father, Rev Henry Sayers, was Chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral. She didn’t stay in Oxford for long, however. The family moved to Bluntisham when her father was made rector. The church at Bluntisham is quite grand and very elegant. It has a tower and spire and a clerestory, which gives it a feeling of loftiness. The rectory, likewise is a very elegant building: Georgian with five bays and three stories, plus a couple of wings. This is where Dorothy grew up, was taught Latin by her father at the age of six and started to write poetry at the age of fifteen. She eventually went off to Oxford herself, to study Medieval literature at Somerville college.

Her father moved a few miles up the road in 1917, to Christchurch: a red brick, Victorian gothic building. Her parents are buried in the churchyard. There is a grand Victorian rectory next door. Despite having left home, Dorothy would visit her parents here often and had her own room at the Rectory. I tried to take a picture of her parents’ house but, as I always do, sought the permission of the property owner first. The very polite man who opened the door seemed suspicious of me. I explained what I was doing and he said he ‘didn’t want people to know where he lived’, which left me wondering who the hell he was! And how would people know where he lived? I didn’t want a photograph of him; just the house. Perhaps he was someone well-known: I didn’t recognise him. An important lesson was learned here: always take the picture before you knock on the door to ask permission.

Christchurch, Cambridgeshire

On leaving Oxford, Dorothy worked as an advertising copywriter. She created the ‘…Guinness is good for you” slogan that accompanies adverts featuring a toucan, versions of which are still in use today. It was in 1923 that her first Lord Peter Wimsey story, ‘Whose Body?’, was published. Her finest work of crime fiction is generally accepted to be ‘The Nine Tailors’, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel set in the Fenland countryside she knew so well. The novel opens with Peter Wimsey, along with his faithful sidekick, Bunter, stranded at the side of the road having driven his car into a ditch.

Motoring in this region is a tricky business: some of the drains are rather large – the size of wide canals – and are, apparently, quite deep. Every so often, there is news of a motorist who has strayed into one of these drains. sometimes in fog, sometimes in a fog of alcohol, sometimes it’s a bunch of teenagers trying to impress people by showing them how idiotic they can be. The ground here is soft and the roads sink, leaving them with bumpy surfaces which can throw your car around alarmingly if you go too fast. They are also arrow straight for miles and miles and miles. Distances are confusing and what seems like a couple of miles on a map seems to take hours to complete. I think sometimes people drive into the drains just to relieve the boredom.

It was after navigating these roads that we finally arrived at Upwell. Fenchurch St. Peter, the village at the heart of The Nine Tailors, is generally held to be based on Upwell and, in particular, the church of St. Peter. It’s another grand affair with an octagonal tower. The village also has a nice and friendly little pub – the Five Bells – next door. They did the most amazing lunch: I was very impressed with my steak pie; Mrs. P less so with her deep fried camembert (or canon-bear, as she calls it.).

The Five Bells and church of St. Peter, Upwell

We hit the road again and drove up to Wisbech. It’s a pleasant enough town, a little run down, perhaps, with some signs of rural decay: young men drinking on park benches and some evidence of drug use, which was a little upsetting, particularly when the older buildings display such prosperity. It sits on the Nene, which joins the Wash further North, making it Cambridgeshire’s only port and therefore quite a wealthy town. It has a lovely little museum, dating from 1847, with an amazing collection. Cabinet after cabinet of interesting things: fossils, minerals, African tribal artefacts, Egyptology, weapons. They also hold collection of Thomas Clarkson, the anti-slavery campaigner, and the library of Chauncey Hare-Townsend.

Great Expectations front page at the Fenland Museum, Wisbech

The library is amazing. I was about to leave without seeing it, as I know it’s not usually open to the public, when someone stopped me. “Is this your first time here?” I replied that it was “Would you like to see our library?” Yes please, I replied, trying not to sound too excited (and failing) as Fred, the custodian who had beckoned me, opened the door. They have an astounding number of artefacts here. The smell of old leather is amazing, Fred agreed with me (a large part of that old library smell is actually mould, eating away at the ancient pages). The pride of their collection is a life size portrait of Napoleon. “When we have school trips from France” Fred told me with a smirk “The teachers are very upset that this is in our collection” They also have Napoleon’s death mask. Unmistakeable as he gazes blank-eyed from inside his glass case. For me, though, the star of the show is the autographed first page of Great Expectations. Townsend was a friend of Charles Dickens and dedicated a volume of poetry to him. In return, Dickens dedicated Great Expectations to Townsend and sent him the original manuscript. “It’s only brought out of the safe on the first Saturday of each month” Fred told me “we usually have an exhibition as well” something to showcase a different part of the collection. It certainly is impressive and I urge you to visit if you are in Fenland.

The Guildhall Theatre, King’s Lynn

From here we headed into Norfolk and the town of King’s Lynn. I have been coming to Norfolk for years and have never really noticed Lynn before. I have even taken the train here from Cambridge but never ventured further into the town than the station. What a revelation: it is beautiful. Magnficent medieval buildings, such as the guildhall and minster dominate the town. There is a row of Victorian cottages, one of which, the Old Vicarage, was built on the site of the cottage in which Fanny Burney was born in 1752. Burney wrote satirical novels, sketches of everyday life and journals, sometimes focused on local characters. Her writing influenced Jane Austen, along with many of the great writers that came after her. A short walk north from here, through a wide street full of interesting buildings, is the Guildhall theatre. This claims to have once been acted in by Shakespeare. Unlike other places that make this claim, there is at least some evidence that Shakespeare’s company toured this area, performing at similar venues.

We wandered along the quayside, past the customs house standing stately beside it’s own dock. We had tea and ice cream at a nice little quayside pub and watched the boats sailing past until the late summer sun began to fade.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s