The A10 runs true from London Bridge to Kings Lynn, cutting through the Fens along the backbone of a Roman road. If Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ were East Anglia, as opposed to Central Africa, the A10 would be his River Congo. Countless crows crowd its banks, bickering over road kill remains. An ominous darkness pervades. Cambridge, Waterbeach and Little Thetford fall away and in the distance, the road rises up to meet Ely Cathedral, known locally as ‘The Ship of The Fens.’ Cloaked in early morning ground mist, Ely is a landlocked island; the highest point in the lowlands; a holy mountain, mere metres above sea level.
In the early 19th century, despite ferocious rioting and attempted sabotage, an engineering project of artificial drainage was orchestrated here on an unimaginable scale. Throughout the once deluged marshland, broadly carved channels, deeply dug ditches and pumping systems drained the landscape. The outcome was 1,500 square miles of bleak, yet beautiful tidal mudflats, salt marshes and peat rich, deep black soil. The sky is gigantic.
Before the draining of the Fens and their transformative shift towards agricultural land, wildfowl, willow and eels were the principal rural industries. Ely, originally the ‘Isle of Eels,’ was their epicentre. Every year, the city honours the historical significance and mythical folklore of this elongated fish with its Eel Day celebrations. A giant eel is paraded through the medieval streets with great festivity.
Ronald Haines’ 1947 documentary, ‘An English Fen’, depicts the skilful craftsmanship of stocky eel catcher Alf Wilson. A lit cigarette forever poised between his lips, Alf’s heavy hands whittle and weave with remarkably graceful dexterity; paring young willow branches and stripping them four ways before shaping the basketwork eel traps. Alternatively, a blacksmith-forged eel ‘glave’ (a long pole tipped with splayed, barbed blades) was thrust into the cloudy mud through which the eels navigated. After the catch was weighed, the eels were sent slopping and writhing around worn, wooden coffins to be embalmed in jelly and eaten in the East End. The whole journey, from dark soil ditch to sooty city, oozes with a deathly eroticism.
A far more recent addition to the murky mythology of the land is the Fen Tiger. This “panther-like creature” has prowled the fenland from Cottenham to Wisbech and Elm to Upton ever since its first sighting in 1982. A fleeting glimpse of the mysterious beast, or the unearthing of a mauled deer carcass, ignites days of frenzied reporting in the local evening papers.
The ensuing cocktail: part fear, part possessive pride, eclipses coverage of wars, hurricanes and famine. Unnaturally posed on the front page, Deidre from Great Shelford clutches a grainy photo of a “very large cat,” whilst pointing out across the fields at the back of her garden. Months pass, then Kerry from Cambridge squats cumbersomely on her patio alongside fading footprints in the snow. After a reported sighting near Girton many years ago, we set out to find the Fen Tiger, armed only with the naïve bravado of youth. The lone encounter that day was with an abandoned copy of ‘Razzle’ magazine; its haul of plump, pink bodies ripped into a thousand pieces and scattered in a ditch.
It would be all too easy to pen a melancholic lament to the Fens. As Eric Ennion wrote in 1949 in ‘Adventurers’ Fen’, there is a swathe of underlying sadness here, often triggered by, “a landing bay full of silt and rushes: a mooring post, green and pitted with decay: a bygone shed; a sunken barge.” Rotting reminders remain partially preserved. The flat land does odd things to your subconscious.
Equally, it is hard not to romanticise the lives and livelihoods of the, “folk who live close to the earth…little affected by modern amenities,” as described in Haines’ documentary. The fenland mentality and the folk themselves are inextricable from their rural edgeland. Growing up “in those
parts,” stigma ran rife and you quickly grew accustomed to being lumped in amongst others’ archaic notions of web-toed, inbred, simple swamp people.
The countless tributaries that stem from the A10 could carry you deep into the English countryside, across Oklahoma’s Great Plains or Louisiana’s bayous, like far-flung, recalled relatives thematically threaded together. Both real and imagined, their permeable folklores and overlapping landscapes freely seep into one another with a palpable richness, especially when driving for miles and miles with only the fly-tipped laybys and remote railway crossings serving as intermittent punctuation.
[Fen Folk is an extract from an on-going project exploring the landscape of the Fens and its folklore.]