Tuesday, 18 November 2008

One field leads to another

I know tourists the world over flood into London looking for the great sights, the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Windsor castle, and I agree that a walk on the Millennium Bridge - over the Thames to the South Bank, the London Eye, Shakespeare's Globe - never fails to give my little heart an extra skip, but do you know, I think I have to be an ambassador for English fields.

OK, as you can see, it's not a passion always shared by the gritlets who look distinctly like Uhuh. Another patch of grass in the middle of nowhere? but these fields hold as much history as all the glamorous sights of London. And here is a history of rural labour, short lives, broken bones, battered hands, beaten backs and weathered faces. What's more, if it were not for the thousands of nameless people who worked over this land, dug these ditches, spread that muck, then Windsor castle with all its crusty class greatness and Keep off the grass signs would not be there at all.

And in this defiant and righteous-for-the-rural-peasantry frame of mind, I drag the gritlets to a fen. Here, as we walk, I'll witter on about peat, wildlife, medieval field drainage and anything else I can think of that might roughly approximate to an education about rural misery in a bog.

This is Wicken Fen, a flat expanse of wetland in Cambridgeshire managed for wildlife, and in winter, it's closed on Mondays. This is very National Trust, don't you think? To close down an entire part of the countryside. Mondays is the traditional day for cleaning, and here that's probably what they do.

Well they make a very good job of it, I tell the gritlets as we cheerily start on our longest walk, and contemplate the huge pits of grey clay mud, good for bricks, but from which there is no escape, unless it is crawling through the mustard coloured banks of reeds and autumn scrub. Once we're over the mud, we look ahead to paths stretching into the distance. I cannot see a soul ahead or behind, and the landscape is flat for miles around. These paths, stretching to the horizon in all directions, could roll on for miles. Useful for fish and fowl, I say to the gritlets, should we be hungry before teatime.

But then the thought suddenly grips me - probably when barking deer hack and cough in murky woodlands somewhere behind us - that we will surely take a false turn. Once lost, the hours escape into dusk, fog will roll over, and we will fall into a bog and be swallowed forever in desolation, never to be seen again.

That would be typical. And suddenly I'm none too sure about this, walking into the middle of nowhere rattling on about fishy dinners and drainage systems with three gritlets squabbling about a stick shaped like a bird.

But we've come this far, and I'm not turning back now. And there is something captivating about this timeless, desolate space, with its otherworldliness. After an hour we could have left the place we normally call earth some years ago; the late afternoon mist gathers around us as if we are unbidden guests in this territory. Useful for outlaws and generally handy for peasantry inclined to rebellion. Murderers too, I bet, could hide out in these unwelcoming lands, although I don't say so.

At our side, slate grey water runs by in straight and even lines, sunk into flat blankets of sedge and grass. These silent channels are direct and purposeful, about their own business, dividing the land like a vast chequerboard. It's easy to be lost here, walking by these channels, hearing only the melancholy coughs from the woodlands, trusting the water knows where it is travelling.

Fortunately I am a clutching a map, wisely picked up from the visitor centre and wrestled out of Squirrel's hand, and I have red dots and lines to follow, hieroglyphs to decipher a return to the car and relative safety from the mists and hollow mournful coughing that I am now sure are hapless ghouls pursuing us. Shark says it is because the light is failing and I am being silly because everyone knows the barking and woodland rustling is nothing, it's just Muntjac deer and Bill Oddie wants to know where they're hiding. Quite frankly, as darkness starts to creep about us, I'd rather they didn't keep following.

After several hours, or perhaps that was years, we reach the car, gladly, cold feet stinging, drenched in semi-darkness, and we have an argument over who's going to put the stick away and who's telling Bill Oddie about the deer, so everything's normal.

And, I add, blowing my fingers to stop them freezing solid, since everyone has been so very good for this long, long walk through nowhere, we'll continue our tour of English fields next week. Next though we'll do it not quite in the middle of nowhere for several hours followed by ghouls, ghosts and medieval murderers. Next week I'll be an ambassador for the local rec, and point out the war time allotments. And who knows, we might even see the neighbourhood cat.


sharon said...

A super walk. I was almost there with you, though I didn't enjoy the cold damp elements ;-)

Hope you stopped for some nice hot greasy chips on the way home.

Tricia said...

This does actually sound quite wonderful. Sometimes a tour of nowhere is the bets tour of all.

PS: I love London!

The Finely Tuned Woman said...

Dear Grit, I have sort of an award for you over at my place. Can you come and get it?

Grit said...

hi sharon, it was not too bad really, after the panic, arguments, darkness and cold. i can say the rest was invigorating.

your love of london is probably not misplaced tricia - it has the great advantage over the middle of nowhere in that it serves hot coffee.

thank you, irene! you are very kind! please bear with me a while because i am not too smart about collecting these awards... it requires me to remember how to do it. i know it is simple, and i have no excuse.