I love flatlands. There is something about a big sky and an uninterrupted horizon that speaks directly to me, and some of my fondest memories of place involve an unbroken wash of sky. (The sort of place, as comedian Rich Hall described the plains of Montana, that’s ‘so flat you can see the back of your own head’). Not the least intriguing thing about these places is that they require careful management and maintenance. They are very deliberate landscapes.
The North Kent Marshes. The Somerset Levels, with their strange punctuating polyps Glastonbury Tor and Burrowbridge Mump. I’ve known and loved Romney Marsh, which is four marshes really, since I was a child, visiting its shingle headland and farming inland regularly over many years. (My parents spent their last 20+ years here, as my mother had grown up nearby). I made my first stab at fieldwork here, too, discovering that flatlands offer certain advantages to those of us who don’t drive but can cycle. Over decades, now, I’ve seen shifting patterns of habitation across the Marsh, and I’ll be reflecting a little on changing land use and attitudes to the terrain in marginal reclaimed water areas at the Folklore Society’s forthcoming annual conference on ‘Folklore,Geography and Environment: Ways of Knowing Water, Landscape and Climate in the Anthropocene’. (I’m looking forward to getting back to Hull, too, somewhere I haven't been in too many years).
The other flatland that occupies a major part of my imagination is the Cambridgeshire Fens. I still recall one magical January afternoon being driven across a snowy grey wasteland. Ahead of us we could see a snowstorm as a discreet column of weather. Sometimes we had to drive through it, and out the other side. Sometimes, as the roads turned around the waterways, the storm would temporarily obstruct our view of Ely Cathedral, the most prominent building breaking the skyline.
So I was delighted recently to find a cheap second-hand copy of Edward Storey’s The Winter Fens. Storey was from Whittlesey, near Ely, and wrote several books on the area. But this particular copy has more than just its contents going for it.
It is inscribed with the name of a previous owner, and in the same hand a short poem is written inside the back cover. A brief and thus far cursory search online has revealed no authorial source for the poem, so until I discover otherwise I will treat the poem as likely written by Joan Bush. It is a rather nice little piece of verse:
January is the month of Xmas bills
Leaking ceilings and sore throat pills
The month that kids lose mittens in
And the cat has 13 kittens in
To top it all the car won’t go
It’s sitting in a bed of snow
January would be a curse
If February didn’t promise worse.