Horbling Fen & the South Forty Foot

Horbling FenI went for a walk yesterday for the first time in ages. I drove to Horbling Fen, about twenty minutes away from Heckington, to buy meat from Fen Farm Venison and collect some chicken and beef that they were looking after for me, which came from wonderful Green Poultry down in the Cambridgeshire fens. It was a very cold but brilliantly sunny day and I was delighted to be out in all that space and light again. I walked from Fen Farm along to the South Forty Foot Drain (also called the Black Sluice Navigation) which will one day in future be part of the Fen Waterways Link – unless the age of austerity sees off this exciting project. I took photos at the point where a little natural waterway, called Ouse Mere Lode, empties into the Forty Foot. I love all these watery names.

The landscape was drenched in light and colour: bright greens, straw-yellow, chocolate earth, black stick trees. After a tiring few days away I was so revived by this hour’s walk in empty fields under the vast sky with only a few birds for company. The flatness of the landscape reminds me of the sea; it gives me that same sense that I could walk forever, towards the sky where it meets the land, horizon at my feet, infinity almost tangible. I am so small here and so free: I exult in insignificance.

I have felt distant recently both from the landscape and this blog. Yesterday’s short walk, the light and fields brought back to me my pleasure when I first started writing. I thought of favourite older posts on emptiness, isolation, landscape as art, and of other photos taken in fields and on bright days and evenings. ‘All sky and geometry,’ Close to the edge, A walk on Star Fen and Walking it off are some of them: I remember places, the images and the writing and how they made me feel. Now I write this sitting on a crowded evening train from Leeds to Grantham. It is dark outside as we all tap away at our little screens; but in my mind’s eye is a patchwork of colour, birds sing and I am walking in the sky.

More photos on the Facebook page as always.

Where waters meet

 

A nice day out

Maps for a day out

On Sunday we went out. We abandoned the weeding, watering, sowing and digging and instead had a happy series of visits around the Lincolnshire Fens and Wolds.

First a brief stop at Sibsey Trader Windmill, one of several working windmills in the area. I love them so much for so many reasons: old technology still working today, locally produced flour, handsome landmarks in this flat country. Our very own Heckington Windmill has been out of action for a couple of years, but the restored sails go back on this summer; I can’t wait.

We collected lunchtime sandwiches from the mill tea rooms, then we were off into the Wolds, to the village of Candlesby and a specialist herb nursery. We came away happy, with sage, lemon thyme, rosemary, black peppermint, sorrel and mace. A kind friend brought tarragon, fennel, hyssop, dill and lovage to my birthday last month and so the newly-built herb bed will soon be full.

Next stop, Strawberry Fields near Stickford in the fens where owner Pam kindly showed us around the fields of organic vegetables she supplies to retailers all over the country, including the lovely Unicorn Grocery, back where we used to live. So, any Manchester friends reading this, if you buy your veg from Unicorn, chances are you have eaten Strawberry Fields’ produce. On a quiet and sunny Sunday the scene was idyllic: acres of luscious green plants stretching away under a huge sky. A row of scarecrows, looking like workers busy hoeing, were a reminder of the hard slog that goes into growing this good food.

Our last visit of the day was in the fens still but with a view of hills, near the village of East Keal where the Wolds begin to rise out of the flatlands. We were meeting some piglets, one of whom we will eat later in the year when she has grown up. We talked to their owners about pig breeds* and pork and smallholding as we watched the piglets scoffing their dinner. They were cute and fun; and I am going to find it strange eating an animal that I have met in person, as it were. But if I eat meat, I’d rather know that the animals were well looked after while they were alive. And so it goes on, the debate between my vegetarian ‘good angel’ and my demon inner-carnivore.

Flour, herbs, lettuces, bacon: and all in the spring sunshine. What a nice day.

Piglets

* These are Oxford Sandy and Blacks. For more info see this Rare Breeds Survival Trust fact sheet.

A sense of history: in Boston

Boston Stump

Boston, Lincolnshire is not often in the news but was last week because of a terrible storm and flooding. Boston was a very important medieval port but the silting up of the River Witham, which empties into The Wash brought decline. It is still a watery town, with the river and big man-made drains carrying water from the Fens, running through it.

I was in Boston the day before the storm. It’s a half hour walk from the station to Pilgrim Hospital, grey and overcast on my way there and brilliant sunshine on the return journey (the latter sadly painful, after laser treatment on my eyes). My route took in St Botolph’s Church (otherwise known as Boston Stump and visible for miles across the fenland fields), Maud Foster Drain, Maud Foster Windmill and a lovely footpath through winter allotments. All the photos are on the Facebook page.

Medieval England feels very alive to me here in this part of the country, as it did when I was growing up near Cambridge. I don’t know why it holds such a spell for me; and I know that perhaps it makes little sense of speak of half a millennium (from the 11th century, say, to the 16th) as one period. But when, as on Saturday night, I sit in my village church, built in the 1300s and listen to a carol from the 1500s, when I lay my hands on the massive stone pillars, I feel I touch, across the centuries, the hands of those who built the church or who came, generation after generation to worship there.

On that day in Boston, crossing bridges, river, drains, I had a powerful, vivid sense of another Boston, in its twelfth century heyday, waterways full of boats and men and ropes and shouting; it seemed very near me, almost seen, as though through a veil.

I could have been sad, for what has passed, but I felt instead an exciting sense of timelessness, of today’s Boston containing still that other town, as we each hold all our past and all our future.

Maud Foster Drain

‘All sky and geometry’

Field and gate

Soon we will have been in Lincolnshire a year. Autumn is moving into winter and the landscape is beginning to look bright and spare and empty as it did on my very first walks here.

I found the phrase ‘all sky and geometry,’ describing the fenland landscape, quoted from the poet John Clare on the Woodlands Farm website. Now I have found Clare’s collected works among my partner’s books and am reading his nature poetry for the first time. I love ‘all sky and geometry;’ it exactly describes the abstract art that I find around me, especially at this time of year (see this old post).

Today was cold but beautiful and I walked on Great Hale Fen, with low, slanting afternoon sun gilding the ploughed fields; I walked along Car Dyke, the drainage ditch dug by the Romans and then past the windmill and the station on my way home to Heckington.

The photos here, with their straight lines and angles, are ones which make me think of geometry, as well as art. Many of the lines are man-made: the railway, electricity cables, drainage ditches and field boundaries. But always, all around there is that flat-line of a horizon, earth meeting sky, outside us and beyond our reach.

The folk group, LAU play a piece called Horizontigo, a response to the fenland landscape by musician Kris Drever, who comes from Orkney. Here they are playing it. I love the title: and wonder if Horizontigo is what a friend was suffering from when she said all my blog photos of flat landscapes were making her dizzy (see Flat vs bumpy post).

More of the photos from my walk are on the Facebook page. Do pay it a visit and ‘Like’ it if you haven’t already.

And for more on John Clare and his poetry, see these recent pieces by George Monbiot and Andrew Motion:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview5?guni=Article:in%20body%20link

Line to Boston

Walking it off

Autumn evening

It’s been a busy time: grandchildren staying, trip to London for family memorial service, more guests arriving soon. So there’s only time for this short hymn in praise of walking and of landscape.

If you like photos and/or fens, visit my Facebook page for more images from this walk; and see my earlier post, Evening on Star Fen.

I was in a rage on Thursday, that kind of helpless fury where you go over and over in your head people’s wrongdoings and the things you’d like to say to punish them.

After kicking the furniture a little I took myself out for a walk: starting at an angry march, coming home in the dark two hours later, a tired but happier woman. Out on Star Fen, with fields stretching away into twilight and infinity, under the bowl of sky, the mind clears, the spririt lifts; I am so tiny in this huge world, and so free: a magical transformation, from marching to dancing, from fury into joy.

Walking shoes

Close to the edge

Road to nowhere

This is my 100th post. Nine months ago we moved ‘from the city to the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens,’ as it says in the strapline above.

Heckington is indeed a village on the edge. Sitting at a fine height of ten metres above sea level, it is one of a string of villages which mark the western border of the fens in these parts.

To the west of these villages is a very English farmland landscape: an undulating patchwork of fields and hedgerows in shades of green, brown, gold. But when you travel east you cross the 5 metre contour line and then, on the map, there are no more wavy contour lines, just the straight, blue lines of drainage ditches dividing the fields.

Each village has its own parcel of fenland: South Kyme (South Kyme by Ferry Lane), Howell (No longer the dog field..), Heckington, Great Hale, Little Hale and so on, along a roughly north-south line down to the town of Bourne, each with a fen named after it.

These are the real flatlands, a pancake-flat, sea-like expanse stretching from here to the Wash. Long, straight farm roads or ‘droves’ take you out onto the fen, often coming to an abrupt end at Car Dyke (A walk on Star Fen) or further south, at the larger, though less ancient South Forty Foot Drain.

Yesterday I walked at twilight down Howell Fen Drove, picking elderberries, meeting not one other single soul, hearing nothing but the wind and my own footsteps. Ahead of me hung a three-quarters moon in a limpid, china blue sky, behind me cloudy pink reflections of the setting sun; light fading with every yard.

The eerie, empty world excited, elated and then scared me as the darkness grew. I though of Robert Macfarlane walking a sea path in mist (in The Old Ways) and then I was on another ghostly walk, from Alan Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath (a childhood favourite), with padding footsteps of the Horned Hunter behind me on the road.

So that road’s end is to be seen another day. I turned back to my real-world, parked van and the dubious safety of driving home in darkness with my less than perfect eyesight. But I am glad for that hour out of time on a road to nowhere. Part of me is walking there still, weightless, breathing, free.

Field on Howell Fen

Woodlands Organic Farm

We went on a farm walk at Woodlands Organic Farm the other day. I’ve mentioned them a couple of times before – the people we were getting a veg box from before we had our own food from the garden (Vegetable Stories and On my bike).

Woodlands is in the fens near Boston, a mixed farm growing vegetables and raising livestock. We saw cattle, chickens, pigs and turkeys – all good fun. Partner’s big interest is vegetables and luckily we were allowed to wander off to the market garden and admire the serried ranks of lettuces and polytunnels full of peppers and tomatoes.

I love cattle. My childhood bedroom faced onto a field of cows, so close that on summer nights I fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of them munching grass, comforting as waves breaking on a shore.

I like these young Lincoln Red cattle, so glossy, energetic and curious as they are; I wish they didn’t exist only so we could eat them. I probably should be vegetarian – but I’m not.

I find much to bemoan in how our food is produced, in the challenges faced by farmers and especially by those who want to farm organically, sustainably, humanely. So a day like this one, seeing an organic farm in the flesh, as it were, was cheering and inspiring.

And our lunchtime soup was nice too.

Evening on Star Fen

Back home in the flatlands and out for an evening bike ride on Star Fen: I love this place for its pretty name and for being so quiet and remote, so close to our village.

The photos can’t do justice to the quality of the light at this time of day; nor to the cute and curious alpacas who live on the fen. The bike is my ‘second-best’ one, old but lovely, recently come here to live from my mum’s house and out for her first spin on the fen roads.

A day later I walked with Boston Ramblers on the last of their summertime evening walks. In July we walked until 9pm, but yesterday the light was fading fast when we finished at 8.15. We walked briskly by road and river at South Kyme (see South Kyme by Ferry Lane). I drove home into a dusky sky streaked with pink, watching the lights of combine harvesters on the dark road ahead.

Late summer is deceptive, a time of contrasts; in the still, slow heat plants are racing to reproduce and while some of us laze on bank holiday beaches farmers are working into the night to bring the harvest in.

Wool country

Wandering sheep
The fens are full of beautiful churches, spires visible for miles across the sea-like landscape, towering over the remote villages to which they belong. These were prestige building projects back in the early fourteenth century or before, paid for by landowners made wealthy by sheep and the wool trade with Flanders.

The pretty lamb in the picture above is a Gotland, a rare breed originating in Sweden and not the kind of sheep that would have grazed Lincolnshire fields back then. I met her and the rest of the flock at Burton Pedwardine, a village just two miles from Heckington: see Pedwardine Gotlands for more information.

It was a great morning, a novel experience. I have never met such friendly sheep! They behaved like dogs, wanting to be petted and pawing at me with their hooves if I seemed to be ignoring them. The reason I was there was to see about getting some of their wool when they are next sheared, to use it for felt-making. It’s lovely wool, with curls, in pretty colours and makes good felt. There may also be meat from the lambs later in the year; but will I be able to eat it when I’ve met them all by name? The jury’s out on that one…

Meanwhile in our own church of St Andrews, Heckington, I find an unlikely art exhibition. Woolly Spires showcases the results of a community knitting project and yes, it is just what it sounds like: knitted churches.

They are quite something: St Botolph’s, Boston (the famous Boston Stump), St Denys’, Sleaford and St Mary & St Nicholas, Spalding rendered in faithful detail, all in wool.

The wool for the woolly spires is all from the local breed, the Lincoln Longwool, which became important in the 18th century and of which I saw many at the wonderful Heckington Show recently. They are impressive, dreadlocked animals, but I have to say that I prefer the cheery, cheeky Gotlands pictured below.

Gotland sheep in field

Summer’s lease

By Heckington Eau Swallows swoop and skim over the grass when I walk Doris the dog round the village sports field, telling me it’s summer even with a gale blowing and grey sky overhead.

Blue sky later: good for an evening walk. The footpath runs along the bank of Heckington Eau and I look over fields of wheat or peas, stretching like a dark green sea below me. The banks of the drains, so plain in winter, are bursting with grasses, cow parsley, wild flowers.

Many fields have wide verges left uncut for wildlife: crops and grasses make stripes of light/dark green, grey, yellow.

Stripes bring to mind the Isle of Wight, 1970s, bottles filled with layers of coloured Alum Bay sands. Before that, in my grandmother’s house, stripy sands in a bottle were from the Egyptian desert: my teenage summers or my mother’s lost, hot childhood, bottled.

And watery fen or arid desert exist under the same bowl of sky.

image