This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I like it and, to save it from complete obscurity, here it is for my handful of faithful blog readers. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve included some of the photos I took for the article, but my camera failed for the first walk, to the Thames marshes near Fobbing, so I’ve included a couple of Wikipedia images in its place. As a writer who takes photos for articles, my only advice is to get there early to catch the dawn light and, possible in this digital age, take hundreds of shots. Some of them will turn out all right!
In search of England’s lost wildernesses
Confession time. I love mountains, the wild high places this magazine is dedicated to, but it’s the flatlands – marshes, fens, plains, steppes – that fascinate me, exerting a sort of appalled, rubbernecking attraction. There’s something about the way I can walk for hours and then stop and look around and realise that I haven’t got anywhere; how the sun pins the walker to the ground like a sadistic lepidopterist; the way the world itself seems to roll beneath your feet as if each stride is turning the globe.
I would have chalked this all up to personal peculiarity if it had not been for a series of discoveries while writing and researching my books. It turns out that, for almost all our history, the true wildernesses of England, the places people whispered of in fire-lit tales as the refuge of monsters and the haunt of bandits, were not mountains and moors, but marshes and meres. When Alfred the Great fled Guthrum’s surprise attack on Twelfth Night, he made his way through the winter landscape to the ‘fen-fastnesses’ of Athelney, the Isle of Princes, an island surrounded by the shifting waterways of the Somerset Levels. After William the Bastard had cut down Harold at Hastings and harrowed the north, the last defiance against the Normans came out of Fenland. Smugglers and bandits, radicals and revolutionaries have all emerged from or taken refuge in England’s shifting, uncertain wildernesses, disappearing into legend among the rushes and reeds. Today, those seeking escape from civilisation and its discontents head north and west, to where the geology of Britain has largely confined our hills and mountains. But, once, wildness was wet, not high.
So, I set out to explore what remains of England’s lost wildernesses. But, first, I had to find them.
I’m a Londoner: child of immigrants, born and raised in the Great Wen. The city is a creation of the river, the ‘strong brown god … unhonoured, unpropitiated … but waiting, watching, and waiting’, and the Thames marshes were the first lost wilderness I went in search of. The Romans built their bridge at the first bridgeable point of the Thames, joining the gravel pile of Ludgate Hill to the salt marshings of Southwark. Downriver, the river carved brown channels through a flood landscape, until generations of hydro engineers forced it, sullenly, into channels. The gateway to Empire, the Thames became the busiest, richest thoroughfare on earth, a honeypot of sail and steam, with settlements perched upon high, dry ground, all the way to the sea.
The marshes of the Thames
By the village of Fobbing, near the candy-coloured delights of Canvey Island, the land steeps down to a flat, ridged plain, scored with creeks and channels; a five-thousand-acre remnant of the great Thames marshes that walked along the river to the sea. Arriving at dawn just after the longest day of the year, I was greeted with a sight that was slightly less apocalyptic than I’d hoped for. Yes, the sun in its rising stained the river a pleasing shade of crimson, but where were the columns of fire? Last time I’d been this way, the oil refineries by the river were sending up great gouts of flame from ranks of flare stacks, as if greeting the sun in kind. But today, the refineries were cold, lifeless. I learned later that they had gone into receivership; the last shut down in 2013 – apparently even oil mega corporations can go belly up.
Fifteen minutes later I was thoroughly lost. This, I decided, staring at a hugely unhelpful OS map, was ridiculous. I was only just outside the M25, smack in the middle of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated country in Europe (England having overtaken the Low Countries), and I was lost. But lost I was, and as morning mist rose up to cover my legs, and drown any appreciable landmarks in shifting grey, I caught a first, halting sense of the shifting, subtle nature of these places, which are neither land nor water, but phase from one state to the other; as shapes swirled thickly in the mist, I began to catch some of the fear that stalks the accounts of fens and marshes in English tales and legends. But then the shapes resolved into cattle, as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and the rising sun began to burn off the mist.
After so long walking on level ground, the climb back up to Fobbing proved surprisingly difficult for muscles trained into the horizontal. In the village, outside the White Lion pub, I saw a sign commemorating the villagers who had risen in revolt against the imposition of a swingeing poll tax – but this revolt took place in the 1380s, not the 1980s. The people of Fobbing lit the match that set off the Peasants’ Revolt; John Ball, the hedge priest whose sermons (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) on the injustices of the feudal system provided the spiritual justification for the revolt lived in Norfolk and Essex before moving to Kent; John Wrawe raised the men of Essex and stirred revolution in Cambridgeshire.
As I walked the flatlands and marshlands of England, I found myself also following a trail of religious and political radicalism – it almost seemed that the flatter the landscape the more revolutionary the ideas it spawned.
The island of the marshes
There are few areas flatter than Lincolnshire. This was once the marsh kingdom of Lindsey, one of the small realms that grew up in the post-Roman splintering of Britain, a domain created by its geography for the great fenlands of Cambridgeshire formed its southern limit, and the Humber estuary its northern edge, while the rivers Witham and Trent all but cut it off from the country to the west. Lindsey, ‘the island of Lincoln’, has the cathedral as its peak, but other islands rose from the surrounding seas of marsh and reed, notably the Isle of Axholme. That was where I went next in my search for England’s lost wildernesses.
Trent, the name of one of the two great rivers that drain into the Humber Estuary, comes from the Brythonic word ‘Trisanton’, which means ‘trespasser’. A better description for the river could scarce be found, for it is a wilful, unpredictable water, forever flooding the flatlands around its mouth. The Isle of Axholme was an isolated area of raised ground above the surrounding marshland, and the site of the first great battle over the use and reclamation of fenland. In 1626, King Charles I sold Hatfield Chase, a huge area of peat bog just west of the Isle of Axholme, to a Dutch drainage engineer named Cornelius Vermuyden, who would get to keep for himself one third of the drained land. Only, the king had no authority to sign over the rights of common grazing, which local people depended upon. For where outsiders looked upon Hatfield Chase and saw it as ‘evil in winter, grievous in summer and never good’, the people who made their living around and upon the marshlands understood them well, exploiting them for lush pasture in high summer when other fields were bare, fishing and fowling, harvesting hemp for sails and rope, and cutting peat. But the marshmen were viewed with no less suspicion than their land: ‘Fenmen, disgusting representations of ignorance and indecency!’ They may not have been educated, but the people of Axholme could work out what the drainage ditches Vermuyden was digging through Hatfield Chase meant and they ‘came unto the workmen and beat and terrified them, threatening to kill them, if they would not leave their work’. The Battle for the Bogs had begun.
It continued for the best part of the next three centuries, the rich and powerful gradually nibbling away at the marshland and taking it under their control, until the original 880 square miles of marsh in the Humberhead Levels was reduced to the peat bogs of Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moor, which Fisons continued to strip mine. It was only in 2002 that the remaining peat bogs were saved.
Arriving at dawn, and pausing to take photos, a cloud of insects descended and I was immediately reminded that the first, and greatest, defender of the marsh was the mosquito and the diseases it carried. Ague – malaria – the sweating sickness of marsh and fen had done much to create the miasma of fear that surrounded England’s wildernesses – for after all, a true wilderness must have the potential to kill the visitor.
‘Beware of adders.’ The signs, helpfully posted at intervals, showed there were other possibly lethal inhabitants of the Moor. Sadly, any snake sunning itself in the early morning light heard me long before I saw it, and slid quietly away, but the birds were not nearly so bashful, serenading me throughout in the most full-throated manner I’ve heard outside a rainforest. The patchwork of ponds, bogs, lakes, woods, scrub and stripped clear peat make for as varied a series of habitats as can be found in Britain today.
It was a dislocating place, caught between different places and times, and I, more suspended than most, was held in remembrance of King Edwin of Northumbria, High King of Britain, who fought his final battle here, amid the meres. Thinking of the men slain thirteen hundred years before, I emerged on to the stripped slabs of the Moor, where the industrial scrapers of Fisons and others pared the peat from the land, leaving a landscape that’s as near to the Western Front as anything I’ve seen. Walking out into the wastes, water lying in sheet silver either side of the ridges, I was in as lonely a place as there is in England.
Perhaps the inmates of HMP Lindholme, the double wire, razor-topped fences of which run alongside the western edge of Hatfield Moor, take some solace in the grey green banks of alder and willow that wave beyond the prison’s confines. Walking the perimeter fence is a chastening experience, the metallic clangs from the prison works interpsersing with the occasional siren. But a turn into a glimpsed opening, and I was bathed in green, leaf-filtered light, the skeletal finger of a bog-drowned tree pointing from water to sky. Leaving the moor – in Old English, the word derives from ‘morass’, again showing how our wilderness derives from the wet – I returned to the Isle of Axholme and found that here too, the flatlands had produced a radical re-evaluation of society; for Epworth, a village of the Isle, was the birthplace and early home to John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Again, the flatlands were the cradle of radicalism. What would the Fens, greatest of them all, produce?
The Great Level
Driven from Hatfield Chase, bankrupted and imprisoned, Cornelius Vermuyden bounced back. The Fens were the great prize for the land reclaimers, and Vermuyden, with his Dutch expertise, was their chosen champion. But the locals fought back, destroying sluices and breaking dams. Insurrection was in the air, and the commoners found a champion in a local farmer, a ‘Mr Cromwll of Ely’. This farmer ensured that their complaints against the commandeering of the commons was included in the Grand Remonstrance presented to King Charles I in 1641.
But in a betrayal that seems as great as the remonstrance, once the king was beheaded and the farmer had become Lord Protector, Cromwell instigated the draining of the Great Level, engaging the men of his own New Model Army to guard the work parties. Battle continued through the next two centuries, but it was a one-way process. Charles Kingsley, writing in the 19th century, remembered how ‘dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon … high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see … They are all gone now.’
The largest of all England’s wildernesses, the Great Level, which brought down a king and defied a conqueror, was finally bisected and dissected, its life-giving waters drained, in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Ah, well, at least … children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen.’
It’s not quite all gone. Wicken Fen is the oldest site in the care of the National Trust, some 900 acres of fen, part of which has never been drained. The Trust plans to extend this to 10,000 acres, stretching as far as Cambridge, by the end of the century. I set off to walk from Wicken to the Isle of Ely, Cromwell’s home, following the River Great Ouse. Wicken Fen is a bird watchers’ – and song listeners’ – delight; it resounded with liquid chimmers and churrs. The channels that bisect it would have been easy for the shallow-drafted vessels of the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings to navigate, enabling them to strike inland, far from the sea.
The river ran north, between over-engineered banks, towards the distant, looming tower of Ely Cathedral. I’d been walking for a while before I realised that the Ouse ran at a higher level than the surrounding fields of carrots and cabbages; it flows between raised embankments for now but should the levee break, the flood would be catastrophic; for the peat of the levels, once drained, has shrunk, lowering the ground surface below river level, below sea level. It was with fantasies of flood running through my imagination that I arrived in Ely and plodded upwards to the exquisite cathedral – our medieval forbears knew better than us how to create an architecture that enhanced a landscape. Cromwell’s old house is now, ignominiously, a tourist office and small museum.
Returning, as twilight fell, along an almost enclosed green lane, a hunting barn owl swooping below the branches nearly flew into me and two playing hares ground to an abrupt halt before making off into the fields.
The Fen was dark when I returned. I, as do we all, enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation but listening to the creak of willow I dreamed of flood, and the return of the waters to the Great Level. In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Hrothgar’s hall from his lair in the fens. In England’s national poem, the monster comes from the marsh. I listened, but all I heard was silence.
The writer, George Monbiot, has called for the rewilding of Britain, but he has largely confined this to the hills and jeremiads against sheep, to places far from where we live today. How much more worthwhile would it be to reclaim England’s true lost wildernesses, that mostly lie around and about our centres of population, that we might, once again, have at our doorsteps the great, stinking, shifting levels.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.