Fenland reflections

We don’t need to wait for the end of the Covid tunnel to see the light.

Now that we are lucky enough to have free Mondays together, Joy and I are working our way through a series of Cambridgeshire circular walks. Today, on a stunning November morning, we parked beside St Mary’s church in Over, and walked out over the fen, along the river Great Ouse, to Swavesey, and back.

We are eight months into the Covid crisis, which has changed our lives in ways none of us foresaw. It feels without precedent in this part of the world. But it isn’t.  Both St Mary’s and St Andrew’s in Swavesey, in whose peaceful churchyard we stopped for a coffee, were already standing when the black death came this way in 1349, with far more devastating consequences. And the great plague of 1665-66 swept through nearby Cambridge in two waves, accounting for 12% of the population. We can at least be thankful for our medical science, and for those that apply it, managing the impact of our modern plague and, we hope, leading us out of it.

Now, at last, there is talk of vaccine success, and a light at the end of the tunnel. But out on the fen today, the light was not some distant prospect. It was everywhere. It was one of those autumn / winter mornings on which a low sun surveys the landscape like a child squinting at the surface of the water before it skims a stone. If this part of the world can seem featureless, today every contour stood out and the whole was washed in colour and caressed by shadow.

View towards Over from the Great Ouse
Looking towards Over from the Great Ouse embankment (church spire just visible on the horizon).

Where the sun could not shine, in the lee of banks and hedges, there was mud. For if I’ve remembered one thing in the last few weeks of picking my way around our county, it is that this is a place that struggles to hold its head just above the water. And that, even where it succeeds, it is liable to turn to slime at the least opportunity. We slither and slide from one piece of firm ground to the next and leave the gunk to dry on our boots at the end, before we scrape them clean.

It was always this way: Fenlanders labouring through the mud towards their distant church towers. They will have viewed this, unsentimentally, as the low, dull place from which they must eke a living – if the pestilence spares them. But there will always have been days when they lifted their heads and looked around, and the sun showed them the beauty that was there all along. Because, while we will all eventually return to the mud, today we have one another, and the light still shines.

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