Mysterious Fenland

I recently read Graham Swift’s Waterlandsaid to be the Great Fenland Novel. It is an interesting book, but the story is rather bleak: On just over 300 pages the reader encounters murder, incest, child abduction, an unwanted pregnancy which results in a failed abortion attempt, and several unhappy marriages. After finishing the book I was certainly in the mood for some more lighthearted fiction, but nevertheless I also wanted to go on a walk in the Fens.

I had been on a Fenland walk before: The March March march from March to Cambridge, which was a unique experience but mostly involved road-walking; and that I wanted to avoid this time. I therefore decided to walk from Whittlesea to March on the Hereward Way, which is named after an Ely-based 11th century nobleman who led a rebellion against William the Conqueror.

The day was cold but sunny, which is an ideal combination for this area. The first half of the walk consists of footpaths on dykes along various drains, and with no real change in the surrounding landscape this might have been a bit boring, but the sun shining on the ice made the experience pretty enjoyable.

The Fens are a strange place for sure. On the walk I heard the sounds of several dogs barking and howling loudly, but could not see a single dog anywhere – and obviously this was not because a hill obstructed my view. The sounds of the freight trains on their way to and from Felixstowe were also a constant companion, which can be enjoyed at home thanks to some enthusiasts on YouTube.

Unusual things had also happened on the aforementioned walk from March to Cambridge: After taking a picture of a (not very impressive) lake my phone mysteriously crashed and the battery was suddenly completely drained – something that has never happened before or since. Keeping this in mind I brought an external battery this time, which was not needed in the end though.

Eventually I reached the remote village of Turves, whose pub is a real-life instance of the Signs of Disrepair trope:

There was also a road sign which said “Park Here and Use Phone at Crossing”, which I was unsure what to make of. I still don’t know what the purpose of these signs is, since googling the phrase merely led to other people asking about their meaning without any conclusive answers. [Update: See Mark’s comment for an explanation.]

The character of the walk changed after passing Turves, and the at times very muddy footpath leads one through fields and farmland. Probably the most memorable moment of the day was encountering this creepy plastic tree shortly before leaving the village behind:

Eventually I reached the River Nene, where the Hereward Way continues along the bank until March. The footpath here leads directly through some people’s back gardens, from where I spotted two swans sitting between the ice:

Annoyingly a very short stretch along the river – just the area between the two gates – is privately owned, which necessitates a detour via a nearby road. 

As far as I could see this was not signposted, so the map I had bought for the walk was a worthwhile investment.

I approached the town of March from the west and walked past some very nice houses – I think the Fens would really benefit from more pink:

Overall the walk was much less bleak than the novel – but the weather helped, and I would only recommend it for those who truly have a taste for desert landscapes. There are other parts of the Fens I still want to see, but probably not all that soon.

Thames Estuary

Writing about the Thames Estuary is not easy, because so much has been said already: The Thames Estuary Library, for instance, lists no less than 21 topical books (one very good example of the genre is Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary), and that isn’t even exhaustive, since arguably Pete May’s The Joy of Essex also qualifies. Recently I was also browsing in a second-hand bookshop with a well-stocked local history section, and found yet another example from 1981, which appears to be largely forgotten: Estuary: Land and Water in the Lower Thames Basin by A. K. Astbury, which I immediately bought because it’s preface is amazingly grumpy:

In the face of this vast amount of existing literature, all I can offer here are some notes on the Essex side of the Estuary, which are largely based on a walk along parts of the Thames Estuary Path this summer. While some stretches of this path are probably more to the liking of enthusiasts, the four miles from Leigh-on-Sea to Benfleet should be able to please everyone, as they are beautiful in a traditional sense, and include the ruins of castle on the way:

Train fans can be satisfied as well, since the footpath runs parallel to the c2c-line to Shoeburyness, and the more industrial parts of Essex are visible in the distance:

Soon I arrived in Benfleet, the gateway to Canvey Island. For some reason my feeling was that Canvey is an exciting and mysterious place, although at the time, apart from having heard the name and looking it up on a map before, I did not know anything in particular about this Estuary island. Unfortunately my plans for the day did not allow me tome for an actual visit and I continued to walk towards Pitsea, but later I did some research, and was not disappointed. I came across the film Oil City Confidentialwhich tells the story of the band Dr. Feelgood, whose founding members were from Canvey Island. The film contains many great shots of the area and also tells the history of Canvey, which includes event such as the flood of 1953. I can highly recommend checking it out, and hope to explore Canvey Island in real life soon.

During this research I also looked into other Estuary islands, and learned some surprising facts about the Isle of Sheppey on the Kent side. In 1974 the writer Uwe Johnson, who was originally from East Germany but eventually fled to the West, moved – to the surprise of his friends, apparently – to Sheerness-on-Sea, in order to overcome writer’s block while working on his novel Jahrestage. He lived there until his death in 1984, and wrote a couple of essays on the people and their lives on Sheppey. The most memorable one is about the SS Richard Montgomery, an American war ship which sank near Sheerness in 1944 while carrying 1,400 tons of explosives, which – until this day! – are lying on the bottom of the Thames, since recovering the explosives was judged to be more dangerous than leaving them there.

A couple of years ago the BBC produced a radio feature about Johnson in Sheerness which includes translated excerpts from these writings, otherwise they are available in German. One reason I enjoyed learning about this story is that I always like to hear about Germans with an unexpected connection to this part of England, even if, to be fair, Kent is not exactly East Anglia anymore. (The absolute hero in this field is of course W. G. Sebald, about whom I might write more in the future.) As it happens I have never read any of Johnson’s novels, but will probably do so in the new year.

Back to Essex: Remnants of the second world war can be found here too, such as these bunkers (between East Tilbury and Tilbury) and a number of concrete barges (near Rainham):

As I approached Tilbury, the atmosphere changed. Industrial smells became noticeable, and a strange humming noise could be heard, the source of which turned out to be this gigantic ship, which, so I learn later, does deep offshore drilling:

I also paid Tilbury Fort a visit, but couldn’t enjoy as much as I would have liked since by that I was very hungry, and unfortunately there is no café. After quite a long day of walking I was then pleased to be back on a train, which brought me to London Fenchurch Street – for the first time ever, since in the morning I had used one of the (few) c2c trains that start at Liverpool Street. Now I had to walk to the latter station to get back to Cambridge, which meant navigating the City of London. I found this very difficult, since the street layout is confusing, Google Maps mysteriously didn’t work properly, and walking in the shadows of various skyscrapers while all the shops are deserted because of to the weekend make for a strange and creepy atmosphere. (So far I have yet to see the City in action on a weekday). I eventually made it, and happily boarded the train back home.

Village Pairs

One thing I really like about the local villages is that many of them come in pairs: Two neighbouring villages share one part of their name, but have different pre- or suffixes. A well-known and widespread instance of this are Great/Little-pairs, such as Great and Little Shelford immediately south of Cambridge. I would expect that Upper/Lower pairs are also found more than once, although I haven’t seen such a combination in East Anglia, and can at the moment only think of the Slaughters in the Cotswolds (to which unfortunately I haven’t been yet).

A particular charming aspect is the treatment of village pairs on road signs: They will guide you to the Shelfords, the Mordens, the Offords, etc.

How cute is that? Of course, British road signs are fascinating in many other ways as well. The font that is used is beautiful, and on major A-roads and motorways one can find very general directions like The NORTH or The SOUTHWEST, which I think is an excellent idea. I once cycled through a roundabout one exit of which led to a very busy A-road, and once I saw these signs I knew I should definitely avoid using this exit. (For more on signs and much else I can highly recommend the British Roads FAQ.)

Back to the village pairs themselves though. My favourites are those where the pre- or suffix are quite unusual. The aforementioned Mordens, for instance, are composed not of Little and Great, but of Guilden and Steeple Morden! Individually they are not unique – there is a Guilden Sutton and a couple of other Steeple-villages, but the particular combination seems to be one of a kind. Swaffham Bulbeck and Swaffham Prior, through which I came on my trip to Bury St Edmunds, also deserve a mention.

Even better, in my opinion, are the Offords near Huntingdon, which I came across while randomly looking at a map. They consist of the mysterious sounding Offord Cluny and Offord D’Arcy, and once I had encountered them I immediately decided that I should pay them a visit; a plan I implemented a couple of weeks ago.

I cycled from Cambridge via the Guided Busway, and passed Houghton Mill and Godmanchester on the way, which are both very pretty:

Godmanchester is worth mentioning given the topic of interesting names, since it used to have a rather unintuitive pronunciation: It was traditionally known as GUM-ster, which clearly beats Worcester in terms of unexpectedness.

I then cycled through both of the Offords and captured their village signs: 

Apart from the signs, I have not that much to report about the Offords. They are right next to the East Coast Main Line, which is cool if you like trains. The area is quite hilly by Cambridgeshire-standards, on that day it was also very windy, and the road also didn’t have a cycle path, so the overall situation was more challenging than anticipated. It was good to have seen the Offords nevertheless.

After the trip, I tried to find out more about how exactly the names emerged (relying mostly on Wikipedia: 1, 2, 3). In the Domesday book, there are two entries for the Offords (with different owners), however both are about Opeforde / Upeforde, so it is not quite clear whether there was already a distinction between the two villages or whether they were regarded as one. The one entry gives the monks of Cluny Abbey in France as the owners though, which explains the one name. The name Offord Darcy is apparently documented for the first time in 1279, but nothing seems to be known on it’s origin.

I also looked into whether there is any literature on the phenomenon of village pairs more generally. The obvious place to look was the journal of the English Place-Name Society, where I indeed found an article called “Do –ingas place-names occur in pairs?” by Susan Laflin. I even found a PDF of it on the homepage of the author, however the pairs that are discussed there have a different naming-style from the ones I wrote about here.

Let me close by mentioning some other place-name facts: In Hertfordshire there is a village called Nasty, and not far from there, in neighbouring Essex, is a village called Ugley. And did you know that there is another place called Cambridge (on another River Cam) in Gloucestershire, which is pronounced differently from the more well-known Cambridge?