Saturday, 23 October 2010


The startling front page headline in our local paper read;
This incident which in Italy would have been taken as a compliment did not even happen in March but on some London tube train. In fairness to the newspaper, this is an area where little happens. Even scenery is absent. Civilisation came late to the Fens. Untill the 17th century it was forest and swamp. The Fenmen lived a life free of law on a plentiful diet of fish and game. When the Clearances began the Fen people were bitterly opposed but the Improvers beat them. They imported hundreds of Scottish prisoners from early Jacobite wars. It was a hard life digging the network of canals which were named after the distance dug in a day. The biggest was the 100 ft drain. Many died and were buried in the walls of the ditches they dug.
The Fens are entirely foreground and the discovery of perspective was wasted on them. The bonus is the architecture, both ecclesiastic and vernacular. Even on housing estates they build individually designed dwellings. Cities are few but attractive. Ely is a Georgian joy. Peterborough has a traffic free centre opening on to a tree-lined boulevard like the Ramblas in Barcelona. Its cathedral, where two queens were buried, has the finest facade in Europe. The city approaches might have been gloomy but the most enlightened civic planners in Britain encircled the city with a forest. Both cities are on river banks
All over the Fens there are churches and cathedrals which are treasures. The people make an effort if the landscape doesn't. Wonderful pubs, many with good restaurants. and thatched cottage villages. There is a Straw Bear festival, river festivals, and at Christmas there's a 'Extravaganza' in a village of 400 which attracts 40 busloads of visitors A NIGHT. It is held in a massive barn where there is a collection of vintage hurdy gurdies. It has spectacular scenery and a cast of hundreds picked in auditions in London that start in July.
Chrustmas is in its infancy outside the Fen
The Fenland Christmas is a thing to behold. Every town and large village is ablaze with faery lights, as are many of the houses. The fens have fewer buildings and larger electricity bills than anywhere in the UK.
And glory of glories, there is Mr Hipkin who has worked as a gardener with my wife's family for around forty years. He used, single-handedly, to tend grounds which included rose and kitchen gardens, a vegetable garden and an orchard. When the family downsized, he came with them.
He refuses to take more than a pittance for a full morning's work (he is richer than we are) and my wife feels so tenderly towards him she brings professional gardeners in at enormous cost for any jobs that require a ladder. I don't think Hipkin approves but of course he knows his place and wouldn't quarrel with his employer!!! Like me, he is 81 but gets very moody if I attempt to lift anything and insists I leave it to him.. He tends around twenty old people's gardens as acts of charity and every year he carries off at least twenty prizes in the village flower show, including the four cups he presented to the show over the years. His partner Miss Beart is a sturdy 5ft 4ins, 5ft 3 inches of which is heart. Hipkin bought her a stone dog. A week later he brought it round to us. "She couldn't sleep worriting about it bein' out in all that snow."
Their own dog Bailey is a terrier who lives like a Rothschild. He has never eaten dog food. He has bacon, egg and sausage for breakfast and when Hipkin asks him how many sausages he wants he barks four times.
He is very fond of the cathedral city of Ely. Wherever the three ofthem go they have to come home via Ely because Bailey likes the shops there, and they holiday in Skegness for the same reason.
There may be little to look at in the Fens but that doesn't say we have no wonders.
People are far more perceptive than politicians give them credit. Amusing the way BBC presenters, lefties to the core, have had little success in finding workers who oppose the cuts. Though the row over a hostile Questiontime deliberately placed in a Labour stroghold shows how hard they try. Unlike politicians and presenters, people are used to the notion that if you are broke you don't buy things; and few would put anyone earning the thick end of £500 a week amongst the world's poor. Though no-one I meet can understand why overseas aid has been ring fenced. Personally, I would add education to that.

Why, I wonder, in this state of the art century, at the very heart of the white heat of education theory, do we keep a rusting relic of the Middle Ages? Universities were founded for a specific purpose. In an age of limited scholarship, any city - Athens, Padua and Paris - that had a celebrated teacher attracted students from all over school-less Europe. Because of the expense and difficulty of travel, the students stayed in lodgings round the teacher's dwelling.

And we keep these relics in an Age when we have an Open University. I wonder why we do not make better use of it?


Blessed be the name of Cathy Sutherland who graces a chair in English at Oxford University. She has established that Jane Austen could not spell or punctuate.
That is Austen, Byron, Wordsworth and ME