Fens 7 Frampton

Continuing the story of our exploration of the Fens.

Our second base was another Premier Park – Long Acres, near Boston. Unexpectedly, the satnav takes us there via Crowland, zig-zagging northwards – using the major east-west cross-fen highways between Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Boston.  These seem to be the only decently surfaced roads in the area, and they are busy with lorries, tansporting the products of this fertile area to the rest of England.

We arrive at RSPB Frampton Marsh (featured image) and enjoy lunch overlooking freshwater marsh with a smattering of birds. The dog is more interested in the cows munching away at the grass, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

There are many more birds on the freshwater lakes we pass by to reach the raised barrier that constitutes the seawall. From this seawall we look out over huge salt marshes out into the Wash. This barrier is all that stops these Lincolnshire fens from being regularly inundated with seawater.

We are lucky that avocets are reasonably close to this side of the lake.

But we see rain approaching across the Fens, so make haste back to the van and on to our next base at Long Acres.

Out in the Fens, the sun slips slowly below the horizon.

Fens 6 Crowland

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Next day we wend our bumpy way back up to Whittlesey (Whittlesea – it was once coastal), a place of conflict in the Fen wars described in Boyce’s book. Locals all over the Fens did not like their land being drained and given away to outsiders, just like indigenous peoples all over the world. There were many battles and acts of sabotage before the resistance was tamed. Even after that, the great lake at Whittlesey remained at around 8 square miles, but it was eventually drained in 19C.  Sadly, there is little evidence of all this in today’s slightly depressed looking town.

We went north to from Whittlesey to Thorney, once one of the five great abbeys that effectively ruled this area before the great Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 (Peterborough, Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney). All the is left of the once-great abbey is a rather large parish church for such a small village, quite striking nevertheless.

Thorney Abbey church

More striking is our next stop, Crowland Abbey. I recall stopping here for a break many years ago on my cycle ride from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Abbey of memory is more delapidated than today’s impressive remains.

We are made enormously welcome by enthusiastic volunteers. All that remains of this once-great Abbey is the north aisle of the former church, now an impressive building in its own right. And with evocative ruined features attached. We are guided by the volunteers to see the highlights of the interior, including a striking Green Man, and then the exterior.

It is quite evident that the Dissolution in this area led to Fen drainage falling into disrepair – this job had been done by the monks. This was one factor setting up the situation where new forms of drainage were perceived as being necessary, and hence the new major drainage schemes less than a century later.

At the centre of Crowland is a unique 3-way bridge that once spanned the River Welland and a tributary. The waterways were diverted long ago, leaving this unusual structure high and dry.

3 way bridge in Crowland

Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.

Moorhen in hedge

Fens 5 Welney

The continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

The first large scale work on draining the Fens was completed in 17C by the Duke of Bedford and a Dutch engineer Nicholas van der Muyden. We drive along by one of the main drainage channels, called the New Bedford River (featured image), although it’s not actually a river but an extraction of some of the waters from the Great Ouse River.

The waterway is long and dead straight, with a high bank separating it from the surrounding lower ground. Nearby is an earlier parallel channel, the Old Bedford River. The land between these two channels, the Ouse Washes, is used as a flood relief area when the old River Ouse would have flooded. It’s also good for wetland bird conservation and bird watching, hence our visit here to WWT Welney, where hides that look out over the wetland.

We take turns to visit the hides as there is no provision for dog walking here. There is a fair bit of birdlife around, notably martins, avocets, lapwings. I also see a single black tailed godwit in the distance – evidence that the WWT project to establish a viable population here may be working. The avocets are particularly photogenic.

Following the channel towards the sea, via circuitous Fen roads, we arrive at our second destination, the Denver Sluice Gates near the Norfolk town of Downing Market.

Denver sluice

These sluice gates manage water flows both ways from here up to the coast near King’s Lynn – and specifically prevent the Fens from being inundated by high tides. It is salutary to realise that without these gates this whole area of the Fens would be under water at high tide.

Fens 4 Ely

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 3.

It is Sunday and we again circle Ely to the south, this time to to the small village of Prickwillow and its Engine Museum. With a small group of visitors we learn more about the history the Fens and specifically the engines used to pump water, from an enthusiastic volunteer and video. It is remarkable that the whole area of he Fens would be inundated regularly by the sea without regular pumping. A marker at the museum shows that the high tide water level would be above our heads.

After the Fens were drained, the land gradually sank due to contraction of peat, so that the fields are now lower than the rivers that drain them – another incredible feature of this area.

The village of Prickwillow was established in 1830 as a tolling station on the River Lark. When steam power came along in 1860 a pumping station was established for drainage. The old pumping station has now become a museum, containing a number of old diesel pumps on display from around 1970s. Sadly there are no remaining steam pumps.

I note that several of the pumps on display are manufactured by the company WH Allen, for whom my father worked designing pumps. Maybe he had a hand in some of these!

After this education, we visit and savour the magnificent Ely cathedral, one of England’s great religious buildings. The medieval octagon tower is quite remarkable. Ely’s position as an island in the original Fens made it a natural focus for travel and trade.

Featured image shows Ely cathedral from nearby meadow.

Fens 3 Wisbech

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 2.

Next morning, we drive north, past the pretty market town of March, following the River Nene up to Wisbech. The river here is straight and channelled, part of the great works that ensure continued drainage of the surrounding farmland. Coming into Wisbech there’s a pleasing arrangement of Edwardian-style buildings along by the river. 

River Nene at Wisbech

In the 18C, Wisbech was a prosperous Edwardian town, but now we get the impression of a struggling economy. There is evidently a large population of non-indigenous people, and some just hang around on benches smoking or drinking. Apparently 70% of the town voted for Brexit. This trip is not about Brexit, but this experience gives us a feel for why they might have done so.

A visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum gives us more insights into the history of life in the Fens over nearly 2000 years. The layout of the museum is just like the museums of my childhood 70 years ago, with a huge miscellany of historic items. We browsed for quite a while. Remarkably, this Museum claims to be the second oldest in the country.

Wisbech & Fenland Museum

Here was a real example of a 19C ‘punt gun’ – an obscenely large shotgun carried stealthily on a punt until it was close to a group of birds, before firing and killing up to 50 birds – a frighteningly efficient way of exploiting what must have seemed nature’s inexhaustible bounty.

There was also evidence of the heavy use of opium and laudanum in the 19C fens, reminding me of a story in my great grandfather’s diaries, where a child had accidentally died from laudanum poisoning. It seems that this was a common occurrence, the bottles being easiy confused with a popular childhood remedy.

Returning to our campsite via March, I recall cycling down that very road nearly 60 years ago, transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, on the way from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Beatles’ She Loves You had just come out. The headwind that day was seriously strong, it was hard work.

Back at base, we see an odd couple of a greylag with a Canada goose, with just a single chick.

The odd couple

There is a small group of modern windmills near the campsite. However, considering the reliability of wind in the Fens we saw surprisingly few such windmills. I suspect that the vested interests that control much of this land are the sort who don’t want windmills disfiguring their landscape!

To finish, yet another spectacular sky!

Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Fens 1 Whittlesey

I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.

I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.

We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!

Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.

It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.

The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.

The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).

The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.

To be continued.

Not too neat

After a winter and spring of neglect, the back garden was looking decidedly untidy. More to the point, I could not effectively feed fruit bushes or plant new flowers in that tangle. So it had to be made more neat and tidy, like traditional gardening. Days and hours later, there is much more to do. Some plant feeding has taken place, albeit far too late in the season, and I’m looking forward to at least some berries off the fruit bushes, roses and flowers in the patio planter.

Here’s the transformation of some fruit bushes. I’ve left some of the weeds and the rampantly spreading Spanish bluebells.

My dreams are now a tangle of pulled up dandelions, buttercups, clumps of grass, goose grass, baby’s tears, bluebells and much more – now considered weeds, where days before I admired their beauty. And the horror of those forced to flee my predations as their damp hidy-holes are uncovered – the scuttling woodlice, centipedes and millipedes, various beetles and spiders, fast- and slow-moving worms – and the discovered slugs and snails consigned to a gluttonous paradise in the compost heap. And the thought that there will be less food and cover for the newts in the pond, and for any visiting frogs. So there are patches of tangle left in messy confusion, providing sanctuary for these friends.

I realise that I am repeating the age-old conflict between the agriculturalist who tills the land for food and flowers, and wild nature living in its own glorious profusion. Maybe Buddha would agree with my solution – a balanced ‘middle path’ between the neat and tidy ‘productive’ soil and nature’s gloriously diverse tangle.

Now for that flower bed by the pond…

1965 Prague

The first match of our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was actually in Prague. I was struck by the similarities of Prague with Vienna, which I had had the good fortune to visit on a school trip a few years earlier. The spirit of the people seemed similar, yet more depressed. Many of the magnificent buildings bequeathed by history were in much need of repair. Prague was not thriving at this time.

During our time off we explored some of the great historic sights – the powder tower, cathedral, astronomical clock, but my main memory is of doing all this sightseeing while playing blindfold chess with friend Brian Kerr. Maybe we did not adequately attend to the magnificence around us.

Little did we know at that time, but the spirit rising that we sensed was soon to be inflamed by the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubček‘s reforming government and then crushed by the Russian invasion in August 1968. We later learned in horror and admiration that in January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest, in the very same Wenceslas Square we had wandered through.

The parallels with the current invasion of Ukraine are all too apparent. Russia seeks to rule by fear and compel compliance, and punishes those who will not submit.

There is an echo of an earlier religious reformer, Jan Hus, who died by burning at the stake for heresy, by order of the Catholic Church in 1415, memorialised in this statue before the Tyn church.

The cycles of history go on and on.

Featured image is from cathedral door at Prague.

1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

All neat and tidy

During the 39–45 war the houses on our road near the southern edge of Lincoln were fortunate to have a long allotment appended to the end of the back garden. In childhood I loved this shaggy space, rows of vegetables and rhubarb, fruit bushes, a deep hedge where redcurrants and brambles grew, patches of weedy long grass, waggly old apple tree to swing on, and a chicken coop, until the fox got in.

After the war the allotments continued for maybe 10 years. Then the land was sold by the Council for house building. Our outdoor space was reduced to the back garden, with lawn, fruit trees and flower garden plus surrounding privet hedge, and the front garden with rose bushes and more privet.

As I got to help out, I soon realised that the purpose of gardening was to keep these spaces neat and tidy. The privet needed regular trimming, any ‘weeds’ appearing among the flowers were hoed away, imperfect leaves were removed, lawns were regularly mowed and plantains removed.

That was until my brother and I grew older and destroyed the lawn by continually playing soccer, or football as we called it. But that’s another story.

I’m led to reflect on this as I look at today’s English suburban gardens. Sadly, the modern trend has been to destroy many front gardens to create car parking, or simply to create low-maintenance areas of gravel or tarmac, even weirdly coloured synthetic grass. All neat and tidy. And lifeless.

Back gardens have also suffered to a lesser extent. Expanses of decking or stone patios create more lifeless, tidy spaces. Weeds and insects are destroyed with toxic chemicals from the Garden Centre. All this part of man’s apparent continued assault on nature. But all neat and tidy.

Thankfully there is increasing awareness of the devastation of insect and bird populations caused by this domestic obsession, and the equal dedication to low cost neat and tidy farming, with its sterile monocultures, hedges shaved to minimal depth, lack of field margins and spaces for field-nesting birds, no wildlife corridors.

It is clear that in this respect the trend of modern life is a sustained attack on nature. Nature is not neat and tidy with sharp edges. It’s alive and messy, with shaggy edges. Biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere. Gardens, fields and parks must include wild space for nature. Weeds are actually plants well suited to their environment. Within limits they can be tolerated, providing a variety of sustenance for nature. Crops will not thrive on denatured monocultures for centuries. This neat and tidy obsession needs to end. Now.

Featured image is Eden Park Recreational Area, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

1965 Odessa

Another tragic atrocity is apparently beginning with Putin’s recent first shelling of Odesa, third city of Ukraine. I spent a couple of days there during our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia in 1965, when the Russian name Odessa was used.

At the time this Black Sea resort was a playground for the upper echelons of then-communist Russian society. I’d never seen so many overfed people before we went on that beach.

The harbour at Odessa is linked to the city by the Potempkin Steps, created in 1841 and made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

Potempkin steps

Look down the steps at the port, and you can see why this city might be regarded as strategically important.

I recall that this was an attractive city to walk around, all now at risk to Putin’s cowardly cruise missiles.

Opera House

These four photographs are the only ones I have from that trip. Such insanity that one man and his cabal could apparently be on track to destroy all this. For what? Some illusion of Russian greatness, a phantasm of Putin’s imagination? There is nothing great about destroying the work and life of millions.

1965 Kiev

Today’s Russian assault on Ukraine and its capital Kyiv brings to mind my one experience of visiting that city, in 1965. The city was then behind the Iron Curtain, part of the USSR, and had its Russian name, Kiev. The featured image is the one photograph I took at that time in Kiev, showing the River Dnieper flowing through the city – the fourth largest river in Europe.

This visit was part of a combined Oxford/Cambridge Universities chess tour, venturing behind the Iron Curtain, because that was where the strongest chess players then were.

After interesting encounters with friendly West German and dour East German border guards, we began our tour in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and were quite surprised to find that city reasonably free and spirited, a bit like a rather subdued Vienna.

We then moved on to Ukraine, its capital Kiev and the Black Sea resort of Odessa. Differences from Western Europe were more marked. We were still clearly in Eastern Europe, but the lively spirit was a bit more subdued, and material conditions much worse. I was pursued half way across the city in an attempt to persuade me to sell my pursuer a ballpoint pen!

Finally, we arrived in Moscow, where the best chessplayers were. This no longer seemed like Europe. The people seemed drab and depressed, and there were empty shelves and queues in the shops. Despite some beautiful buildings, this seemed a more fearful place, the capital of an unhappy empire.

Just 3 years later, 1968, I was delighted to see the emergence of the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek led in establishing more liberal reforms. This seemed to correspond with that feeling I’d had in Prague in 1965 – its seemed natural for Prague to be more aligned with its sister Vienna. Then I recall the Soviet tanks rolling in to Prague to crush the reform movement. How terrible to see that beautiful city of spirit crushed by the Soviets. After that, Czechoslovakia remained controlled by the Soviet Union until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended the communist regime, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a time when anything seemed possible.

Although a founding member of the USSR in 1922, Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR. In 1995 Kyiv became an authorised spelling of the capital’s name, and was strongly adopted recently because of the associations of ‘Kiev’ with Russia. Now, it seems, that Ukraine is suffering a similar event to that crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, 54 years later. For reasons unclear to us in the West, Mr Putin seems to have decided that he will not allow Ukraine to continue its path of alignment with the more liberal Western Europe – it must again be forced under Russian control, in an apparent attempt to restore the supposed glories of that USSR.

We weep for them, and the unnecessary and untold miseries that will ensue.

Muck or nettles

My dad often said ‘muck or nettles’, usually when he was embarked on some diy project, although the term diy did not exist in 1950s Lincoln – people just did things and couldn’t afford to get others to do it for them. I took it to mean that after this stage of the project he was committed, and could not go back. On the web you’ll find the definition ‘all or nothing’.

I can’t find a derivation, but you can imagine that for country people to get anywhere two of the most daunting obstacles might be having to wade through acres of mud or having to push your way through large banks of stinging nettles.

I had a ‘muck or nettles’ moment the other day. I’d had a large desk for many years, but was becoming frustrated by the amount of space it used up in my study, so I bought a new, smaller one. In truth I was seduced by technology (and techno son) yet again, as the new desk can be elevated and used standing.

So the desk arrives and has to be constructed in situ, but first the old desk must be removed and I don’t yet know if the new desk will construct or operate correctly – although most of the review are fine some are not. The muck or nettles moment arrives as I tip the old desk on its side and begin to unscrew the bolts holding it together. Who know if I’d be able to put it together again – the odd creak of separating pieces and apparent cracks suggests this may well prove difficult. Ah well, muck or nettles, ever onward!

It works. First, the old desktop is dragged, half carried downstairs, helped by gravity and long-suffering she who helps when he can’t do it all himself. The new desk is constructed over a couple of hours, according to complicated instructions, and works first time. All thanks to muck or nettles!

Featured image adapted from Nettles, Belfast by Albert Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bake Cake Saga

I just fancy some fruit cake like we used to make it years ago – a Cranks boiled fruit cake. I reject the obvious strategy, which is a campaign of hints to She Who Knows All in the Kitchen (SWKAK). I can do it myself! After all, I’ve done it before, many years ago.

First, find that old Cranks recipe book, in the pile of forty-year-old recipe books in a cupboard. Browning pages, broken seams… A diversionary thought, as I realise that the last time I saw old battered heirlooms like this was when clearing out the cupboards of various deceased relatives. Oh dear!

At last, here it is: Cranks Boiled Fruit Cake. Let’s set to.

First, to boil up the dried fruit in ‘butter’. There’s not enough mixed fruit, so throw in sultanas and raisins. No dates or dried apricots – more sultanas and raisins. No brown sugar – granulated will do. No orange to grate – a lemon will do. No apricot jam – how about strawberry and rhubarb! And there must be minimal butter – some old rejected Trex, some veggie spread and a bit of butter make up the amount. There we go – boil it up.

In the meantime, beat the eggs and add some brandy. Now, where is the brandy – last used on last year’s Christmas pudding. A long search eventually finds it in stored away in the garage. Then, shock horror! The boiled fruit needs to cool down before the eggs are added. Cake availability time is now well past the intended lunchtime.

Prepare the dry ingredients – flour and spices, all of which are in stock, but I do wonder how many decades ground spices are supposed to last…

The fruit mixture is still pretty warm, when impatience forces the issue and the egg mixture is slipped into the fruit. Fortunately, it doesn’t result in sultana and raisin scrambled eggs. The dry ingredients are ‘folded in'(?) Now, where’s the cake tin? There’s the 6-inch tin for little cakes but this needs the 8 inch. After a long search I ask SWKAK. “I told you I threw that rusty thing away years ago.” Then she comes up with a suggestion – “why don’t you use this baking dish.” I’ve never heard of baking a cake in a pot dish before, but there we go – line it with greaseproof paper, tip the mixture in and off we go.

It’s supposed to take 90-120 minutes. At 85 minutes I check and it seems to be ready – the inserted knife comes out clean. Apparently, I didn’t allow for it being on fan, but my theory is that a flatter cake cooks more quickly. Now we have to wait for it to cool.

According to SWKAK, I did it all wrong. Should have lined up all the utensils and ingredients before starting, then it would have gone like clockwork. NOT. It was far more fun my way – a voyage of exploration!

And the cake is delicious!

John Polkinghorne

I was sorry to learn of the death of John Polkinghorne in the recent college magazine Trinity Review. John was my director of studies in Applied Mathematics in the early 1960s, the only director of studies I can really remember from my time at university – which says something. He was very approachable and human, although I must record that he did not in the end succeed in inspiring me to a career involving Applied Mathematics.

I subsequently intemittently followed John’s career at a distance, with interest. Although a physicist specialising in quantum mechanics, John “baffled many of his fellow scientists by believing that advances in his field in the 20th century had made it easier to believe in God… he thought it was no less an article of faith to believe that atoms moved according to some hidden law of nature, as many other scientists did, than it was for him to believe they moved according to God’s will.”

In 1979 John left academia to take holy orders, eventually becoming the vicar of Blean, near Canterbury. He later became dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and a prolific writer about the intersection between science and religion. He was knighted in 1997, but as a clergyman was not called “sir”.

As well as being a fine human being, John was yet another example of the long parade of quantum physicists who have stressed the importance of reconciling science and religion/spirituality, in direct contradiction of the materialistic beliefs of many of today’s so-called scientific disciplines. See eg my post on Mystical Scientists.

It was a privilege to have known him.

Featured image of Trinity College, Cambridge by Mahyar-UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

That was 2020 on this blog

It always seems a bit introspective, reflecting on your own blog. But that is one way to learn. I start with my own favourites from the 165 posts that appeared on this blog in 2020.

My favourite photo posts of 2020

My favourite wordy posts of 2020

Most viewed in 2020

WordPress stats give the top 5 most viewed posts in 2020. This appears to be a strange selection, until you realise that mostly these will be hits from search engines, of subjects not widely covered on the web.

Most liked (4 years)

The ‘most liked’ top 5 covers likes over the lifetime of this blog. What most surprised me was the top one, a recent post on psychology and astrology models – which is somewhat peripheral to the main thrusts of this blog.

I note that my preoccupation with a New Renaissance and rantings on politics/economics/science do not figure in either of these lists!

Maybe I should ask myself the question: should I have a number of different blogs, rather than this single eclectic blog?

Bittersweet chess

I used to play club and county chess regularly every season from autumn to spring, with a break at summer. It’s so long ago that I had forgotten what it was like, until I just came across this poem, written for my own pleasure and insight, and then hidden away in a filing cabinet for nearly 40 years.

As summer fades away, thoughts return
to pastimes of many a winter’s day.
Has enthusiasm been rekindled
by the long break away,
or will the waned passion of the spring
remain spent?

What magic makes this game so fair?

Pure thought concentrated on an inner world
safely enclosed in a wall of rules
An escape from reality?

Emotional excitement, the dread anticipation,
the tension of time trouble, the thrill of winning.
An outlet for passion?

The long drawn out playing for a team,
week after week, in League and Cup.
The belonging, the glory?

The pleasure of good moves, the unexpected sacrifice,
a well played realisation of advantage.
Aesthetically satisfying?

The horror of mistakes, the letdown of losing,
repetition of patterns in game after game.
A vehicle for self discovery?

The meeting of old anatagonists, the five minute game,
discussion of chess politics, analysis with friends.
The social side?

The long drawn-out struggle, as both players
take issue, advantage swinging from side to side.
The thrill of battle?

The tiredness, energy spent, stale moves, no ideas,
loss of excitement, no motivation in game after game.
The negative side?

Enough of this introspection.
A new season’s dawning.
Let’s leap forth again to the battle,
Renewed and invigorated. Insane?

Featured image is from the World Championship match Euwe-Alekhine, 1935, via Wikimedia Commons.

Give us back the dark

I am about 8 years old. We are walking through the partly built-up area between North Hykeham village and the edge of Lincoln. It is pitch dark, apart from regular pools of light beneath the gas-powered street lamps. I am astounded and inspired by the beauty of the heavens, as my dad points out some of the constellations – the Plough, Orion, the Pleiades… – and the Milky Way.

This was the inspiring experience of all our ancestors, yet within a couple of generations it has become a much less common experience for today’s children, because of light pollution. You just cannot see the sky with the same intensity, if at all, from most inhabited areas. We are losing contact with the heavens, and hence the sense of our place in the universe.

Light pollution is one of the scourges of our time see eg this excellent article by National Geographic, the Wikipedia entry, and the dark sky movement. Here are just some of the ways in which increasing light pollution is detrimental to (our) life on earth:

  • harming animals whose life cycles depend on dark
  • endangering ourselves by altering the biochemical rhythms that normally ebb and flow with natural light levels
  • losing our connection to the nighttime skies, the tapestries into which our ancestors wove their stories of meaning, timed the planting and harvesting of crops, and deduced the physical laws governing the cosmos
  • thus losing our connection with the Earth itself
  • artificial lighting of buildings kills migrating birds in their thousands
  • nighttime lights suppress fertility in wild animals, affect their sense of direction, disrupt their natural rhythms, affect the ability of moths and other insects to navigate, with knock-on effects on bird populations
  • studies show that light pollution increases atmospheric pollution.

All this is pretty well known science, and many local authorities have responded over the years. I well recall that in the 1980s there was tremendous publicity about the scattering of light around and upwards by street lights at the time. But increasing awareness and improved technology have led, over the decades, to today’s more sophisticated lighting which casts light downward, giving an effect more like the local pools of light I recall from childhood.

But recently the ubiquity of cheap lighting has led, at least in our area of UK, to a new source of this pollution: individual households putting up relatively bright lights on the walls of their houses or the end of their drives, and leaving them on all hours of the night, others leaving outside Christmas lights on for months on end.

This is totally unnecessary, as modern movement sensors ensure that lights are only on when needed – surely the only sensible approach. What is it about people who press on regardless, because they ‘like their house lit up’, or feel they need their driveway under permanent illumination? “It’s a free country, I’ll do what I like.” It seems like ignorance and lack of empathic connection with nature and other people, with perhaps an underlying fear of the dark. Could this relate to a fear of the inner darkness perceived within themselves, because the inner world is an unknown land? The outer reflects the inner.

The dark is necessary for our sanity, as well as for nature.

Featured image is from the website of Dark Sky Association.