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 at 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.

Time for change, but will we?

When I was growing up in Lincoln in the 1950s, most people cycled, walked or caught the bus to work, few had cars. Cycling was safe. There was no air pollution, once the old coal-powered gasworks closed.

Even ten years later, when I visited Lincoln in the 1960s, the main route into town was beginning to be clogged with cars. Another decade and cycling was becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming dangerous, particularly as lorries got bigger and bigger.

Of course this pattern recurred in towns and cities all over the UK, and air pollution became endemic, particularly when there was the ill-advised shift to diesel fuels. The car was king and all bowed before it. Air became polluted and there was a surge in cases of asthma. Strangely, government did little about it, although some cities did a fair amount, within their allowed powers.

Then came covid-19 and lockdown. Suddenly air was clean, roads were quiet, it was safe to cycle. People were exhorted to cycle or walk and avoid cars and public transport. It was like the 1950s again.

Of course the natural reaction of government is to try to re-establish the status quo ante, because that was when the economy ‘worked’. But it didn’t – see inequality, polluted air, climate breakdown and covid.

So we really do need to take stock and set course for a more sensible world that is based on real needs of people and nature, not just on ‘the economy.’ All the ideas are there – green new deals, basic income, move to renewable energy, sovereign money,…

We just need to get on with it. But will we?

Photo of Lincoln High Street near St Peter’s from Francis Frith website – go visit.

 

Night walks in lockdown

We self isolated for two weeks after returning from Houston. Soon everyone around was in a similar boat due to the covid-19 lockdown. Walking in the late evening darkness has been very safe as there are few people around, mostly odd dog walkers, as indeed we are.

Remarkable is the silence, just the odd car or delivery van from time to time. Even the nearby M6 is mostly quiet. It seems bizarre to be able to walk along the middle of what is normally a busy main road.

Owls seem to hoot more frequently on the edges of town. Several hedgehogs have been in evidence, not normally seen. I guess the brave ones are usually soon flattened by traffic.

We have returned to the conditions of the days before mass motor traffic, maybe the 1950s or even earlier in this part of the world.

Read More »

Travelling home as things close down

“I imagine you are both enjoying seeing the grandchildren grow up,” said a friend by email, while we were out in Houston with the family. We were, but this was soon curtailed by the developing coronavirus panic on both sides of the pond.

We were due to fly back to Manchester 7th April, but it was becoming clear that we’d have to do so sooner. President Trump stopped people flying in from Europe from Friday 13th March. Maybe we should bring our departure forward by a couple of weeks to Tuesday 24th?Read More »

Sorry for the Ads

When checking out my blog I’ve become increasingly annoyed by the ever more intrusive ads that WordPress has been littering the screen with. No doubt you have also.

So I’ve finally paid up for the WordPress Personal Plan, whose main selling point seems to be the removal of ads.

I guess that, at the end of the day, each internet player has to fund its activities somehow, so I don’t really criticise WordPress for their approach. Each has to find its own way. The amazing examples are Mozilla and Wikipedia, who seem to survive through donations and much idealism.

Picture ‘no more ads, still a fence’ by Andreas Manessinger via Wikimedia Commons.

The Grump

I saw the grump today,
caught a glimpse
in a trice, the faintest shadow
of his former self.
Rumbled, he was undone
and disappeared.

Harmony reigned.

Featured image is of Victor Meldrew, I Don’t Believe It.

Uncle Will

“‘He that followeth me walketh not in darkness,’ said our Lord. These are the words of Christ, by which we are taught how we must imitate his life and virtues if we wish to be truly enlightened and freed from all blindness of heart. Let us make it, then, our constant practice to meditate upon the life of Christ.”

I just came across a tiny (just over 4inx2.5in) copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and those words form the very first paragraph. The book came from the residual estate of Uncle Will some years ago (not really my uncle, but that’s another story). Of course, this is a famous book in Christian circles, and I even have a paperback copy on my bookshelves, untouched for many years.

The thing about Uncle Will was that he was an essentially good man – very devout and proper, but always cheery and often exhibiting an impish sense of humour. Some found him ‘churchy’ and pompous, but the more I got to know him the more I understood that foundational goodness, a positive example to us all.

On reading that first paragraph of the book, I was suddenly struck that this was literally what Will had tried to do throughout his life – to follow the example of Christ – and with much success. Thomas à Kempis was one of his guides along the way.

Not so many people are drawn by such devout Christianity these days, but it is clear that its fruits can be rich indeed. I recall Will with great affection.

Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

1280px-Another_Milky_Way_Shot
The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons

The foraging blackbird

It’s been a hot day, I need exercise in the cool of the evening. I go for a brisk walk. At length, I find myself walking quickly, mind engaged on some problem or other, unaware of the surroundings.

With that awareness I step back, internally rather than literally. I become engaged with the world around. Trees become alive. My walk has a smoother quality, a bit slower, somehow deeper. Birds are singing their evensong. A breeze arises and then falls away. A blackbird forages close by in the hedge. The full moon is full of meaning as it skates between the branches and hides behind buildings, to reappear in the gaps.

I interpret this as the difference between living in the world and living in the mind’s abstractions, living with the whole brain-body, not just the left brain.

Featured image of blackbird by Stulli, via Wikemedia Commons

Mrs Cotton

I heard that Mrs Cotton died recently, aged 95. The Cottons were our next-door neighbours in 1950s Lincoln, ordinary people getting on with their lives, friendly enough but not intruding, helping out when help was needed, co-operating when necessary. Reliable.

Mrs Cotton had her mother living with them in the house, until she died. After Mr C died, she lived out the rest of her life in the same house. As you do, if there’s no reason to move.

Reminds me of the guy who served me a pizza in a Lincoln takeaway in the early nineties. He’d lived in Lincoln all his life and said he’d never been out of the city, not even once.

I was perhaps lucky that education gave me the route to escape! But maybe I should stress that the Lincoln of today is no longer so enclosed and provincial, now that it is a thriving university town.

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Mrs Watty

Mrs Watty lived two doors away from us in 1950s Lincoln. She was pretty well off compared to the rest of the street, having a car long before anyone else and having people in to do things for her.

We had but a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Watty until I was an early teenager. She never seemed to go out of the house, other than in the car. Her age I know not; I just saw her as ‘old’.

Presumably Mrs Watty found out that I played chess at school, and she let it be known that she would like to learn to play chess. Thus it was that I embarked on a very brief career as a chess coach and went round to see her, along with my chess set.Read More »

Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.

 

Auntie Edie

It is the early-to-mid 1950s, I’m around 8 years old. We arrive by train from Lincoln at the old Manchester Exchange Station. Uncle Wilfred meets us; we transfer ourselves into a taxi, cases affixed to the side, and set off. At the first corner the cases take on a life of their own, leave the taxi and slide across the road. After a brief panic, cases are soon retrieved and re-affixed. Wilfred chuckles, my father says ‘crikey’. Wilfred was always chuckling, could always see the funny side of things. My brother and I rather liked him.Read More »

Auntie Lillie

auntie lillieAuntie Lillie (or was it Aunty Lily) has been (internally) pestering me to be aired on this blog for some time, as part of the series of recollections of being brought up in Lincoln in the 1950s. Lillie usually turned up at our house about once a year, for a pleasant chat and a cup of tea. People did that then to keep in touch, otherwise it was just letters. She was my mother’s aunt, really, grandad’s (and Ive‘s) sister.

Lillie’s face had not been treated kindly by the ravages of time in her later years, having various extrusions and blemishes, which of course fascinated us young boys, though they could not be spoken of.

She lived mysteriously in a place called Rothwell, and was clearly not married. I later realised that she was probably ‘in service’, which I think was common in the previous generation, but was becoming much less common in hers. She probably did not have an easy life, but always seemed cheery , as indeed she looks in the photo, from the mid/late 1930s.

Uncle Ive

Ivor was my mother’s father’s brother. Everyone called him Ive. I remember Ive being small and thin, with a half-empty pint of beer on the table in front of him. We mostly saw him and his wife Clara on family occasions when beer was involved.

Clara was, by contrast, large and fat. She drank stout. Ive and Clara were the living image of all those fat lady/ thin man picture postcards you saw on trips to the seaside. (What was so amusing about the image of a fat lady?)

We only saw them on family occasions, but heard their names frequently. I think they were weekly members of the Saturday night out at the pub – out in the countryside at nearby Auburn, with my grandad, his second wife and the one of my parents who wasn’t babysitting.

In the 1950s there was no problem in going to the pub in the countryside, having a few pints and coming back slightly merry. This was even true when I first started driving in the 1960s. Breathalyzers were first introduced in the UK in 1967.

Featured image is of the present-day Royal Oak in Auburn.