photo blog

Fenland

A Strange Beauty
17/10/2018
The Fens are a large area of low lying land in East Anglia. Originally flooded, they were drained from the 17th century to reveal vast areas of rich peaty soil ideal for agriculture which dominates the landscape today. Keeping the water out is a constant task and the fens are dissected by many ditches and drains which have to be kept clear of silt and vegetation.


As a photographer I am drawn to this peculiar landscape because it represents a kind of anti - landscape, a place that doesn't have any of the features landscape photographers normally seek: no rolling hills or beautiful valleys, no woods or trees, not even a meandering river or a quaint village nestling anywhere. Just flat dark soil stretching to the horizon and lots of very straight drainage ditches. There is the sky of course and in the fens the sky is huge, you can see weather patterns rolling around many miles away.


I visit when I can throughout the year on a motorcycle. This allows me to fully experience the openness of everything and I truly feel I am skimming along between earth and sky. I can also go along the many rutted little tracks that just strike out into nowhere for miles. All the roads are bumpy - very bumpy. this is because they lie on top of peat and when peat gets exposed to air (rather than beneath water) it oxidises and decays and the road just subsides. This can be alarming on a motorcycle, I have learned to be wary of seemly fast straight roads. In fact slowing down is the key to appreciating the fens, its all in the unexpected details, a mixture of human engineering perpetually being reclaimed by nature.


Spending time here is disorientating, everything looks the same and riding along can sometimes feel like standing still and yet everything does change often within moments. Clouds can suddenly transform a bright glaring landscape into a dark and oppressive expanse. You can feel lonely here but small details like a stile or bridge can feel intimate and welcoming.


The fens are full of contrasts, between a huge bright sky full of drama and a dark flat earth seeping water. The field boundaries are the sharp straight lines of fences, ditches and embankments but the wild tangle of reeds and sedge and odd self sown tree is never far away. I'll keep going back when I can. The human change is slow, the farmers are still there but not so many fen folk tending windmills or monks seeking a watery seclusion, nowadays the old wind pumps have been replaced by pumping stations but windmills have returned in the form of renewable energy.