The Inspiration of the Fens
When my writing comes to a standstill, when the words won’t come no matter how long I stare at the screen, I need an escape, and I’m eternally grateful to find so many delightful Fenland walks easily accessible from my front door. Within minutes I can find myself in a place of beauty, a place of tranquillity, and a place of solitude while feeling part of something so much bigger.
I need a place like this where I’m free of the everyday distractions so easily accessed on a computer to clear the fog from my mind and allow me to focus on the story I want to tell. When surrounded by seemingly so little, and yet in reality so much, order seems to come to the chaos inside. As I walk, I hear the chirruping of numerous birds, the chirping and buzzing of myriad insects, the rustling of the leaves and countless movements in the hedgerows. It brings me that state of calm and allows be to get my thinking back on track, away from the mess of the rest of the world.
I’ve set all three of my novels in the Fens, and only partly because I grew up here. My first novel, Dead Branches, has a duel timeline – 1990 and the present. Dead Branches is a coming-of-age mystery. The 10-year-old protagonist’s best friend goes missing. Much of the early part of the novel is spent exploring the droves and pathways which follow ditches and drains looking for clues. The young characters believe these droves are their secret pathways through the area. That’s the feeling you get when walking in the Fens: you feel a part of the landscape, a part of something ancient and unending. Even today, walking in the Fens evokes memories of childhood exploration of freedom, of endless possibilities.
When the protagonist returns as an adult, bitter and cynical about his childhood experiences, he touches upon the hidden depths of the Fens:
I gaze across the checkerboard of fields. It’s all so open, that it looks as there’s nowhere to hide. It looks as though you couldn’t possibly have any secrets in a place like this. I know better, and as I scan the land I spot a silo, deep ditches that would allow you to cross this landscape unseen, and half a dozen dilapidated barns, the corrugated iron roofs curling away from rotting wooden beams. I know that not far from here is the river where there are more places to hide or to be hidden: under bridges, in drainage pipes, and at abandoned water works.
Excerpt from Dead Branches – published by Bloodshot Books
It touches on a common misconception about the Fens. Those that don’t know the area suspect that because it is largely flat, that it is desolate. They couldn’t be more wrong. That’s another reason why I can draw do much inspiration from the Fens Stop in any one spot, and you’ll notice more and more going on. As much as I love the landscape of the Fens and enjoy the natural elements, I’m also interesting in the agricultural architecture that symbolises the importance of farming to the region. Little stirs my curiosity more than the glimpse of rusting corrugated iron through a gap in the hedges, suggested a dilapidated barn or shed lies abandoned beyond. These rudimentary structures fascinate me only more when Ely Cathedral is often dominant on the horizon in all of its medieval majesty.
And don’t get me started on the sunsets.
With a landscape that’s so flat, we have an awful lot of sky, and so often we are rewarded with an absolutely glorious display as the sun goes does. In my second novel, ‘Is She Dead in Your Dreams?’ I have a character coming to the Fens for the first time, and as he starts to settle in to the area, he experiences one of our sunsets:
The sun was setting as they drove home and the sky was suffused with colour. The clouds, a range of oranges, amalgamated with a kaleidoscope of purples, and the silhouettes of farmhouses and clusters of trees stood out on the horizon. The previous night, when he arrived in darkness, Orwell had not seen this beauty, had not understood that somewhere so flat and featureless could look so wondrous. But now, as he drove back towards the cottage, he felt the tiniest glimmer of hope break out of the dark vault inside him.
Excerpt from Is She Dead in Your Dreams? published by Shadow Spark Publishing
Even if you’ve not given a colourful display, there’s often delight to be found in the silhouette of a line of trees, or indeed, the cathedral.
Without doubt I consider myself fortunate to live in such an area, and I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to present it in a way that introduced the Fens to those far away. As my publishers are American, they’ve found a (small) readership on the other side of the Atlantic. When someone recently tweeted “I knew nothing about the area it is set in, but now I feel like I do!” I felt a sense of pride about being able to bring the Fens to life for others. I feel like I’m finally able to give back to an area which has given me so much.