Despite a childhood that had conditioned me in all seasons to the outdoors, I had in the last eighteen years become an urban animal. The freewheeling of my childhood – wandering rutted drove roads or climbing straw bale towers on stubble fields – was ancient history. Getting back to that sort of intimacy with the land would be a long haul, and something of a culture shock.
It was not just a question of readjusting to working outdoors, acclimatising to the clean, stripped air of East Anglia rather than the recycled oxygen of an office. There was also the land itself. Growing up in Hampshire I had always considered myself a man of Wessex, yet here, under the gleaming, cold skies of Anglia, there was no warm jet stream to cushion me, no duvet of hills or cosy orchards to ease me in. The flatlands offered no such indulgence and no apology. As blunt and unyielding as their feted warrior-queen, Boudicca, they could offer me a way back to myself, but strictly on their own terms.
Perhaps it was best this way; to be thrown in at the deep end, rudely dumped into the peaty black pools which lay all about this watery fastness. Yet I shouldn’t have worried. The land, though strange and alien, immediately set about charming me. In a bewitching, curious osmosis, the slow-moving dykes and the unrelenting flatness sunk in. Solitary thorn trees spoke to me. Vast skies humbled me. The cold, metallic light of afternoons stayed with me long after dark, so that when I lay down, the glare remained, and was replayed behind my eyes.
Walking Wicken Fen on empty weekdays became a regular pastime. One of the few remaining tracts of ancient, undrained fen, it is waterland’s equivalent to the wildwood and home to many ghosts. Brought up on the solid chalk uplands of the central South, the land could not have been more alien – neither of water, nor of land, it harboured very different energies. While the ghosts of my childhood were hale yeomen of Saxon stock, this land held a darker, more solemn spirit: insubstantial figures who would melt in and out of the sedge, silently appear from nowhere; shape-shifters, eel-catchers, primitives, webbed bogeymen.
Going out into the fen, one never felt entirely alone. Often I was stopped by a presence around a bend in the path, or a sense I had company just out of touching distance, among the sedge. Breezes that riffled the reed beds became whispered conversations, a crossed line with the spirits that still guarded this land. Predating the Angle or Saxon, more ancient than the Roman or Celt, my feeling was that whoever they were, they had been here a very long time.
And so I walked the land with a certain kind of reverence. My eyes, stilled by the muted beauty of the fen itself, reflected on the washed-out yellows, greys and browns of a landscape of desaturation, of nature in stasis. Of dark pools and prehistoric carcasses of bog oak; of rustling spires of saw-toothed sedge oscillating softly in the breeze. And Konik ponies grazing the fen, shaggy ancient shapes in a landscape which had nothing of the new in it.
I wanted to lay down on the damp earth and soak up this stillness; to transfuse the black water into my veins. The fen was a magical tonic, a world away from the violence and spiritual void I had become so sensitive to in modern life.
Again I drew there: a crack willow split at almost 90 degrees, anthropomorphic, ogreish; the bold geometry of the dykes cleaving the fen, silver ley lines reflecting the wan sunsets of this strange land. All of this seeped in – this undiluted wildness – and the effect was an animation in me, a reddening of the cheeks just as I had experienced as a boy. The office pallor was fading.