First some sensational news: my new book, The Fens is going to be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from July 8th-12th!!! This will involve 15-minute readings (not by me), which are broadcast twice daily, most often in the morning at 9.45 and then again, after the midnight news, around 12.30. Radio 4 Extra usually broadcast a compilation of all five episodes. And of course nowadays the five episodes are available as a Radio 4 podcast. That should kick-start the book! As you might possibly have detected, I’m delighted. I should also add that I agree wholeheartedly with the BBC’s decision to use a professional actor to read the episodes: reading for radio is a very special skill that takes years to acquire.
The Fens’ official publication date is July 11th and I’ll be going to London to sign copies for the independent book trade – something I feel passionately about. If we lose our independent bookshops we’re losing a very long-established part of our culture. Buying books is about discussing them with other people and just browsing. And you can’t do that online. The Wimpole History Festival which I did on June 23 was a big success and we sold loads of books. That was my first illustrated talk about The Fens. The second is next week and coincides with the Radio 4 Book of the Week. It’s at one of my favourite bookshops, Heffers, in Trinity Street, just across the road from my old college. I have wonderful, if somewhat hazy memories of those days. The talk starts at 6.30 pm, and is followed by a signing. Hope to see you there!
For some reason, the Fens have loomed rather large in my life of late. On June 28th we were delighted to take part in a family gathering at the National Trust Nature Reserve at Wicken Fen, near Ely, to celebrate the life of my late cousin Professor Norman Moore. Norman, and his sadly departed wife Janet, were old friends, and Maisie and I were, and are, very fond of both of them: humorous, highly intelligent and modest. One of the last times Maisie saw Janet she was almost knocked flat by her, flying past on her bike in Downing Street, Cambridge. ‘Sorry, Maisie, no brakes…’ Mercifully, they weren’t her final words, but they could have been.
Norman was a hugely influential biologist, environmentalist and conservationist who played a large part in establishing the body which eventually became Natural England. I can remember he was furious when a Tory government broke up the British conservation organisation and sub-divided it to England, Scotland and Wales. He saw it as part of a deliberate process of divide-and-rule. And I’m sure he was right. I wonder if anything so devious is happening today? No, surely not!
Norman inspired the digging of the superb new lake at Holme Fen, near Peterborough and he gave much of his life to managing Wicken Fen, one of, if not the, oldest nature reserves in Britain.
And that’s why we all gathered together on June 28th at Wicken. Half way through the afternoon, a few of us climbed into four-wheel drives (I took our ageing Fourtrak) and drove about 7 miles to view a pond (in fact an old ‘borrow pit’ as they are known locally) which is to be re-named the Norman Moore pond. I would guess that the pond was originally dug in the 19th century to provide material for the banks of the nearby drain or lode. I don’t think I have ever seen so many dragonflies. Norman would have been delighted as he was the leading expert on them. Over 20 years ago he advised us how to make the Flag Fen Mere more dragonfly-friendly – and it worked. Today the place positively buzzes with them and their slightly smaller cousins, damselflies.
Then yesterday (July 2nd) something memorable happened, also to do with the Fens. Maisie and I had driven to King’s Lynn to attend a tour organised by the Wisbech Society and given by the historian and ex-Mayor of Lynn, Paul Richards FSA. The tour was about King’s Lynn (in those days it was called Bishop’s Lynn) and the Hanseatic League – the medieval trading network organised around key German towns with major partners in Britain and other north European states. The drive towards Lynn was delightful: the sun shone and the Fens were looking at their best. I remember thinking as we drove along the Nene towards Sutton Bridge that the river was looking very empty (it’s tidal for its last 30 miles across the Fens). Low tides mean that sea-going vessels can’t head upstream and that in turn means that the swing bridge at Sutton Bridge wouldn’t be in action. A couple of times recently I’d been delayed for around twenty minutes on the A17 – the main road from Lincolnshire into Norfolk – by Sutton Bridge opening.
When we arrived at the river front at Lynn we were both amazed by the low level of the usually so mighty River Great Ouse. I won’t say it was looking like a trickle, but you could clearly see how its lower course meandered along the wide, largely man-made, tidal channel. We parked the car on the quayside and had started a brisk stroll along the river towards the 17th century Customs House (a superb Grade I building) where the tour was to assemble. It was then that Maisie noticed that the King’s Lynn ferry had just pushed-off from its moorings on the far side of the river, at West Lynn. We often take the ferry, but had decided not to today. I think we had made the right decision. We watched spellbound as the ferry (which has been running for a mere 734 years since its charter in 1285) quickly crossed the water, then stopped a huge distance from its usual moorings on the King’s Lynn side. Then the skipper jumped overboard (he was wearing high waders), and with help from an assistant they laid a floating walkway which the intrepid passengers traversed. And they do this three times every hour during the working day! I wouldn’t recommend using the low tide ferry after a good evening in one of Lynn’s many fine pubs.