Once upon a time, a lot of East Anglia was like this. As far inland as Cambridge, an hour’s drive from the coast certainly was. You could get a boat up there from the sea. You can still get sizeable boats into Norwich, or at least as sizeable as 151-foot long Swedish gunboats, like the one the Sea Scouts use there. No, of course not as a gunboat. Not even in Norfolk.
It’s not so much a different world as a forgotten one. The water speared deep into the land. It still does, but we can’t seem to remember.
But people did. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, we’re told that pretty much that was that. Except it wasn’t. In February 1067, dead king Harold’s mother lead a revolt in the West Country. Then there was a revolt in Northumberland, lead by Morcar, Earl of one of the four Saxon kingdoms. That failed too. Unlike Harold’s mother, Morcar got away. He came down south and around 1070 joined up with the last English leader, Hereward. Just ten miles north of Cambridge they hid in the marshes surrounding the Isle of Ely.
A man called Belsar was given the job of fixing Hereward once and for all. He lead his men to what was probably a much older camp on the edge of the marsh commanding a track to the Isle itself. Being Norman and convinced of the supremacy of shock and awe tactics he built a wooden causeway across the marsh to stage a direct frontal assault on the last of England. And as often happens with shock and awe assaults, things went a bit differently to the plan. If there was one.
It sank. The weight of the assault force sank the causeway. There wasn’t anywhere to go. The men on it couldn’t escape sideways because they needed the causeway across the marsh in the first place. But it was sinking. They died. Personally, I think the causeway might have had some help in sinking from Hereward and his men. But I don’t know.
I found it and walked the causeway last week. The fen was drained back in the 1600-somethings and there isn’t any marsh there any more. There isn’t any malaria now either, which is nice.
I was trying to feel some of the atmosphere of the watery fens. The snag was I was at least three hundred years too late. The track across what definitely wasn’t marsh any more was just another drove road, the kind of boring nothing-made-of-mud I remembered from childhood holidays on the Somerset Levels. Some kids got to go to Spain. We got Congresbury. It wasn’t the same, really.
I dumped the car what I hoped was far enough away from the four people living in a caravan surrounded by their own crushed plastic bottles and the ashes of their fires and their refuse in bin bags and carpet offcuts used to smooth out the barbed wire fence keeping people out of farmland around Belsar’s camp. I walked past the four separate fly tipping dumps in what for two thousand years was a major arterial route through this part of the country, the most direct route from Cambridge to Ely, where the monks lived. Where Hereward hid out. Where his relation, the king of Denmark, came over by boat to help out, and while he was there, to help himself to the loot from the sacking of the abbey at Peterborough.
Past the 1960s farmhouse at the end of a metalled road cutting through Althred’s Causeway. Out onto the flatlands again, putting up a heron that lumbered into the sky like the awkward little dinosaur it was and forever is. All the way across the bone dry, drained, boring track. Everywhere was flat. Until you start to notice the places that must have been islands in the marsh, little places mostly under an acre that stand ooh, some of them six or seven feet above the fields around them. And you wonder what was there. Or when.
Because what definitely happened is that after the wooden causeway sank, Belsar’s, or maybe Belasius’s, death squad got hold of a witch. They built a wooden tower and stuck her in it with orders to scream curses at Hereward. I mean, hey, we’ve all been on the end of that. Some of us, anyway.
Hereward sneaked through the marsh and not being someone who appreciated women going on and on and on at him at volume, set light to the tower before he disappeared back into the marsh.
The atmosphere had changed. It was six or seven miles out across the moor to the Isle of Ely. I met a huge dog but more interestingly, I learned something I knew long ago, how hard it is to see someone who doesn’t move. Two boats came along as I was crossing the river. I just kept still, in plain sight. Not a nod, a wave, not a hint that they knew I was there. An old lesson other people practised at that place, almost a thousand years ago.