The Fenland has visual riches in abundance, but these treasures are easily overlooked or unseen as we drive by on our way to somewhere else. Just off the Isle of Ely Way, or the A141, if you prefer the prosaic designation there is a wonderful example of a Fenland Farmhouse. It embodies the archetypal idea of a house, that childhood notion of what we think houses should look like. It could almost be a drawing, a blueprint. More or less symmetrical with a front door in the middle, uniformly spaced windows, and two chimneys at either end it surveys the flat open space of Curf Fen.
I have photographed this building on more than one occasion with limited success and this evening, with the Winter light fading fast, I was absolutely certain I had left it too late. I was mistaken. The low sun reflected in the broken glass of the upper windows briefly animated the facade providing a counterpoint to the encroaching darkness.
In the Fenlands, a house is a mute record, a repository of thoughts, memories, and lives lived. Inside, random collections of discarded objects lounge in neglected corners, like careless tenants. Torn curtains in upstairs windows, become props in a witness protection program, scanning the horizon for potential interlopers. A polyurethane oil tank cements the incongruity as the telegraph poles transmit on forgotten frequencies.
This is an archetypal Fenland landscape, just near Gold Hill, close to the Old Bedford River. There are no physical hills in the Fenlands even though fanciful hills are declared in abundance. It is either stoic irony or wishful thinking, or both. The flat road stretches towards the horizon like a low budget American road movie, neither the weather nor a distant mountain range conspire to underpin this popular genre. With squatters’ rights, the dark, opaque sky occupies the usual space above the horizon whilst in other latitudes, the world coexists in technicolor.
The Fenland landscape belongs to Winter. In football terms, Summer relegates the Fenlands to the third division or possibly a non-league team. How do you compete with the beauty of the English Lakes, the peak district and Dartmoor? There is nothing of the traditional picturesque here but there is something elemental and prosaic. This is a functional world of telegraph poles, dykes, rivers, drainage ditches, tree lines, and flat open fields. Winter strips away all delusions and leaves us with brutal yet magnificent honesty and directness.
Modern technology insists on ever-higher pixel counts as if the weight of detail was the most essential component in a photograph. If only we could witness more, ‘capture’ more, encompass more, our desire for evidence would finally be sated. The tsunami of information swamps us, flooding every nook and cranny of our lives, absorbing and occupying our natural capacity. The increasingly futile quest to record the minutiae of the visible world is a ‘will-o’-the-wisp’, a shadow play, a distraction. When the fog rolls across the Fens we stop looking, the obsession with calculation, measurement and accounting stalls and we are free to see.