IIn the late 1970’s we traveled from East London to Crowland in Lincolnshire for a family holiday. I’m not sure why my parents decided to go there. Perhaps they thought it would be a change from Southend-on-Sea. All I remember now is the town center’s odd triangular stone bridge that once spanned two long-diverted rivers, the brooding presence of Crowland’s Abbey on the horizon, and the terrifying roar of fighter planes gliding low over the flat Fenland landscape.
Poet and novelist Derek Turner’s powerful survey of Lincolnshire reveals a county of unexpected beauty, and I think my parents were on to something. In 1999, Turner left Deptford in London. “Why Lincolnshire?” he was often asked. At the time, the question was not easy to answer. Today his book provides an eloquent answer.
Although Lincolnshire was less than a hundred miles from London, it was as if Lincolnshire had been cut off from the national consciousness, “a great and largely empty space, almost surrounded by cold seas, great estuaries, damp wastes, and a filigree of fenny waterways.” “. It was, Turner concluded, “a place from which people came, not to where they fled.”
Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Turner was drawn there. According to London, it offered “room to breathe, room to imagine”. His “modest house in a modest place” was built in the 1840s without foundations and stood “slightly slumped” on silt deposited by thousands of years of flooding. Built of locally sourced brick by a family buried in the nearby churchyard, this “damp, ramshackle and draughty” cottage felt alive in a way his London flat never had: “The stillness , which reigns at night, and often whole afternoons, somehow feels fuller and more personal than on the loudest days in Deptford.” He hasn’t regretted the move.
In the acknowledgments, Turner describes his book as “amorphous.” It’s a meandering narrative indeed, reminiscent of the leisurely and somewhat idiosyncratic guidebooks of the last century, like the Shell Guides or the County Book series, with their love of the supposedly timeless continuity of the English countryside and quaint local customs and buildings.
His tour of the county takes the reader from the “huge and muddy maw” of the Wash in the south, past “the city on the cliff”, Lincoln, the county’s largest urban center, to the once-great fishing village of Grimsby in the north-east, the area that reportedly delivered the 10th-highest exit vote in the Brexit referendum.
Lincolnshire is surprisingly diverse in landscape, fauna and history. In Turner’s delightfully rich blend of natural fiction, memoir, history and local lore, he relishes place names that “smell both magic and mud” and the ringing of the local dialect. He notes that Margaret Thatcher, one of Lincolnshire’s best-known natives, took speaking lessons to get rid of her accent – despite memorably accusing former Chancellor Denis Healey of being ‘frit’ in Parliament.
Turner’s love of the forgotten corners of the county is reminiscent of John Betjeman’s delight in unfashionable and neglected places. He also shares Betjeman’s fondness for old churches, such as Surfleet’s, whose tower has sunk at an angle of six feet: “Looking up from the inside is dizzying, like being on board a swaying ship”. In a largely flat landscape, churches were literal and metaphorical aids to navigation, “symbols of moral importance that lend meaning to otherwise empty horizons”.
He also excels at capturing the changing moods of nature. Walking on the beach during a ferocious storm, he describes the waves as “belly surge, collapse, crash and cross current on the sand” while seals call to each other, “one of the loneliest sounds and scariest”.
This is far more than a travel guide. It is a declaration of love to “a country like no other” and to a kind of rural existence that he sees threatened by the materialism and standardization of modernity. A friend of Turner’s jokes: ‘Don’t tell anyone about Lincolnshire. They’re going to ruin it!” He finds that the district is already less developed than it was when he moved: “Every day it becomes a little bit more like everywhere else.” More streets, more traffic, dreary houses and “fewer small shops, fewer decaying old buildings , fewer quiet places, fewer wild animals”.
And yet, for the moment at least, in this part of the country that the rest of us have forgotten, “something of eternity is still to be seen at times, here on England’s ever-changing fringes”.