In the Fens

FROM the point of view of beauty, — I will not say picturesqueness, because that might appear perversely paradoxical, — there is no part of England that has been more dully and foolishly despised than the fen-country. The fenland has some of the most beautiful qualities that it is possible for landscape to have. It has space, richness of color, economy of effect, and something of the grandeur of the sea; but its beauty is so simple and large in character, that it is almost invariably overlooked. I believe myself to be as sensitive to the beauty of landscape as other people, and since I have gone to live in the fens, — because I have been so far true to my principles,—I can only say that I have daily come to enjoy the fen views with an increasing delight.

The Isle of Ely lies in the centre of one of the largest tracts of the fenland; it is shaped, roughly, like an outstretched hand. Ely itself lies in the palm of the hand, near the wrist; and the fingers stretch westward, with little inlets of fen between them. My own house is near the western point of one of the fingers, which are composed of low gravel hills, rising about a hundred feet above the plain. The result of this rise is that one gets views of prodigious extent. From the crest of the hill I can see the towers and steeples of Cambridge to the south, where the smoke goes up on a still day like a faint mist. To the west I see that great level which runs to Chatteris and St. Ives, and down to Huntingdon; to the east, over one of the inner valleys, the great towers of Ely rise, with a vast tract of open fen behind, bounded by the shadowy hills of Suffolk and Norfolk. There can be hardly any place in England where one can see so large a piece of the world. The villages of the Isle, pleasantly wooded, sit astride of the ridges, each with an ancient church.

But the real beauty of the view lies in the illimitable stretch of rich color, with the little clumps of dark trees dotting the plains, and vast fields of ripening wheat and meadow-grass, intersected only by the peaceful lines of grassy dykes. It is beautiful in every condition of air and weather: beautiful on still, hazy days, when the horizon is ringed with soft mist; beautiful beyond telling when the air is clear after rain, and when one can see the very tree-clumps on distant wolds; beautiful in moonlit nights, when the great level looks like some prodigious sea of delicate blue; beautiful when the vast clouds roll up from the southwest, miles upon miles of high-hung vapors; perhaps most beautiful of all in a winter twilight, when the sunset smoulders leagues away, and the plain seems haunted by some incommunicable mystery of tranquil mournfulness.

To-day I struck down into the plain eastward, along one of the turfy lanes, fringed with high hedgerow trees, alders, ashes, and gray willows. These driftroads, as they are called, are nearly impassable in winter; but in summer they are ideal places to walk in, full of still ditches covered with big water-plants, and thorn-thickets where the yellowhammer pipes his resonant note. Here grow great flowering rushes, yellow flags, the arrow-head with its round, white, purple-hearted flowers, the homely comfrey, the aromatic meadowsweet, the tall and delicate cow-parsley. Coelum, non animum, mutant, says the old poet of the wandering feet. “The sky changes, not the mind.” Well, in the fen-country even the sky does not change. You may walk half the day, and the distant clump, with the spire rising from it, will still be hulldown on the horizon; and as for the mind, — one torments one’s self everywhere, I suppose, with petty dreams and sad retrospects; could one but achieve this hope! could one but have acted diferently! Yet here, in the wide plain, there seems to settle on the soul a sort of vague peace and tranquillity. The world moves so slowly, so calmly here, hour by hour, that it seems difficult to fret or strive.

I have often walked in far different scenes, where the weather-stained crag rises above the lake, with the feathery woodlands at its foot, the trees struggling up crack and gully and ledge, where the bleak heads of great mountains look out across the moorland. That is beautiful, too, but it is a finer, sharper, more insistent beauty, that leaves the mind restless and unsatisfied. Here there rather falls on the spirit a sort of mild content, among the simple lines of dyke and field, a sense of remoteness and calm, while the eye feeds upon the exquisite vignettes of plant and tree and pool, without distraction, in a meditative stillness. Here is a sedge-thatched cattle-byre, with wooden supports and whitened walls, just such a place as is depicted in an old Tuscan picture as the scene of the Nativity. Here is a red-brick bridge, with yellow stone-crop growing thickly on the ledge, and the mallow rioting luxuriantly in its shadow.

I came to-day to a dyke which had been recently heightened, to guard against the winter floods. They had dug out the blue galt for the purpose, and I could see the pale line of it run for miles over the level. I picked up one of the spadefuls idly; it was dried and laminated like slate; I broke it across, and there in the clay lay a sprinkling of tiny fossils,— small watershells crushed flat, creatures that looked like great woodlice, with armored carapaces, things like stalks of water-weed. Wherever I broke the block it was the same. How many thousand years ago, I wondered, had these shells and insects lived out their lives in the great lagoon! They had lived and died; they had sunk to the bottom of the lake; the ooze had covered them year by year. Every spadeful of the clay along the dyke-bank was full of the same creatures, each a monument of a tiny individual life. What an inscrutable and illimitable prospect it opened to the mind! What was the purpose, the meaning of it all ? Each of these tiny creatures had had his taste of life; they had been all in all to themselves, even as I am to-day to myself, conscious of their own minute existence, and perhaps dimly aware of a vast world of shadowy existences outside of them. They had loved life; they had hated death and darkness. And yet, with all our inventiveness and sagacity and complacent wisdom, we are no nearer knowing the why and wherefore of it all, — what it is that thrusts us into being, and why that being is withdrawn.

Somehow, in the thought of this immensity of life, unrolling itself so patiently through the ages, I felt a strange sense of unreality about my own little hopes and fears, so terribly urgent and significant to me, so hopelessly minute in the eye of the Father of all living. One can learn more from that little cube of clay than from all the sermons of the divines. Not a hopeful lesson, perhaps, not stimulating, or what is called inspiring; but the truth of it, which at first sight seems ghastly and insupportable, brings in its wake a thought of intense significance: it hints at an enormous patience, an unceasing energy; it makes the dreams of man pale and unsubstantial; it assures one that, strive and fret as one may, there is something to be apprehended which man cannot teach; it brings with it an intense resignation, a tranquil determination to wait and see what God is doing for us.

And now in my slow ramble I came to where a tiny rising ground shows itself above the level of the fen. The pasture here is older and more settled. It goes, this inconspicuous little space of ground, by the name of Honey Hill; a natural name enough to-day, when the hum of the bees rose musical among the flowers, when the elder showed her white cakes of honied flower, and the wild-rose covered the hedge with pale blooms.

But there is an ancient story, over a thousand years old, that haunts this place. There is a little mound among the pastures, and farther out on the edge of the fen there are the traces of some crumbling and ill-built walls. Ten miles away you can see the great towers of Ely across the flat.

Now the patron saint of Ely is Saint Etheldreda; she was the daughter of a king of the East Angles, and she was herself a queen, being the wife of Tondberct, king of the Girvii, the hardy tribe of fenmen. The Isle of Ely was her dowry; after Tondberct’s death she married a great earl of Northumbria, Elfrid by name; but she kept in her heart the devotion to the monastic life, and, indeed, her virginity too, under a vow respected by both her husbands. She it was who founded the monastery of Ely in the seventh century, though pursued in vain by her rough husband; for six years she was Abbess, and then died; and her body was laid to rest in a great sarcophagus of white marble, a Roman work found among the ruins of Grantchester, close to Cambridge.

There are many pretty tales of the old saint. I cannot tell them here; but the sweetest of all is that which is linked with this place. She had a chaplain called Huna, a young, wise, sad, and handsome man, who loved her well, with a love that perhaps kept unconsciously, pent-up in its passionate purity, some nearer touch of human desire; when she was buried, he said the accustomed prayers over her grave, with many tears; but, after that, he could abide no longer in the desolate place, when the joy of his life was extinguished ; and so he took boat one summer day, and rowed himself alone over the huge lagoon, among the reed-beds and water-channels, scaring the wild-fowl from their pools, and the poising fish from the shallows over which his rude boat sped. What were his thoughts on that bright day, as he passed westward over the lake ? Love,no doubt,and grief, and bewildered hope; and perhaps some sense of beauty at the sight of the vast expanse of clear water and crisped reed. Alone he set foot on the tiny island, for the name Honey Hill embalms his own name, Huna’s Isle; he built with his own hands a little chapel, and a cabin of wattled reeds; and he waited here in prayer and contemplation for his own call, which was not long in coming.

It was pleasant enough, perhaps, in summer, to tend his garden and to wander about upon the fringe of the vast lake. The country people came to him sometimes, with little gifts; he could hear the creak of the rowlocks for miles over the lagoon. But in winter, with the screaming wildfowl, and the northern gale wringing the sharp rain from the edge of the low-hung cloud, and the marsh-lights twinkling, as they were seen not fifty years ago to twinkle over the undrained morass, — what wonder if he thought himself beset by fiends and goblins, as he shivered and flushed in bouts of ague and marsh-fever! When he died he was laid to rest by the country-folk in his own chapel; but the miracles wrought at the humble shrine were so frequent and prodigious, that the monks of Thorney rowed down, and took up the mouldering bones, and carried back the silent shape to their own island, where he now lies, unknown.

It is a strange and sad old story, but all touched with human pathos and tears. No doubt it was a very useless and fantastic life to adopt, and Huna would have been better employed,perhaps, if he had taught the Gospel, and served his kind in some more populous place; but I hardly know! A reward of fame beyond the dreams of poets was given to the frail woman of the Gospel story, who broke the vase of perfume over the sacred feet; much was forgiven her, because she loved much; and Huna perhaps had the secret, which may be denied to the busiest and most voluble parish priest, with all his clubs and classes. Who shall discern the value of our deeds ?

I only know that to-day, as I stood by the lonely mound on Huna’s Isle, he seemed to me to have done a very sweet and beautiful thing, for which I was thankful. We Protestants may not pray for the dead, I believe, but I sent out my heart in search of Huna, if in glory he still remembers his grassy island, and the low dark winter days of pain. Perhaps he and Etheldreda sing Magnificat together, or a new song, in language which man may not utter, and know what their pure love meant.

I am strangely moved to think of him, standing with his hand over his eyes, looking out across the lagoon at sundown, to see if he could discern the low Saxon church, which stood then where the great towers stand now, thinking of what lay buried there, and of the beautiful days that were gone. I do not think that his instinct was a false or an unmanly one, though it is strangely removed from our ideals; and it has a freshness and a fragrance about it that we somehow miss in these dustier days, when the great freighttrains go clanking over the flat, in a cloud of steam, in sight of Huna’s Isle.