On a cold morning last January, I travelled out to the Norfolk Fens to see a ghost. First, I caught a train twenty miles north from Cambridge to Littleport, a market town on the Cambridge–Norfolk border. At Littleport I was met by a friend called Justin Partyka, and Justin drove me in his little white baker’s van up into the Fens proper.

Entering the Fens always feels like crossing a border into another world. Various signs mark out the transition. Ash gives way to willow. Phragmites reeds flock in the ditches, as do bulrushes. The landscape becomes rectilinear: ruler-straight roads and field edges, a skyline as flat as a spirit level, and on every horizon smart rows of poplar trees, planted to break the prevailing winds.

That morning, with the solstice only a fortnight past, the temperature lingered around freezing. The air smelt bright. Roadside rut-puddles were lidded with thin ice. An east wind was blowing, which set the dry reeds stirring and cussing in the ditches. We drove north-east along the River Ouse. Vast fields scrolled away to the horizon on either side of the road, most of them still bare of crops, but some furred with the green of winter wheat. Rooks wandered about on the loam, chakking to each other. One field we passed had been flooded and in the low sunlight it gleamed like a great sheet of iron.

Watching the landscape change around me, I felt a familiar sense of excitement: the excitement of leaving Cambridge behind and passing into a different realm. There are good historical precedents for such a sense. East Anglia has been considered its own demesne – separate culturally and geographically – for nearly 1,500 years. The region’s name recalls the period from the sixth to the eleventh century when this bulgy peninsula was almost an independent kingdom: cut off from the rest of the country by swamp and sea to the north, the Midland hills to the west, and to the south by the wildwoods of hawthorn and blackthorn that reached up from what is now Essex.

I have lived in Cambridge, on the western brink of East Anglia, for about thirteen years now. It is a town that has almost no connection with the countryside that surrounds it. It sits as aloofly on its landscape as a bubble on grass. And for nearly a decade of these thirteen years, East Anglia was somewhere I avoided, on the presumption that its terrain held no interest for me. If I travelled in search of adventure or excitement in Britain, I always pushed north, away to the mountains and coasts of Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland.

Over the past three or four years, however, I have begun to travel east instead of north from Cambridge. I’ve been to the salt marshes and mudflats of the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, where I spent a late-summer night sleeping out on the grassy sea wall, while hundreds of migrating geese barked and honked overhead in the darkness. To the Martian landscape of the north Norfolk coast, where the clear air plays tricks with perspective, so that thirty-foot-high dunes appear like mountain ranges. To the vulnerable coastline of Suffolk, where the sea is biting dozens more yards from the land each year and forcing the cliffs to yield up their contents: the bones of ancient dead, Second World War weaponry, Palaeolithic flint tools.

Once an anthropologist friend of mine, who specializes in the death rituals of Amazonian tribes, took me to the sandy ling-lands of north Suffolk, where two years previously he had buried the body of his father among the heather and rabbit warrens, before marking the site with a stone the size of a tortoise’s shell. As we stood by the stone, my friend told me that he was planning to give the worms another two years before he dug up his father’s skull, with a view to keeping it on his desk while he worked. ‘I’ll put a candle in it, I think,’ he said to me. ‘Or perhaps near it; perhaps just by the side of it.’

But the strangest of all these strange East Anglian subregions is undoubtedly the Fens. The Fens are a low-lying area of around 1,200 square miles in area. Geologically speaking, they are bounded to the west by the limestone hills of the Midlands, to the south and south-east by the chalk of Cambridgeshire and the sand of Suffolk, and elsewhere by the sea. To their immediate north, the east coast of England is punched inwards by the square fist of the Wash.

The Fens were once mostly water. In the ninth century, a Viking fleet could still sail as far inland as Ely. Until well into the 1600s, much of the Fens was a network of brackish swamps and reed beds, interspersed with islands and causeways of raised but marshy ground. The human inhabitants of this world were amphibious: travelling in punts, living in houses raised on stilts and surviving by fishing, cutting willow, reeds and peat, geese-keeping and wildfowling.

In the 1620s, however, the Dutch hydro-engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, already renowned for his success in dyking the Thames at Dagenham, was employed by the Duke of Bedford to turn the Fens ‘into a sea of waving corn’. So began the draining of the Fens with davit, dyke and windmill: a process that would take more than 150 years, but which revealed hundreds of thousands of acres of the most voluptuously rich soil in England. A soil so fertile, Fen farmers say, that if you stoop and scoop up a handful you’ll grow three more fingers before you’ve cast it down.

The Fens’ terraqueous past is still visible in contemporary maps, most obviously in the generic names common in the region: the Sluices and the Bridges, the Lodes, Leams and Dykes, the Drains and the Mills. It is there, too, in place names such as Ely – which means ‘island of the eels’ – or Methwold Hythe: ‘Hythe’, from the Old English, meaning a small haven or landing-place on a river (visible too in London’s Rotherhithe and Lambeth, which was once ‘Lamb-Hithe’), though no river now flows through Methwold Hythe.

It was to Methwold Hythe that Justin and I were heading that morning. ‘The Hythe’, as the older people who live there call it, is an ancient village on the eastern edge of the Fens, just before the peat gives way to sand. In the late seventeenth century, after Vermuyden had done his work, a few miles’ travel north and west would have taken you into the thick of the blue-black loamy Fens. But travelling a few miles east and south would have brought you into the Brecklands, England’s Arabia Deserta, an area of caramel-coloured sand so extensive that an inland lighthouse was once erected to orient travellers, and so unstable that in 1688 a prolonged south-westerly wind caused the sand to form into a marching dune that buried a village and choked a river.

Justin knew Methwold Hythe very well, since he had been working there on and off for nearly a decade. Justin is a photographer who is fascinated by people of East Anglia – rabbit catchers, reed cutters, eel fishermen – whose rural ways of life have been brought to the brink of extinction by changes in the landscape. He calls them ‘the forgotten people of the flatlands’, though he also thinks of them as ‘ghosts’. He has taken around 14,000 photographs, all on colour slide film; of these, he is satisfied with about eighty, and he is proud of perhaps a couple of dozen.

Among his different types of ghost, Justin is most interested in East Anglia’s family farmers – the agrarianists and smallholders who still muddle by on a modest acreage. Until the twentieth century, the agrarian tradition in East Anglia was strong: thousands of family-owned farms existed, worked by people whose craft and local knowledge had been acquired over centuries and passed down through generations.

But then, in the first half of the 1900s, came the mechanization of British farming. The application of the internal combustion engine to agriculture meant that the horse was usurped by the tractor, that the boundaries of the village exploded and that the number of people required to work the land was enormously reduced. When the drive to maximize productivity began in the years before the Second World War, the flatness of East Anglia made it an ideal landscape for conversion to big-field or ‘prairie’ cultivation. Now, very few small farms are left in the Fens. Those that have survived are islanded by the landholdings of the mega-farms which now dominate. The rest have vanished: driven to extinction by competition with agribusiness, by the tangled demands of farming regulation, by climate change and by the lack of a younger generation willing to take over their running.

A mile or so west of Methwold Hythe, on Broad Drove, Justin stopped the van by a high hedge of hawthorn and ash trees. ‘Let’s walk from here,’ he said. The wind was still strong, and it stunned the skin of my hands and face. I followed Justin down a muddy track, past a blue boiler-suited scarecrow that was sitting astride a rusty bicycle, and into a ramshackle farmyard. There were five big barns, a mobile home and a lean-to shed on to which twenty-four spanners had been screwed so that they spelled out a w vincent. Two of the barns were open-fronted and they were filled with a slew of objects: rusted pitchforks, seed drills, grease tins, pieces of timber, tyres, an old refrigerator and enamelled signs from the 1940s and 1950s exhorting you to feed your dog on shapes! and buy goodyear: signs of the times! Nailed to the outside of one of the barns was a series of what looked like metal ribcages. They were, I realized, the latticed iron seats of old tractors and drill machines, polished to a shine by years of use. The only new thing in sight was a tractor: bright scarlet, black-wheeled and shiny. It seemed incongruous, like an outsize child’s toy.

This was Severall’s Farm, a twelve-acre smallholding farmed by Arthur Vincent and Henry Everett, both in their sixties. They knew Justin well and didn’t mind him walking their land. Down by one of the stripfields, we found Arthur. He was pulling and banding leeks. ‘Cold work,’ he said. ‘I used to swear I’d never be dealing with winter crops, only now I don’t have a choice.’

‘Just head on out, go where you want to,’ he said, waving south. So we walked on, past a spear-forest of dead Jerusalem artichoke stems, ten feet high and bristling in the wind, and past a derelict barn – a ‘tabernacle’, in the language of the Fens – whose roof was being prised off by fingers of ivy. Past acres of muddy field containing stripped Brussels sprout stalks and smashed carrots.

Out by the southern hedge boundary of Severall’s Farm, we discovered a rural riddle. Two blue plastic children’s chairs had been placed facing one another, as though their occupants had once been in conversation. Nettles had grown into and through the lattice of the seats, binding them into place. Here, as at the tabernacle, the impression was of the wild Fen reasserting itself: fingers of vegetation reaching up to draw these human structures back down into the ground.

Near the chairs, we found a hole between two elder trees and ducked through it, then made our way north-east up the hedge line, into the wind and towards the Hythe itself. We flushed out a pair of deer and they raced off in synchronized bounds, before dropping down into the cover of a shallow dyke. The white winter sunlight lit up the east-facing sillion of the ploughed fields. I had the feeling that comes from keeping to the edges of an open landscape: hints of a poacher’s nerves; the excitement of concealment and faint subterfuge.

Away to our south, perhaps 300 yards across a field ploughed into corduroy lines, the field boundary was defined by a row of big old ash trees, their trunks and boughs shaggy with ivy. I thought of H.J. Massingham, the English writer who flourished between the two world wars, and who was, like Adrian Bell and Henry Williamson, motivated by an anxiety at the disappearance of rural English life. Massingham’s response was a series of politically unsteady but often beautiful books about nature and the English countryside, which advocated the preservation of the social unit of village, of small-scale husbandry and of rural crafts and skills.

Massingham was an eccentric figure, and among his eccentricities was a loathing of ivy, whose presence he saw as a sign of uncared-for land. ‘The axe,’ he said of ivy, ‘is the best approach to it’, and he took to carrying a hatchet with him while he walked. In the end, however, it was ivy that did for Massingham. In 1952, out clearing ivy from trees near his garden, he fell on to a rusty scythe that was hidden in the undergrowth and wounded his leg. The wound turned septic, the leg had to be amputated and Massingham died soon afterwards.

After half a mile or so, Justin and I emerged from our hedgerow on to a rutted lane and brushed the twigs and leaves from our clothes and hair. From there, it was only a short distance into Methwold Hythe itself. Near the crossroads in the centre of the village, we turned left into a farmyard with a vast chalk-walled corn barn, its door propped shut with a fifteen-foot scaffold pole, and its red-tiled roof slowly caving in.

This was the Wortley farm, belonging to Eric Wortley and his identical twin sons, Peter and Stephen. It was Eric in particular that I had come to see. Justin knocked on a whitewashed door. ‘Come in,’ we heard a high voice cry, and Justin creaked the door open. I followed him into the kitchen, ducking my head under the lintel.

‘That’s a lazy wind,’ said Eric, smiling. ‘He never bothers going round you, just goes right on through you.’ He was sitting by an old iron stove, whose belly glowed with orange embers. His legs were crossed and his hands clasped. Even in the low light of the kitchen, I could see the milky glaze of cataracts over his eyes.

Eric unclasped a hand and pointed to the empty chair pulled up tight against the stove. ‘Sit down here by the fire, get yourselves warm.’ Justin took a third chair from the kitchen table. We sat together quietly for a few moments, hands splayed towards the heat. A saucepan of water grumbled on top of the stove. A ginger-and-black cat was curled up on the brick ledge nearby, enjoying the warmth.

Eric is ninety-eight years old; Peter and Stephen are somewhere in their fifties. Between them Eric and his sons have put in more than 150 years of service on the farm. Eric is old enough that his early experiences on the land would not have been much different from those of someone who had grown up in the 1700s. No one knows quite how long a Wortley farm has been in the Hythe, but Wortley is accepted to be one of the most venerable names in the village. At present, though, with neither Peter nor Stephen married or with children, there is little prospect of the farm’s survival. They are the last of their line: ghosts of a kind.

Eric tilted his head back and leaned towards me, trying to focus. ‘These eyes of mine,’ he said, regarding me with a grin, ‘they’re so smeary, they even make you look pretty. That’s how bad they’ve got. Have you come far today, then?’

In a way I had come very far indeed. Only thirty miles or so from my own home; only thirty miles or so from Justin’s. But to step into Eric’s farm was to step back in time. Eric was born in 1910, in the house in which we were sitting. He had lived there for nearly a century, and the house had barely changed around him. Apart from a battered white electric hob and oven in the corner of the kitchen, little dated the room from after the First World War. Whitewashed walls yellowed by decades of stove smoke. A free-standing wooden dresser with wide eye-like cabinet windows. Gun hooks on the crooked ceiling beam of the room, from one of which hung Eric’s flat tweed cap, its rim and crown worn to a shine. A dark pinewood kitchen table.

‘That’s the same table I sat around as a boy,’ said Eric. ‘I was the eighth of twelve, not thirteen, because Mother had one that died when I was two year old. What was there? There was Dolly, John, Harry, Javie, Tom, Peggy, then me. I was eighth.’ He half-sang this list of names, with the lilting Norfolk habit of prolonging and deepening the first syllable of a word, and shortening and heightening the second. ‘And then there’s Mary, Dick, Renie and Ted. That’s how they was born. Every two year Mother had another one. Now I’m the only one alive out of them all. Whether I been lucky I don’t know. Still, I’ve had a good life, I’ve always done my word and I’ve always kept here.’

Distance doesn’t mean the same to Eric as to most other people. He lives in an unexpanded world. In ninety-eight years, he has barely left his parish. He has never gone to London. He has been twice to the Norfolk coast and once to Norwich, the county capital of Norfolk, about forty miles from the Hythe. At the end of the first afternoon I spent with Eric, a year or more ago, just before I got into my car to drive home, he asked me where I was returning to. ‘Cambridge,’ I said. ‘Will you be able to get home tonight?’ he enquired kindly. ‘Won’t you need a place to stay?’

Eric has exceptional kinds of local knowledge. He knows the water tables, the weather habits and the wind histories of every part of his parish. He holds in his head a detailed memory map of the surrounding landscape. He has walked, ridden and ploughed every foot of his land countless times, and watched its changes through decades as well as seasons. He knows the stories of the inhabitants, living and dead, and the species of bird and animal that have thrived or failed here throughout the twentieth century. And he has no interest in questions about the land that can be answered in the abstract.

The historian and folklorist George Ewart Evans regarded the elders of the East Anglian countryside as ‘survivors from another era’. ‘They belong,’ he wrote in 1961, ‘essentially to a culture that has extended in an unbroken line since at least the early Middle Ages… The sort of knowledge that is waiting to be taken down from the old people is always on the brink of extinction.’ But, Evans asked, ‘what is…the place of the small farmer in the new, evolving economy of today… Is there a future for him? Or are we to be reconciled to his extinction, attributing it to something that was as inevitable as a thunderstorm?’

Extinction presently seems inevitable. The Wortley farm, like almost all small farms in East Anglia, now exists on a diminishing island of habitat. Approaching Methwold Hythe, Justin and I had driven for miles through the land of the Shropshires, a mega-farm of over 12,000 acres. ‘Shroppy’s nearly swallowed us up!’ Eric said to me that January afternoon, with indignation and a hint of pride that they hadn’t been gulped. The scale of the Shropshires’ operation is immense. Two years ago, when an unexpected May frost gripped the Fens, it was rumoured that they lost a million lettuces overnight.

Disappearance of all kinds preoccupies Eric. There is a spectral quality to his vision: he sees the past more naturally than he sees the present. The first time I went with Justin to visit him, on a hot August day, Eric took his stick from behind the door and walked us round his meadows, farm buildings and garden, talking all the while. I soon realized he was perceiving a different place from us: a farm where fences were mended, where pigs rooted in the straw, where the great chalk barn was uncracked and where horses grazed in the field behind the yard. ‘Ah, you know, the boys don’t see these things that I see,’ he told me.

Listening to Eric talk that day, I was reminded of the evolutionary concept of ‘ghost species’, an idea that entered conservation science in the mid-1980s. A ‘ghost’ is a species that has been out-evolved by its environment, such that, while it continues to exist, it has little prospect of avoiding extinction. Ghosts endure only in what conservation scientists call ‘non-viable populations’. They are the last of their lines.

The soft-shell sea turtle is a ghost. The desert bighorn is a ghost. The tiger is a ghost, as is the sawfish. Show specimens of these species may live on in zoos, parks or aquaria, carefully curated, perpetuated through captive-breeding programmes. But hunting, habitat loss and pollution mean that, in the wild, these creatures have now passed into their spectral phases. Some of the most remarkable ghost species are to be found in the world’s coral reefs. In those great stone cities are organisms about whose lives we know hardly anything and whose forms we can barely conceive of: the mountainous star coral or the Nassau grouper. Some of these creatures are angelic in their form, some demonic and none can exist outside the reef. They are almost all now ghosts, or near-ghosts, as the world’s reefs are presently dying because of pollution, overfishing and, above all, the increasing acidification of the oceans. If the world’s coral reefs are bleached into extinction, it will be the first time that human action has successfully annihilated an entire ecosystem.

The species most likely to become ghosts are those that are most place-faithful – which is to say, those that have evolved over long periods of time in response to the demands of a particular environment: reef, desert or jungle. Species whose specialized skills are not exportable beyond that environment and whose specialized needs cannot be satisfied elsewhere.

Historically, the idea of ghost species has been confined to the non-human kingdoms. But sitting in Eric’s kitchen that January day, it seemed clear that there were also human ghosts: types of place-faithful people who had been out-evolved by their environments – and whose future disappearance was almost assured.

Eric, Justin and I talked on for two hours or so. Eric spoke often, and without sentiment, about what had vanished from the Hythe during the century he had known it: pipes and pipe-smoking, hedgerows, whistling and singing. ‘We sung when we were following the horse,’ he said, watching the stove. ‘Or we whistled it on. They’d all be whistling then. Walking round, you’d hear whistling from everyone working on the land. You’d stop and have a little chat over the hedgerow. Nowadays you don’t hear anybody whistle. It’s all changed. It’s a quieter life now, because nobody’s on the fields. Everybody in the village worked on the farms. Everybody now, well, they leave the village to work. We all used to be a little family. Now I never speak to them.’

I asked him if the wildlife had changed. ‘Ah, well, nowadays you don’t see hardly no animals on the land. A hare or two, mebbe. No birds, hardly any birds. We used to have birds’ eggses by the hundred in boot boxes, full of eggses. Kestrels’ eggs, sparrowhawks’ eggs. One of those was a white egg, another was a red egg – we’d climb up trees for them. A little old tomtit, a little jenny wren, could lay fifteen or eighteen eggs. We had names for all the birds. The thrush was a fulfa. Mabish meant mistlethrush, or maybe it was linnets. If you walked up to a hedge there’d be about twenty or thirty birds’ nests about that time. They were thicker then, the birds. Tomtits, blue tits, jenny wrens, especially the jenny wrens. I don’t see the wrens any more.’

The disappearance Eric doesn’t tend to speak about, at least directly, is that of his wife, Ivy, who died in 1999, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Towards the end of her life, her wits became so fuddled that she would often leave the farmhouse and walk out into the fields on her own. Once she left the house at night, and a police helicopter had to be called out to locate her. She was found sheltering in a small wood.

Midway through the afternoon, it became clear Eric was becoming tired. Justin and I stood to leave. He beckoned me over to his chair and put a hand on my arm, drawing me down. ‘Remember this,’ he said urgently and unexpectedly. ‘If you’ve a good wife, it’s a fine life! You tell your wife that, and you keep her, because, ah, it’s a poor deal when she’s gone. She was a Wren when I first met her, my wife, and she looked such a sight in her uniform! That was what won me, I tell you. I wrote to her, and she wrote back. At first we signed off ‘Yours Faithfully’, then ‘Yours’, then with crosses for kisses, and finally ‘With Love’, and that’s how I did my wooing. All done by letter, my courting.’ He paused.

‘She was nine years younger than I was when I married her, and she’s nine years dead now, and oh I miss her very much.’ He peered away into the north-west corner of the kitchen. I could see the milky surface of his eyes very close to mine.

After we had left Eric, Justin suggested that we end the day with another walk. He parked near the beginning of a rutted drove road that led off, arrow-straight, to the south-west. We walked up it for a mile, past another tabernacle and a vast field of husky bean stems, and as we walked the weather shifted around us. High monotone clouds blackened the sky to our north. The sunlight became cold and blue: a storm light, whose twin effects were to give all standing water the appearance of zinc, and to lessen depth perception, such that every element in the landscape seemed to exist on a shared horizontal plane. Then a cold rainstorm blew in, belting big plump drops at us, and when we turned our backs to the rain we saw that a double rainbow was arching above a row of poplars.

And then, to our north, two dazzlingly white birds lifted off from a black field, instantly drawing the eye. The little egret used to be an exceptionally rare visitor to England. Then, in 1996, a pair bred in East Anglia; there are now around fifty breeding pairs resident in the region. Climate change has been an opportunity for this versatile species to increase its range, drawn across the Channel by the increasingly hot summers of southern England.

That afternoon, the appearance of the birds seemed like a surprising sign of hope: a new species making its home here, adapting to a changed environment. The egret is the whitest of any bird I have ever seen, perhaps the whitest of all birds. And in that storm light the pair condensed the sunshine to a magnesium-flare intensity. Justin and I watched as they beat away north on their wings, into the black sky, whiter than ghosts.

 

Photography © Justin Partyka

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