Seeking out the vanished Newgant Farm—a ride into and meditation upon some people and places in the Cambridgeshire Fens
|1898-1901 OS Map|
|Edwin Smith's photo of Olive Cook in the fens|
|The site of old Newgant Farm at the end of the track looking south.|
This unusual stillness belied a deeper truth of this landscape for in its earliest incarnation it would have been almost constantly alive with sounds both from abundant wild-fowl and from the almost-always rustling of countless acres of reeds. Then later, as the landscape was slowly transformed into farm land (thanks in particular to firstly Roman then Dutch engineers), there also came the almost unceasing sound of men and horses working to dig drainage ditches and build wind-pumps to send the dark fen waters many miles north into the Wash. This sound of human and animal work was then added to and eclipsed by the distinct sound of machines. This sound began to predominate particularly in the 1940s when due to the Second World War highly productive farmland became more desperately needed than ever before.
|Looking back at the track. Burwell Fen is off to the right|
The chances are that the inhabitants of this now long-gone farm would have known their Bible well and, were they to be standing by me today in more than my imagination, would they have been tempted to join me in citing the opening verses of what, to my mind, is the wisest book it contains, Ecclesiastes?
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
|A fragment of brick from the farm|
“I went into the fens because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
So let me be clear, my thoughts did not cause me to practise resignation but to remount my bicycle genuinely grateful for the lives of the farmers, labourers, engineers (men and women alike), horses, pigs, cattle, fish, birds and eels who have made this place their home. What gifts they gave and still give and as reminder of all this I decided to pick up and take home a small fragment of brick from the farm to place upon my desk at which I am writing this post.
Buoyed-up by my concluding thoughts I peddled quietly on through the hot fens to Upware and, with my pint of cool shandy in hand amongst the happy holiday-makers at the pub by the river, I silently raised a grateful toast to the otherwise unremembered inhabitants (human, vegetable and animal) of old Newgant Farm on Swaffham Prior Fen.
Below you will find a few other photos taken on the ride. As usual they were taken with my iPhone 6+ and, as I noted above, using a digital emulation by RNIFilms of old 1950s Agfacolor film or more modern Ilford HP4 & 5 black and white film. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.