“Parochialism is universal. It deals with the fundamentals” ….. “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot,  Little Gidding


This blog documents my encounters with landscape, trees, creatures and, sometimes, people during the course of fairly regular rambles around Oakington, a fen-edge village just north of Cambridge in the east of England.

Having lived in the village for five years, making only occasional forays into the surrounding countryside, I realized how little I knew about the land I inhabited, the place I called home.  Actually, I didn’t ‘inhabit’ it as such because I regarded my home turf as essentially dull, without interest, lifeless, uninspiring. I went elsewhere to walk and ‘experience nature’.

With good reason, so I thought. The immediate district presents a monotonously flat landscape, with no significant geographical or natural features. It lies on the edge of what once were the great wild wetlands of the Fens, now tamed, drained and cultivated. Here there are no hills, valleys, woods or rivers to speak of, no mountains, moorland, heathland, marshland, mudflats or coast. It is neither urban, nor suburban, nor rural. It is, for want of a better term, sub-rural – an edge-land of big single-crop fields, scraps of neglected orchard, pony paddocks, drainage ditches, dormitory villages, care homes, golf courses, mobile home parks, travellers’ sites, car-breakers’ yards, bungalows and barn conversions, and various species of slipshod horticultural operations. It is home to a crematorium, an immigration ‘reception’ centre, and a disused airfield, and is bounded on two sides by the notorious 6-lane highway, the A14. Every inch of it is managed to a greater or lesser degree, and the few patches of scrub or undeveloped land that remain are under imminent threat from farmers and developers. It is by no means an affluent area (being on the wrong, i.e. the fenny, miasmic side of Cambridge), and it has a somewhat dishevelled and marginal feel to it. It is, on the face of it, an altogether unremarkable tract of England.

Still, this is where I happen to live.

So, on a 1 : 25,000 map of the area, I drew a circle of two miles radius around my house, furnishing 4 – 5 mile excursions to the edge and back and about 12 ½ square miles to roam about in. I gave myself a year (about 100 excursions, I reckoned) to get acquainted with every field, pasture, orchard, hedgerow, tree, ditch, dyke, copse, track and path, and as many creatures as cared to reveal themselves to me.

On New Year’s Eve, 2009, I set out to see what I could see …..

16 responses to “about

  1. George

    I loved this phrase in your summing up the Oakington area
    “…various species of slipshod horticultural operations”. So apt.
    Have you seen the old oak tree reputed to be from the 1650s on the farmland between Girton and Oakington? I would like to find it.

    • HI George. Thanks for getting in touch. I think I know the oak tree you mention. Click on veteran trees in the side bar. There are enough clues there to enable you to find it.

  2. helen


    I am guessing this might well be a mere echo into the recent past but discovered this when looking for the meaning of gote as in Tydd Gote and Gote Lane in Gorefield.

    I have been walking the fens recently as a way of discovering and as a way of political communication

    Loving Landmarks which I bought recently and obviously is the culmination of your word gathering

    I am recently returned to wisbech to care for an elderly mother and am walking and listening…. gathering

    also fascinated by Clare’s walking..

    so found your pages apt

    thank you for words and notions


    • Hi Helen

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      Actually, I am a little confused by your comment “Loving Landmarks which I bought recently and obviously is the culmination of your word gathering”. I wish that it were, but of course Robert Macfarlane is the author of that wonderful book. And I am not he. Incidentally, he also lives in Cambridge…

      Regarding gote, to supplement the local meaning in Land Words above, I have this in my master glossary:

      gote (Eng. and MEng., chiefly northern dialect): a channel for water, a stream; a sluice, 1531 (OED); cf. Mid. LGerm. and Mid. Dutch gote, ‘watercourse’ (EPNS25); mod. Eng. gote and gout, ‘a watercourse, stream, a flow of water’, derive from the OEng. verb gēotan, ‘to pour, flow’, and more specifically from OEng. *gotu, ‘a watercourse, channel, stream’, and OEng. gyte, ‘a pouring forth, a flood’; The English Dialect Dictionary gives the following mod. Eng. forms: gaut: an artificial watercourse; a gutter, sluice; a flood-gate; gote: a small artificial watercourse leading to a mill or reservoir; a mill-race or water-channel; the outlet from a stream; gout: an artificial passage for water, a mill-stream; a ditch, drain, a covered conduit, underground sewer or sink; the words have changed slightly from denoting natural watercourses, ‘that which flows, pours’, to artificial ones; in the case of gout there is also the OFr. esgout, Fr. égout, ‘sewer’; the French word might have influenced the English ones as far as the change of meaning is concerned (from Rundblad); see OEng. gota, MEng. gōter, Eng. gōt, Occitan gota, Cornish goth

      Enjoy your fen walks and hope you have many happy encounters with fen creatures, and skies, and trees, and people. And best wishes to your mother.

  3. Robert Macfarlane

    Hi there – my name’s Robert Macfarlane, I’m writing a book about language and landscape, and I’d be very glad to be in touch if this comment-field still reaches you! If so perhaps you could drop me an e-mail. I’d be most grateful. Warm wishes, Robert

    • Hi Robert. This old blog seems to have an afterlife of its own. Now and again someone gets in touch and I am reminded that it lingers on, like an old road, hidden until someone stumbles across it and walks it awhile. Yes, what a treasure trove, language and landscape, the language of the land, or better, language in landscape…. Best wishes. I look forward to reading it

  4. After twenty five years in Cambridgeshire, I’m just finding the joy in flatlands. I found your site looking for Fenland words for a book and I wish I’d found it sooner. My patch now is the fens and big drains around Sutton and Sutton Gault.

  5. Hi Dawn, just found your site when I needed the text of Clare’s walk: I’m making a documentary about it & him & contemporary issues….and i grew up in Girton, & currently back in cambridge. Sure we’ll meet on a ramble someplace! Warmly, James

    • James, good to hear from you and that you are making a documentary on Clare, surely the most neglected of English poets. His story is at once tragic and uplifting (with remarkable affinities to the life of Cambridge boy Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame – both were afflicted, and blessed, both went AWOL from asylums in London and walked back home to Cambridgeshire). See you’re also doing some work with the Bedouin. I spent years in Saudi and have travelled extensively in the region, always drawn to these now marginalized people. Good luck.

  6. Jo Kjaer

    Discovered your site whilst rambling the web looking for something on the Marshland Fen area between Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Downham Market. So excited, now, to have ‘landwords’ at my elbow as I explore this triangle close to where I now live. As you describe, even in these dismissed areas by fen edge, life of some sometimes, very small sort, goes on. Grist for any writer , walking their back yard.
    I’m not clear if this site is still active.
    What next for you?

    • Thanks for getting in touch Jo. It looks like you’re deep in the Fens proper. You might have more luck than I did in finding folk who still use the old land-guage. But glad you liked the lists I cobbled together – mostly from Clare country a little to the west of you and north of me. The site is dormant while I try to find the answer to your final question. Thank you for that. I must address it soon….. I hope you’re going to do something similar in your patch. Walk it and write it. Let us know how you get on.

  7. I absolutely applaud your aims – I’m trying to do something similar, but have even less than you to work with: I live in Streatham, South London, and my ‘patch’ includes a bit of nondescript common, a tangled old bit of ground now hopefully dubbed a ‘nature garden’, liberally littered with condoms and beer cans and burnt foil, a grid of urban streets and housing estates and a little park which runs along the High Road into Brixton. And you wouldn’t believe how full of life and beauty it all is!

    • Hi Melissa. In spite of the unpromising locale you seem to have uncovered plenty of life and beauty already. Bravo! Don’t discount the urban ugly and the streetlife though – all is worthy of your close attention. For the most part we are surrounded by the ordinary, the overlooked, the unnoticed, though the secret of the local lies in the particular, which is anything but ordinary. Keep noticing and keep writing.

  8. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

    Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land

    • Hi, Trevor. Good to hear from you, and thanks for reminding me of Wendell Berry’s wise words. ‘Standing on Earth’ was once a favourite of mine. I must dust it off and read him once again.

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