The short walk from Cambridge to Grantchester follows a metalled track, from which fields rise to a ridge on one side and meadows fall away to the Cam on the other. Before this opening-out, however, the path passes a patch of meadow that is peculiarly regular: it is square-ish, fenced on all sides, and baize-flat. Alone in the middle stands the decapitated shaft of a lamppost, accruing a dusty bloom of verdigris. ‘Between 1920 and 1940’, offers a small plaque by way of apology, ‘the field was flooded for skating in winter: it cost 6d for an evening’s skating’. A miss-able, unremarkable sign, sole witness to a sliver of the meadow’s history.
The field itself no longer reaches down to the riverbank – it is cut adrift by a slice of private land – yet it remains as a last relic of evenings of communal enjoyment: the short walk across Lammas Land and Paradise Gardens, the lashing-on of skates, the cutting of grooves and runnels in the ice by the endless circling of the lamppost, which all the while spilled golden light in a fan across the field’s frozen skin. Yet just as the lamppost now recalls a bygone era, the meadow itself, even in its prime, was a tribute to a remembered past. The fens, stretching from the Wash up to Lincoln in the north and down to Cambridge in the south, boast a history of ice-skating centuries long – perhaps even millennia. Skating round a lamppost for sixpence, though easily championable now as a ‘golden age’ of communal revelry, would have seemed in its day a timid revival of half-forgotten heroic deeds on ice. It is always tempting to agree with Louis’s nagging pessimism in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves – to concede that ‘the lighted strip of history is passed’ and the best times are behind us – and in so doing we find ourselves in remarkably good company. But the fact that this feeling is so common throughout western thought does something to blunt its sting: as in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, our nostalgias are stacked like Russian dolls, every age at once longing for its predecessor and longed for by its descendants.
The sprawling flatlands of East Anglia were, at the recession of the last ice age, partially covered in a dense forest, of oaks and elms. The distinctive open-ness they now possess – as we are reminded by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn – is a product of man’s intervention. Wholesale deforestation was carried out soon after the ice’s melting in the attempt to make land farm-able: forests were simply torched; mile upon mile of blazing inferno. We think of interventions such as these as modern digressions – this is, rather, a talent we have always possessed. Loose-soiled, ashen flatland joined estuarine marshland to form a basin of ‘fenland’, half water, half ground: a no-man’s land, in which a struggling family might have fondly recalled the forests of their ancestors’ time. Ely springs from this sludge on a knotty bank of hard ground, an island off Cambridge’s shoreline, marooned. Countless such islands – Spalding, Wisbeach, Boston – formed a loose archipelago of reliable habitation.
To call the surrounding marshy spaces ‘liminal’ would be to resort to cliché: fenland is not a limit, not an edge, but a swathe of land that is plural, both land and sea at once, and alternately either; it is a palimpsestic landscape, where one thing overlays another. In the Ango-Saxon mind, this contributed to a very fluid idea of ‘desert’: monks sought isolation, equivalent to that of dry sand-deserts, at the northernmost corner of the Christian world, and found it in the gaping skies and uninhabitable marsh of the fens. St Guthlac set out to test his faith on one such fenland island, and found himself tormented by demons and apparitions. Even in their modern, ordered state, the fens retain an aptitude for soupy fog, illusionistic perspective, and shrieking winds. And they froze in winter, turning an impassible marsh into a frosty, mirror-flat rink. Sharpened animal bones allowed feet and belongings to glide for miles, and so fringe-towns and fen-islands became accessible.
The Dutch came to drain a great proportion of the fens in the 17th century, and made a land in their own image. They imposed a system and a grid on the living organism, roping it into the factory-like production of vegetables, flowers and crops. The steel-bladed
ice skate came with them, which fathered the fenland version, the ‘fen runner’, a beechwood stock with a steel blade slung below it. What was a practical system of transport suddenly held potential for recreation, and racing: agricultural workers used to ploughing furrows would, in the winter, carve the icy surface of the same fields, competing for food, money, and prestige. ‘During severe winters’ said one magazine ‘it is no uncommon thing to see joints of meat hung outside the village pub, to be skated for on the morrow’.
In the 19th century, cold winters met with the Victorian enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits, resulting in a golden age of fen skating. ‘Skating special’ trains brought hoards from London to see organized matches, while individual skaters – Larman Register, and his successor, ‘Turkey’ Smart – made names for themselves and challenged records of time and distance. Register once raced a train from Littleport to Ely, a course where railway and river are closely entwined. Despite the fireman reportedly throwing cinders onto the ice from a river bridge, Register skated into Ely thirty seconds ahead, and won his bet. Such was the enthusiasm for skating that the National Association was founded in Cambridge: championships were hosted at Lingay fen. Pathé footage from the 1930s goes some way to describing the scene, though by the 1890s a focus on international skating had begun to sap the regional pursuit of its energy, and the grandstand crowds of the previous century, seen in engravings, never again graced the fens.
Skaters’ Meadow doesn’t flood properly anymore. The marshy ground, even then never truly fenland, is now part of a managed system, a balance that keeps the city and the colleges dry in winter. Like a giant lung it is allowed to fill and brim, before exhaling a manageable flow between the tracheal walls of the primly delineated stretch of river that flows along the backs. Only the harshest of frosts can make the flow congeal (in the terms of an Anglo-Saxon riddle, a ‘wonder on the wave/ water into bone’). Puddling and patching is the most the meadow achieves most winters: enough to over-brim a welly-boot, but not to create the glassy surface on which Larman Register beat his locomotive rival. ‘Every generation is lost to something,’ claims Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, ‘always has been, always will be’: recognizing this does not glorify the present (for no-one could claim that the meadow is good for skating now) but awakens us to the hopes and memories, always freezing and thawing, that have forever been attached to places; the twin voices of optimism and pessimism, always in fuge. Just as fenland oscillates between silty mire and frost-dusted rink, so memory and legend are prone to fluctuation.
It’s still possible to imagine the skaters (as in Tom’s Midnight Garden, set outside a disguised Cambridge) swinging around the lamppost’s central point, describing a ‘harmony of figures to it – from it – round it’. Although fen skating continues, it will never again grace this meadow, adrift as it is now from the river. Yet the lamppost, standing marooned, seems to act as a nodal point, a fulcrum about which the old and the new fen turn. What was a managed, floodable rink is once again a marshy grassland, with only the lone lamppost pinning the layers of the palimpsest together.