The Ship of the Fens

On the slow train from Cambridge To Ely, I am sitting behind two Russians. A couple, they are locked in conversation, Oblivious to the fenland steppe outside, The rain-steeped, raven-black earth, This England in its midwinter rain.

The diesel cars head north, transporting My loquacious Russians further on Through Norfolk, steel rails ruler-straight. I like their migratory instincts, their Resilience. I walk uphill through Ely’s puddles: The cathedral’s doors are open (For an entrance fee), its towering Bulk a grizzled backdrop, a windbreak, For a group of mothers, prams parked In a semi-circle, like pioneers’ wagons, On the rotting autumn leaves.

Jegginged legs are flexed and stretched, Halloween pumpkins held aloft as if To pagan gods. The babies watch, Bemused. Above them, the cathedral, The ancient ship of the fens, A gaunt, brooding monument to a Darker time of chained recusants, Fires dying back in the dawn, martyrs’ Bones cooling in the winter frost. Timeless, placeless, isn’t it, this urge To burn, expunge? I like my Russians (Poles, Iraqis, Somalis too) even more – Their optimism, their hope, their Get-up-and-go.

Richard Knott has written several books of modern history, notably The Sketchbook War and, most recently, Posted in Wartime. His book The Secret War Against the Arts is to be published in May 2020. He is also working on his first collection of poetry. He lives in Somerset.