“Mud is another element. One comes to love it”
The mud is deep here. I take the little one’s hand as she navigates her way through – she is in danger of losing a welly, or her footing. Or both; she often returns from walks caked from head to toe. Sign of a good time, if you ask me – what’s the point in being seven if you aren’t getting muddy? She doesn’t seem to mind which, given the circumstances, is probably a good thing.
We are at Wicken Fen and we’ve gone off piste – away from the pushchair friendly boardwalk, the children ticking things off as they find them (clipboards provided); away from the crowds and out into the fen itself. This is a special place – the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve, it preserves a tiny area of original fenland and can claim to be the home of 9000 species. It has all the usual Trust stuff: eye-wateringly expensive gifts in the tasteful shop, activities for the kids and, on a beautiful day like today, plenty of other visitors. But it also has vast open spaces, chock full of birds and flowers and insects – it’s fantastic and I love it. We head away from the visitor’s centre and out towards Baker’s Fen.
There is hardly a soul around – just mud, sky, water and birds. This is an elemental landscape and, on a cold crisp early winter’s day, a stark one too. A heron stands unmoving at the edge of the reeds, oblivious to the huge number of ducks lifting on and off the water, the constant movement like a sheet being wafted out over a bed. All at once the collective decision is made to shift to a different feeding ground and they rise together, arcing round, their white plumage spectacular against the blue sky. I suspect they are wigeon, but I don’t know for sure and don’t really mind – I am just happy to be here, outside on a day such as this. We are walking along an embankment above the wetland – a bare hedgerow on one side and the open fen on the other. A pair of goldfinches fly off sharpish as we approach; a crow just watches, unperturbed.
I spot something odd through the hedge – apparently an enormous hayrick. It is confusing at first, hard to get a sense of the scale. It seems sculpted and deliberate, rather than something a farmer has left behind. It is in quite the wrong place, for one thing. As we get closer, it begins to emerge from behind the branches; a slow reveal, and we see that it really is a huge structure. A hayrick, the size of a house. It has been beautifully constructed, built from straw sitting on a timber frame. It looks terrific, so we stroll over for a closer look.
It has a lovely symmetry, the walls tapering out as they rise, the trimmed straw softening the edges. And the roof is a thing of beauty – concentric circles ascending to the apex. There is craft in this building. There are three narrow doors, the apertures reaching from floor to ceiling so it has the aura of a church. Or something megalithic. I can imagine the sun streaming in on the morning of the solstice. They add to the size of the piece, giving it grandeur. There are some people inside; a hipsterish photographer and two others, one of whom turns out to be the artist. The third member of the party beckons us in and tells us about the owls that have already taken residence – she points out droppings with a degree of pride. The artist, suitably rugged and handsome, explains that it has taken a month or so to build and that it will stand for a year. What he doesn’t explain is why he called it “Mother”, but I think I prefer it that way – I have my own theories.
A quick game of hide and seek later and we are off again. This time to the banks of Wicken Lode that will lead us back to the centre. It is midday and the sun, now behind us, is as high as it is going to get. The shortest day is only three weeks away and our shadows lengthen in front of us as we head for home.
The opening quote is from The Peregrine, by JA Baker
You can read more about Mother here