In the late 1970s, we travelled from east London to Crowland in Lincolnshire for a family holiday. I’m not sure why my parents decided to go there. Maybe they thought it would make a change from Southend-on-Sea. All I remember about it now is the strange three-cornered stone bridge in the town centre that once spanned two long-rerouted rivers, the brooding presence of Crowland’s abbey on the skyline, and the terrifying roar of fighter jets skimming low over the flat Fenland landscape.
Poet and novelist Derek Turner’s evocative survey of Lincolnshire reveals a county of unexpected beauty, and it makes me think my parents were on to something. Turner left Deptford in London in 1999. “Why Lincolnshire?”, he was often asked. At the time it was not an easy question to answer. Today, his book provides an eloquent response.
Though less than a hundred miles from London, it was as though Lincolnshire had been cut off from the national consciousness, “a large, and largely blank, space, almost islanded by cold sea, great estuaries, soggy wastes, and a filigree of fenny waterways”. It was, Turner concluded, “somewhere people came from, not escaped to”.
Despite – or because of – this, Turner was drawn there. After London, it offered “room to breathe, scope for the imagination”. His “modest house in a modest place” was constructed in the 1840s with no foundations, and stood “slightly slumpingly” on silt that had been deposited over millennia by floods. This “damp, dilapidated and draughty” cottage, built from local bricks by a family who were buried in the nearby churchyard, felt alive in a way that his London flat never had: “The quiet that prevails at night, and often for whole afternoons, somehow feels fuller, and more personal, than the noisiest days in Deptford.” He has not regretted the move.
In the acknowledgments Turner describes his book as “amorphous”. It is indeed a meandering narrative, reminiscent of the leisurely and somewhat idiosyncratic guide books of the last century, such as the Shell Guides or the County Book series, with their love of the supposedly timeless continuity of the English countryside, as well as quaint local customs and buildings.
His tour of the county takes the reader from the “huge and muddy maw” of the Wash in the south, past “the City on the Cliff”, Lincoln, the county’s largest urban centre, to the once great fishing town of Grimsbyin the north-east, the area that reportedly delivered the 10th highest leave vote in the Brexit referendum.
Lincolnshire turns out to be surprisingly varied in landscape, fauna and history. In Turner’s wonderfully rich mix of nature writing, memoir, history and local lore, he savours placenames that “smell equally of magic and mud”, as well as the sound of the local dialect. He notes that Margaret Thatcher, one of Lincolnshire’s best-known natives, took elocution lessons to expunge her accent – although she memorably accused former chancellor Denis Healey of being “frit” in parliament.
Turner’s love of the forgotten corners of the county recalls John Betjeman’s delight in unfashionable and neglected places. He also shares Betjeman’s fondness for old churches, such as the one at Surfleet, whose tower has subsided six feet out of true: “looking up it from inside is dizzying, like being aboard a pitching ship”. In a largely level landscape, churches were literal and metaphorical navigation aids, “symbols of moral meaning, making sense of otherwise empty horizons”.
He also excels at capturing the changing moods of nature. Walking on the beach during a wild storm, he describes the waves “belly-flopping, collapsing, colliding with each other and cross-currenting on the sand”, while seals call to each other, “one of the loneliest of sounds and most eerie”.
This is far more than a guide book. It is a love letter to “a county like no other” and to a kind of rural existence he sees as threatened by the materialism and standardisation of modernity. A friend of Turner’s jokes: “Don’t tell anyone about Lincolnshire. They’ll ruin it!” He thinks the county is already less distinctive than when he moved there: “every day it becomes a tiny bit more like everywhere else.” More roads, more traffic, more bland homes, and “fewer small shops, fewer mouldering old buildings, fewer quiet places, fewer wild animals”.
And yet, for now at least, in this part of the country that the rest of us have forgotten, “something like eternity can sometimes still be seen, here at the ever-changing edge of England”.