Crowland – the name seems to be well chosen. Walking into the village I cannot help but notice several dozen crows perched on the wires above the village sign: a welcoming committee taking a brief respite from wind-wheeling above the fields that surround this south Lincolnshire village.
A few minutes earlier, well within sight of Crowland Abbey’s stumpy spire, I had been in a ditch, albeit briefly, when in a fit of pique resulting from the footpath not being where it ought to be according to my OS map, I had attempted to plough my own furrow through head-high thistles to the edge of a cornfield. As it turned out, the field was surrounded by a drainage ditch full of rushes and foul-smelling stagnant water. Plunging knee-deep into this hitherto unseen swamp I hastily beat a retreat to return to the main road, which I followed west to reach a roundabout where a sign pointed me towards the village centre and Crowland Abbey, half ruin, half working parish church.
With soggy feet, and still brushing storm flies and thistle fragments from my hair, I reflect that the unseen ditch was a timely reminder that, historically, all routes to reach Crowland were once of a watery nature. Crowland (formerly ‘Croyland’) lies in the South Holland district of Lincolnshire, hard against the border with Cambridgeshire, just to the north of Peterborough in that part of the county that once belonged to the far north-eastern tip of Northamptonshire. Crowland Abbey, its remains now part of a parish church, was formerly a Benedictine abbey church founded by Saint Guthlac, a priest who came to live as a hermit Croyland in 699 when the village was nothing more than an isolated island in the Fens. A monastic community developed here in the 8th century and Viking attacks took place on the abbey in the following centuries. Land was slowly drained and reclaimed around the village for agricultural use and during the early years of the Norman occupation Hereward the Wake held land here as an abbey tenant. The abbey was finally dissolved in 1539 and its eastern part demolished leaving just its nave and aisles for continued use as part of the village’s parish church.
On the day of my visit the church is shrouded with scaffolding – never a pretty sight. I soon leave it behind to walk down West Street where a triangular bridge stands marooned on dry land – another reminder of Crowland’s watery past. Trinity Bridge once stood over the confluence of the River Welland and its tributary, the River Witham. Both of these rivers have long been diverted away from the village and so now it stands high and dry, a white elephant of civil engineering, opposite the village pub and tight cluster of houses that are built from the same warm-hued Barnack stone that the bridge itself is made from.
Barnack and its now exhausted limestone quarry lies a dozen miles to the west in Cambridgeshire, just beyond Helpston, the birthplace of John Clare, the ‘Northamptonshire peasant poet’ who documented the changing landscape of his home patch with razor-sharp detail and poetic vision. Crowland Abbey was the subject matter for one of his sonnets, although it is unlikely that Clare had to put up with scaffolding dampening the spirit of his muse.
Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,
The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;
And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,
Crumbling from arch and battlement around,
Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,
To sink more silent still
I leave Crowland behind, Helpston-bound, and follow the raised bank along the New River channel south of Crowland High Wash, a large area of grazing land that has served as emergency drainage for the area since the reign of George III. With the exception of the abbey, whose church spire slowly diminishes behind me as I progress westwards, and a white water tower across Crowland High Wash in the distance, the bank, just a few metres above the surrounding land, is the highest thing around here for miles. The River Welland, now diverted to flow a little way north of Crowland, lies just out of sight at the northern edge of the High Wash.
A strong, warm westerly breeze confronts me head-on as I make my way along the bank. The track serves as part of the Green Wheel Cycle Route that circles Peterborough. It is part of a local heritage trail too, and placed at regular intervals along its length are wooden posts with carvings and Perspex panels that depict local wildlife – flora, owls, crows. There are no cyclists today, nor walkers either apart from a solitary jogger and a woman from the village who struggles with four dogs on leads.
A little further along the bank stands an iron ‘Charm Tree’ that has dangling charms designed by local schoolchildren. The metal charms move and clang in the wind and in this minimalist landscape the sculpture certainly possesses charm on more than one level. The schoolchildren’s brief was to show what made Crowland special, and the charms depict the things they associate with their home village: musical instruments, fish, a hand and what I first thought was a pair of briefs until it dawned on me that it was a representation of Crowland’s Trinity Bridge. Flying lower than the other charms, there is also, of course, a crow.
There are real crows too: ahead on the bank, a dozen or so are pecking at something or other on the path. They rise at my approach and are joined by scores of others from the fields below – a wheeling, whirling protestation of harsh-voiced birds above my head. Can this be some sort of farewell to the parish, a place that is the unchallenged domain of the crow? Perhaps there could be some sort of civic twinning with Rockland (Rookland) in Norfolk’s Yare Valley. Both villages belong – historically, ecologically – to what best might be described as Crow Country.
Half a mile further on, at a large pond where tracks lead away from the water to lonely farmsteads, I pass unheralded into Cambridgeshire, that part of the county which was formerly Northamptonshire. The track and bank veer south here, edging ever closer to the course of the River Welland. Just after Sissons Farm, where an information board describes the extensive drainage work carried out in the 17th century by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, I meet a minor road and cross a bridge into the hamlet of Peakirk. The fastest way to Glinton from here is cross-country, and walking alongside wheat and sugar beet fields I am confronted by something I have not encountered for some time – a gentle slope. Broaching the top of the field a stone needle emerges over the rise – the towering spire of Glinton’s St Benedict’s Church.
John Clare had a sonnet for this too:
Glinton, thy taper spire predominates
Over the level landscape – and the mind,
Musing – the pleasing picture, contemplates
Like elegance of beauty, much refined
By taste – that almost deifies and elevates,
One’s admiration making common things
Around it glow with beauties not their own.
Thus all around, earth superior springs;
Those straggling trees, though lonely, seem not lone,
But in thy presence wear superior power;
And e’en each mossed and melancholy stone,
Gleaning cold memories round oblivion’s bower,
Seems types of fair eternity—and hire
A lease from fame by thy enchanting spire