You sense the air of subterfuge as soon as you set foot on Roydon Fen. First, a little row of emaciated cottages that scarcely fill their trousers, flattened up against the potholed track with their backs pressed up again the bank like a row of half-starved soldiers trying not to be noticed, or shot. You can tell from the narrowness of it all that these are squatters’ cottages, thrown up overnight on common land to beat the law, tucked away half-hidden up a mangy lane more used to the trundling of peat-cutters’ barrows, or the swaying thatchers’ wagons piled high with reeds than the tired, faded cars that huddle together on the makeshift cindered hard-standing of an old brickworks.
Across the lane from this East Anglian Skid Row is a landscape from the 1930s or the south of Poland: a shambling range of furtive, low tine sheds malingering along the lip of the wild swamp. Potato patches, merry-tillers just visible in the shadows, small tin shacks with cobwebbed windows, and even a wooden dacha or two with a stovepipe poked at an angle through the tin. Some of the plots are still horticultural in a weed-infested sort of way. The skeleton of a poly-tunnel a hundred yards long, embroidered with ringlets of convolvulus, testifies to a glorious moment of past enterprise. Several tractors, and parts of tractors, sit about in the dry nettle-clumps, attended by ancient cultivators or Ransome’s ploughs, and the presence of trotting carts lurking beside makeshift stables, the long-tailed ponies that presumably pull them in a small paddock nearby, suggests the proximity of one or other of the local traveller familes. Other cottages have settled the margins of the Fen as gardens, one or two of them Dispatch On Roydon Fen Roger Deakin takes a wander 12 very extensive, a prospect of successive lawns venturing boldly into the reedy interior of the fen.
This is a classic squatters’ landscape, and all the better for it. I always feel immediately at home in such makeshift places. Even the little palings carefully aligned along the very edge of the bumpy track to fence in the merest sliver of front garden have a Dickensian sort of attraction. Here are connoisseurs of the miniature landscape, people who discuss land in terms of square feet or even inches, not acres or hectares. Curiously, one or two of the gates bear ‘Private. Keep Out’ signs that remind me of the lowering resentment of outsiders I have encountered in the Forest of Dean amongst the free miners. Interesting questions about land tenure and boundaries no doubt arise when the time comes for any of these reclusive Norfolk properties to change hands, but even these transactions may, for all I know, be more informal, conducted in the pub over a pint or two and sealed with the slapping of hands.
Immediately beyond the last of the cottages, I began walking through the most prodigiously overgrown coppice woods for miles around. The path through the wood is a great cathedral nave, overhung and occasionally obstructed by the elephantine trunks of trees like hawthorn, hazel and sallow that are usually noted for their slenderness and curvy grace. ‘Some mistake, surely,’ you think. There’s a coppice hazel at one end of the wood that must have been growing away for well over a century. The effect is of a knot of well-fed anacondas twisting out of the black ground, some with signs of dinner within them. One or two of the multiple trunks are not far off a foot in diameter. The stool itself must be twelve feet across. It is simply the biggest uncut coppice hazel I have ever seen. Generations of Diss or Roydon people must have come out and sidled down these old paths through the fen to cut firewood for themselves. The Roydon people would have had the right, but I wouldn’t put it past the Diss boys to try on a little unofficial nocturnal wooding from time to time.
There’s an odd mixture of holly, oak, poplar, goat willow, alder, birch, hazel, honeysuckle and wild hop growing here. Fallen trees lie angled everywhere, dead diagonals amongst the living perpendicular, roots up in the air. The puddles in the black peat and the iron-stained swamp-water reflect them back. Water flows quietly in all directions, zig-zagging its way under the trees to rejoin the main River Waveney, not much more than a drainage dyke along here, so close to its source on the next-door fen near Redgrave.
Along the boardwalk through the fen swamplands, some conservation volunteers have been busy with chainsaws cutting down alders. The orange scars are still weeping sap, and piles of logs flank the path. This seems a pity, because the alders and willows, half-fallen and caught in each others’ arms like ballerinas, create precisely the antidote to modern arable farmland we all badly need. The sheer wanton unruliness of this disgraceful tangle transports me instantly to an era long before chainsaw and strimmers, or the new breed of college conservationists who reckon they know what’s good for places. Even the boardwalk raises interesting questions, and I can’t help wishing whoever built it could have had the wit to take it for a bit more of a walk; put in a few kinks and hairpins. Who wants to walk in a straight line across a fen? After all, real woods and fens are natural mazes.