Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Humberhead Levels: my talk at the Tetley

Last month I spoke at the Lots of Planets Have a North launch at the Tetley, Leeds (as mentioned here). I read a shorter version of my piece in LOPHAN. The event was great - the audience were lovely, the hosts were wonderful and the other talks were fascinating. And my mum came! Which is a nice benefit of events being in Leeds. I have a feeling the publication has sold out, but you can read the abridged version of my contribution, on the Humberhead Levels, below.

Claire Biddles & Emma Jackson introduce the publication; Tessa Norton's 'At home he's a tourist'; and me on the Humberhead levels. I stole these pictures from Claire's twitter.

"Where I'm from is not commonly included in the Yorkshire canon, and it has never been part of our county's iconography. It's not the rolling pale-gold-and-green York stone of the Dales, nor the crags and chimneys, satanic mills and dark valleys of the Pennines, those black terraces clinging tenaciously to wet rock. Neither is it the stolid (often dismissed as grim) smoky post-industrial coal and steel of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley, though it is closest to these in both geography and spirit.

My part of Yorkshire is sparse and wet, flat and low. It's predominantly agricultural; a landscape of ploughed mud, cut deep with long straight dykes and dotted by clay villages huddled close to the earth. It's peaty and damp, an endless horizon punctuated by bulrushes, pylons, orphaned scraps of woodland, looming cooling towers (so many cooling towers!) and an abundance of windmills. Largely below sea level, our fields rise and sink only faintly. Lakes and puddles pool where farmers wish they wouldn't. In summer we are green on green on green, and in winter we are brown-grey mire under white-grey sky.

This is a Yorkshire of mud, not of stone. Our homes are clay built, and occasionally (as with mine) sit next to the waterlogged pits they were dug from. Our journeys are flat and thick with slowing sods. My childhood memories are made up of thick clags of clay, a matter that sucks you in until your boots are stuck fast and you need to be rescued, or builds up around your feet until they are as big as footballs and as heavy as anvils.

The soggy ecology of this place is evident in our toponyms:
Gilberdyke, Swinefleet, Yokefleet;
Fishlake, Fenwick, Trumfleet;
Sykehouse, Ferrybridge, Barmby-on-the-Marsh.

Spittlerush, Rushymoor, Thorpe Marsh;
Willow Bridge, Clay Lane, Flaxfleet;
Sour Lane, Between Rivers, Ings.

The suffix –carr (Bessacarr, Fen Carr, Balby Carr, Wrancarr, Potteric Carr, Flashey Carr, and so on) typifies the region. Carr is of Old Norse origin, and means wooded fen or swamp. Ecologically, this part of Yorkshire is similar to The Fens that sit to the south, yet with a more northerly climate and a more northerly culture. As the southerly swampy regions are commonly called The Fenlands, if we were better known, perhaps outsiders would refer to our northern swamp as The Carrlands.

Despite its cultural invisibility, this low, wet region of northern England is not some small local anomaly. This distinctive environment is about 800 square miles, a vast area of South and North Yorkshire and a good portion of North Lincolnshire too, yet our culture and environment remain largely unknown outside of our sludgy boundaries.

Once the bed of a huge glacial lake, this is a unique and important English ecosystem. It is, in fact, only thanks to ecologists that we have a regional moniker at all: to those interested in English ecology, this expansive low region of Yorkshire is called the Humberhead Levels. To everyone else, it doesn’t exist.

As a child, I’d flick excitedly through travelogues and books of regional recipes and folklore, keen to find out more about the history and legend of my home. Disappointed, I’d put them back as they skirted from the East Anglian Wash to the moor and dale of North Yorkshire as if nothing existed in between.

Unlike most travel and regional writers, Daniel Defoe, in his famously detailed 18th century Tour Through England and Wales, at least justifies his decision to bypass the Humberhead Levels entirely: “[T]ravelling into these parts being difficult, and sometimes dangerous, especially for strangers, we contented our selves with having the country described to us... and with being assured that there were no towns of note, or anything to be called curious.”

If you’d like to view these “difficult and dangerous” parts on a map, they stretch eastward from the line of the A1 Great North Road, and northward from Retford up to the York satellites of Escrick and Sherburn-in-Elmet, with an eastern boundary at the source of the Humber estuary.

Although predominantly agricultural land, the Humberhead Levels encompasses the relatively small urban agglomerations of Selby, Goole and Doncaster. These are the kind of unremarkable towns rarely visited by outsiders. There will be a local department store recently closed or clinging to life, a New Look but not a Blackwell’s. Most Humberhead Levellers live not in these towns, but in villages scattered between with angular Norse names: their homes bordered on all sides by ponds, canals, rivers and dykes.

The Humberhead Levels also covers those parts of North Lincolnshire surrounding Scunthorpe and the Isle (an island no longer) of Axeholme. In my heart and forever, these Lincolnshire areas are northern climes: ecologically and culturally indistinguishable from their Yorkshire cousins, this part of the world is well north of Sheffield, yet because of its postcode is often (and in my opinion wrongly) consigned to the Midlands.

Much like the fens of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, our swamp-and-lake environment has now been almost entirely drained. The beginnings of this mammoth drainage effort were made in the 1600s, the first in England by Cornelius Vermuyden, the Dutch engineer more famous for his latter works reforming the East Anglian fens.

This expansive 17th century drainage project went hand in hand with enclosure, social unrest, riots, violence and murder. Ancient villages were flooded to create lucrative agricultural lands. Sluces and banks were sabotaged, and Dutch drainage workers and commoners alike were killed.

As with the wider patterns of enclosure, by the 19th and early 20th century the political push for drainage had become more organised, and with a series of Drainage Acts, the trammelled Levels landscape was formed. Nowadays Windmills – used, Dutch style, to power pumps in the great drainage efforts – are still a common landscape feature, hulking awkwardly and uselessly in people’s gardens, bulky reminders of the struggle to civilise the watery landscape.

In the populace too, ghosts of that old otherness arise, and anarchism and obduracy remain. In 2007, when extensive floods deluged a Levels area north of Doncaster, the local narrative eerily mirrored the (widely unknown) events of the tumultuous 1600s. Angry local residents were convinced, despite little proof, that the powers that be had purposefully surrendered their homes to the water, in order to protect recent investments in expensive new civic buildings.

This is a political edgeland, and has been since over a millennium ago – as far back as AD600 we were the soggy, porous, inhospitable margin between ancient Northumbria and Mercia, unclear as to which kingdom we belonged. It was a decisive ancient battleground, the original Penda’s Fen. We’re still liminal now, an odd boundary set between north and south, defiant, proudly unglamourous and largely content to be unknown."