Edge of England, Landfall in Lincolnshire, Derek Turner, Hurst & Company, London, 2022, 446 pages, hardback, £20, ISBN 978-1-78738-698-3, reviewed by Stuart Millson
The mainly low-lying coast and country of Lincolnshire – the unregarded Fenland world to the north of The Wash and to the south of Edward Heath’s local government region of ‘Humberside’ – has exerted its spell on writer Derek Turner. Eire-born and then migrating to London, the author – deeply sensitive to history and place – began to feel stress and strain in the metropolitan environment of the capital during the Blair years, and so decided that a change of life was in order. [Editorial note; see ‘Deptford dreaming’, Derek Turner, The Brazen Head, March 11, 2021]. In a trajectory similar to that of fellow author Adam Nicolson, who left London life for the woodsmoke of Sussex, Turner found much to admire in the mediaeval churches of Lincolnshire, its sometimes odd villages and hamlets (many with strange tales of folklore or the supernatural) and marshy countryside, criss-crossed by ancient drainage systems – and all under a high procession of clouds and breezes, or rain from the North Sea.
The Edge of England offers potential visitors to the county many interesting directions: through lost kingdoms (the Kingdom of Lindsey, for example); the long era of Roman administration, succeeded by the incursions and rule of the wild, long-bearded kings of the Dark Ages, and into the environs of Lincoln Cathedral, or to places of past trading glory, such as Saltfleet, and even to Margaret Thatcher’s home-town of Grantham.
Yet this is not a travel guide: this is a journey into the subliminal, the elusive spirit of a place – and even into the darkness of deep time. The author, in Time Machine mode, takes us millions of years into the past, to prehistoric seas which once covered what would one day be England; to the spectacle of a sea-creature living its life in the oceans, time out of mind. Darkness falls – the darkness of eternity – and the skeleton of the animal finally emerges into the light, as workmen with shovels uncover and marvel at its remains. Turner also tells us about our own mortality – as he describes the waters rising on post-Ice Age Doggerland (the now submerged isthmus which once bridged Britain and the continent), just as those waters would rise again in 1953, flooding the Lincolnshire coast, inundating farm, caravan and bungalow alike. Our hold on this earth is not as assured as we might think. The bridges, railways – even pylons – of the county will one day be obsolete too– as much a part of the ruins of the ages as the decaying houses and relics which we admire on our trips and holidays.
But regeneration/redemption is never far away in the Edge of England. The writer describes the flora and fauna which have colonized the forgotten track-beds of the east of England’s post-Beeching railways. And the powerful force of Nature informs much of the book, from the migrating birds carried by ‘The Wind on the Heath’, to the remarkable micro-wildlife of household spiders, lurking in candlelit, marshland cottages.
Lincolnshire’s voice is large and resonant in this beautifully-written work: its famous sons, such as mariner and explorer, Matthew Flinders – and the august Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson – remind us that even unsung places have their heroes. But what emerges most is the figure of Derek Turner; the adopted son of Lincolnshire – the chronicler and – thanks to this book – undisputed custodian of the county’s life and times; surely the new magus of the marshes and the Fens.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR
Editorial endnotes; wordsmith Derek Turner is the esteemed former editor of Quarterly Review. He recalls that in the late 1990’s, “many Londoners talked about moving out”. He lived in a flat “surrounded by areas with their own pathologies’’ (‘Deptford dreaming’). The crime rate was high and he had burglar bars made in “the last smithy in SE8”. On one occasion, a mugger pulled a knife on him in a local park. Vaingloriously or “stupidly”, he declined to hand over his wallet.
Edge of England, then, is both history and autobiography. There is a sub-text. “Lincolnshire”, we learn, “is one of the least diverse counties in England” – the non-white population is only about 2.4 % (Edge…, page 63). For the author, it represents a “demi-paradise”, a “place of escape” to “a form of English life that is not yet archaeology”.