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Ghost Species

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On a cold morning last January, I travelled out to the Norfolk Fens to see a ghost. First, I caught a train twenty miles north from Cambridge to Littleport, a market town on the Cambridge–Norfolk border. At Littleport I was met by a friend called Justin Partyka, and Justin drove me in his little white baker’s van up into the Fens proper.

Entering the Fens always feels like crossing a border into another world. Various signs mark out the transition. Ash gives way to willow. Phragmites reeds flock in the ditches, as do bulrushes. The landscape becomes rectilinear: ruler-straight roads and field edges, a skyline as flat as a spirit level, and on every horizon smart rows of poplar trees, planted to break the prevailing winds.

That morning, with the solstice only a fortnight past, the temperature lingered around freezing. The air smelt bright. Roadside rut-puddles were lidded with thin ice. An east wind was blowing, which set the dry reeds stirring and cussing in the ditches. We drove north-east along the River Ouse. Vast fields scrolled away to the horizon on either side of the road, most of them still bare of crops, but some furred with the green of winter wheat. Rooks wandered about on the loam, chakking to each other. One field we passed had been flooded and in the low sunlight it gleamed like a great sheet of iron.

Watching the landscape change around me, I felt a familiar sense of excitement: the excitement of leaving Cambridge behind and passing into a different realm. There are good historical precedents for such a sense. East Anglia has been considered its own demesne – separate culturally and geographically – for nearly 1,500 years. The region’s name recalls the period from the sixth to the eleventh century when this bulgy peninsula was almost an independent kingdom: cut off from the rest of the country by swamp and sea to the north, the Midland hills to the west, and to the south by the wildwoods of hawthorn and blackthorn that reached up from what is now Essex.

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