There are lots of things in life I dislike. Cucumber. Walking barefoot on sand. Hoovering. Quite a few things I hate too, and I’m not going to start listing those because you have homes to go, careers to chart, and children to raise. I’ll just tell you one, the one that makes my heart plunge lower, faster, and more lurchingly than any other. Fenland. I can’t say it without sneering. Typing it makes my fingers itch. And of all the many unlovely towns and villages that make up the land that is Fen, the worst of them all is Wisbech. Fucking Wisbech.
This presents us with a bit of a problem. Because Alistair is from Wisbech. And his family still live there. I love them. I love their house (oh my days, it is amazing and old and beautiful and you would not believe the amount of work they’ve done to restore it which has been totally worth it, and it is a fascinating building in every respect) but still. It’s Wisbech.
The town itself has been dying on it’s arse for as long as I can remember. First the small family run shops closed. The chains moved in… and moved out. Now it’s a fairly grim market place/car park surrounded by 99p tat shops, charity shops, beer cans and brittle, dying Busy Lizzies in hanging baskets, which only serve to throw into sharper relief the dirt and decay. And through the centre of the once thriving Georgian town, the thick, muddy river oozes sluggishly, as though even normal water doesn’t want to be there.
Not a place to linger. Not a place to explore. But a while ago, it was my father-out-laws birthday, Alistair’s brother was back from Thailand for a week, and Alistair had offered to help clear some old trees and bushes at the bottom of their garden. So we were Fenbound. And for some reason, it occurred to me that I’d never visited the church in Wisbech, despite spending too much of my life in the Fens, and maybe I ought to put that right, have a bit of a nose, see what I might find.
There were a few small inscriptions around the outside of the porch, some quite simple,
some worn away,
one that looked rather professional. I smiled as I admired the neatness of it, and then tried the door. It was locked. Of course it was bloody locked. This was Wisbech. Then, seemingly to sum up the bleakness of this dirty old town, I glanced at the floor, and saw this.
Sighing inwardly, I turned and retraced my steps, back past The Out-Laws house, and further out of Wisbech, to a little place that had been mentioned to me as possibly being of interest, just off Leverington Road.
It’s got an interesting history. Just three acres of land that was for a time, the Wisbech General Cemetery, and mostly used for non-conformist burials. Laid out in a formal garden pattern, with gravel paths, lawns and shrubs, as was the fashion of the day. Between 1848 and the start of the 19th Century, 6,571 were buried in this place, many of them with no memorial, and the majority in multiple graves. It hardly seems possible when you wander through it now.
The cemetery went into decline after the new Borough Cemetery opened, and finally officially closed in 1972. Nature reclaimed the site, and trees sprang up, bushes became overgrown, there was almost no way of crossing from one side to the other, the previously neatly laid out paths obliterated. Headstones were damaged, broken; the chapel used for funerals fell into disrepair. The dead were left to rest in peace, the living finding it impossible to access the site.
But in 1992, the Friends of Wisbech Cemetery were formed. And slowly, gradually, they have effected a transformation. The site is still wild and overgrown, there are few pathways to navigate, and viewing some graves requires nettle stamping and bramble straddling. Managing the site as both a cemetery and an important wildlife habitat requires a huge amount of skill and balancing.
But I liked it. I liked it very much. By sympathetically clearing a little of the undergrowth, they’re allowing light to shine again on the people buried here, so they are no long forgotten. But at the same time, this little corner retains a sense of wilderness, of nature, of the variations in seasons, but also renewal. In the midst of death, there is life. Just a small little corner of Wisbech that has an aura of peace, tranquillity and thoughtfulness. I felt it restored a little peace of mind. And that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about Fenland.