Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wisbech Revisited

Many years ago there lived a local newspaper photographer who covered many and varied events in Wisbech. Then the photographer died. I do not remember whether the person concerned was a man or a woman, and it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that this person documented in thousands of photographs and over several decades Wisbechian events covering most of the first half of the twentieth century. The resultant treasure of all the images recorded on the multifarious negatives needed to be preserved for future generations. Where I come into this story is that some 22 years ago I was tasked to deliver a Heath Robinson negative duplicating device to an august organisation in Wisbech and demonstrate to them how to use it for said purpose. I do not remember which organisation I visited; it could have been a historical society or the town museum. If I had known then that I would be writing about it now, I would have taken greater care to commit it to memory, but I didn't. That was the last time I went to Wisbech, until now.

I decided to return.

Saturday morning I strained to open my eyes as I lay reesting in my bed while my wife sent a flood of dazzling light into the room as she drew the curtain back and informed me that it was a lovely day to be going out and taking photographs. “Where shall we go?” she asked.

“Wisbech", I replied.

Now Wisbech is a very ancient town set on the Fens in Cambridgeshire. It refers to itself as the capital of the Fens. It is a place full of character with many examples of Georgian architecture, though I am no expert. Its also a port, set on the River Nene which flows out into the Wash. If you zoom in on it on Google Earth, it doesn't so much meet the Wash as gradually merge with it with hundreds of random vein like streamlet structures running off in all directions – and lots of sand – of course.

My reasons for wanting to return to Wisbech were that it was somewhere to go, somewhere to take fresh photographs, somewhere which might be mildly interesting, and somewhere in which to soak in some of the local ambience. It was also somewhere.

Just outside the town, I spotted a side road which led up to the embankment beside the Nene, so after a quick about-turn we navigated onto it, and turned to face Wisbech onto the parallel running road at the junction. We stopped the car and got out to survey the scene and, perhaps, take some photographs. Almost immediately, some old local witch – er.....I mean woman, appeared and stood glaring at us from across the road with her hands resting on her hips. My concern was that we might be entering “straw dogs” country and we were being surveyed as a prelude to being taken off and locked in a dark room where the local bumpkins would have their fun with us.

“I thought I had better just check as we get a lot of fly-tippers on this road”, she scowled.

“Well, we are but humble itinerant photographers” said I, “and there is no way we would tip our flies around here”, I said – or words to that effect. Presently, she mounted her broomstick and flew off over the Fens. We mounted the car, and rode off into Wibech.

The first stop was in an awkward position where I burnt the clutch trying to park on the other side of the road and where I got out out and photographed the “famous” Wisbech waterfront, the original iconic view of Wisbech without which, any self respecting collection of photographs of Wisbech would be incomplete. I had great difficulty getting out of the parking slot and back over to our own side of the road due to my view being obscured by cars parked both behind and in front while the traffic zoomed past like they had just left the starting grid at Monza. This traffic was heading out of Wisbech which made me wonder if they knew something we didn't. Sensing that we were very likely about to die, my wife looked ahead while I checked the mirror for the traffic zooming in from behind. Finally there appeared to be a gap, so I sped out breathing a sigh of relief that we were still in one piece, although the burning clutch smell was somewhat off-putting.

We took a sharpish left and drove over the bridge and after a couple of hundred yards parked up in a small, free, car park opposite an Indian take-away which doubled as a fish and chip shop. We got out and began our extra-vehicular investigations.

I was amazed at how dirty and littered the streets were. It must have taken real effort on the part of the locals to get them like that, not to mention the lack of effort on the part of the Wisbech council to clear it up. But hey, I'm being unfair – isn't Saturday the traditional day for litter louting? After all, we had already been challenged for being potential fly tippers, so maybe there was a local tradition at work here.

Following a sign to the Yacht Harbour, we came across a really busy road and a big, busy roundabout with lots of ugly concrete. Somehow we managed to cross it without getting knocked down and get up onto the bridge where we could get a view of the said Yacht Harbour. We saw many yachts and small boats tied up – now there's a surprise – what did you expect? Actually, it did look somewhat picturesque so I found myself firing off a number of photographs on my new 11 mega pixel Fujifilm S100.

Moving onwards we came across the most wonderful local convenience shop in the whole wide world. It looked like something straight out of the 1970s (come to think of it, an awful lot of Wisbech looked straight out of the 1970s), with the front fa├žade absolutely covered in tatty adverts or posters in a completely disorganized non-pattern. It was your quintessential “fags, mags and shags” shop, the essential supplement to any self respecting down at heal council estate , though this was actually close to the town police station and magistrate's court – both conveniently rolled into one building. 

We crossed the road and made our way around to the “Horse Fair” shopping precinct. This turned out to be a rather small, but very nice (something homely about it) pedestrian shopping area, filled with the usual clone chain stores you find on any High Street in the country. I took a couple of quasi-artistic photos and moved on into Hill Street where I immediately got the blues – it was so grim!

One rather quirky aspect of Wisbech is that around the various streets leading into the Town Centre, there are black metal arches with the name of the street or area bowing over the top, as if walking under and through it you might be entering into some magical wonderland with unicorns and wondrous things to explore. But this was Wisbech, so disappointment was the reality, with the arches only creating a short lived illusion of wonder that is not. There was a great flock of sea birds continually circling around overhead. That was interesting.

We came upon a large crescent of old buildings where my wife was impressed or desperate enough to take a photograph, though it seem rather pleasant in the sunshine. Looking at the tourist(? ) map, it turned out that this crescent enclosed the site of an ancient castle, long since disappeared from existence. We came upon a church – St Peter's Church and gardens. This is a fairly interesting structure, originally build in 1187 by the Normans. I shall say no more, except that I took a couple of photos before moving on to the nearby public loo which was your typical vandalised, smelly and disgusting affair making it better to tie a knot in it (I'm not bragging), and leave quickly, rather than to risk contracting the lurgie or getting knifed and robbed.

Making our way back towards the car, tired and hungry, we realized that no matter which group of people we passed close too, we never heard anyone speaking English, unless they have a very strange dialect in these parts. I think that modern day Wisbech is actually an Eastern European suburb. Even so, if these good people come here to try and find work, then that's lost on me as I had always thought that as well as being the “Capital of the Fens”, Wisbech was also the capital of unemployment and the job seekers' queue in Cambridgeshire. Maybe all the cars whizzing past us in my awkward parking position on my way in, were actually the more savvied Eastern Europeans leaving!

Staggering along, we passed a very ornate and well crafted memorial to Thomas Clarkson, an early 19th Century anti-slavery abolitionist. Obviously, Clarkson is a great source of pride here. I took some photos, and then some more as we walked across the bridge to the car and home. 

Actually, not quite, we had some shopping to do in “Huntingdon Garden and Leisure” first.
My wife informed me that her supervisor asked what we had got up to at the weekend. “We had a day out in Wisbech” she replied.

“Why?” she replied, mystified and uncomprehending.


Watch this space for further reports on our exciting excursions.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Spalding and brain death

The trouble with this time of year is that its dull and grey and cold and boring. Also, there are no colours in the world, only muted tones waiting to be reborn into the sublime joy of saturated colour. 

And so it was that last Saturday,  just for once, there was a hint – only a hint – of Spring in the air, and the prospect of better things to come. The temperature was at a level where you could survive without recourse to a bearskin coat and a hot toddy before and after each trip into the outer world. 

I wanted to go out somewhere to walk around, look around, and take some photographs to further enhance my ever expanding library of stock photographs. I also just wanted to go somewhere – anywhere. My wife suggested we go to Spalding. Like “Yes Man” I said yes. We went to Spalding. 

Now, I have to say that on the face of it Spalding is not the first place you think of when you are looking for somewhere to have a good time. Its not exactly Las Vegas – wherever that is. 

I have been to Spalding before. The first time was when we just went for a ride out to somewhere – anywhere – for the sake of it to try and bring a little variety into our poverty stricken hum drum lives when we were living near Boston many years ago. This brings me to a word of warning. Avoid Boston at all costs – unless you live there of course. The town is so boring, run down and depressing - you may end up slitting your wrists just by getting within a couple of miles of the place. The only good thing about Boston is the road out. Oh, there is another good thing – its rather isolated and some distance from anywhere of any interest, so you don't usually find yourself there by accident. 

Anyway, back to Spalding. I don't actually remember anything about our first trip to Spalding – apart from the journey there. That was only of any interest at all as it took us along a road we'd never been down before. That road was very boring. Its still as boring today as it was the first time I went down it some 25 years ago. Boston and its environs are caught in a time warp. Its the sort of area where you half expect people to be still watching black and white TV in 405 lines, where George Formby records are the hottest sellers, where people still wear shell suits and still use tape-cassettes and Instamatic cameras. The roads should all be cobble stones – but they are not. 

Anyway, I remember nothing at all about Spalding on this trip. Probably because there was nothing to actually remember, the sheer blandness of the place driving my psyche  into a netherworld of catatonia where only the undead roam. 

Several years ago, I returned to Spalding again. This time it was to photograph a wedding – for money – as I find it helps to pay the bills.....don't know about you. Now I had visited the bride and groom a week beforehand, partly to suss out any special shots they might have wanted, and partly to check out their sanity in wanting to get married in a place like Spalding. They were quite a jolly couple. They did want a special shot. It turned out that the groom was a kind of chilled out entertainer who sang and played the geeetar. As his beloved bride walked up the aisle, the plan was that he would serenade her as she walked up towards him while he crooned a love song. She for her part would try not to laugh – or cry – or run out screaming. My part was to try and capture the scene with the love-Lorne couple in the same shot, with the bride's face and expression in view. This meant that I had to go up the aisle and position myself near the groom so I had the pair of them in picturesque juxtaposition. Everything seemed to be going fine as I ran off a number of shots to capture the scene. Unfortunately I hadn't bargained for the vicar being a miserable old git who seemed to think that anyone taking photographs in his church were issued from the loins of Satan and bound for eternal torture in Hell where their worm never dieth and lingereth for ever. So I ended up having a row with this unchristian vicar after the wedding and wrote him a frenzied letter later in a fit of seething rage. He had rudely ejected me from the aisle in the course of my duty which I was carrying out for the bride and the groom – because it was their wedding and not the vicar's - and because they were paying me for it. They were paying me – not the vicar. Needless to say, he was Anglican and anyone who knows anything about Anglican clergy will know that they are pompous busy bodies and whited sepulchres.  

So here we are, it is now last Saturday and my beloved and I are wending our way to Spalding under the direction of the sat-nav which my beloved bought me for Christmas. The roads were clear and we got there quickly, only stopping once at an exciting village called Cowbit where I photographed an otherwise uninteresting church except for the fact that it's tower was lop-sided and leaning over. It must have been Lincolnshire's answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, though Lincolnshire is nothing like Italy – or Pisa. The locals looked at me quizickly with their smocks blowing in the wind, their pitchforks glinting in the faint sunlight and bits of straw hanging between their teeth. 

Presently, we came to our first port of call. This was the “Springfields” outlet centre. It’s a sort of shopping Mall but outside. It’s like being in a shopping mall with no roof where you can enjoy all the thrills and comforts that the weather can throw at you. There were lots of people there. Every man and his dog. Every dog and his cat. Every cat and his mouse....... Now, I am a bit of a sucker for shopping centres as I love looking around in the hope that I might find something interesting. As globalisation has transformed all shopping centres to be clones of each other, I live in a world of constant disappointment. Springfields was no different, except that it’s a disappointment set in the wilds of Lincolnshire in the middle of nowhere. I can only guess that the reason the place was so crowded was because the whole area is so boring that this clone gives the illusion of something interesting even though it is not. Forcing myself to fain interest as we walked around the clone stores, my main concern was my ever expanding bladder which was starting to become uncomfortable. And so it was that I left my wife in a store which can only be of interest to women of a certain age while I sought out the loos. They were found and I was relieved. They were also well appointed and very pleasant especially if you are suffering from a distended bladder, so well done Springfields.

We traipsed back across the car park after parting with our hard earned cash at the pay station. We took a look up on the canal embankment where there was a landing stage for a heavily advertised water taxi. The water taxi wasn't running. I should have guessed. Maybe next time. We drove into town. 

Town wasn't far - just down the road in fact. I saw nothing of any interest though the canal which cuts through the town broke up the banality creating a sense of picturesqueness in places. Parking near one such place I took a quick photograph which is now up for sale on the “Fotolibra” on-line open access picture library. Buy now while stocks last. 

After being buzzed by a couple of  hoodies - the local intelligentsia - on push bikes, we walked along straining to find anything of interest. Consequently we walked a long way. Eventually we came to an old mansion house type of building which housed a museum and had some nice gardens to walk in. This appealed to me as it was free admission, although I suspect if you did have to pay,  no one would visit. Walking in the gardens, we were struck by the very large topiary hedges. They were not shaped into animals or figures or anything like that, but sort of landscaped so one kind of blended into another. There was also a small Monkey Puzzle tree. Wow and gosh.


After leaving the park, we crossed the bridge over the canal and walked into the shopping precinct where the market traders were packing up their stalls. Perfect timing for one of a tight disposition. After observing the tumble weed blowing across the landscape and the local hoodies showing off the latest chav fashions, we returned to the car and home via Tesco’s where we got the groceries. 

 Tesco's suddenly seemed interesting.