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.

1 comment:

The Retired One said...

Very interesting post!
I liked the photo of the narrow street of shops!