Caught by the River

Material Manifestations of Loss in the Cambridgeshire Fens

14th February 2021

Rowan Jaines introduces a film, composed of archive footage, which explores the cultural geography of the Fens.

I lay out fragments of field work; legends, memories, and photographs.

My inbox pings with a message from a poet. She writes about a road north of Cambridge that floats six inches above the field.

In a pub garden in Wisbech Paul draws on his cigarette and points to the Corn Exchange. He says he climbed it as a boy: “you can see for miles and miles…the flow of the river going both ways”.

I open a book of folklore and find an old tale underlined: when the Devil tried to stop locals building a church at the lowest point of the Fens, they erected a cross and drove him back below.

Economy, state, farming practices, technology, global networks. All these things and more have their own symptoms in the Fens as much as anywhere else.

The landscape looks back.

A voice from the archive. A woman’s voice on crackly tape talks about the winter water rising to wash the side of the house. She says it creeps through cracks to flood the cellar.

A road breaks its back as the woozy ground dries, stiffens and snaps.

The landscape on the body the body on the landscape.

John says that as a boy he stood in the market square at Chatteris and watched the old people with horror. He is the same now as those old farmhands: “doubled up and shuffling, old and gnarled, their hands, their knuckles, all curled up, arthritic”.

At sunset I pull into a layby and look out at a zephyr shimmering the fields. Ely Cathedral floats in the distance as through at sea, backlit by vivid red.

Pickers in the field, I hear them, I see them, I read about the landscape on their bodies over and again:

“Wind in their earholes”,

“No shade”,

“Waiting for a cloud to pass over the sun”

A blank canvas, the sky.

The sky.


This video essay is part of a four-year research project exploring the cultural geography of the Fen region in the East of England. The film is made up of a bricolage of clips of the Fen region, scavenged from the internet and put together in a piecemeal fashion so that the images on screen both intensify and disrupt the linear arc of the narration. This is a film that aims to show the Fens as haunted by both the past and those things that have not yet come to be. 

Rowan Jaines is a Sheffield-based doctoral researcher who is completing a project on the Fenland District. You can follow her on Twitter here.