The 20 August 2019 trip was probably the best of all my Marshal Papworth trips. Maybe it is because now I have a better grasp of what I was doing the whole of last year. Maybe it’s because now I know more of what I want to be doing in future. Maybe it was the fact that, for once, as fate would have it, the trip fell on a glorious summer day. Clarity of purpose in life and a glorious British summer day are not something to scoff at!
Secondly, I have always loved Peterborough and its environs, with its sense of timeless, ruralesque greenery. It’s a part of Britain that in my view is more emblematically British than the Westminster Pier; the type of place where you imagine bumping into marauding gangs of Viking conquerors stomping around…
Anyway we passed through the old monastic village of Thorney, with its straggle of grey neat little houses lining the main street, built many centuries ago, on to Park Farm which was our destination for this trip. This was a sprawling 2000 hectare farm specialising in sugar beet, wheat and other grains, mustards and oilseeds. The farming operations per se did not excite me, as I am a livestock person. What did strike me were the physical aspects of land management and the various intricate partnerships on various aspects of farming business, which I found intriguing but hard to follow!
I was struck by the endless drains that traversed the length and breadth of the farm. These were necessary to drain excess water from flooding the low-lying land, we were told. The drainage works were managed by this or other board, and have been in existence since hundreds of years.
This comes back to what I really find fascinating about British culture. Their history is a living thing, with direct consequential links to the present.
So I was ruminating on it a little bit, nestled on a bench in the trailer of our truck, and just wondered aloud:
“Why is this area called “The Fens”?” One of our colleagues (African, you guess) laughed and said, “Well, it’s just a name, does it have to mean anything?”
Well, I told her, in my experience all British names of places mean something, either in the present or historically. It is almost a fact.
Later, to my great satisfaction, Steve explained about the fact that the area lay 6 metres below sea level, and historically was prone to flooding from the sea. Hence the moniker “The Fens”, which literally means low-lying areas! And the drains of course, built to drain the excess water from the sea or rain. Oh, oh! The history is alive, whether immortalised in names or buildings or lovingly recorded in family trees going back centuries. It is something very British, very distinctive and very attractive.
Anyway, I am sounding a bit like a guru of British culture. Well, I guess it’s infectious, because there’s this perennial joke that we make about some so-called experts on Africa who base their expertise on one months’ field trip and publishing an academic paper on something or other! So, I am becoming an expert on British culture on the strength of one year residence! Oh well, as some wise guy said, I guess the value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.
Back in the field, the operations manager was talking about the crops that they grew, about particular crop rotations that they were now using to combat black grass, a weed which had become resistant to chemical herbicides. Continuous use of one chemical eventually causes resistance; and sometimes you have to use other control methods, utilising knowledge about the life-cycle of the weed and how it interacts with certain classes of crops. The rational use of valid knowledge, and the willingness to make decisions based on it, is something very British, and Western civilization in general. As an African, it is something that stands out prominently to me, because we Africans are different in that respect.
No wonder the boss of the farm was pissed off when he talked about Brexit. There is something uncharacteristically irrational about the whole Brexit discourse, something visceral, and something so un-British, you scratch your head. Maybe the British are (re)discovering sentimentality after all…
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day. We wrapped up the day partaking sandwiches on the back of the truck by the field-side, amid the dark clay farmland stretching by on all sides, punctuated on the distant horizon by giant wind-turbines sedately waving their arms in the gentle wind. There was something surreal, poignant, raw, essential, elemental, frontier-esque about that scene. Looking back at it in my mind’s eye, something inexplicable tugs at my heart strings.
Well, forgive the sentimentality: I am an African after all.
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