Opinion & Thought, Travel

The state of the nation – no – region.

Regionalism is a concept that is perhaps overlooked in much of England. While I can think of several parts of the country where people might immediately taker great exception to that claim, I still feel that as whole, English culture is not one that celebrates its regional diversity – and this has been all the more so as our capital city has grown in dominance over the rest of the country. I suspect that once again, the other nations of the British Isles perhaps have somewhat different perspectives on this, as my sense is they still root themselves in much more local identities even within their own national ones.

What makes a regional identity is perhaps open for debate. Matters like accent and food are inevitably strong – but I would add simple on-the-ground knowledge of one’s patch is important too. Having a sense of place about where one lives is important for feeling rooted. Much as I have an internationalist outlook, having a sense of regional identity is something I value, and I would like to see steps taken to strengthen England’s regionalism.

With this in mind, we took advantage of last week’s good weather to make a trip that I had been planning for some time: a circular tour of our own region of East Anglia. Despite having lived in the region for 33 years, there are still a few parts I haven’t visited – and there were a number of others where my last visit was quite some time ago. What’s more, the rail enthusiast in me wanted to complete my coverage of the region’s routes, and now seemed like a good time as major change is afoot on the region’s rail network in the next couple of years. A valedictory to some of the old order and an inspection of the current state of play of the region’s rail infrastructure seemed like a good excuse to take advantage of the Greater Anglia Day Ranger ticket, which gives unlimited travel for a day within the region for a very reasonable £24, or £18 with a railcard.

map

We started with a drive to Ipswich (GA cannily excludes the Essex commuter routes from the ticket) and thanks to the usual unpredictable state of the A12, we missed our planned train. Before the following hour’s train, we had time, therefore, to inspect the excellent job that has been made of the renovated facilities at Ipswich station, which presents a clean and modern impression to the traveller. It is good to see it being remembered that rail stations are important gateways to their communities, and being treated to some of the improvements we regularly see on the continent. The fact that GA is owned by Dutch Railways probably has something to do with it; I am a fan of what they have done during their tenure.

Inter-city and regional trains at Ipswich’s well-maintained station. Both are scheduled for replacement soon with new Swiss-built trains.

I had artfully concocted an itinerary that would both cover the lines I wanted, and take in pretty much the whole range of East Anglian landscapes – for while this region is entirely flat, it does not want for variety. It is by no means all wheat prairies, as people seem to think.

Our first train took us via Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket to Cambridge. This a very pleasant 80-minute crossing of the gentle Suffolk countryside, seen at a green time of year. The short stretch through Newmarket, past the racing studs, to Cambridge was new to me.

Cambridge station is another that has benefitted from much investment, and now presents a crisp gateway to the city. Since my last rail visit perhaps 25 years ago, the whole of the station forecourt has been redeveloped with multiple office blocks and apartments. It has been a controversial scheme, but I found it impressive, having created a very pleasant public square in front of the station, as often seen on the continent. Morning refreshments were duly taken.

Above and below: modern developments on old railway lands adjacent to Cambridge station. The ‘sculpture’ is actually the central pivot from the old railway turntable, unearthed during redevelopment.

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Our next train required an add-on to the day ticket, for the unknown line to King’s Lynn. This journey is around an hour long, and heads out across the depths of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The main landmark is Ely Cathedral, before the line singles as it heads for the backwoods. The Fens can be bleak, but I find them an interesting landscape, with a large vistas and huge skies that are not common in Britain. There are few places in Britain where the trains actually rise to pass over the local rivers – the whole area was marshland, some below sea level, drained by Dutch engineers from the 15th Century, and now some of the nation’s most productive farmland. But dead flat.

King’s Lynn is a place we did not previously know. It has an attractive, small railway station that has been well maintained, though it gives onto what at first sight looks an unappealing town. Regrettably, modern retail developments have not exactly enhanced the impression – but if one perseveres, one can find a well-preserved Medieval town in its midst. There are some impressive buildings along its Ouse waterfront, dating from the time when it was a prosperous port. We had a little over an hour, which was enough to gain an impression and grab some lunch.

King’s Lynn’s well-preserved station. Perhaps on account of royal visits on the way to Sandringham?
Medieval buildings in King’s Lynn. I suspect that were this town nearer to London, it would be very sought-after.
King’s Lynn waterfront, where the Great Ouse exits to The Wash.
The attractive Custom House.

We had to retrace our steps to Ely, where a quick change gave us a train over the Breckland Line to Norwich. My last traverse here was in 1987, and indeed was my first entry after University into the region that has since been my home. The Fens give way quite abruptly to the sandy heathland of Thetford Forest, a quite extensive area of uncultivated space and forestry plantations – a place of unexpected wildness, deer and dramatic sunlight. It is very appealing.

More quiet countryside follows, and then arrival in Norwich, along the valley of the Yare, and under the viaduct by which the main line from London soars in (well, by East Anglian standards) from the south. As expected, the railway sidings outside Norwich’s impressive station are now full of the new Swiss unit trains with which GA is replacing every train on its network over the coming two years.

I had been hoping that our train to Lowestoft would be formed from what is known locally as the Short Set – a few old coaches topped and tailed by two class 37 locomotives, some of the oldest remaining in service, and due to stand down in the coming months. The set was standing with engines running adjacent to the platforms – but it was not to be, as another unit set rolled into sight. The train to Lowestoft was packed, it being late afternoon. The journey is scenic in a different way, as it passes many of the southern Broads, former peat workings now flooded and full of attractive leisure boat activity. The East Norfolk countryside can be surprisingly remote, and shafts of sunlight lit it dramatically as we chuntered slowly past windmills and over the swing bridges that still characterise the route. The signalling is still mechanical, though its colour-light replacements are now installed, awaiting commissioning.

The ‘short set’ in its siding at Norwich station – where it stayed. These class 37 locomotives have been around since the early 1960’s.
Above: the most easterly bit or railway line in Britain at Lowestoft station. Below: signal set for the route home. All the old semaphore signals will disappear shortly too…

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Lowestoft is the most easterly point on the British rail network, indeed the most easterly town in the country. It still has some fishing activity, but otherwise looks to be struggling. But its station is clearly looked after by the local community rail partnership. Our final train was another bucolic 90 minutes via the East Suffolk line back to Ipswich. This single-track route nearly closed some years ago, but was saved by innovative radio signalling which allowed cost-savings to be made. It is a delightful ride though quiet, deep countryside and past the boatyards at Woodbridge, before it joins the line from Felixstowe – also single track – on the outskirts of Ipswich. I find it unbelievable that this is still the state of the route along which a major part of the nation’s imports flows from the deep-sea container port there – though enhancements are in hand.

We landed back at Ipswich some nine hours and 220 miles after we left. An excellent way to re-acquaint with the less visited parts of our home region. One gets a sense of integration – of how the various parts relate to the whole, and without the hassle of driving. It’s a pity that modern, sealed trains don’t easily allow photography on the move, but it was good to see all of the trains punctual, clean and well patronised, and the stations for the most part looking well kept. Something every region needs as part of a decent sense of self.

18 thoughts on “The state of the nation – no – region.

  1. The big difference between your region and mine is that you can do that sort of trip by rail. South Lincolnshire had the railway lines ripped out of it. I was discussing this with someone this morning and agreed that we are a completely forgotten area. To most people even more so than the North, with their fancy motorways, media cities and football clubs.

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    1. I suppose that depends on how you define your region. Technically you are in a former one of mine – the East Midlands, which has a more than ample rail network. It’s just that you are in the equivalent of Happisburgh, which is equally forgotten in rail (and most other) terms. I agree though, something else that a certain Dr Beeching made no easier… Bring back the M&GNR.

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      1. Nottingham and Leicester might as well be a thousand miles from here. People in Peterborough, 18 miles away, don’t venture into the fens of Lincolnshire.

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  2. Yes of course. But then the same is probably true between the commuter suburbs south of here and Cromer or Sheringham. And there are some pretty out-of-the-way places down the Suffolk coast too. Regions are still quite big things and contain significant variation within them, of course. I once saw it claimed that my ‘real’ home region (the South West) is so big that people living at its northern extreme (near Gloucester) are closer to the Scottish border than they are to Penzance…

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  3. I’m interested to know what you consider your region to be…. and I’ve just checked the claim above – it would seem to be true, even as the crow flies.

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    1. South Holland actually describes it quite well. It is distinct in terms of agriculture, landscape, demographics and the absence of transport links. It has Spalding, but is mostly an area of relatively small villages, most with few facilities. Major roads exist, but can become barriers, especially given fatality rates at some of the junctions. Once it was prosperous and many people benefited, now it is prosperous and few benefit. Anyone young would take the train to London, eventually but the service is awful. If it had a royal connection or was in the Cotswolds people would be swooning about the properties and the big skies. As it is, no one visits.

      Odd that it voted Leave by a massive majority 😉

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      1. And around here the crow gets to its destination a very long time before you do, which Issy found a real issue when she was doing home visits. HQ “It is only fifteen miles away, you can get there in twenty minutes” when it is actually a twenty-five mile drive down single track roads which, despite the reputation of the area, are rarely straight. to put this in simple terms, the cycle around our “block” is about seven miles. This is my region https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6RmCLhFlzE

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  4. Ah, Jonathan Meades. One of the last good reasons to watch British television… I rather think that your perception of ‘region’ is different from mine. I am thinking of standard regions, something akin to German Lander. Even East Anglia is technically only part of Eastern England, which is the Six Counties, and measures about 100 miles north-south and east-west. By comparison, that puts you well up towards the Humber and across to the big cities – which is what East Midlands actually does. I suggest you are thinking of ‘region’ as what I would consider my district or something similar – probably actually just ‘county’. I know Lincs is big – but then Essex is a good 70 miles SW-NE. Remoteness bring horizons in – the friction of distance. And I actually prefer to think of East Anglia than the Six Counties – Beds and Herts don’t count – and I actually live seven miles outside East Anglia proper. But the latter appellation is somehow more comfortable for an exiled West-countryman.

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    1. I think that is because of the nature of the area. When I lived in the West Midlands it was much easier to associate with a Russian doll model of regions and to feel part of all of them. Out here it isn’t, and I’m reflecting not just my personal view but those of most people who live around here. Anything North of Boston, East of Grantham, West of Kings Lynn or South of Peterborough is “not here”. Going to the beach at Hunny feels like adventuring abroad. Taxi drivers from Spalding, seven miles away, comment on how we are in the middle of nowhere. In contrast my old village in Herefordshire was the same distance from Leominster but was very much connected to it by multiple ties.

      Where I’m going with this, and it is key, is that it is very difficult to impose artificial regions on top of people’s own perception of where their identity is rooted. I’m trusting that you are ahead of me now, and worked out that I’m offering this as a partial explanation for the high (73.6%)Leave vote here. If you don’t feel you even belong to Lincolnshire how can you be expected to feel you belong to the EU?

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  5. Hmm, yes I do see where you are going with this – but am now wondering which of the several paths this discussion can go down…
    What you are describing is Insularity. It is by no means restricted to physical islands – ones in the mind will more than do. If you look at which parts of Switzerland voted to ban minarets on mosques, it was not the big cities where Muslims actually live. I grew up in Somerset, where the rest of the U.K. also feels a long way away. I think that is perhaps why I swung so far to the opposite when I got the chance.
    As I said, remoteness shrinks the horizons in physical terms (but not in travel time of course – that is the key).
    What fascinates me is the antidote to it – assuming one is needed (you could argue that localism and sustainability agendas are very much in favour of narrow behavioural horizons…). I agree that you can’t force identity on people, but that isn’t to say that it can’t be *cultivated* – plenty of figures in history (you know who I mean) actually did a pretty good job of it, albeit for reasons much more malign than mine.
    What would have been the subliminal effect if every UK town hall had flown the EU flag every day since we joined? (It is too late now because it would too obviously be a piece of propaganda and would be resisted…) What about the effect of flying regional flags alongside from the same building (as you see, for example, in Germany or Spain)? I could go much further down that route…
    I agree, UK regions only have forced and weak identities, but that is an entirely self-made issue. As a geographer, I make reference to standard economic regions – but there are, for example, no road signs to tell you when you are passing from one to another. Historico-cultural regions are a bit different – as I said ‘East Anglia’ does not align with Eastern England, but in some ways is an easier thing to identify with. Essex is problematic, by the way, because it is neither truly East Anglia nor the South East. It just about feels East Anglian round here – but doesn’t ten miles towards London… In-between places are always difficult – and perhaps they resort to their own identities – as do Essex and perhaps your area.
    All this is really about psycho-geography, and is a very rich seam which more people would do well to mine. You could equally argue that inward-lookingness (hence the Leave vote) is a product of the vacuum created by the lack of stronger local identities. I suspect that many in your area who struggled with the Polish influx were culturally very weak themselves to start with. Had they had stronger identities, they might have stood up better to a strong incoming one.
    Wish I could persuade you to read my Europe book – much easier reading than the teaching one, I assure you. I can send you a manuscript if you’re not inclined to buy one. It deals with precisely these kinds of issues – your thoughts would be appreciated.

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    1. Well, we do have big horizons here. And I know people who went to the same school as me in the middle of Birmingham who have ended up every bit as insular, with their world defined by their postcode. It is easy to end up echoing cliches like “travel broadens the mind” and the Billy Bragg interpretation of “What do they know of England, that only England know ”

      Often the signposts aren’t the official ones. On the A16, out of Peterborough, there is a rather wonderful blue bridge. That is our sign that we are “home”

      I’m not sure about your observation about local identity. Look through the BFI and UEA film archives you’ll see it was once very strong. But young people now leave as soon as they can, and many people who move here in their 50s end up being effectively marooned once age and illness catches up with them. And please don’t underestimate the sheer scale of immigration into this area, it is massive. I really think a visit to the Leave triangle of Wisbech, Spalding and Boston would come as a shock. What people haven’t thought through are the implications of those people leaving. I suspect they think the Polish shop will become a twee tea room or antiques shop when in reality it will become a vape shop, tattoo parlour or beauty salon.

      I’m doing well on catching up with my reading backlog, I think I’m up to 2015.

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      1. You can be insular anywhere. As I said, it’s a state of mind above all else. But it helps if you are in a place that encourages it. Yes, regionalism used to be strong – before, I suspect, the Industrial Revolution. High mobility militates against it, after all.
        I am aware of the amount of migration in Lincolnshire – a long-standing colleague is from Boston.
        I perhaps have a problem with where I live, because unlike the other areas where I have lived, I find it very difficult to identify with. Most of the cultural monikers of Essex are not ones I would want to own. It is easier where we live now – but that is defined above all else by the village and its immediate environs, no more. I think there are many other refugees from Essexness here, who feel the same. Before we came here, our overwhelming experience on nearing home was a sigh of desperate resignation. Luckily Cogg is better than that. East Anglia is appealing by comparison – especially as I used to live in Norwich, and my sister in law lives in Cambridge. I think Cambridge might be my spiritual home – cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time. Were means no object…

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  6. Does mobility reduce regionality? I’m not sure. Not being mobile makes you insular. To them, the rest of Britain is filled with Islamic terrorists., even though they don’t know a single foreign-born person. Those who travel see regions in context and are aware of real differences between them.

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    1. I think you misunderstood me. Mobility reduces regionality for exactly the reason you gave – which is what I meant. Once you have lived in more than one region, you cannot have quite the same singular depth of loyality to and identification with any one of them. I suppose regular travel has something of the same effect. As you said, traditional regionalism is born from the lack of any wider horizons. I am not wanting that kind of parochialism back – I see regionalism as the lowest but two level of one’s spatial identity – county and district/town being below it – and nation and continent above (and further…). Which is why Mrs May’s comment about Citizens of Nowhere was so wrong and so insulting. The reason I want to see regions strengthened is not at the expense of the others, just that in the present era, regions seem to be big enough to have some strategic clout themselves (i.e. counter-balance to national power) and yet small enough for people to identity with. Again, I see the Lander as the model and they even have direct representation in Brussels, something British regional authorities have always been denied.

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      1. I suppose the thing is when you travel you also appreciate home more, and see it in a different light. Not better or worse, just home.
        And whilst I hate to admit it, I will always be fiercely proud and defensive of my Brummie roots.

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    2. See below… but I also see what you mean – the bigger picture is necessary to see a whole region for what it is… Well, yes – but I suspect the more of an overview you get, the less strong the ties to any one bit of it become, simply because you lose the intimacy that comes from being bound to a very small area.

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