The landscape of the Fens remains impervious to the 21st century’s need for speed. Elsewhere trunk roads have been transformed into dual carriageways on which ever-fatter cars rush to appointments like beetles on roller skates. But the huge drains carved here by Dutch engineers hundreds of years ago still do their job of keeping this land out of the sea. Their course is dictated by nature. Having once dug them as nature required, humans must obey the narrow, zigzagging routes they make. When animals and carts set the pace of travel, these high roads were safe enough. But cars must proceed with caution if they are not to tumble off the banks into a field or, worse, into a drain.
A slow drive across this landscape brought me on Friday to the village of Magdalen, hidden in the fenland south of Kings Lynn, for the first meetings in what will eventually become A Wider Horizon. Although I’ve met many people involved in village cultural activities in the past, I was touched by the ease and friendliness I met when I turned up at the weekly coffee morning in Magdalen Village Hall. Perhaps it’s something about the pace of movement that makes people happy to take their time and talk with a stranger about such personal topics as their artistic experiences and the pattern of their lives.
Our conversations ranged from cultural life during the last war to the latest exhibitions in London. They touched on swing bands, foreign cinema, War Horse, dance lessons, nature drawing, L. S Lowry, bell ringing, Tommy Cooper, Pompeii, the church art exhibition and a great deal more. There was so much to tell that people kept remembering aspects of their cultural lives they’d forgotten to mention. But they took their time, with striking good humour and plenty of laughter.
A Wider Horizon explores how people discover art and form their tastes, and it deliberately does so in a part of the country that is usually seen by the art world as a kind of cultural desert, distant as it is from Norwich or Cambridge, to say nothing of London. This first meeting showed how simplistic that view can be: like a Romantic landscape, carefully stripped of people and laid out before the inspired gaze of the cultured walker, it is just another social construct. How it is maintained and whose interests it serves is another question.
This Regular Marvel has got off to a slow start—the foundations were laid last year—but not being in a hurry has its advantages. Some things take time to grow, and watching them do it doesn’t make it happen any faster. There will be many more conversations and encounters in the months to come, and I have no idea what will emerge. But I do think I’ll see more at a walking pace.