Mum comments on the soil again, the pitch dark that spreads out on either side of the road. She cannot really see it but, I am beginning to realise, uses a mixture of memory and changes in light, of common sense and guesswork. It is the part of the landscape she’s always mentioned from my earliest recollections of her, long before the blindness: the black earth. Look, she says, even though that word to her is all but useless. Look. Isn’t it wonderful? I think of Donald Pleasance trying to convince James Garner that he can see well enough to make his escape by picking up that planted pin as she constructs this gentle masquerade. Look at that, she says again. I always play along.
And although it is mostly artifice and a game whose rules we cannot acknowledge, that she is not able to see detail or distinguish shadow or bare earth, regardless of that, she is right. It is fantastic, this deep sticky fertile jewel of land. The light drops into it and is lost.
Beautiful black soil runs past and beyond the rails, out to the stands of poplars and the distant farms, out to the horizon. If you scan the Ordnance Survey map you can see modest drops and rises along the contour lines. Snake-like pathways, orange lines against the white, that strung together paint the courses of ghost rivers; old streams diverted to create and then maintain the vast rink of fecund turf called Burnt Fen. It is sparsely populated, this landscape, a handful of big farms and small settlements, reliant on pumps to drain the land into the Lark and the Great and Little Ouses.
The ribbon-thin roads buckle, waves thrown up before you, rising and falling as they go over the dead channels that have been drained and filled with silt. The peat around the dead river bed falls over many years, the silt remains and the roads rise and fall as they cross the unresting earth. The car bounces along the straightest lines.
So empty is it, that it seems extraordinary there’s a rail station here at all. But as you watch the map develop, the old 1900 1 inch changing up to the OS 25 inch from before the First World War, the station changes in size and name. Originally Mildenhall Road when it opened in 1845, by the turn of the century it was renamed Burnt Fen and transformed. The map shows several sidings and a goods shed, a signal box and cattle pens. There was a Railway Tavern next door; now it is a private house. There was industry here, noise and toil, thirsts to quench.
Often, Shippea Hill will be featured in some press puff piece about it being the least used station in the country. It has two services a day – one going to Norwich, the other from – separated by 12 hours. Outside of that it is a request stop. There may be twenty or thirty passengers in a year.
On the driveway of what used to be the pub a man is washing a car and shouting to someone I can’t see. There’s no response. Perhaps they’re in the yard that used to be all sidings and agricultural trucks but is now an overgrown and scruffy enclosure, packed with a disarray of old containers and scrap. Stripped coaches and rusting cars pile on top of each other. Sparrows dash across the spaces and run along the roof of an old van. Still, no reply. When the man finally gives in and shuts up the silence settles back into place.
The platform takes you a few feet above the fen. Off to the west, following the route of the line as it heads to Ely, you can see a large house and sheds shimmering in the haze, Shippea Hill Farm, which gave the station its current name after its brief tenure as Burnt Fen. There is no community called Shippea Hill, so if you’re going to name the station after a local farm why not (and at this point I’m checking that old map again) Plantation or Spaindelf? Or maybe Decoy. There is a Decoy Wood and an Old Decoy copse, a Decoy Farm, too. It is one of those names that proliferates in the east, where the word relates to channels to direct and manage wildfowl. All of these are closer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm.
But it was a business decision, of course. It wasn’t always so quiet. When the sidings were fully used this was a busy hub for local produce. In fact, it’s arguable this was never really intended to be a passenger station at all. The Shippea Hill Estate run by Chivers owned great stretches of the fen here. Smaller lines, for horse-drawn trams and trucks, ran parallel to the main line and off into the fields. You can still walk the mile or so along the footpath parallel to the main line along the bed of one of those tracks. It pulls away after a while to a set of buildings that used to be part of Chivers, but is now a new set of ventures. Wholesalers, a commercial vehicles dealer, an irrigation business. In the yard by one of their buildings sits a few feet of old platform, a wedge of brick and concrete from the old fruit and veg packing terminus.
I could tell Mum all of this but I don’t. There was a time when she would have taken it all in and filled in the gaps for me. But not any longer. It would fall like the light into that dark earth and be gone. Entertaining her is quite tough, really, and sometimes I am beaten by the effort it takes. But I bite down on it when it seems there may be a chance that detail and nuance won’t matter. When there’s something grand and unmissable. When it might mean something.
Mum used to be the station announcer at Doncaster in the 1950s and 60s. It was there she met my Dad, who worked on the trains. It is one of the last things, the last things to leave her. The tenacious things.
The fields fly past, we bounce along the road, she mentions the earth again. As we approach Shippea Hill the road slows. More cars, more and more. I have messed up. There are dozens of people en route. What if we get close and there are too many cars, too many people? We sneak up on to a grass verge a couple of hundred yards from the station. She is unsure. But she takes my arm and slowly we walk up to the level crossing. I can see white steam on the horizon, out along the line. The lights beep and flash and as she nears the lowered barrier she grips it. This is where we are staying then, I think. I’m pretty excited: I have got here in time. But Mum looks like she always looks these days.
A beat of silence. The white steam billows, closer now.
And a man is there, coming up without me noticing, and stood next to us and he has seen all the people and he says, at Mum’s shoulder: “What’s this you’re all waiting for?”
Mum doesn’t look at him, just out over the barrier. “Flying Scotsman,” she says.
And maybe he feels the need to say something then, but no, because it is upon us.
And it pushed the light aside, and brought its own glare and brilliance. It was all rush and fierce immediacy. It whistled and blasted past. It was a marvel.
And I just caught, I just heard, in that moment as the clamour spiralled away. I just heard her as she turned to this man.
“I’ve seen it a thousand times. But I still get a thrill out of it.” She squeezed my hand as we walked slowly back to the car.
The station is part of the quiet. The surface of the platforms, at the entrance on each side, where people have probably not walked in years, is pock-marked and crumbling. Thistles and valerian push through and nudge the entropy on. You can sense the fen nibbling at the edges. Trains pass, but don’t stop. They rock and wheeze and rush past, but take no notice. When they’re gone, the brief hole they have made in the silence pours back in on itself, surges in, fills the place with quiet. This is now where the silence lives