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Open Features: Blowing Hot And Cold

"With Felixstowe as the Gateway to Europe, around two million container vehicles thunder up and down the A14 trunk route every year...

Now, with the increase in the size of juggernauts and the sheer volume of vehicles, two grooves have appeared down the inside lane on both sides of the road, closely resembling cart tracks. If only we had imported Europe’s freight rail system along with the lorries then I suspect we would encounter a lot less stress on our journeys.''

Mary Basham, recalling that Britain was many millennia ago joined to the European mainland, thinks that her part of the country is still metaphorically joined at the hip to the Continent.

It’s January and I have just had my morning coffee sitting out in the garden. OK, so I was not wearing a sundress; I was sensibly clad in sweater and jeans, but it was wonderfully liberating. Usually at this time of the year it’s multiple layers and dashing from house to car to avoid the biting east wind that famously blows across the Fens straight from the Ural Mountains – the result of having Europe as our near neighbour. But the wind is not the only thing that we get from the Continent.

With Felixstowe as the Gateway to Europe, around two million container vehicles thunder up and down the A14 trunk route every year. Most of the road is two-lane. Any accident produces tailbacks that stretch for miles. As a consequence, frustrated lorry drivers send their blood pressure sky high fretting about missing the tide or whether they will make ‘Just in Time’ delivery deadlines.

I can remember writing an article about the infrastructure of East Anglia way back in the late 1980s. Even then the traffic on the A14 was substantial. Now, with the increase in the size of juggernauts and the sheer volume of vehicles, two grooves have appeared down the inside lane on both sides of the road, closely resembling cart tracks. If only we had imported Europe’s freight rail system along with the lorries then I suspect we would encounter a lot less stress on our journeys.

The fertile acres of farm and fen land in the region have long been regarded as the basis of Britain’s Breadbasket. We also grow vast amounts of vegetables, in particular tons and tons of onions, carrots, leeks, celery, potatoes, peas and strange looking fields of multi-coloured lettuces. The current taste for exotic salad leaves see bags of the stuff flying off the supermarket shelves, hence row upon row of red lettuces side by side with bright green ones stretching across the black fen soil like the daubings of a hallucinating artist.

Occasionally, the very same field that has one week been awash with lettuces, is the next literally awash and become a veritable lake, flooded to such a depth that it requires a sign saying ‘Beware Deep Water’. This puzzled me until one day in conversation with a local lad, I learnt such exotica require quantities of nutrients to get that highly prized healthy look. When the build-up in the soil gets to an unacceptable level a bit of purging is necessary – and we all know water is a great de-tox!

What has all this got to do with Europe? Well, despite specially designed machinery, the harvesting, preparing and packaging of vegetables and salad crops for our discerning taste buds require a willing labour force, more than can be found in this area at the going rate. On the other hand, our EU partners can provide any amount of workers keen to earn more than they would back home. Stopping to ask directions these days from someone working in a fenland field has taken on a whole new meaning!

Then I don’t know about where you live but suddenly French markets are all the rage. I live close to Newmarket so seeing horse boxes go by with ‘cheveux’ on the side is not a novelty, nor is hearing French spoken on the race course or at the yearling sales. Heading into town and coming across 20 or 30 stalls dressed in blue and white awning camped on the market square selling salamis, hot choco pain, a variety of pickles and pungent sheep’s cheese is not an everyday occurrence. I think it’s great, just so long as we reciprocate and take our marvellous examples of home produce to grace French shores.

What could be a better ambassador for us than good roast beef, the king of cheeses, Stilton, and a wide selection of beers brewed by the still surviving independent breweries? No one could doubt either that we make marvellous puddings and pies, and as for wine, well we’re not bad at that either judging by the vineyards springing up on our chalky slopes wherever the weather allows.

Which brings me neatly back to the beginning and that old chestnut, the weather, the first and sometimes, the only subject of our conversation. Whilst the west side of the country is greatly influenced by the Gulf Stream and what happens in the Atlantic, the east side owes much of its climatic state to its near neighbour, Europe. The dreaded east wind that brings us the bitter conditions in winter also ensures we have drier and warmer summers. The swings and roundabouts of life or more prosaically, blowing hot and cold.

Once, in dim and distant past we were physically attached to Europe. All things considered, it seems this region continues, in more ways than one, to go on being metaphorically joined at the hip.

© Mary Basham
2007

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