Stuff, Travel, Van Life, Wandering free

The Outer Trial (And the Inner Tribulations)

Sometimes things inside Dixie, as in life in general, don’t go quite as well as W.E. (William and Elizabeth) had planned. Although W.E. do have a comprehensive checklist (and a still-funny-to-us Ryanair-style cabin crew impression) to complete before W.E. “take off”, and extra special care is always taken when expected to be on the road for more than 30 minutes, sometimes a sharp corner, a ‘user error’ slam on the brakes or a badly surfaced lane is all it takes to upend the entire house. Bins fall over, bags spill their contents and anything that can pour out will pour out. Even the drawers must be secured, or W.E. can expect nothing short of a carpet of cutlery when next W.E. pull over.

W.E.’re still in Fenland. Driving through fields of green and grain, W.E. can see that fertile fen soil in use here, growing a sizeable amount of England’s crops, the soil here being significantly older and richer than that anywhere north of the Thames. W.E. read an interesting story about another government effort at manipulating the land and water of The Wash called the Outer Trial, and W.E. had to come and see it.

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The Outer Trial Bank, photo by Oliver Dixon @ Geographic.org.uk

The engineering project began in 1972 and the intent was to capture the freshwater outflow of the four local rivers as they emptied into the Wash Basin in a freshwater reservoir, a power station and other amenities would be built on the reclaimed land. Work on two test islands began in 1975, using limestone chunks in cages (‘gabions’ I learned these cages are called, you can thank me later for that scrabble winner), and two circular test islands, the Outer Trial Bank and the other trial were built. The other trial, one would guess might be called the Inner Trial Bank, but I’ve found no evidence to support this, eitherway it is definitely not as important as it’s twin, not to this story anyway. Measuring about 800 ft in diameter, the Outer Trial Bank contained a 2.5 acre test reservoir in its centre.

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Where does the land end and the sea begin?

W.E. had been to visit the Lynn Museum in Kings Lynn, to see an exhibition of a structure named “Seahenge”, uncovered in the late 90s during a particularly low tide on Holme Beach in the Wash Basin off the Norfolk coast. Locals walking the beach noticed what looked like a circle of upright timbers sticking out of the sand. Further investigation revealed 55 closely fitted oak posts, each originally up to 10ft tall, and a huge upturned tree stump in the circles centre. Despite the usual opposition and protests, and delayed as opportunities to reach the site depended entirely on the tides, in 1999 the timbers were excavated and carefully moved. Carbon dated to around 2049 BC, where the huge wooden circle was found was originally far inland, protected from the sea by sand dunes and miles of salt flats and marshes.

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Some of the posts that make up Seahenge

From the outside, the circle would have looked like one great tree stump, while inside was bright, each post had the bark carefully stripped from the inner-facing side. Archaeologists believe the giant centre stump might have been a ceremonial altar, where the body of someone important was laid after death to be picked clean by birds and animals, a process called excarnation, to liberate the spirit of the dead. To much disappointment, no bones were found when the structure was moved. What was found however was the rope used to drag the stump and timbers to their positions, made from entwined Honeysuckle, unfortunately not on display at the museum yet. It must have been woven well, into a thick strong rope to take that kind of weight!

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The great stump at the centre of Seahenge

W.E. drove at dusk from Kings Lynn, hugging the edge of The Wash nature reserve, searching for the spot to park overnight that was carefully located earlier via satellite imagery, the closest place onland to view the Trial. Unsurprisingly, most of our overnight stops this far do not have postcodes, and W.E. usually tell the Sat Nav the nearest business and work it out from there, in this case a small and isolated farmstead.

The roads are lower than fields here, sunken in, cowering between the tall banks of the furrows that protect the crop land from flooding. One wrong turn (actually, W.E. should mention here, that there are no wrong turns in Dixie, only ‘alternative routes’, it’s the journey, not the destination etc) and the low narrow road became a potholed farm lane, kind of like driving across a broken piece of Rivita. W.E. saw hare and deer and owls and bats, the animals own the night out here. W.E. drove on and on, distracted at first by the wildlife, then watching helplessly as the road became no more than a vague path in the thick mud….

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Dixie learned all about camber

One of the posts of Seahenge is scarred from being hit by lightning at some point in the past 4,000 years, a long streak of white stands out on its dark bark. Dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating techniques can tell us the ‘when’ of Seahenge, but not the ‘why’. Religion, traditional and ritual practises could explain the early Bronze Age people’s motivation for such builds. These people had just begun to use metal, and the axe marks of 30 or so different tools were identified on the posts, a community effort, a communal build. Symbolism was important, and upturning items in particular is a distinctive feature of the times.

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A model of how Seahenge may have looked 4,000 years ago

Back in the 1970s, the centre pool of the newly built Outer Trial Bank quickly (and unsurprisingly) became filled with silt and salt water, it would be no use as a fresh water reservoir after all. The government of the day abandoned the project and presumably moved on to the next idea. Now, the island, nicknamed “The Donut”, sits in the Wash, inaccessible by foot even at low tide. Over 3,000 nesting birds have made it their home, and the 3 million pound failed experiment at water storage is now nothing more than England’s most expensive bird bath.

That night, on our way to visit the Outer Trial, W.E. had to turn back. Reversing on the narrow mucky paths was not an option for Dixie, so for a few tense and nervous moments she had to keep driving forward to drive back. Headlamps and torches were employed to help the manoeuvre and W.E. held our collective breaths as Dixie revved and revved and powered us through the wheel-high mud. Of course, in reality W.E. were never in too much danger, and Dixie (and her most competent Captain William) did eventually return us safely to the comforting tarmac surface of a main road, but in the dark of the night and in unfamiliar circumstances things often look much worse than they are. W.E. never got to see the Outer Trial Bank from the shore, it was our failed attempt at getting a glimpse of what was ultimately a failed attempt. Lessons were learned along the way though, lessons like ‘if it is not on the map, don’t attempt to get to it’, and ‘if it is not clearly a road meant for vehicles, don’t attempt to drive a vehicle on it’…. sometimes W.E. learn more from the failures in life than W.E. learn from the successes.

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Excavation of Seahenge in 1998

Experts argue as to Seahenges real use, and even disagree about its modern name, it was not in the sea originally, nor is it a henge by definition, it did not sit inside a ditch. Engineers of the time were wrong about the Outer Trial, just like W.E. were wrong to drive so deep into the Wash, especially in the dark. But as they say, if nothing is ever ventured, nothing is ever gained.

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Forget your heart, listen to your Sat Nav

After all this drama, muck and worry, Dixie needs a good bath!

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