I’m writing this while travelling up to Sheffield by Midland Mainline train. We leave St Pancras station, and are soon moving through the flattest countryside known to the human race. I’ve always thought that flat equated to uninteresting. But with the right eyes, everything can be beautiful. The gravel pits between Bedford and Wellingborough – sunken mud-flats, vast puddles providing a home for every type of water fowl. Huge open fields reflect the huge open sky, blue with a smorgasbord of cloud-types. The flood-plains of central England, fields turning into marshes turning into lakes. A road dips underneath the railway and my eye is drawn along the line of the subsequent bend until it rests, several metres from the road, on the burned-out wreck of a crashed car.
At Leicester, there is a subtle yet immense change in the environment. Nowhere do North and South nestle closer than in this mid-midlands city. The fields change from toothcomb-ploughed and decorative to thick-furrowed and functional. The towns change from neat showcase commuter retreats to rambling accretions of industry past and present. This feels like M John Harrison country, where grim relentless people do their best to ignore the lashings of a cold wind and every town’s name begins something like “Stour”.
On a recent early morning journey from Sheffield down to London the countryside had been crystallised: every field, bush, tree and fence completely white and brittle with a coating of ice. The train entered Leicester travelling through this albino landscape. Immediately beyond Leicester station the white dropped away, and the countryside on the other side of the city was regulation green and brown. Nature could have found no clearer way of highlighting the North-South divide.