The stone head from the Iron Age glowers out of its glass case as if outraged by the indignity of imprisonment, its relegation from totem to tourist attraction.  Not that there are ever many tourists in Doncaster Museum, especially on a unseasonably warm day when the sun-punished town seems full of the grit and stink of 10,000 cars, passing and repassing endlessly through the town on their way to or from the A1, the Great North Road that has stitched together London and Scotland since time out of mind.

The head is clinically divorced from its Celtic context, when such tokens were set above doorways to encapsulate divinity and warn of the significance of passing between zones, but it still holds a stern and saturnine power, linking directly to an unimaginably distant culture and its lost landscape—the soggy swamps that once made Doncaster a kind of island in a huge central English sponge refreshed constantly by the Cheswold, Dearne, Don, Idle, Ouse, Rother, Skell, Torne, and Went, and other watercourses too numerous to name.

The Celt who crafted the head was one of the tribe that gave the River Don its name, Dôn (“river god”)—the simplicity showing just how central to all considerations was this great waterway linking the Pennines to the North Sea.  The Romans thought it worthwhile to found the fortified way station of Danum here on this lowest crossing point of the river, part of a western diversion off Ermine Street that avoided the necessity of crossing the wide and dangerous Humber estuary.  Constantine’s son Crispus commanded the garrison here, while his father lived at York.  They also made the first known attempts at planting waving corn on the waste, and averting each winter’s wrath by an infinitely laborious process of blocking, bridging, channeling, culverting, cutting, digging, draining, dredging, embanking, filling-in, gating, and sluicing the swirling torrents that carried fatality as well as fertility.

Later the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, North­­umbrians, and Danes waded, wandered, and warred across the area—633’s Battle of Hatfield nearby gave rise to the still extant Hatfield road Slay Pit Lane—between times doing some small-scale and spasmodic reclamation.  The great monasteries established by the Normans attempted large-scale reclamation schemes, and even tried to mollify the Don by building a bridge chapel at Rotherham upstream of Doncaster.  (The chapel is still there, a rare survival in England.)  But the riverine deity had his revenge in 1536, when higher than usual Don levels meant that “Pilgrimage of Grace” forces seeking to reverse the dissolution of the monasteries could not cross at Doncaster, and were obliged to come to terms with Henry VIII and the Reformation.

Abraham de la Pryme, writing in 1699, described the area around Doncaster as “a continual lake and a rondezvous of ye waters of ye rivers,” and local place names bespeak damp desolation—Thorne Waste, Hatfield Chase, Humberhead Levels, Eastoft, Dirtness, Adlingfleet, Ousefleet, Goole Moors, Bykersdyke, Rawcliffe-in-Marshland, Snaith, Sykehouse, Fishlake, Hexthorpe Flatts, Levitt Hagg, Wath-upon-Dearne, Bessacarr (kjarr being Old Norse for “wooded marsh”).  They are names that connect us in imagination to the geographically (and morally) marginal kind of landscape resorted to in the tale told by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Down to a mareys faste by
she ran—

Til she cam there, hir herte was

And as a bitore bombleth in
the mire.

In 1600, Elizabeth I had signed into law “An act for the recovery and inning of drowned and surrounded grounds and the draining dry of watery marshes, fens, bogs, moors and other grounds of like nature,” and Dutch and Huguenot engineers led by Cornelius Vermuyden arrived after 1626 to rationalize the bittern-booming mire.  They revolutionized topography in the name of economic efficiency, and added a slew of muddy monickers—like Boiling Basin, Cusworth Ponds, Intake, Dutch River, and Swinefleet Warping Drain.  Their vastly expensive efforts were not always successful, and were much resented by local people who had previously enjoyed rights of common.  Satirical ballads were sung, like “The Powte’s Complaint” (powte being the old term for lamprey, a surfeit of which dubious delicacy is supposed to have killed Henry I):

Behold the great Design, which
they do now determine,

Will make our Bodies pine, a
prey to Crows and Vermine;

For they do mean all Fens to
drain, and waters overmaster,

All will be dry, and we must
die—’cause Essex calves want pasture.

There were disruptions and destructions of dykes and banks, and physical attacks carried out by both sides, some resulting in fatalities.  This tension between rich and poor, foreign and English, came to a head in the Civil War, when parliamentary troops broke the dykes and reflooded much of the reclaimed land as a defensive measure, then reinstated some of the traditional rights of common.  Cromwell was nicknamed Lord of the Fens by ecstatic “fen-slodgers.”  After the war, physical violence augmented by a plethora of lawsuits persisted well into the 18th century.  In his 1874 technocratic classic Lives of the Engineers, Samuel Smiles celebrates a legal counselor named Reading who fought “thirty-one set battles with the fen-men” and who, when he died in 1716 at 100 years old, had passed 50 years “in constant danger of physical violence.”

As the 18th century progressed, the economic case for drainage of “wastes” was reinforced by a cultural case, as the “Augustan Age” got under way.  Nature was uncouth and unreliable, and she needed to be kept in check through a combination of aesthetics, agriculture, and architecture.  Landowners not only wanted to profit from their estates, but also to make them conform to classical ideals of attractiveness.  Pope celebrated classical control in his Epistles to Several Persons (Epistle IV, 1735):

Bid Harbours open, Public Ways

Bid Temples, worthier of the
God, ascend;

Bid the broad Arch the dang’rous
flood contain,

The Mole projected, break the
roaring main;

Back to his bounds their subject
sea command,

And roll obedient rivers through
the land.

Excavations around Doncaster have revealed a peat-tanned prehistory of huge tree trunks, hollowed-out canoes, the relict routes of causeways, postholes, fishtraps, animal bones, and wizened bog bodies.  The 18th-century antiquary George Sto­vin took unscientific liberties with one of these latter, found by a man digging turf who became frightened when his spade chopped off a sandaled foot seven feet below the surface:

The skin was like a piece of tanned leather, and it stretched like a fine doe skin; the hair was fresh about the head and privy parts, which distinguished the sex; the teeth firm; the bones was black; the flesh consumed; and she lay upon her side in a bending posture, with her head and toes almost together, which looked as though she had been hurled down by the force of some strong current of water . . .


I took the skin of one arm, from the elbow to the hand, and shaking the bones out, it would have made a ladies’ muff.  The other hand not being cut with the spade, as we dug for it, I preserved it, and stuffed it, first taking out the bones, which my son, James Stovin, now has in his possession . . .

I showed the hand and sandal to my worthy friend Thomas Whichcot, of Harpswell, esq. knight of the shire for the county of Lincoln in parliament, who was pleased to put the sandal on before I sent them to the Royal Society.

Stovin also records a wonderland of wildlife:

This waste is plenty of game, as hares, partridge, black moorgame, ducks, geese, curlews, snipes, foxes, &c.  It affords plenty of cranberries, and an odoreferous shrub called Gale; some call it Sweet willow, or Dutch myrtle.

Perhaps in his day they were still occasionally conducting unusual blood sports, like the semi-submarine battue organized for Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1609:

His royal highness and his retinue turned out at Tudworth, for the chase, not on sprightly steeds, with hound and horn, but attended by a numerous assemblage, they embarked themselves in about one hundred boats, and having had driven from out the neighbouring woods and grounds some five hundred deer, which took to the waters, the little navy of sportsmen pursued their game into Thorne Mere, and there some of the party going into the water, and feeling such and such that were the fattest, either instantly cut their throats, or drew them by ropes to land and killed them.

The end of semiaquatic sequestration was coming.  Stovin records satisfiedly,

The inhabitants of Thorne far exceed all their neighbours in their care and industry, for they have had the art to get estates out of fish-ponds; to make terra firma of pools and stagnated waters; to plough with horses, where a man, a hundred years ago, could not walk nor stand.

But the animal kingdom could still surprise as late as 1860, when a nine-foot long sturgeon was spotted in the Don at Doncaster, having swum up from the sea to spawn—only for a local publican to transfix it with a pitchfork and surf on the wounded fish’s back for thirty yards before being shaken off.  The pop-eyed stuffed behemoth makes an especially mournful display in the Museum, because the fish are now absent from the Humber catchment thanks to floodgates, overfishing, and the pollution caused by coal mining, metalworking and paper milling—although a 200-pounder was caught in the estuary as late as 1953, and formally presented to the Queen in accordance with a statute dating back to Edward II and even earlier tradition.  In 1994, a Doncaster entrepreneur sought to stock one of his fishing lakes with sturgeon, but he was refused permission, because the Environment Agency was worried that flooding could allow the fish to escape into the Don—which can now support fish again, despite spasmodic sedimentary releases of trapped dioxins and ochre from old industrial sites.

Ted Hughes would have felt saddened by such an unromantic refusal.  The future poet laureate and feminist whipping boy came to live in Mexborough outside Doncaster when he was seven, and explored avidly in all directions.  Some of his first poems and stories were inspired by encounters around the area, like “The Thought-Fox,” which he envisioned slinking through “this midnight moment’s forest”—a reference to the relict Barnsdale Forest, immediately north of Doncaster, celebrated in old ballads as the abode of Robin Hood.  “Pike” was a fond remembrance of dreamy days spent sounding old waters at Conisbrough:

A pond I fished, fifty yards

Whose lilies and muscular tench

Had outlasted every visible stone

Of the monastery that planted

Stilled legendary depth:

It was as deep as England.

Conisbrough’s striking Norman castle was the model for the castle in Ivanhoe, but more germane to the subject of fabulous fauna is the extraordinary 12th-century tomb-chest inside the village’s even older church.  Externally medieval, inside multiple massy Anglo-Saxon columns hold up the roof with apparent difficulty, and act as umbrella for a large horizontal tomb cover sporting England’s earliest-known representation of Saint George’s encounter with the dragon.

The terrible lizard with beautiful tail and wings has already run down one knight and is now writhing like some insatiable incendiary at the sole, out-of-scale chevalier still standing, who holds a wholly inadequate-looking sword and a bent stick.  Behind him, a crozier-carrying bishop appears to be making a wise withdrawal.  As if the odds weren’t stacked enough against the holy hero, an apprentice dragon is rushing at him from between the larger one’s legs.  This teratological tableau is watched over sadly by a bishop with golden curls protruding from below his mitre, a fork-bearded Church Father receiving radioed divine light through his forehead, and a mournful Madonna with a lovely hairlined face—medieval glass in muted tones, reassembled with infinite care from the tinkling, glinting heaps strewn behind by the divinely appointed destroyers of the 16th and 17th centuries.  (The area to the south of Doncaster was fons et origo for many of the Pilgrim Fathers.)

Other mythical and semimythical animals still resonate in this area.  St. Peter’s Church, Barnburgh, is locus for the legend of Sir Percival Cresacre, a 15th-century knight who died, according to tradition, during an epic struggle with a “wild catte” (contemporary hunting licenses suggest there were still lynx in the area in the 14th century) that attacked him in the woods, and fought with him all the way to the church.  Cresacre and his “catte” are supposed to have died simultaneously in the porch of the church, where red oxides in the stones were long said to be the ineradicable bloodstains.

Yet more remarkable beasts are commemorated back at Doncaster Museum, where a small but satisfactory art collection centers on horse racing, which has been held on the Town Moor since at least 1595—featuring the Doncaster Gold Cup, which is the world’s oldest regulated horse race, inaugurated in 1766, and the St. Leger Stakes (Doncaster’s sole claim to fashionability), which have been held since 1776.  As well as J.F. Herring’s superbly vital (and endearingly naive) 1827 Gold Cup study of mounts like Mulatto, Fleur de Lis, and Longwaist, two centuries since departed to some celestial fixture, there is an outré oil commissioned by the owner of nearby Owston Hall, who imported exotic animals to roam his parkland.  Across that fanciful faux-Africa stalk distinctively African wildlife painted from the life at Owston—most poignantly, quaggas, an extinct subspecies of zebra.

Despite all of man’s attempts to reorder the waters, the Don is still a force in this vicinity.  In 1864, 270 people were killed in flooding, and there was extensive flooding and two deaths as recently as 2007.  Attitudes to flood management, and to wetlands, have changed radically, with what were once called “improvements” now regarded in quite the opposite light.  The remaining expanses of peat moorland store huge amounts of carbon, and even now new species of flora and fauna are occasionally discovered.  There are heartening attempts to link together some of these surviving scraps by creating new wetlands, which will not only benefit wildlife (and thereby people), but be much more efficient as floodwater soakaways than industrial farmland.  There is resistance from the unimaginative, but at last culture has started to flow in the opposite direction, with growing appreciation of the beauty as well as utility of such places.  We cannot recreate the cosmos of the Celts, even if we wished to—but how superb if one day we could again look seaward from south Yorkshire and see rivers instead of roads, and a wilderness of whispering reeds rather than a plain of waving corn.