Icknield Way, day eight

Day 8. 8th August 2018, Icklingham to Knettishall Heath

My hosts provide me with tuna and chilli sandwiches, advise against a dull stretch of the Way through the pine forest, and kindly give the me a lift to the beginning of the walk around the edge. I don’t need much convincing; I don’t like glooming in pine.

I set off happily across the expanse of blond prairie grass, a foreign land, after months of heat. The brief rain last night has left barely a trace on the hard ground. The way is dotted with pale blue butterflies.

I find myself glancing regularly over my shoulder. It’s the forest; it pulls my eyes like a huge monster that I need to keep an eye on, just in case.

The Icknield Way meets my path at Barrows corner, and travels along the selvedge of huge fields, a path of wild flowers and butterflies. My feet dawdle. I stop, lie amongst the flowers, move slowly on again. It is too lovely to speed.

Wild carrot is one of my favourites. It is beautiful, sensuous, a transformer, and, to me, a fairy tale. It’s first noticeable as a green lolly pop, stems woven tight around the flowers within, this tangle of tresses the growth around the palace. It opens to a dome of frothy flowers, the finest lace; wild carrot is in fact also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, the story going that the red flower often found in the centre is a drop of blood where Queen Anne pricked herself while she was making lace. Finally, after the flowers, the best bit: the fruit, the cupped seed head, the bear in the tale. I’m not saying he clubbed the queen, or anything like that; fairy tales being what they are, it seems more than likely that a spindle would have been the cause of any untoward sewing fatality, but there he is at the end of the story in the furry seed head, one on this walk looking distinctly like a waving bear’s paw.

There are lots of pigs. Enormous numbers of them, like large refugee camps in their make shift tin shelters. One gets hurriedly to her feet when I photograph her lying down, as if embarrassed, and I, in turn, feel my encroachment; take no more photos of pigs.

The Way passes through Duke’s ride: giant trees line each side. I feel very small amongst them; have walked into a great hall where monarchs stand in grave counsel and feel my impertinence. But walking softly on, they seem to bend in welcome towards me, small and ignorant though I am, so I feel full of their music.

The wood becomes closer and smaller; I pass a post box, with no evident house to go with it. Wilting from heat, I climb an oak tree, and sit happily in its shade, enjoying the gentle movement of its trunk against me.

I am approaching Knettishall Heath, where the Way ends. I am reluctant. I don’t want to be finished, and, in the event, it is abrupt. A car park, a sign post – Ivinghoe Beacon, 105 miles. The Guide clearly doesn’t know how to mark it either, and although it talks of the final milestone heralding the end of the way, there is no trumpet, no fanfare, no yipee of any kind. It is strangely disappointing. I stare blankly at the sign post for a while, then head on through the woods to find a swimming place in the Little Ouse, determined to celebrate somehow; alas the ferocious sun has left water only ankle deep, and I can only paddle. A taxi to Thetford feeling sad, bereft of the way. It wasn’t supposed to feel like this.

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