Icknield Way, day four

Day 4. 31st March 2018, Ivinghoe Beacon to Dunstable (home from Luton station)

A mizzling morning, a sky full of wet. Saturated land; I too, quickly feel as though I need squeezing out. With the utmost caution, and frequent checks of OS on my phone, I navigate to the top of Ivinghoe Beacon. In reaching this beginning, after my last bumbling attempt, there is some small success.

From the top, the world is in layers; lines of purple, dark blue, green, grey. Distance is muffled by cloud; instead is a close enchantment. Wool caught on bushes, crusted with diamonds. Catkins, some still in bud, others new born, and I imagine them sliding out suddenly like babies. Pussy willow, little wet woolly jumpers. Hedges beaded with silver drops, floating with buds, of green and pink, which sound like soft tender colours, but are hard, arrow tight and determined. My eyes are drawn into the tangle, seeking out its secret places, safe places; strange shaped halls and twisted pillars; homes to creatures, real and imagined.

On a distant hill, a chalk lion is outstretched. Whipsnade zoo, but a way to go until then, my eyes measuring the distance in effort and pace.

The way is seriously muddy. Deep, cloying, clarty mud; wholehearted wholly desirable mud, best taken head on for the depth and suck and squelch of it, though the thought of walking wet keeps me prudent around the edges. Now and then, even in this rich earth pudding, bones of the chalk poke through, in startling white flecks and chunks.

It is a day of prints: mud writ with wormy squiggles and lines, awaiting their reader; paw prints, hoof prints, footprints – my own prints, as curious to me as my reflection; this, then, is what those coming next will see of me, these, my representatives. I look back over my shoulder to see them, steps just taken. How rarely is just now recorded so clearly! It seems almost possible to reach a few moments ago by following my heel trail, a print path back in time.

I am enchanted by footprints. It is the thought that a simple print records a whole being, all of our loves, worries and desires pressing down through a foot. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to remind us to try to empathise with our fellows; walking in another’s prints is the literal version, and can be a startling intimacy. I move from another’s left to right to feel their size and gait; here is someone with slight bow legs and turning in feet, there, a person whose feet turn out balletically in first position. In these prints paused together there is a moment’s hesitant thought, but brisk progress and decision are evident in their companion’s crisp prints, scuffed, dragging complaint in the small prints behind.

Fields of skylarks! I scrawl the word over and over in my notes, each flight song needing the tribute of record, always with an exclamation mark for joy. Up through woods, my feet crushing wild garlic under foot. Four children’s balloons are tangled in trees, each coming with its trace of the hand which has let go, the tearful wail, the precious helium gone in moments.

The path narrows, dry banks with a muddy soup in between. My feet swing from bank to bank in a rhythm of threes, and I hum a muddy path waltz, Moon two three, River two three, wider than a mile, step, step…

Across a golf course to a fence, leaning inwards at the top, prison fence, camp fence; I glance around involuntarily for the towers and spot lights. Whipsnade zoo. Then a noise, like the whistle of a starling, but larger. I play for a while, making a lion size starling on four furry legs, but then a steam train puffs into view; a far more straightforward explanation, although this too seems unlikely, in a very English field behind a prison fence.

I leave the Way to visit the tree cathedral, planted after WW1. The sky clears and the sun shines; a golden light for a place of great peace and beauty. I kneel tearfully in the chancel, and the wet silver birch above me glimmers and lights in the sun.

Up onto Dunstable Downs, a wide open world, where children run and fly kites, the sky dotted with strange creatures and exotic birds. At the Chiltern Gateway Centre I buy a lolly; it starts to rain as I drop the wrapper in a bin.

By the time I reach Five Knolls, it is blattering down. It’s a place of death, of Neolithic burial mounds, with subsequent ages adding their dead, the most recent contributions from a public gallows. Rain and wind seem appropriate for a place of execution, but time past is unpredictable. Here I am with five barrows, bodies with hands still tied, and no feelings beyond a keen urge to be dry and warm and drinking tea. Yet a random green lane famous for nothing in particular, can be so warm and alive with its past that I slow to a halt to listen.

I squint dismally through the wet at the mounds, tighten my hood, and head down the hill into Dunstable. Find a random bus to Luton station. Sleep.

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