Icknield Way, day nine

Day 9. 10th November, Royston to Great Chesterford

It is only when I make a list of Icknield Way walks and piece them together on the map, that I realise I haven’t finished; the walk planned as day two didn’t happen.

So on a bright autumnal morning I go to Royston and walk the high street towards a low sun, people black against silver, hair lit as halos; angels walking the high street. The palace of King James 1st is a regular house amongst others, and I imagine once upon a time, when a king stepped from his doorway directly onto the pavement.

Sometimes, in a city, I find there are whole streets where there is nothing alive to tell me the season. I dislike these moments adrift in a year; quietly rejoice in spring when the seeds from the elm trees spread through the city, blowing in gusts into Boots, gutsy opportunists seeking a place to grow between the Clarins lipsticks and Lancôme pressed powder; seeds boldly declaring spring!

There is no doubt, in Royston, of the season: the town is swept through with leaves, the breeze turning colours over like a kaleidoscope, copper reds turning to yellows, then browns and golds, clotting at gates and walls.

Beeches line the road leaving town, the delicate tracery of their branches emerging as the leaves drop. The front door of a house stands open; a glimpse of a home, then through a back window to the garden and a field beyond; each picture smaller than the last, as if looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

It is an invitation to look, and I stop to do so. I like this seeing through the aperture of a house, as if beyond takes on something of the lens it is seen through: I see the field through the garden, knowing of the problems with the runner beans this year, by way of the kitchen, where the cold tap is still dripping and the tiles are cracked around the sink, through the hall of hellos and goodbyes and just popping out, through the open front door.

Off the road through woodland, the path thick and soft under toe with leafmeal; a place of kids’ camps, rough wigwams and lairs; of wars and allies and tribal secrets.

To the left is Heydon ditch, marked by a straight line of trees. How we love to line the land, rule it neatly with plough, and wires and ways; perhaps they help us feel ordered and well placed in the scheme of things, even these invisible legal lines of property and county holding us tight in a package of rules and rights. Most sign posts are keen to tell me of my legal rights; that I am walking on a public right of way, or bridleway, or permissive path, or restricted byway. What I’d really like to know is where the path is going, and how many miles I must walk to get there.

Earth and flint under foot. A day of cloud and sun, lights and darks, shadows thumbed into gentle hills, clumps of trees topping them like castles. Wide seeing. Chalk in the plough, white moon shine in the sun.

A field of song near Heydon. The birds lift away, swoop back, larking around, singing their gurgling laughing song.

I don’t know the singer.

There is this not knowing. which seems like a kind of stupid so I wallop it around my head in punishment for a while.

But then I am here still, walking the living land, with the birds whom I cannot name. singing their joy with their whole bodies

and my throat aches with the wonder of crossing a ploughed field that seems a kind of holy.

I stop to eat lunch, cheese scones and watercress, close to the birds for the delight, the wide ploughed world around me. Then there is a skylark. One. Who rises high and sings a shot of joy into the grey sky. I stand, head back, mouth open, on tip toes, climbing.

Over a ditch into Essex, along a narrow path between fence and hedges, the village outskirts. The meadow between Broad Green and Chrishall is riddled with paths and dents not human, rarely straight. My eyes follow the ways at my feet; turn and turn about as rabbit, as mouse, taking this way, then that; it is an effort to refocus at person height, walking up here, far from the intimacy of the ground.

At Saffron Walden, I head, as always, to the church, but pause in the porch, not sure; from within, intermittent singing and irregular thumps. I enter, and a man looks up from banging down hymn books.

‘Have you come to ring bells?’

It’s tempting. I’ve always wanted to; apparently all I have to do is say ‘yes’. But quite apart from the lie, time is pressing on, both for my train, and the remaining light. I regretfully admit to being only a walker. He tells me about the community and the new comers who don’t understand that they need to participate, this of concern not least because he is keen to retire from scaling the church tower to put out the flag. He is concerned about timing the remembrance silence, and I, intent to tease, remark that the church clock might be a minute or so out…

‘It is not!’, he says indignantly, slamming down a big pile of hymn books in emphatic exclamation. I smile gently to indicate I am not serious, assure him that it is absolutely correct.

On through Saffron Waldron, out along a dirt track. Soon after Nolly’s farm it starts to rain. Tucked inside my hood, I relish the sound of raindrops, rain on canvas; imagine myself cosy in a tent, reading with a torch and a cup of tea, not walking down a muddy lane with boots getting heavier and heavier and darkness seeming to fall in a moment. The guide is damp and fragmenting, leaves and blirts of rain are blowing sideways across my face; everything is wet hectic, and rather miserable, and even the approach to Strethall church, up a lane cut deep with worshiping feet, doesn’t enchant as it would have done in plenty of dry time.

On the far side of the church is the road, a shining hard empty; never used and going nowhere, I think grimly. I decide to run for a while, to pass the rain time and make the train. So into the army, pack, boots and all, running a heavy jog trot, pack jolting, squadron around me.

But the sky is lightening. As I reach the turn off across a field, the rain stops; sun breaks through, dispersing the squadron; everything is glorious! I half stumble, half run across the field, feet splashing into muddy puddles as I look over my shoulder to beam my delight at my the sky.

The Way follows the Roman road to Great Chesterford, and with more time I would travel slowly to relish it, but catching my train is not a sure thing. I force my reluctant legs to keep running, cross the motorway and pause. The station is there, across a field, really quite close, but the main path to the left takes a leisurely circuitous route to reach it. I look at the map. If I turn right, I can take a small path across the field, a short cut. I certainly need one.

Praising the humans responsible for this sensible desire path, I run to the right, looking eagerly for the turn off across the big field of winter greens. I look with increasing exasperation. The map clearly indicates a path. There is the station. It should be here, right here. Finally, desperately, I turn and cross the field, stepping over greens and into puddles, tutting crossly at farmers who don’t honour footpaths.

I arrive at the station. The platform is just a few feet away. Between me and it is a high wire fence, a fence which I cannot scale. I stumble along the side of the field, away from the station, back to the original route, brambles catching at my legs and tripping me with righteous relish, for I am that terrible thing: a trespasser.

I know it is hopeless, but I keep up my pace until I reach the crossing, where the gates are already down, the lights flashing. The train arrives, a leisurely couple of minutes early; waits, calm and unhurried at the platform for its proper departure time. Only then, standing at the crossing, watching my train, do I realise how very wet and cold I am. My left foot is soaking; the rest of me is damp and shivery- and it is raining again. The train pulls off. A couple more trains go through; the gates rise. I cross.

Travelling at a slow and rather dismal plod, I walk through the beginnings of Great Chesterford, tarmac wet and shining in the street lamps, the rain visible in small clouds in front of car headlights. The snug warmth of houses is remote from me; my own home miles, hours away. Then I think with a smile that it would hardly be right for the Icknield Way to end without mishap; put ‘pub’ into Apple maps, and find one; speed up at the thought of brandy. But is that music? Someone with a very loud stereo, probably…but there are surely many more people around than is usual for a dark wet evening in November…I round the corner to the village green, pause, blink in shock: stalls selling food and drink; music, lights and tents; all friendliness and laughter. As if a summer fete has missed its way…but there is a tree festooned with poppies; of course, it is an armistice celebration, and the dark and wet and cold retreat before its warmth.

A big cup of mulled wine later and I am glowing with good humour. I chat to a lady selling chocolate cake; she tells me about her husband’s cancer, and the difficulty in getting him to do anything about it, ever. She asks me how I come to be in Great Chesterford, and I tell her about the Icknield Way. She too, appreciates the starting and ending of the walk at the same place, in the same month, a year on – and the happy coincidence of finding a celebration underway!

I leave in good time for the 5.34, and once in the light and warmth of the train, examine the map, checking for the footpath across the field. With glasses, and good light, what had most clearly and indignantly been a path, ignored by a careless farmer, is now a parish boundary. Ah. I think with some guilt of my cross march through the winter greens; send guilty apologies through the ether to the farmer.

After two heated trains, my feet start to dry. Properly, happily, finished this time, I sleep.

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