Icknield Way, day seven

Day 7. 7th August 2018, Kentford to Icklingham

August. It’s been hot since May, so all the grass is yellow. It doesn’t rain any more. My body assumes heat, prepares for burn and thirst.

I stretch further and further from home to begin walking. The direct train from Brighton to Cambridge picks up the Icknield Way; I watch people get on and off at Letchworth as if it were anywhere; Letchworth, Baldock, and Royston, these places on a magic chain!

The Way is on chalk, from beginning to end, but the top soil varies, and with it the flora; the altitude, too, drops steadily from west to east. Walking the Icknield Way in my piecemeal fashion, these changes to the landscape often seem abrupt, and I struggle to comprehend the differences. After Kentford, there is quite suddenly sand underfoot; I kick up a cloud with my step, step, and imagine myself with goggles and scarf, an early motor car visible as a cloud of dust.

At Cavenham heath nature reserve, the sun is dulled by white cloud, there’s a heavy still. Sand underfoot. Around me, soft blond grass and heather, heat singed grey and rust amongst the pink. Scots pine and a purple octopussy plant, Viper’s Bugloss, a cacti for this English desert. Thick close air. I kneel on the sand to check the map, and feel its heat through my knees. There’s no one but me. A dead tree, white wood, bones in the desert.

I cross the river Lark, hope in my heart, for it is hot, and I am dry and dusty from crossing Cavenham desert; a swim would be very welcome. The water is low from drought, and the only deep part at the bridge already populated: a father and sons on one side, lovers on the other, each a closed intimacy. I am late for my B and B anyway. I hurry on into Icklingham.

Icklingham church is no longer used for worship, and its graves lie deep in long grass. Cobwebs hang between the pews, rougher and less substantial than modern day ones, for a time when God required greater resilience and a straighter spine; pews for unquestioning Sundays.

From the church through the sunset, walking in the last of the light on tired legs. I pick up feathers and arrange them with a stick; swing them in my right hand, amulet for the last bit of the way.

A walk through West Stow Country Park to get to my B and B, through the past and the fantastical, with its Saxon houses and wooden dragon. Being tired, these things do not surprise me, but West Stow hall, my B and B, stuns me with its ancient galleried splendour. Enormous boards make up the floor, the width of some ancient trunks…I imagine with awe how many years are around me, if I add the age of the house to the age of the felled trees… Floors that slope and creak, broad halls and galleries…space to breathe…an extraordinary place to stay.

I eat supper in the garden on a yellow lawn, and the first big drops of rain that summer splosh through my grey t shirt.

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