Icknield Way, day two

Day 2. 18th November 2017, Baldock to Royston

I wake early at my friend’s house in Landbeach. 5.30. Still dark. I roll over, bury my head into the pillow and try to sleep again. Impossible, with a day of walking ahead.

A while later I hear little voices, and join Ed’s children in the kitchen, Ed soon appearing to serve up home made yogurt and bread. I don’t leave ages to catch trains; Ed leaves less time, and I am grateful for the 30 seconds allotted me to buy a ticket. We had checked the trains the day before over curry: there was a direct train to Royston, and I would walk to Great Chesterford.

The train is packed, and I stand pressed in between tall men; stare out of the small chunk of window visible between shoulder blades and allow my thoughts to wander, thinking of the land here, its gentle inclinations, and of Florence.

It’s not until we leave Cambridge that I realise I am on the high speed service for London King’s Cross. High speed. Stopping nowhere. At that moment, in the anxious press of the days before Florence’s day, it seems the end of my plans. Tears prick. I send an email to Ed. Noooo. Another to my husband David, similarly worded.

I wallow in tears and disaster for a few minutes, then pull self together. I can surely walk another stretch. I don’t have other OS maps, but I have the wonderful Icknield Way guide. David sends me a picture of a signpost at Tring; but no, I need a stretch on this train line. I could go to Letchworth garden city…I glance at the picture in the guide of the urban sprawl between Letchworth and Baldock; no, I could let myself off that…I’ll go to Baldock. It will be a quick turn around in London, but perfectly possible.

Within eleven minutes of arriving at King’s Cross, I am heading out again.

Baldock looks perfect. Used to the dilapidated splendour of Brighton, its pristine high street is startling. More so are the black squirrels in the churchyard. I think I’m seeing things, and follow them through the graves for a while, as if hoping to surprise them in some voodoo behaviour behind a headstone. Then, on the edge of town, there’s a tree of starlings. I stare up at them, this firm, this noisy establishment of organised, incomprehensible black magic; shudder, then shake my head at the imagining that makes these creatures dark omens.

But it is a day for imagining. I don’t see a soul for hours in the busy south, even villages are eerily silent. I look over fields to a town, see it completely, with its tight centre and sprawling outskirts; it has the feel of a prison – that’s where the people are, held within its walls. Out here, the land is vast. My mind stretches in every direction. No fenced in, city thoughts.

Gulls rise over a field, not herring gulls, my home gulls, but common gulls; smaller, sharper – in the south, they used to call them seamews. They rise in a large ragged group, then form a tight funnel, hurricane formation. Attack? Or defence?

Small birds are linocuts against a grey sky. In glimpsing their flight, I see lines of music, each with a distinct tempo; the snatched wing beat, then dipping fall often giving a dotted rhythm to their flight. Impossible not to repeat the rhythm, and I do, with my hands, a foolish conductor conducting players who are not watching after the music has finished.

Against a drear sky, yellow autumn leaves hold light to themselves and glow quite independently of the sun; a large oak is a beacon of light; a small beech, a gold tree, leaves delicate and brilliant against brown.

I walk again through twilight and into darkness. For the last couple of hours, my thoughts are dominated by sleep. Exhausted by disaster, resolution, and a couple of days on my feet, my body obsesses with finding places where I can curl up and sleep, best the base of a tree divided into five trunks, leaving a nest, Anne size, in the base.

By the time I reach Therfield Heath, it is completely dark, the sort of dense pitchy black you can finger and never find in cities; it seems more so for the lights of Royston below. I am invisible. Town lights and noise are sharp on my eyes and ears, but my most terrible scream would not rouse it to care.

I try not to look at Royston; to shut it away, listen to the ground. I can’t understand it, any more than I had understood the squirrels or the starlings. I stumble around, heart pounding, and finally do the only thing that makes sense – lie on my back in the long grass in a sort of surrender.

Sometime later, almost scared by what I can’t understand, I hurry down hill to Royston. It is a jolt. My body deals automatically with main roads, lights, action, my head is somewhere else. It is a town full, of noise and lights, but empty of people. I walk the streets to the station looking eagerly at lighted windows, grateful for a glimpse of someone watching tele or cooking supper.

On the train, I look out of the window onto darkness, imagining the path I had wound up under my feet unwound in minutes under the wheels of the train.

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