The Icknield Way
Between November 2017 and November 2018, I walked the Icknield Way. It took nine days. I would like to have walked the Way in one glorious rush, but other commitments meant my Icknield Way days were spread over a year; in the end I was glad of it. I met the path in many different moods, walked the Way in torrid sun, snow, and blattering rain. A path taken piecemeal, but a path that probably grew piecemeal too, as one prehistoric community linked with another. It joined into a long chain, and, in the end, I had a sense of its whole length gathered up under my feet.
I am a long distance novice. Walks have always been a discrete there and back, up and around, always ending where I began. This then, was a different sort of walking, one way through six counties, 105 miles, from Ivinghoe Beacon in the south, to near Thetford in the east.
There are some writers whose words we hear distinctly; they change something inside us so we see and understand differently. For me, one of these is Robert Macfarlane, whom I thank for enchanting a landscape that I would have had no idea of treading, but for his book The Old Ways. Another is Peter Davidson, whose book The Last of the Light changed how I see light and helped me step out into the last of it – and the darkness beyond! My thanks also to the Icknield Way Association for The Icknield Way Path: A Walkers’ Guide, who accompanied me all the way with clear directions, clear maps and concern that I always cross busy roads with care, which might have been irritating, if said out loud, but as text, was rather touching.
Day 1. 17th November 2017, Great Chesterford to Balsham.
Walking the Icknield Way starts as distraction. In November, my thoughts turn to our first daughter, who died when she was born. Her birth/death day always shadows the days before, and each year I try to find a better way of coping with them.
I begin somewhere towards the middle. Part of the Way passes close to a friend’s house; I plan to sandwich two days walking with curry with Ed, and a stay with his family. I have only ever seen Cambridgeshire from the train. It seems overwhelmingly flat, and not to my purposes; still, there is the allure of the unknown, strange names and places, the magic of an ancient path. I leave the train cheerfully at Great Chesterford, a village of picture book charm, happy to be walking, grateful for a November day of sunshine and washed out blue sky.
Out of the village, up a path edging along the selvedge of a ploughed field. I stop, look back; slide back a few centuries. Trees cluster around round the village, burnt amber and gold in the low afternoon sun. I look for a moment not as walker, but as traveller with purpose under my soles; feel suddenly its warm appeal as a safe settlement on the way.
Hedgerows, jewelled with rose hips, bilberries in their dusky coats; shining red berries I can’t identify. A field of claggy clay, which clings fast to me, my boots heavier at each step. Strawish crop ends on brown plough; a golden syrupy oak, burly and still leaved, shivers its appreciation for my head back awe at its beauty. Soft grey balls on hedges, ancient cobwebs, tendrils under the sea – Traveller’s Joy, Old Man’s Beard; most beautiful in Latin – Clematis Vitalba. My
enormous shadow strides before me, giant walking the antique land.
I have only gone a short way before I realise, abruptly, that the land is far from flat: it undulates gently, beautifully, addictively! For the rest of the day, on and off, I trace its slight curves with my hands, following them in long smooth watercolour brush strokes. It is as if by feeling their curves I understand them better, the movement painting them onto my memory. Again and again the delight of this strikes me; how rash I was to dismiss in a glance as ‘too flat’; to imagine, privately, that this might equate with dull, this country which in slow walking time shows its real loveliness.
As I walk these long curves, it seems that I stretch out too, became part of the space, and, after all, of comfortingly little matter. With all my busy doings and worries, there is, after all, simply this, and with this, calm.
Birds. Birds I don’t know, and I say this with a wail, for they never will wait nicely to be identified; learning their names is a slow business. Tiny birds who bounce along the hedgerows as if shaken free; the rounded call of another; a field of birds taking off in the distance – an exhalation of the land as I inhale my wonder; the huge rafty wings of a bird of prey riding a thermal like slow thought, slowing me to a halt. Master of flight, thought, tactics; high priest; BIRD.
Sometimes I imagine a childhood where the names of birds and flowers and trees were handed down to me from my parents as a matter of course, absorbed easily, so I can’t remember the effort of learning them. I find adult ignorance frustrating and humiliating, although it is also true that there is a joy in finding out; that when a flower is named after a page by page trek through a book, there a particular earned satisfaction.
I leave Linton at sunset, knowing I am putting myself in the way of the dark, deliberately doing so. It is time. I have been scared of the dark for as long as I can remember and have wanted to conquer it for years. Days for me ended at sunset, and although the desire to sleep out has been growing for years now, the horror of dark has not decreased; the thought of night sprites and spirits, and who is lurking in a hedgerow waiting to leap out and drag me down? Then I read a book about twilight, The Last of the Light, by Peter Davidson. It changed how I see twilight: no longer a taking away, but as something subtle and beautiful, a light still, and of most discerning pleasure. Cautious tests on the beach showed night spirits no more malevolent than those hanging around in the day, and that after all there weren’t small battalions of men waiting to leap on lone women wanderers. Oh. It was time to try sunset, twilight, and dark in the countryside.
I walk with some trepidation up the hill out of Linton, eyeing the undergrowth and trees on my left, where darkness seems to be growing from the roots up. But then, breathing through my jittery thoughts, become aware of a feeling of release: from day keeping, light keeping, perhaps even safe keeping. I probe this thought…no, I don’t feel unsafe. The ghosts seem friendly as ever, and my stride starts to swing again as I continue on, thinking that surely the hardest part of walking in the dark is going to be spotting turn offs in the gloom.
The sunset is spectacular, a just reward for bravery I think, turning again and again to gape at the vast bank of pink and orange which makes everything around me blacker.
Ahead, it looks as though the path disappears between hedges. I know, from the map, that this must be the Roman road, where I plan to turn west and walk into Cambridge. I walk through the gap and step down onto the road. It’s like stepping into a strong current. I almost step back off.
Imagination. It must be, I tell myself firmly. Yet the thought of miles of Roman turbulence, in the dark, is unbearable. A swift recalculation. If I walk east, in half a mile I can turn off and continue along the Icknield Way to Balsham; an expensive taxi ride from Balsham into Cambridge seems a positive bargain compared to walking this horrible road in the dark.
It’s an unpleasant half mile. I feel poked and shoved with unfriendliness, and where on earth is the turning, because surely I must have walked half a mile by now? I must have missed it in the dark, and why on earth had I thought a walk in the twilight was a good idea, because the air is just as thick with mischief as I had supposed it would be…but there is the turning; a gap in the trees. Two steps off into the woods; peace; the gentle hoot of an owl. I look back at the Roman road. It looks like an overgrown path of no particular note; it feels like the energetic equivalent of the speeded up lights of traffic on a road. It is an enormous relief to be back on the friendly Way.
Since this walk, I have thought about this long and hard. Was it my imagination, ripe for dark misadventure? Bound as we are to fact and evidence, what is instinctively sensed, is, by a taught sensible, doubted, rejected. So there is no knowing. I record it, simply, as what happened to me at that time.
It is darker in the woods, but there are colours still, only just colours, gentle on the eye. And somehow, at that time, just before Florence’s day, the peace of the land by night is more comforting than the glory of the glowing sunset.
I reach Balsham with relief and some private triumph for having conquered a few muddy fields in the dark – the highest mountain has not felt such a conquest, and give thanks to the Icknield Way guide, which always remembers to tell you where the pubs are, and seems sincerely regretful if it has to tell you they’ve closed down. Not so in Balsham. A large pub, a large fire, and a large gin.