Oh but it’s hot. No, there’s nothing mellow about this scorching September morn’. When it comes to the Johns, this is more Clare than Keats;
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter hot i’ the sun
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run.
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air:
Whoever looks round sees eternity there.
Today it’s me that’s looking round and seeing eternity, all the more so as I’m standing hot i’ the sun with a dozen miles of arrow straight Roman road ahead of me. Not that I’m complaining mind; to be quite honest, this Indian summer feels like a bonus as the nights begin to draw in and the shadows of a lockdown winter loom, ominous on the horizon.
So we have set off with something of a spring in our step; no bad thing – I have been a bit glum of late. A mid-life crisis is a bit of a cliche at the best of times – to have one in the middle of a pandemic smacks of self indulgence. But the heady combination of wondrous sunshine, a slurp of my companion’s filthy looking fruits of the field and hedgerow tea (“it’s like putting Windowlene on yer specs, gives the world a little sparkle”), and just the pure excitement of being out on the open road is quite enough to banish thoughts existential. We leave the small country station and climb the hill up into the mystical Gog Magogs and the Iron Age fort at Wandlebury. Then, a gentle stroll down a boulevard of mature beech and out onto the Roman road itself – it will take us south-east, with the fleshpots of Haverhill awaiting a day’s walk away.
It would be a mistake to assume that Roman roads, by their very nature, necessarily make for a dull march – I know this of old, walking the Peddars Way a few years back. The map showed an uninspiring straight line through an apparently featureless landscape but it turned out to be a joy; the undulating path rising and falling through woods and heath, hedgerow and fields. And so it proves today. We make good progress, pausing only for the occasional blackberry and, later on in the full heat of the day, stopping for lunch in a shady nook. Vignettes present themselves: crows mobbing an unconcerned buzzard: a stand of trees, up on a small hill over to the west: the curve of a newly ploughed field. Best of all, a hedge of ivy in full bloom, alive with the most charming of all bees; ivy mining bees, making hay.
We hit Haverhill in late afternoon, exhausted and, as it turns out, dehydrated. So three socially distanced pints of strong beer in a frankly depressing and deserted town centre, emblematic of Covid-Britain, is probably not the wisest idea – although it is possible that my first kebab in almost twenty years tastes all the better as a consequence. Sleep is fitful, and the morning comes as something of a relief.
The return journey is an unexpected delight. We navigate our way out of the town, over a few roundabouts and then through a country park, before plunging into picturebook farmland, the path twisting and turning through rolling fields and deep into lush folds of ancient woodland. An endless expanse of light and heat over the open fields, the day already hot, followed by quiet and subdued woods, the cool air a delicious contrast. And there is that rarest of things – a complete absence of car noise. This is a calm place; a world of gentle curves and soft colours. The palette is muted, pastels – the grey brown patina of the earth, the eggshell sky and the faded early autumn green soothes me, and I want to stay here.
We walk on, emerging out onto the top of the chalky downland – this is the Newmarket Ridge, continuing the line of the Chilterns, and we must now start the steady descent to Cambridge, visible in the distance, but still ten or twelve miles to the north. Huge wind turbines stand over us: the hum almost imperceptible and the silence of their movement eerie. One field further on and my companion nods at a gap in the hedge; “this is it”. It is a portal – in the blink of an eye we have left the downs and entered into a secret world. Quite hidden from the field, we are now on the Fleam Dyke, a huge Anglo Saxon earthwork that runs for 4 miles, roughly parallel to yesterday’s Roman road.
The path follows the top of the dyke, with a 20-30 foot drop on our left – it is a spectacular thing, albeit in a quiet way. Nature has reclaimed this land, softening the drama of the place. Too big to be ploughed over, not big enough to be worth flattening out for agriculture, the dyke has created a microhabitat, largely undisturbed for 1500 years. And it is glorious. Blackberries, haws and huge sloes hanging like grapes, crab apples too – the autumn fruit is bountiful this year. More than that though, for there is an astonishing variety of flowers still in bloom – is summer late, or autumn early? Either way, the seasons are overlapping. Once back at home I consult the flower book; my memory is hazy, but we certainly saw some of the vetches, small scabious, birds-foot-trefoil and daisies too, traveller’s-joy, in its old man’s beard phase, and the gorgeous monk’s-hood. The cool shade is behind us now, the dyke has risen up from the greenery and we are again exposed to the searing heat. With tired limbs we trudge on.
The A11 provides an unwelcome reminder of the real world but a few hundred yards later and we have moved back through the ages once more – this time even further beyond our Saxon and Roman road-builders, for this is Mutlow Hill and we are standing on a Bronze Age barrow. It isn’t hard to see why this place was chosen for eternal rest – it commands a view that extends for miles. Buzzards are soaring, riding the thermals, the heat rising on this hottest of September days. Silence stands like heat. We can see back three and a half thousand years from this spot; it has remained important ever since, the Romans built a temple here, and evidence suggests that the Saxons used this as a burial site – it is no great stretch to imagine that it was significant long before the barrow was constructed. So, with seven millennia behind us, we turn and head for home and the uncertain future.
The wonderful photograph of the Ivy Mining Bee is used with the kind permission of Deborah Vass. She is also an excellent painter and printmaker, and you can see more of her work at www.deborahvass.com