In the spirit of historical investigation, and with not much else to do, we have decided to recreate William le Batard’s march on Ely. A yomp through the very southern edge of the Fens from Histon to Rampton, skirting round the latter while keeping Willingham to our left, before heading towards the Iron Age fort at Belsar’s Hill. Then swerving north-east for a few miles to the Aldreth Causeway, across the floodplains of the Great River Ouse into Aldreth itself; the gateway to the Isle of Ely.
The Normans made repeated efforts to get through these plashy fens in order to crush the last enclave of Saxon opposition, but it proved tricky, forcing them into ever more desperate methods of attack. They constructed a wooden causeway across the marshes, which sank, so they recruited a witch to scare the English into submission. Curses and hexes rained down on the defenders’ ears, all to no avail. In the end, they resorted to the more tried and tested method of bribery. The monks of Ely eagerly trousered the loot, showed the invading armies the way through the bog, and the English resistance had come to an end. Our approach will be less dramatic. Shame, because the weather, and my mood, could benefit from a dose of witchiness.
We made our first assault a few weeks back on a truly miserable day, slithering our way along endless bridleways of ankledeep mud, but an elementary navigational error (“well, it didn’t look that far on the map”) and with the annual changing of the clocks forever a surprise, the early onset of darkness defeated us and we had to turn back, still miles from our destination. So we have reconvened to see the job through to the bitter end, despite torrential rain and a distinctly unpromising forecast. But the deluge has stopped by the time I pull up at our rendezvous, a mile or so off the main road up a bumpy and unprepossessing drove and, wonder of wonders, we have blue sky and sunshine. We set off, squelching along the sodden track with high hopes of seeing this through without a soaking.
I like it out here. It is unremarkable countryside but, after living in these parts for a decade and a half, it has begun to feel familiar to me. The geography is easy; to the south and east, beyond Cambridge, lies the low ridge of chalk hills that form the Newmarket Ridge; equidistant, to the east and west are the church spires of Cottenham and Willingham; and, in front, the sudden incline where the land lifts itself up from its flat surroundings, marking the Isle of Ely. To be honest, we aren’t seeing it in its best light – caught between the full glory of autumn and the stark beauty of the winter to come, this is a scraggy time. Bare hedges, albeit with the odd golden leaf still clinging on, clusters of berries providing welcome bursts of colour, the ground a quagmire of mud and sodden leaves; it’s an untidy look and one that is perhaps reflected in our respective moods, subdued both.
However, as we ease into the walk, falling into a measured rhythm, the tensions subside and the conversation begins to unfold. The pace allows for thoughts and ideas to develop and theories to formulate. Opinions, half-baked or otherwise, can be aired, exposed and worked upon. There are silences, pauses for reflection or just to take a breather. This is the time for unburdening; problems are shared, given space and perspective – catharsis, of sorts, is our reward. We reach the Causeway at midday – the late autumn sun is low in the sky and the willows that grow by the riverbank are bathed in an ethereal light. The water sparkles and the reeds shift and sway gently in the wind. It has a timeless beauty and for a moment it seems as if we are glimpsing the past itself.