“Today was a whole season away from yesterday, warmed by a strong west wind and mellow sunlight, hazing down to yellow scented dusk.”
The gales have passed; the thunderous showers too and, in their wake, a palpable shift – the air has changed. Yesterday was the equinox and the scales are tipping. We have reached the great watershed moment of the year and, quietly, spring has come. This year, more than ever, it feels like a moment of great significance, so I have decided to mark it with a ceremonial beating of the bounds. Channelling my inner Palin, I’m setting out on a grand circumnavigation of Ely.
There is no obvious route but one of the joys of lockdown has been the exploration and discovery of all the local highways and byways that have somehow eluded me in the sixteen years I have been living here – with this new knowledge, and the Ordnance Survey to hand, I have plotted out a meandering clockwise path that will take me through a surprising variety of landscapes; out into the Fens, through farmland and the odd patch of woodland, a march along the banks of the Great River Ouse, then a deserted airbase and a fair bit of urban sprawl, some bland and anonymous housing estates before winding up in the medieval heart of the city. All that’s missing is the pint at the end, but those days will surely come again. Fifteen or sixteen miles, five or six hours, and back in time for supper.
Except that, as with the best laid plans of mice and men, I find myself leaving later than intended and, before I have even started, I realise that this will most likely end up being a circumnavigation in two parts. Never mind – there is no shame in admitting defeat early on, and it will give me a good excuse for nipping out to complete it another day. So, with a flexible view as to what constitutes success, I head off into the sunshine, hoping to walk off the shackles of winter and the escape the heavy burdens and tumult of those troubled months.
To walk round Ely, I first need to get out of Ely. An inexplicable wrong turn and then some happy reunions as I pause to greet long lost friends not seen in months; it is almost an hour before I have made my way through the crowded paths and pavements, jam-packed with my fellow citizens emerging from their respective lockdown cocoons. The atmosphere is festive but, all the same, I am glad to reach the snaking country park that occupies the hinterland between the spilling estates and the bypass. This is the least satisfactory section of the route, but it’s not too long I before have left this marginal territory. I cross the A10 and find myself walking out into the fens along the network of droves and bridleways that will take me around the north end of the city; towards Little Downham, then across to Chettisham and onwards, east to the river. These ancient routes are richly named, redolent of the times before the internal combustion engine made such a mess of things – they carry a poetry of the ages; Green Lane and Hurst Lane, Fox’s Drove, The Balk, Kettlesworth Drove and the Clayway. We are still a week or two away from the full glory of spring and the hedgerows are, in the main, adorned in drab and monochrome tones. Only occasionally do they explode gently into early displays of blossom. After the busy streets of the city, I am quite alone – until I pass a true gentleman of the country, complete with the full set; flat cap, green wellies, labrador (black) and ancient Jack Russell.
And he’s right: the blustery wind no longer carries that bitter chill, the sky, now mostly overcast, is alive with scudding clouds and the odd encouraging patch of blue, and when the sun does shine through it is surprisingly hot. It’s a real sleeves up sleeves down kind of day, too warm one minute and nippy the next. It feels good to be out. Today is one of those days when the seemingly insurmountable worries are steadfastly refusing to be left behind, but the very momentum of walking, always moving forwards, brings its own solace. I walk briskly, almost as if to force a spring into my step. After crossing back over the bypass I slither and slide up the muddy track into Chettisham – once a small hamlet quite separate from Ely (school, church, post office and station) but now a mishmash of light industry, agriculture, housing and business parks. On the other side of the level crossing is Kettlesworth Drove, one of the few bits of the route that I have yet to explore; new territory maybe, but the landscape has opened out onto a more familiar Fen scene with a scrappy vista of a taupe grey sky and flat farmland stretching out to the horizon, the muted browns and greens broken only by the line of pylons a few miles away to the east. To my right, where the Isle of Ely rises up from the reeds, a huge brutalist monolith sits – grimly magnificent, it is a factory that, like some kind of Soviet built Crusader castle, commands all that it surveys.
I join up with Clayway Drove and, true to its name, it is a claggy affair, but it doesn’t delay me for too long. I wade through the morass, cross the main Lynn to London line and, before you know it, I am up on the banks of the Great River Ouse, suddenly elevated above the surrounding fields. I can see for miles. Preparations are underway for the Boat Race; the river, ramrod straight for 4 miles between Queen Adelaide and Littleport, will find itself under unusual scrutiny, as millions around the world watch on television. Not so now – I am quite alone, just me and the birds. The walk back, open and exposed to start with and seemingly featureless on the map, becomes unexpectedly varied as I close in on Ely. There are quiet reaches and backwaters, with reedbeds and willows providing shelter from the wind that has picked up. This is bittern territory and, although I have never seen one here, I remember one of those endless summer evenings, years ago, listening to that eerie booming call as the hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the thought of being in the company of that mystical creature. There is no sight (or sound) of them today but, instead, I am treated to a lone marsh harrier, enormous, sweeping low over the reeds. Shortly after, half a dozen lapwings, appearing from nowhere, tumble through the air around my head, and my heart races with the surprise and thrill of it all.
A few days on and I am up with the lark – the light is glorious and, grabbing an apple on the way, I set out to complete my mission. It is cold but quite wonderful; the river sparkles in the early sunshine. I walk south towards Little Thetford and then cut across Cawdle Fen so that I can yomp over the old airbase at Witchford. The weather is changing, and soon I will be bent into the wind and rain in an avenue of hawthorn and blackthorn, the trees festooned in dripping wet blossom, before finally making my triumphal but soggy entry into Ely, the cathedral looking magnificent against the filthy grey glowering sky. But right now, out here on one of the old runways, rainclouds gathering in the west and a rainbow climbing over the church at Wilburton, the vast lorry park at Stretham to the south and the industrial estate to the north, the cathedral looming ever present in the background, I pause. I stand a while, and listen to the multitude of skylarks and their joyous cacophony, singing for all their worth and, just for a moment, I can see a better time ahead.
Opening quote from The Peregrine, by JA Baker