A sleepless night and the annual confusion that follows the end of British Summer Time has left me roaming around the house at five o’clock. Or is it six? It’s the wee small hours, whichever way you look at it, and it’s certainly still dark out there. A mug of tea and some toast bring a modicum of cheer but gusts of wind rattle the windows and I am restless. At the first hint of daylight I set out into the wild and woolly morning.
It’s grim, although the medieval streets of Ely look terrific in the half light. The cathedral, not so much a place of sanctuary as a glowering presence on a day such as this, stands at the end of the Gallery, a lovely old street lit by wrought iron lanterns, and I walk quite alone, head down in the beating rain. A trudge down West Fen road and, before too long, I am over the A10 and out into open countryside. This is the road to Coveney and the first mile or so of my walk is on tarmac. It’s grey and gloomy and I am feeling distinctly grumbly about the whole business. The forecast is for apocalyptic rain, with strong gusts of wind – I have dressed appropriately, and now I am too hot. Furthermore, I am stiff from the poor sleep of recent weeks and, frankly, I would much rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else. But it occurs to me that it is preferable to be out here, curmudgeonly but otherwise engaged with the world as it throws itself at me; better that than sulking in my chair. It would be stretching things to say that my spirits are lifting, but I am feeling the benefit.
Across the fields and barely visible through the murk, I can see a small group of deer – their white rumps at any rate, but it is hard to see what they are. The size would suggest roe. An invisible cock pheasant sounds the alarm and is ignored by the dozen or so indifferent crows that watch as I walk towards them. Then, as one, they lift up out of the tree and into the wind – stiff winged, they allow it to carry them beyond the deer, where they drop in among a flock of gulls, the blacks and whites stark against the muted background. A gang of starlings, too small in number to qualify as a murmuration, swoop by and for a moment the sky is alive with liquid movement. I leave the road and make my way uncertainly across a field of sugarbeet – there should be a footpath here, but the farmer has not marked it out and there is no obvious indication of where exactly I should be going. The rain-spattered map tells me where I need to emerge, so I choose my target, take aim and set out in as straight a line as possible.
The rain is heavy and I am being buffeted by fierce squalls. I cross the Grunty Fen Drain by the most rickety of bridges and start up a gentle incline. The map suggests that I have traversed a contour – I am now at sea level and will eventually climb to the heady height of 15 metres, with commanding views over to Ely as my reward. The clay sticking to the bottom of my boots corroborates the altitude; I have risen out of the black soils of the fen. Like Ely, Little Downham was once an island; the droveway at the top curves round to the west, following the line of what was the fen edge. For the first time today I am sheltered from the wind and it is something of a relief to be among these trees. I sit and catch my breath as a kestrel tumbles out of the sky in front of me, and it occurs to me that, with the exception of a lone magpie (“aye aye, Captain!”), I have seen no birds since the starlings an hour ago. And who can blame them for hunkering down on a filthy morning such as this.
Soon after I am presented with a choice. The head says to stick with the drove but the heart is tempted by a bridge that leads to an enticing gap in the hedge. I decide to follow my heart, in this case anyway, and I am treated to a delightful path that weaves its way through, and is entirely covered over by, ancient hedges and trees. And with this, my spirits do lift. Charmed, and spurred on by thoughts of breakfast and a hot bath, I rejoin the Clayway and head back in to Ely.