Authors: Robert Macfarlane
it is about a road which begins
many miles before I could come on its traces and ends miles beyond where I had to stop.
Edward Thomas (1913)
At four o’clock on a late-May morning, on a hilltop somewhere near Letchworth Garden City, I discovered one of the most effective alarm clocks in the world: a sky full of skylarks. Sleep is, I now know, impossible when skylarks are in song, and I now also know that skylarks don’t sleep in. They sing until last light and then they start up again at crack of dawn.
I could have done with two more hours’ sleep. I had walked thirty miles or so the previous day, and cycled seven more. I had broken at least one rib, cut up my left arm and damaged my right knee. I had blisters on my feet which needed draining by artesian well. My bed had been a patch of thistly grass. I
could have done with two more hours’ sleep. But the skylark alarm clock had sounded. Once I had remembered where I was – on top of a chalk down, sleeping out beside a
long barrow – I cheered up. And once I’d limped to the top of the long barrow and looked down over the Bedfordshire landscape, to find it sunk in a slow-moving sea of white mist, I was in a positively good mood. All the while the skylarks sang on, readying me for the long day to come: another day on the Icknield Way, another day of walking the chalk.
Take a solid geology map of the British Isles and spread it out on the floor or tabletop. It is a document of great beauty, its patterns resembling the intricate marbling of an eighteenth-century endpaper. Each surface rock formation in the country is recorded on this map, and each is represented in a different colour. Granite is scarlet. Weald clay is a muddy military green. Lower Westphalian, one of the coal-bearing formations, is an inky purple. London clay is the pink of a hedge-fund manager’s shirt. Significant towns and roads are marked on the map, but in a shadowy grey that only becomes visible if you peer through the colours.
The map shows around 130 different surface rock types in England and Wales alone. In the most geologically complicated areas, such as North Wales, the map looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas, all squirts and smears of colour. Central northern England is more ordered: stripes of rock run predominantly north to south, so that if you read the landscape west to east, from Oldham across to Grimsby, you encounter millstone grit (climbing country), Lower Westphalian and Upper Westphalian (coal country), magnesian limestone, Permian mudstones, Permian and Triassic sandstones, Triassic mudstones, Lower
, Middle Lias, Upper Lias, Inferior Oolite, Great Oolite, cornbrash, Oxford clay, Corallian, Ampthill and Kimmeridge clays and finally chalk. The names of the formations sound part epic, part nonsense; a Jabberwocky sprawl. It’s tempting to lend them hypothetical definitions. Great Oolite (the honorific of the panjandrum of a non-existent kingdom). Cornbrash (a Midwest American home-baked foodstuff). Permian mudstone (a health treatment for greasy hair). Inferior Oolite (the younger twin of Great Oolite, dispossessed of the kingdom by dint of being delivered a minute after his brother).
If you look at the southern England section of this map and part-close your eyes, so that your eyelashes haze out your vision, the formation that glows more brightly than any other is the chalk – coloured a shiny frog-green. This chalk was laid down on the bed of epicontinental seas at a rate of about 1mm per century over a period of about 35 million years. Where the chalk prevails, it does so almost without dispute, other rock types hardly extruding into it. It runs near-continuously in a vast zigzag swathe interrupted only by sea: from Yorkshire south-east down to Norfolk (zig), from Norfolk south-west to Dorset (zag) and from Dorset east to Kent and Sussex (zig again). Chalk is the dominant formation of south-eastern England, and it has influenced the industry, architecture and imagination of that region for thousands of years. It has conjured politically suspect dreams of belonging: chalk as the authentically English substance, pure and hallowed, the gleaming southern sea cliffs offering both blazon and bastion to those arriving from elsewhere. But it has also prompted less dubious localisms. Edward Thomas imagined the chalk counties of England to constitute a distinct bio-region he called the ‘South Country’, which was
in origin and whose signature landscape was one of rolling downs, streams, beech hangers and wild-flower meadows. East and west across the South Country, Thomas wrote, ‘
go ranges of chalk hills
, their sides smoothly hollowed by Nature … or sharply scored by old roads … their ridges make flowing but infinitely variable clear lines against the sky’. This was the landscape which, more than any other, shaped his imagination – as it did that of another twentieth-century artist of the path, Eric Ravilious.
The first foot-travellers to enter Britain almost certainly crossed over on chalk, which provided the land bridge with what is now Europe. At Boxgrove in the Sussex Downs, some of the earliest-known northern European remains of the
genus have been found, dated to around 500,000 years ago. These archaic humans are known to archaeologists as
. The Boxgrove finds allow us – with an eerie clarity of historical sight – to know that half a million years ago ‘Boxgrove Man’ was drawn to the exposed chalk of those regions; that there he picked out cores of black glossy flint (perfect for making fine tools for butchery); that he knapped these cores into axes, cutting blades and spearheads; and that he then used these weapons to hunt and disarticulate prey: the horse, deer, bear, rhino and bovids that occupied the open grasslands. Later, the chalk is also likely to have carried the first significant hominin trails, which probably themselves followed the lines of game trails, and must count as being among the earliest acts of human landscaping. Later still, during the
, when warmer conditions had led to the growth of dense forest across southern England, the chalk ridges would have offered the obvious routes of travel. The high chalk was well drained, so the going was dry and the vegetation was less impeding than on the thicker lower clays. The ridges thus offered ease of navigation combined with ease of passage. So, over time, along their crests, the first real footpaths emerged.
During the nineteenth-century surge of old-wayfaring, walkers were drawn particularly to the paths of the English downlands: attracted by their involvement with prehistory and by the ideal of freedom they appeared to enact in their sinuous motion. A chalky mysticism established itself, a belief that it was a super-conductor of the sympathetic historical mind, allowing simultaneities and compassions to reach out across millennia. On ‘
// Inhabited heights of chalk’, wrote Louis MacNeice – born in Belfast but educated at Marlborough, near the Downs – ‘I could feel my mind / Crumble and dry like a fossil sponge, I could feel / My body curl like a foetus and the rind / Of a barrow harden round me, to reveal / Millennia hence some inkling of the ways / Of man before he invented plough or wheel’.
Arguably the oldest of these chalk paths is the Icknield Way, which rises somewhere on the heath and pine forests of south Norfolk and then runs west-south-west over chalk-land top-dressed with boulder clay, until it reaches the distinctive summit of Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. There it joins the Ridgeway, which leads on through Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire – connecting Iron Age hill-forts, Bronze Age barrows and
burial chambers – and at last drops down to the sea at Dorset, thus linking the English Channel in the south to the Wash in the east.
The origins and history of the Icknield Way are shrouded in myth and confusion. It is now not thought ever to have been a single path, but instead a skein of parallel tracks, sometimes a mile from outer mark to outer mark, following a line of communication made easy by the trends of the landscape.
It is possible that the entire route is post-Roman
, confected into being by enthusiastic antiquarians. Despite these uncertainties the Icknield Way has long appealed to walkers hoping for communion with the prehistoric. It has cast its chalk-spell widely and keenly.
Within a mile of my home in Cambridge runs the grassy Roman road I had followed on my winter night-walk. In spring its wide verges are brocaded with flowers, and for much of its length it is bordered by hedgerows of briar, hawthorn and field maple. Seven miles south-east along it lies the village of Linton, through which passes the Icknield Way.
Just after dawn on a late May day I slipped out of the house while my family was asleep, got onto my bicycle and pedalled along quiet streets and paths – up onto the whaleback hill of chalk, past the great open field behind the beech wood – before turning onto the Roman road. The forecast was for warm dry weather extending unbroken for a week to come. There were sixteen or seventeen hours of sunlight each day. The scent of dog-rose sweetened the air. A crow flopped from an ash tree, its wings silver with sun. I felt filled with a boyish excitement. In my pack was a copy of Edward Thomas’s
The Icknield Way
, his prose account of his journey along the Way.
I was cycling downhill along the Roman road, near the Iron Age ring-fort, when the accident happened. Happy to be on the move, I let the bicycle gather speed. The rutted path became rougher, my wheels juddered and bounced, I hit a hunk of hard soil the size of a fist, the front wheel bucked and twisted through ninety degrees, the bike folded in upon itself and I crashed onto it, the end of the left handlebar driving hard into my chest. The breath was bashed out of me. There was a sharp grating pain in my ribcage. My elbow was bleeding and my kneecap appeared to have grown a subsidiary purple kneecap. The severest injury appeared to be to my self-respect. What a fool I’d been, biking like a dizzy vicar down the road, too full of the romance of the way. I would have to limp home, not even two miles along my first path.
But after various diagnostic prods, it seemed that all might not be lost. The kneecap was injured but unbroken. I had cracked a rib, possibly two, but this seemed a minor impediment to walking. And the bicycle could, with some botched repairs, be just about persuaded to move. So I cycled on to Linton, slowly. A warning, I thought superstitiously, had been issued to me: that the going would not be easy, and that romanticism would be quickly punished. It was only a few miles later that I remembered the letter a friend had sent me when I told him about my plan to walk the Icknield Way. Take care as you pass the ring-fort, he had written back. When I mentioned the fall later, he was unamazed. ‘This was an entry fee to the old ways, charged at one of the usual tollbooths,’ he said. ‘Now you can proceed. You’re in. Bone for chalk: you’ve paid your due.’ It was the first of several incidents along the old ways that I still find hard to explain away rationally.
Thomas followed the Icknield Way in 1911, in the depths of one of his worst depressions. He moved fast and then he wrote up the journey fast, in a matter of weeks.
The Icknield Way
is an unconventional book: partly a guide to the history and geography of the Way, partly a meditation on its metaphysics and partly a record of Thomas’s own bleak unhappiness.
Surprisingly (given that it is a book set in an arid summer landscape far from the coast), but unsurprisingly (given that the geological origin of chalk is both submarine and morbid),
The Icknield Way
is preoccupied throughout with seas, drowning and islands. The chalk infiltrates Thomas’s imagination, changes his mind, stirs deep-time dreams and bathyspheric descents. He dedicated the book to a recently dead friend, Harry Hooton, with whom Thomas had walked ‘
… than with anyone else except myself’, and the Icknield Way – with its uncertain history, its disputed route and its debatable limits – becomes in Thomas’s hands a metaphor for the unknown domains that attend our beginnings and our ends.
In the 1890s a folklorist called John Emslie had walked the Icknield Way and collected the stories he heard told along the path. In many of these stories the Way – if followed far enough – passes out of the known and into the mythic, leading to kingdoms of great danger and reward. Emslie was told of one man who had ‘
travelled along this road till
he came to the fiery mountains’. Another spoke of it as going ‘round the world, so that if you keep along it and travel on you will come back to the place you started from’. ‘All along my route’, wrote Emslie, he had heard similar tales: that the path ‘went all round the world, or all through the island … from sea to sea’. It was, in this respect, a path that stood as a prototype for all others, at last returning
-like to engulf its own origin.
Thomas was compelled by the Way’s existence as a braid of stories and memories. In one of his most enigmatic prose passages he suggested that paths were imprinted with the ‘
’ of each traveller who had walked it, and that his own experiences would ‘in course of time [also] lie under men’s feet’. The path’s sediment comprised sentiment, and to follow a path might therefore be to walk up its earlier followers: this in the hunter’s sense of ‘walking up’ – to disturb what lies hidden, to flush out what is concealed. In setting out along the Way I was turning Thomas’s cryptic vision back on himself, hoping to summon him by walking where he had walked. It was to be miles and years before I understood the difficulties of such a recovery.
In Linton, I hid my damaged bike behind a hedge and walked my damaged body out of the village by its main street, under a rising sun. The cloud caul was breaking up and a lemony light pushed through the gaps. The path led me past Linton Zoo and from behind a high hedge came the grunts and calls of the inmates: zebras, lions, storks and cranes. I passed a thatched cottage with hollyhocks bobbing in the wind at its walls, and roses by its doors. The visuals were deep England but the soundtrack was Serengeti.