Authors: Robert Macfarlane
Quickly I was onto the chalky field-edge footpaths whose route corresponded roughly to that of the Way. I went through a narrow tunnel of spindle and hawthorn. A brown hare belted along the track, halted, regarded me briefly, then pivoted on its hind legs and dashed back off and away, as if committed to the path’s pursuit. Within an hour the sun was fully out. Skylarks pelted their song down, lifting my spirit. Light pearled on barley. The shock of the crash began to fade away. Hawthorn hedges foamed white with flower and wood pigeons clattered from the ash canopies.
For the first eight miles of the day I saw no one at all, and had the peculiar feeling of occupying an evacuated landscape, post-apocalypse or in civil lockdown. So few people now labour on the land that the people one tends to meet on footpaths are walkers, not workers.
I followed a continuous line of bare white chalk, moving by hedge and field-edge bearing roughly west-south-west. I met a covey of French partridges with their barred sides and Tintin-like quiffs; three cock pheasants with their copper flank armour and white dog-collars (hoplite vicars); a grebe on a pond, punkishly tufted as Ziggy Stardust.
The landscape’s emptiness spooked me, and it was an unexpected relief to hear the distant hum of the M11 motorway, growing to a roar as I neared it. The motorway occupied exactly the place in the landscape that a river might have done, running where two chalk ranges dipped down into a valley, and the sun-strikes off windscreen and paintwork lent it the distant dazzle of moving water. I approached it on high ground through the sage green of young cereal crops. Suddenly, above the roar of the cars, I heard someone singing. A ghostly high carolling, intermittent and tentative. It took a few seconds to understand that it was the song of the pylons, a long line of which marched away into the distance. I stood under one of them, listening to the spit and fizz of its energy, and the humming note that formed, with the other pylons nearby, a loose chord.
Great Chesterford was the town where I forded the motorway. In houses near the road’s edge, bird fanciers kept parakeets which hopped around in their cages on faded St George’s flags, chirruping to one another. I rested on the motorway bridge, arms hung over the railings, watching the rush of cars and the heat-waves rising from the asphalt. It was a perpendicular meeting of the Icknield Way (opened circa 4000
) and the M11 (opened 1975).
The middle hours of that day were also devoid of people. There was other company, though: family groups of roe deer which emerged from copses and rode their long legs off through the barley. I found a skylark’s egg, baked dead on the ground, but intact, the green of its shell covered in brown jottings and scribblings. I curled my fingers round the egg and carried it in my hand for a mile or two, for luck and for its weight in the palm. In the villages through which I passed I saw deer skulls mounted on the flint walls, reassuring flickers of paganism in a landscape that might otherwise have been dreamed up by Enid Blyton. Greens smooth as snooker baize. Village ponds with yellow flag irises, in which carps burped and bubbled. Red phone boxes, freshly painted.
Around noon I neared the outskirts of Royston. Here, the path of the old Icknield Way aligned with the main A-road through the town. The hedges and field entrances were blocked with fly-tipped rubbish: computer monitors, inner tubes, carpet strips, a vacuum cleaner whose transparent body was filled with black flies. Dog-rose waterfalls cascaded from high hawthorn hedges. Shoals of starlings, dense and particulate, shifted above the rooftops.
The place names on the eastern fringe of Royston were pastoral throwbacks – Wheatfield Crescent, Poplar Drive, Icknield Walk – longing allusions to a time when this had been country, names settled on by developers to bump up the house prices or by a planner hoping to improve the town’s mood at its margins. Starlings chattered on chimney pots and aerials – their feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives – making their car-alarm trills, their aerosol-can rattles and their camera-shutter clicks. Their cheery urban rip-rap seemed to offer the ideal welcome to Royston as I walked the busy road, and there appeared to be nothing at all left of the Icknield Way.
Old paths rarely vanish, unless the sea eats them or Tarmac covers them. They survive as subtle landmarks, evident to those who know how to look – as Thomas did. ‘
Even when deserted
,’ he wrote, ‘these old roads are kept in memory by many signs.’ He called such lapsed ways ‘
… roads’; Walter Scott referred to them as ‘blind roads’. Such paths also expressed themselves in custom, law and place names. ‘
It is one of the adventurous pleasures
of a good map,’ Thomas wrote, ‘to trace the possible course of a known old road, or to discover one that was lost. A distinct chain of footpath, lane and road … leading across the country and corresponding in much of its course with boundaries is likely to be an ancient way.’
This was Thomas’s wager: that the old persisted alongside and despite the new, surviving as echoes and shadows, detectable by an acute mind and eye. For him, map-reading approached mysticism: he described it as an ‘old power’, of which only a few people had the ‘glimmerings’. He approached paths as not only solitary places but also sociable ones, where once-silenced voices might be heard. In his poem ‘Aspens’ he imagined that the wind-stirred trees at an old crossroads were giving whispered voice to a now-vanished village, and he eavesdropped on ‘
the clink, the hum
, the roar, the random singing’ of old smithies and inns. He liked to follow lines of white-beams, the tree most associated with paths in the chalk counties, and the tree’s fallen leaves – which lie often with their silvery undersides uppermost, and can preserve their pallor until the following spring – reminded him of Hansel and Gretel’s pebble trail.
Thomas was correct to think that long-term acts of wayfaring leave long-lived imprints. In the early twentieth century, much amateur energy was devoted to discovering and taxonomizing such marks: the furrows of forgotten tracks, the aligned scatters of
(worked stones, dating from early phases of human occupation), the back-filled boundary ditches whose routes shimmered into view during rain or drought. Closely examined, the countryside revealed itself to be full of ‘
’. A shadow-site was the relic trace of a path, earthwork, post hole or ditch, hidden often in plain view but apparent only under certain circumstances – especially when the sun was low and bright, throwing its light at a slant and thereby lending revelatory shadows to the land.
The rise of aerial photography – developed first as a military technique but diverted after the First World War into archaeological research – also meant that these shadow-sites could be seen from above, from which perspective their patterns often stood out against the ground-level confusions. Landscape ghosts that had lain unseen for millennia suddenly reappeared. Aerial photography, as the historian Kitty Hauser has written, made possible ‘
innumerable queer resurrections
’, offering assurances that ‘no site, however flattened out, is really lost to knowledge’. One such resurrection occurred thanks to Major George Allen, an early pioneer of aerial photography as an archaeological aid, who designed and constructed a large camera that he could manipulate while flying solo. In the winter of 1936, after heavy rain, Allen flew over the Icknield Way near Royston and took one of his best photographs. Horizontally across the image run a series of near-parallel lines. Uppermost of these is a railway track, upon which a train happens to be chuffing eastwards, trailing a long plume of steam. Below that is a road upon which a single car is driving westwards. Concealed to the passengers of either train or car, but clear to the bird’s-eye view of the camera, are other lines in the landscape: the dark streaks of back-filled Iron Age ditches running north–south, medieval field boundaries, and – within a few yards of the Tarmac – the white rutted tracks of the Icknield Way itself. ‘
What is astonishing to the point of uncanniness
,’ writes Hauser finely of this image, ‘is the way in which these ancient features … secretly share the landscape with the living, as they go about their business.’
I held Allen’s photograph in my mind’s eye as I walked the stretch of the Way between Royston and Baldock: the alignments of old path, new road and railway track, the co-present ghosts of the former and the future.
A white snake on a green hillside
’ was one of Thomas’s descriptions of a chalk path’s motion through the land. The image is brilliantly compressive: a Zen koan. Emerging south out of Royston and onto Therfield Heath, I saw that its green slopes were alive with snakes. Chalk downs rise on both sides of the heath, leaving a cupped lower arena and lending to the whole space the air of an amphitheatre. The upper ridge is crinkled with broadleaf woods into which dozens of white paths disappear enticingly. Other paths lead to the crest of the heath, where the densest concentration of barrows in the Chilterns exists: ten Bronze Age round barrows and a Neolithic long barrow.
That bright afternoon it was instantly obvious, even across thousands of years, why prehistoric people had chosen to bury their dead in such a location. The heath was busy with people: walkers strolling up to see the barrows, children running and shouting. I stopped to eat and watch. The pleasure these people were taking in their landscape – and the feeling of company after the empty early miles of the day – gave me a burst of energy and lifted my legs.
Then came miles through the backstreets of Baldock and the industrial estates of Letchworth Garden City, where shipping containers – Maersk, Mitsui, Hamburg – were stacked high behind galvanized spike fences, ready to be lorried off again. Late in the day, my feet blazing, I rested in a churchyard in the village of Clothall. A wall of gold-green laurels leant forwards over the graves. I lay sleepily among the tombstones and late primroses, listening to the bees, watching the swifts hunting above the church tower. ‘
The eye that sees the things of today
, and the ear that hears, the mind that contemplates or dreams,’ Thomas had written, ‘is itself an instrument of antiquity equal to whatever it is called upon to apprehend … and perhaps … we are aware of … time in ways too difficult and strange for the explanation of historian and zoologist and philosopher.’ It was an idea to which he returned often in both his prose and poetry: that there are certain kinds of knowledge which exceed the propositional and which can only be sensed, as it were, in passing.
I slept that night in a Neolithic dormitory on a seabed of chalk. I found my sleeping place just west of a medieval village called Pirton, through the centre of which the Way passed. I left Pirton at about nine o’clock by a wide and high-hedged path that was obviously of old use, its sides grown with dog-rose, yarrow, cherry plums and damsons. I’d developed the rolling hip-sway of a sailor on shore leave, brought about by fatigue and sore joints. The evening air was hot, still; the eastern sky an inky blue, orange in the west. The chalk of the path gathered the late light to itself, glowing whitely in the twilight. Pale trumpets of bindweed jumped forward to the eye. In the verge lay the part-eaten corpse of a blackbird, its scaly legs severed from its body and placed neatly alongside one another, like a knife and fork after a meal.
Near the top of the hill I found the long barrow I’d spotted on my map. Its tumulus had long ago been plundered and its roof had collapsed, but its contours were still apparent, and at that hour the long light lit it like a shadow-site. After I’d eaten some cheese and an apple, I unrolled my sleeping bag on a bank of grass to the south of the barrow and lay down. My limbs began to stiffen almost immediately, having been in motion for nearly sixteen hours, and I felt a kind of rigor mortis setting in. I had chalk all over me – my feet, face and hands powdered with it, my clothes pale with it – and I lay there, rigid and white, a ghost of the road.
A cuticle moon showed in the sky. A pheasant rattled in a far-off wood. Rooks flapped past on their roost flights. The sun dropped, reddened. What I thought was the first star turned out to be the night light for a plane coming into Luton.
At four o’clock the next morning the skylark alarm clock woke me. A slow mist had filled the valleys. The sky was white above but blue at the horizon line, as though it were a dome and the blueness had run down to its brinks. Looking from my long-barrow observatory I understood Thomas’s comparison of the high grounds of Southern England to ‘
… of islands or atolls … looming dimly through the snowy still mists of morning’. I was on one of the most easterly islands of this archipelago: away to the west, though I could not see them, rose dozens more of the chalk summits.
Those early-day miles were magical, up and down hills, through beech and coppice hazel woods, with a marine light in the beech woods that gave the feeling of walking in cool water. Among the trees, a taste of moss in the mouth; green silence.
Here and there people had used chunks of chalk to write on the grey bark of the trees: initials, stars, or squiggles like the looping signature Corporal Trim’s walking stick leaves on the otherwise blank page in Laurence Sterne’s
. Chalk is a substance that marks and is easily marked – that writes and is written on. Areas of the Western Front, where Thomas would fight and die, were chalk landscapes, and one of the most affecting cultural outputs of the trench war was the land art that both German and British soldiers made there. These were men who knew their lives were likely to end soon, and the instinct to leave a trace was strong in them. Soldiers chipped out flat lumps of chalk and carved them into hand-sized plaques bearing memorial messages for dead comrades: ‘
Thiepval 1915, In Memory of Your Wilhelm
’. British gunners used chalk nuggets to jot joke messages on the casing of the big shells: ‘May It Be A Happy Ending’, or ‘To Fritz With Compliments’. Sappers on both sides created miles of tunnels through the chalk. Down in that troglodyte world they scored, in idle moments, hundreds of doodles, graffiti and messages into the walls. Many of these are now lost, but near Soissons there remain the outlines of fantastical female figures: cave drawings summoned from erotic dreams, there in the terrible dark.