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Authors: Robert Macfarlane

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By eight o’clock I was on a hilltop by a Bronze Age round barrow, looking onto Luton. I shambled through the town’s outskirts, down Gooseberry Hill – a smart little street with neatly trimmed borders and bright bedding plants – past lime trees and health clinics. A postman rang a doorbell, nodded a greeting to me. Cars on the commuter cut-through raced past. Everyone else was starting their day, but I’d already walked ten miles and was tired. I envied them their eagerness. I left Luton’s western outskirts along an alleyway between a cemetery and a row of houses.

Then the ground began to lift and I was soon on the summit ridge of Dunstable Downs, where scores of people were having fun. I sat and rested in a cooling wind and watched children flying kites. My legs preserved a ghost sense of stride, a muscle memory of repeated action, and twitched forwards even as I rested. My feet felt oddly dented in their soles, as if the terrain over which I had passed had imprinted its own profile into my foot, like a mark knuckled into soft clay. How had Flann O’Brien put it in
The Third Policeman
? When you walk, ‘
the continual cracking
of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you’.

That day’s walking was as hard and bright as the first. I passed through fewer built-up areas, and felt at times as if I were moving covertly from spinney to copse by means of hedgerows and green lanes. One of the woods through which I tramped was white with wild garlic, the air heady with its stink. I followed the perimeter of Whipsnade Zoo and saw five wallabies lolling in the shade of a hawthorn bush.

Thomas’s many foot-miles on old chalk paths made him a connoisseur of their particularities. In summer, he walked overgrown lanes of hazel laced with white bryony, whose flowers were boiling with bees. He followed ‘
dark beech alley[s]
, paved with the gold and green of moss and walled by crumbling chalk’. He liked discovering neglected paths on the point of disappearance, ‘
buried under nettle and burdock
and barricaded by thorns and traveller’s joy and bryony bines’. He loved the border crossings that path-following enabled: the holloways that issue into hot fields of wheat, or the transition from tree-shade to the glint of meadow grass. But I doubt he ever saw a wallaby.

Towards evening, miles on from the hazel wood, my body settled into the rhythm of the walk and I felt, for an hour or so in that apparently endless day, as if the Way were endless too, ribboning whitely away across the land, and that if I kept to it there was no reason why I could not walk all the way to the Atlantic.

It wasn’t until last light that I reached Ivinghoe Beacon, whose great chalk summit is crowned by an Iron Age hill-fort. I scrambled up to one of its grassed-up ramparts, sat facing westwards and let the setting sun soak me with its warmth. I took off my shoes and socks. My feet were puffy as rising dough. Across the land, millions of bindweed flowers completed their final revolutions of the day, buttercups returned their last lustre to the sun, the wallabies of Whipsnade settled to sleep and the day slowed to its close.

Sitting there in that buttery sunshine the many different names of the path – Yken, Ychen, Ycken, Ayken, Iceni, Icening, Ickeneld, Ikeneld, Ikenild, Icleton, Ickleton, Icknield – seemed to melt and combine, such that the Way seemed not like a two-dimensional track but part of a greater manifold, looping and weaving in time even as it appeared to run singularly onwards in space.
I could not find a beginning
or an end of the Icknield Way

In the half-hour or so that I sat there, other walkers joined me on the hilltop for sunset: a man carrying a small dog bundled up in a tartan blanket; a middle-aged couple, laughing as they climbed and slipped up the steep side of the beacon; a man in a suit who had parked his car by the roadside and walked up the hill with his body held straight and upright; and an elderly woman who trailed up to one of the ramparts and then stood with her eyes closed, gazing blindly at the last sun. What a strange congregation of votaries we made, none known to the other, foreign as dark fish in ink.

I found my sleeping place at twilight, not far from the beacon’s summit: a swathe of grass, the size of a double bed sheet, overhung by a spreading hawthorn tree and hidden from the path by a ramp of gorse whose yellow blossoms lent their coconut scent to the breeze. A green woodpecker yapped in the distance. Planes flew past every few minutes, dragging cones of noise. Lichen glimmered on the trees. Three deer, black-furred roe does, stepped from the wood. One looked across at me, its eyeshine gleaming gold with the last light, then all three moved off westwards along the chalk tracks. As I was falling asleep, the image rose in my mind of white path meeting white path, a webwork of tracks that ran to the shores of the land, and then on and out beyond them.

Silt

 

The silver ogee — The deadliest paths in England — Patrick Arnold — A causeway to the mirror-world — Crossing the border — The First Emperor Qin — The Colinda Point — Doggerland — A myriad of ogees — Our relieved discovery of the Maypole — Doublings — Thought as sensational — Landfall at Asplin Head — Shore-visions & rivers on the rise — Xenotopias — Cognitive dissonance in isotropic spaces — Danger at the outermost point — Mirage as authentic vision — The homewards channel.

 

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.

If you consult a large-scale map of the Essex coastline between the River Crouch and the River Thames, you will see a footpath – its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes – leaving the land at a place called Wakering Stairs and then heading due east, straight out to sea. Several hundred yards offshore, it curls north-east and runs in this direction for around three miles, still offshore, before cutting back to make landfall at Fisherman’s Head, the uppermost tip of a large, low-lying and little-known marshy island called Foulness.

This is the Broomway, allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Broomway is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries; it seems likely that there were other victims whose fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard; the bodies of the other known dead were not recovered. If the Broomway hadn’t existed, Wilkie Collins might have had to invent it. Edwardian newspapers, alert to its reputation, rechristened it ‘The Doomway’. Even the Ordnance Survey map
register
s, in its sober fashion, the gothic atmosphere of the path. Printed in large pink lettering on the 1:25,000 map of that stretch of coast is the following message:

WARNING
Public Rights of Way across Maplin Sands can be dangerous. Seek local guidance.

 

The Broomway is the less notorious of Britain’s two great offshore footpaths, the other being the route that crosses the sands of Morecambe Bay from Hest Bank to Kents Bank by way of Priest Skear. As at Morecambe Bay, the Broomway traverses vast sand- and mud-flats that stretch almost unsloped for miles. When the tide goes out at Morecambe and Foulness, it goes out a great distance, revealing shires of sand packed hard enough to support the weight of a walker. When the tide comes back in, though, it comes fast – galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run. Disorientation is a danger as well as inundation: in mist, rain or fog, it is easy to lose direction in such self-similar terrain, with shining sand extending in all directions. Nor are all of the surfaces that you encounter reliable: there is mud that can trap you and quicksand that can swallow you. Morecambe is infamously treacherous, its worst tragedy being the death in February 2004 of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle-pickers, illegal immigrants who were inexperienced in the lore of the estuary and insufficiently aware of the danger of the tides, but who had been sent far out onto the sands to harvest cockles by their gangmaster.

Unlike the Morecambe Bay path, whose route fluctuates and whose walking therefore requires both improvisation and vigilance, the route of the Broomway seems to have been broadly consistent since at least 1419 (when it is referred to in a manorial record for Foulness). Conceptually, both the Morecambe crossing and the Broomway are close to paradox. They are rights of way and as such are inscribed on maps and in law, but they are also swept clean of the trace of passage twice daily by the tide. What do you call a path that is no path? A riddle? A sequence of compass bearings? A deathtrap?

The geology and archaeology of the Broomway are disputed. Various theories have been proposed to explain its existence, including that it sits on top of a durable reef of chalk. Certainly, it takes its name from the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.

Until 1932, the Broomway was the only means of getting to and from Foulness save by boat, for the island was isolated from the mainland by uncrossable creeks and stretches of mud known as the Black Grounds. For centuries, hazel wattles were bound and laid as floating causeways to enable safe passage over the Black Grounds and onto the sands (these causeways were analogous in technology and principle to the Sweet Track in Somerset).
*
At some point the wattles were replaced with jetties of rubble. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coach drivers would muster in the tavern at Wakering and drink while waiting for the tides to be right for the ride to Foulness. Several of them died on the job, befuddled by weather, or alcohol, or both. In the aftermath of the North Sea Storm of 1953, when floodwaters killed hundreds of people along the English east coast, the Broomway was the only reliable means of access to Foulness: army vehicles raced back and forth along its firm sand, evacuating the dead and the injured. The island is currently owned by the Ministry of Defence, which purchased it during the First World War for ‘research purposes’ and which continues to conduct artillery firing tests out over the sands.

I have for years wanted to walk the Broomway, but have for years been deterred from doing so by its reputation. Shortly after returning from the Icknield Way, however, a friend put me in contact with a man called Patrick Arnold, who had been born and raised on Foulness and who knew the Broomway better than anyone living. Patrick kindly offered to accompany me along it, and we agreed to walk the path together on a Sunday, when the Ministry of Defence would not be firing and when the tide-times were right.

The Monday before that Sunday, a letter arrived. I recognized Patrick’s handwriting on the envelope. ‘With sadness,’ the letter began stiffly, ‘I must withdraw my offer to guide you along the “most dangerous road in England”.’ I felt a rush of disappointment. Patrick went on to explain that his elderly mother, for whom he cared, was too frail for him to leave her ‘for many hours without being exceedingly anxious about her welfare’. However, he continued – and here my heart rose – he thought I might ‘navigate the Broomway alone, without suffering any mischief’.

Along with the letter, Patrick had included the following documents: a hand-drawn map of the coastline between Wakering Stairs and Foulness showing the routes of the Broomway and its tributary causeways; a sequence of compass bearings and paced distances; a numbered list of observations concerning appropriate clothing to wear on the Broomway; and some points of advice as to how best to avoid dying on it.

Patrick owed his life to the Broomway. ‘Let me tell you,’ he explained to me the first time we spoke, ‘there was a man called Mr William Harvey, and one day in 1857 he set out with a coach and horses to cross to Foulness. Well, he never arrived, and so they went looking for him. Of the horses no trace was found. The coach was discovered upside down in the sands, and there was William’s drowned body lying dead on the flats.

‘After she’d done with her grieving, William Harvey’s widow went on to marry a Mr Lily, and of that congress was born my great-grandfather. So while the accident was Mrs Harvey’s great loss – and indeed also Mr Harvey’s – it was eventually my great gain. In this way, do you see, I am grateful to the Broomway, and so I have devoted myself to walking and researching it.’

Patrick spoke with precision, and with faint hints of Victoriana. He was a man of quiet honour and exactitude, punctilious with his facts. He had worked onshore as a form-maker and carpenter until his retirement, but he knew the sea well and held the speed record for rowing solo from London to Ostend. He told me stories about the Essex coast: about the fleets of collier-tugs that would assemble in the mouth of the Thames; about the dangers of easterlies blowing big ships onto the lee shore; and most often about the Broomway, of which he spoke respectfully but fondly as ‘an old friend’.

BOOK: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
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