Many years ago, I had a rather whimsical ambition, and I’m pleased to say it was one that I managed to realise before it had the chance to fade or drift or slide away, or whatever it is that ambitions do when they go. It was, and it seems rather odd writing this now having forgotten about it for so long, to find one of those long straight desert roads that go up and down over hills into the far distance, or before they’re eaten by the heat haze, and lie down on it, eyes closed, for a full minute, fearless of the approach of traffic. Not exactly opening the batting for England or becoming a millionaire, I admit, but such is the nature of wishing. Fortunately, as I say, I fell upon the opportunity to scratch this particular itch; while driving through Arizona, the desert highway shifted and sloughed off its bounds and became limitless. The sky was immeasurably huge. The vanishing point evaporated into the shimmer and I stopped my car, got out, walked to the centre line, lay down and took the thing on. I lasted the full minute, I am sure, and maybe beyond that. I can remember the weight of the heat, the hardness of the tarmac, and the car, a bright white rental, gleaming too shinily as I opened my eyes and I stood back up. Satisfying.
So satisfying, I guess, that it resulted in that aspiration being forgotten; like the road in the far distance, dematerialising.
But, since then, I’ve maintained a soft spot for the roads that are less travelled. At home, they’re easy to find, albeit on a less grand scale. The fen roads of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and Lincolnshire afford much lonesome driving or walking. As often as not they’re referred to as droves, although that’s a universal term, and not just one that the East can lay claim to. These are roads or tracks for droving, for owners of livestock to take their assets to market, or, possibly, to and from seasonal pasture. Many of them follow the most ancient marks we have made upon the land; like churches sited on pagan temples, we rarely stray from the patterns our most distant ancestors made in the soil. And out where the skies are biggest and the only breaks on the horizon are church spires or poplars, these droves are straight because they know where they’re headed.
This is Long Drove, an unimaginatively monikered track, that stretches NE/SW through the borders of the Cambridgeshire fenland. This is the start of the flat country with Cambridge and, dammit, the rest of the world just ten miles south, but back out there all is reclaimed and fought-over and hard-worked by generations of farmers and navigators and engineers. And right here, now metalled up to a point, but on some stretches most definitely not, still bumpy and prone to breaking up, this road has been here for hundreds of years. Servicing the farms and small-holdings south of Ely, ploughing toward the larger richer villages with access to Cambridge; it eventually joins up with the Great Ouse, where a large marina, a direct link to the channels that headed out to Kings Lynn and the sea, would have offloaded goods from Europe and the North. Along the drove, also, gravel pits, now set aside for landfill, and the ghosts of a couple of standalone pubs that would have seen a lot of robust business from a lot of robust patrons. The huge, rambling Twentypence Inn that hung on into living memory, its footprint marking the spot where the river and the drove met, is gone finally, now a developed site for a handful of houses.
It is the most Spring like of evenings, the equinox indeed, and into the bright blue the so-called supermoon is passing full and glaring and nacreous. This is its closest perigree for years. Is it any larger than normal? I couldn’t swear to it. It is no less beautiful, of course. As the day gives in and the light shifts, it is still low, but that barely matters out here and the view is terrific. In March, we’re almost always that little bit closer anyway, which is why we have Spring tides, but there are no more extraordinary effects than the ones Selene bestows day in day out. No earthquakes, no storms, no tsunamis. Homer instructed the Muses to sing about the moon, her “heaven-set glow” and the “great beauty arising under her radiance”. Tiny wheels spinning in the immense machinery. The trammelled pathways of the cosmos. Here again, here again.
Fabulously, a Barn Owl and a Short-eared Owl share the stage at one and the same time, one spectrally silent and like a beam of light itself, the other an undulating swooping flurry keeping to the shadows of the hedgerow. I am either too slow or too amazed to use the camera.
Scrambling through the hedge, there is what I can only imagine is a very deep pond on the site of the old gravel pits. Not so long ago, it was believed by some that pools, tarns or meres were interconnected by tunnels. Folk tales recounted how ducks would dive under the surface only to seemingly vanish, and yet in the next village one would pop up as if from nowhere, transported magically by some unknown conduit. This stems from the fact that different ducks feed in different ways; watch a Mallard, it goes all ends up with its backside pointing skywards, but a Pochard, that lovely russet-headed diving duck, pops entirely under, for what seems an age, only to reappear (if you’re concentrating) several yards away in whatever direction it feels necessary. Easy to lose, easy to wonder if something unusual isn’t happening. Out on the pond there is a duck and drake Gadwall.
Gadwalls can be elusive creatures, and here in England, for much of the year, not at all common. Some records will indicate there are less than 900 in the warmer months, but in the Winter this figure is multiplied many times over as, from harsher northern climes they take their cue, that immutable, baffling and wonderful intuition, that fierce compulsion, and they head here. Thousands of generations following the same route, leaving the cold gnashing waves of whatever lonely shore they call home only to return there – once again, once again – in the Spring. An old story retold, an old route retrod.