It is the Old West River, the lower reaches of the Great Ouse. It stretches away from the wide channels that go north and to the sea, a gentler track altogether, a meandering string of bright blue threading through the flood plains south of Ely. I park near the Lazy Otter, a pub hidden by a large looping layby that disappears behind trees, and walk out over the A10 and down onto the meadow. It is muddy, water stands in the fields. Egrets and Herons everywhere.
Before the fens were drained, Ely was only accessible by boat or via the three wooden causeways that reached across the marshes at Stuntney to the East, Earith to the West, or Aldreth to the South West. The Aldreth Causeway is the oldest; versions of it may have run across this landscape for as long as people have tried to live here. The Romans, the Vikings, indeed any of the peoples, populations or invaders who have swept in from the east, whenever they saw a hill, the rule applied: they built on it. And so, the Isle of Ely, which must have seemed a long dark safe haven, a ridge rising almost 30 metres above the vast desolate, waterlogged hell of stinking pools and deadly, peat-rich bogs, would have been a key strategic goal.
The path picks up the river quickly. The high banks are unused as towpaths now, of course, and given over almost entirely to cattle or pony grazing. It is hard work, this first stretch, after this wettest of Summers the apex of the banks are soft and pockmarked by hooves, all scooped out to hold tiny rainwater puddles. Each stile indicates a change of tone, though, sometimes it is this muddy track, other times it is well-tended and shorn. Often it is overgrown and the thistles and nettles and briars are so tall I have to told my arms aloft to make way.
A couple of miles along and there is a marina. I stop and sit on the stile. I have seen almost nothing, beyond the early Ardeidae and perhaps a few Coots. But here, as I take a breath and rub my legs to ease the tickling sting of a million thistle barbs, a Grasshopper Warbler shoots out and dips across the hedges before me. The dark scalloped coverts, gorgeous warm chestnut and black, they focus for an instant, and are gone. Down by the marina, the boat names announce retirement choices and the determination to do very little; people are busy trying not to be busy. It is not even 9.30, a Sunday morning in July.
Woven into the natural and the human history of the Fens is the folkloric figure of Hereward (often, and erroneously, dubbed “the Wake”). He was, very likely, the exiled son of a powerful Lincolnshire thegn, sent from England prior to the Norman invasion to fight in a mess of conflicts as a soldier of fortune in Western Flanders. On his return to England, post-Harold, post-Hastings, post-Harrying of the North, he discovered that his country was overrun and that his estates had been confiscated. Attempting to gather together survivors of William’s cruel policies, Hereward went on the rampage, starting with a violent attack on Peterborough Abbey, stealing its treasures to prevent them from falling into the hands of the new Norman abbot.
I have to cross another road, The Twenty Pence, an old drove road, one of the ancient routes from Cambridge to Ely. On the other side, the landscape opens out quite significantly, the banks are wider apart and the hedgerows thinned and increasingly distant. The flood plains by the river are broader. This is an area that understands flooding well. You realise as you walk through that the river, now tamed, is merely a guideline for what used to be here; a deeper channel, a darker, less happy pulse running through an altogether different world. This is borrowed land, the river hasn’t always been so meek. Off to the north lies the ridge that lifts out of the plain, a sudden corrugation in the flat monotony. It is this elevation that hosts the fine villages of Haddenham, also known by many in these parts as Haddenham-on-the Hill, Wilburton, and Sutton-in-the-Isle. And, further along, Ely, the cathedral city that gives the upland seam its name.
Using local knowledge, crossing on to the Isle and securing it as his centre of operations, Hereward set about creating as much nuisance as he could possibly manage. Reinforced by Earls coming in from the North, his actions soon caught the attention of William the Bastard himself.
The river is peaceful under the sun. It is, for once, swelteringly hot, and my clothes, saturated by the various battles with rain-holding undergrowth, are now bone dry. I sweep the ridge with my binoculars and see the Barn Owl hovering above a potato field. It is bright sunlight, well into the morning, and there an owl is carefully tracking voles or mice or fledglings. I think he may be scoping for Skylarks, perhaps, or Partridge chicks. He is mesmerising, his head utterly still while his wings busy the air about him to support his weight. He drops. He rises again, unlucky. It must be a vole, I decide. He drops again, and is up straight away. I lose him for a second, until I realise that he is heading directly at me, straight on, so that I can barely discern his shape. Right past me he streams, silent, not a whisper of wing as he goes. It is a vole, a struggling little dying thing, upside down, fading, its feet pumping uselessly.
William’s initial efforts to take control of the situation were little short of disastrous. He attacked from the South. His encampment, Belsar’s Hill, still exists; a circular raised earthwork, I have seen it used for cattle grazing, or as a temporary corral for travellers’ caravans. A single file track shoots directly north, nine and a half centuries ago it would have left solid ground after only a couple of miles, to be replaced by oak and elm and alder posts supporting an impressive deck, the Causeway across the marsh. Cut by the Saxons, the Normans were forced to create their own platform. It was a vast raft, reported by some to be hundreds of yards long. Charles Kingsley, in his novel of Hereward writes that it was helped to stay above the water by inflated cattle hides. They plunged the supports into the mud to steady it, but as more and more troops gathered to cross on to the far bank, the Saxons opened fire with their arrows. The Normans hesitated and tried to retreat, stumbling against the bodies piling in from behind. Unable to move, the pontoon soon shifted and skewed into the gloopy river bed, throwing the soldiers into the river. A line of men, a quarter of a mile long, perished, the stories say; men dragged beneath the water by the sucking mud, cloying and enveloping these heavily armoured invaders. “Drowning in the dark water,” says Kingsley, “or, more hideously still, in the bottomless slime”.
The river winds and turns gently, mostly to the West, but it is a leisurely attempt all the same. I look again at the ridge, a little closer now. Further along, Haddenham dissolves into Aldreth, which lies further down the incline nearer to the fen. The name’s derivation is up for debate. It may stem from the number of alders that were said to proliferate here, the Aldre-hythe, or Alder-shore; or it may be a reference to Ely’s saint, Etheldreda, locally loved and known as Audrey, for the well dedicated to her that is said to have been found along the slopes above the river; and so Audrey’s hythe. Perhaps.
Later (the 12th Century Deeds of Hereward the Saxon is unclear on timescale, although it fits the story that it might be late Summer), William tried again, at the same spot. This time, great wooden towers, war engines, roll toward the defenders. A witch, a local hag from Brandon, is employed to throw oaths and curses across the river. But the English have their own witch who urges their efforts along all the stronger. Flaming arrows are cast into the reeds, all about the invaders, sending them back amid the crackling and leaping flames. Day after day this happens. Eventually, William withdraws his army, as his men “refused to face again that blood-stained pass”.
I stand on the bank and watch a barge trudge gently toward me, heading for the Twenty Pence Marina. Its skipper shouts a good morning and as I respond, a Marsh Harrier lifts out of the grass six feet before me. It is a female, bigger than the male, dark brown with a splendid blonde head. She is carrying something, which I assume we have disturbed her from eating. She takes up and heads across to Haddenham church. A hundred yards away three crows rise from the field and make to intercept her. She swoops and tries to gather momentum, to rise above them, but they are determined. The game is up and I see the prize, whatever it is, some ripped open thing, drop from her talons. The crows tumble to the ground then, as if forgetting to fly, dropping on the prey like squabbling demons.
Eventually, William achieved his goal by more reliable methods, bribing the officials of Ely to show them a safe path across the marshes and on to the Isle. Hereward, forced to flee, melted into the reeds, his final story unknown and untold.
There are more Herons, and, happily, Egrets as I trek toward the crossing at Aldreth Causeway. Crossing the little bridge, a Kingfisher nips along that invisible arrow-straight zipwire they seem to follow, from shadow into sunlight, as if someone has just thrown a trinket through the telling of the day. All the kingfisher sightings I’ve ever had have been just that, instances of excitement, nature deciding to treat me to a second of flamboyant inventiveness. The crossing here is quiet and starkly functional, utilitarian. Concrete and iron-rusted, simple. A simple crossing. I wasn’t expecting that.