the old wind

I walk down to the camp along the pitted, muddy track that trickles away like an apology from Stitches Farm. It is a saturate world. The sodden, heavy end of the year, tipped to the side, floods gathered at the corners. Rain has been falling for weeks now, and water stands in the fields, undrained. Livestock herd themselves away from the pools.

Rooks and gulls gather at the edges and find treasures along these salty, waterlogged lines. They put the hours in, long black and white hours, scheming relentlessly at the borders where they might salvage food. Driven; the omnivorous compulsion. As I walk past they rise then drop again. They keen in annoyance rather than warning.

Stonea Camp, straight-facedly described in some resources as the lowest Iron Age hillfort in the country, sits just 2 metres above sea level. In fairness, large tracts all around it are a metre or two below; and the name itself, Stonea, refers in part to the gravelly nature of the earth at this spot, and also uses the Anglo Saxon sound ‘ea’ (say it as ‘ey’, or just ‘y’)  indicating a place in the marsh that resists flooding. It’s an odd notational tic of the region – Nornea, Quanea, Manea, Shippea – all discreet rises above the flat, still annotated within the distant, uncommon contour lines.

Before the sea levels rose during the Palæolithic, this area would have been attractive to settlers, filled with trees and game and wide flat spaces for building and the new disciplines of cultivation. There has been a wealth of finds in this spot showing a long and varied pattern of habitation, even four or five thousand years ago the settlement seems to have been sizeable, dense, established.

It is a roughly circular area, built up with a boundary walk and then more mounds and structures in the centre. There is a Bronze Age barrow outside the area, where a woman’s remains were excavated in the early 1960s. She was wearing a spectacular necklace made of alternate amber and jet beads.

A dozen sheep watch me as I walk to the gate and let myself in. Fieldfare and Redwing are put up and escape to the ragged hawthorn bushes that ring the camp. A volery of Long-tailed Tits roll ahead in a wave of industry and effort. They live in kin groups for much of the year, and especially so during Winter when they will also mix with other species. Excitable and noisy, they seem both bothered and fascinated by me, flashing ahead like a handful of pebbles chucked into each successive thicket.

Other remains have been found here. The Roman historian Tacitus suggests that Stonea may have been the site of a battle between the Iceni and a force led by the governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula. Within the enclave, hacked and mutilated skeletons, a child’s skull, split by a heavy blade. To the north, outside the boundary of the settlement, the remains of a significant Roman tower and a grid pattern of streets. An extensive development, and yet with no evidence of an industry it seems this was an admin centre only, or perhaps, a statement. The main building overlooked the site, it was two, maybe three storeys high, unheard of, alien, a bizarre structure complete with a hot air central heating system, mosaics and painted wall plaster. The price of rebellion.

The sheep shuffle around, watching me as I explore. A Green Woodpecker sits in the centre of the site and stabs at bugs. He stops and poses, arrow bill thrust with pompous style into the air. He returns to his task, he is unshakeable, as I walk around. A giant tree trunk lies in a long gap, at the end of one of the raised borders. Felled years ago, it is weathered and scarred and grown over by various fungi; deep furrows and grooves trace along the length, some filled with mosses and toadstools. Two miles away the distinctive tower of Wimblington church, a squared, triangulated, mathematical creation, from here it seems unlovely and unadorned, a non-celebratory thing. The Yaffle’s spiky display is more endearing, and he doesn’t even want me here.

The settlement continued beyond the Roman withdrawal. Written records first appear in the mid Tenth Century when the estate was passed, perhaps not surprisingly for the area, to the Monastery of Ely. Domesday records a farm on the site and three hundred years later it has the name by which it is still called, Stitches. It is an old English word, ‘stiche beche’, a mirror of Stonea, meaning a gravelly piece of land. Some labels take some shaking off.

I cannot complete the border walk. The ditch I need to cross is filled with clear, deep water. I trek back a little and cut across. A wind builds up across the fields and begins to thresh the hedgerow. Rooks somersault in above me. Pitching and yawing into the oncoming wind, their feathers in riot against the current, they float against the tide like great pyre-thrown ashes, sparkled embers glowing and dying, roaring and sailing above this lonely timeworn place.

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The nights are cool and I’m a fool / Each star’s a pool of water

I drop Titus Groan down on the seat, catching doomed Fuchsia neatly between its pages. If only it were that simple. I turn the key in the ignition enough to roll down the window, there is a sting of rain and sneer of cold. My shoulders ache from the camp bed I’d tried to sleep on last night.

I don’t know these landmarks. The houses and churches passed, the bridges over dykes and irrigation channels. I’ve moved swiftly and blindly through villages I don’t recognise and whose names have evaporated from my mind as quickly as they pass behind me.

To my left, a ruin. Gathered in a field, a grey accumulation of stones and pillars and rotting beams, weeds sprouting across it in the creases and holes. On the highest point a magpie, perched, watching. Its tail quivers. Another joins it and I am saved from breaking the silence.

I smile at the superstition, shake my head and look away.

But, outside, the sky is full of distraction. Overcast. Thick and grey and leaden, a canvas of gloom that creeps lower and lower with oppressive zeal. In places it is dark, black even, and as I scan the broad flat horizons that stretch full circle around for a break in the cloud, I see there are none. Behind the walls of the distant farm houses and cold hermitical dwellings, resignation will set firm on the faces of the few who can hear that cold and insistent shriek; women and men, wrapped in multiple layers against the weather, look up and scowl back at the angry sky.

I turn the key again, this time all the way.

continual plodders ever won

High clouds are painted right across. The day is whitened at every point. No lines, no borders.

It is the ritual, again. The weekly hollowness. I hand them back across the charred and  bridgeless gap. Smiling, laughing, nails hammering in to me each time, but always cheerful, always always cheerful, because there really should be no other option. Drums in the deep as I walk back to the car. A dull, trapped, foot-stamping echo of my own seclusive heartache.

Afterwards, unfailingly, I will drive. I have a functional and unsentimental relationship with cars. They are simply metal boxes that shift us from A to B. After these moments, though, I don’t normally care where B is. I just take the creaking gloom away from the people I care about, and drive. Most of the places I have discovered these last few years have resulted from such moments. The empty splendour of Tick Fen, the dreary, desolate loveliness of certain pools and ponds, Holwick Scars threshed and ripped by the Northern Helm. Wind-tugged verges and chill hillsides, where I’ve stopped and wondered to which little line on the map I might magically now be adjacent.

There are certain places, certain bends of a river, or bleak hillsides, where I fetch up and by the time I have pulled my coat on and stepped into the chaotic air, I am shifted onto another track. Getting lost, for real.

Or trying to. It is not easy these days, but it happened again at the weekend, as I discovered a track with no familiar landmarks to ground me. When, eventually, inevitably, the awareness dawned – I pulled up at a junction I’d only ever sped past before, and the realisation surged over the levee – it was… disheartening, back again in the locatable.

The horizons lighten. A vivid cold spreads from the East. The clouds rise higher and higher and scallop before vanishing. The sky is bright and beautiful.

I drive back into Ely and park in a street down which I have never been before. There is a bend ahead that leads to a silent cul-de-sac, and, between two houses, a path. Beside a chain link fence and a muddy ditch a set of prints, a fox, patter ahead of me. My mind map is twisting and recalibrating. I am not far off, at the end, squeezing out into a lane that borders the golf club. The A10’s insistent burr fills the air.

Along the path, and through the hedge, I can see blackbirds stamping across the greens, thrushes turning leaves over. I have a thought, growing, a memory of a green footpath sign somewhere along the bypass. I think I may exit just there, and I do. I am a man, that man, you know him I think, on the side of a busy road, looked at with distracted curiosity by bored drivers. Across from me a gap, beyond the whoosh and the helter skelter, a hole in the hedge and other sign.

The path drops swiftly four or five feet. It is muddy and slippery. Tracks are everywhere. Fox, badger, rabbit, smaller unknown indentations that I guess may be muntjacs or even water deer. This hedge is ancient; hawthorn, hazel, field maple, blackthorn, dog rose, many more besides. It has been managed, recently, someone has been along and cut it back with generous swipes. The cut flesh is browning and hardened, though. Maybe not so recently. The hedge joins up again above me. I am invisible to the road, this is just solid vegetation from a distance. Even someone in the fields that run alongside would be unable to see me, but the gap in here is big enough to take a car along, if you didn’t mind it getting stuck.

Robins and Blackbirds yammer and complain about me as I trudge along. A crash and explosion of annoyance ahead, and Woodpigeons are put up as I walk along. It is warm down here, bosky, screened. A decent place to roost and plan.

It opens out and then closes in again. There is a path to my right and I remember a walk along there last year, quietly stalking a a Bullfinch who never quite made himself fully, decently, available. I could nip along there, but I am enjoying the unknown. The hedgrow vanishes to my left, and then to my right and for a while I am walking through open fields. It is unkempt, thistle-strewn land, this, and all around Goldfinches rise as I pass by. Across a ploughed field, boots clodding up with the soft soil, and then on to stubble and beyond that a cricket field.

Little Thetford, built on a small island of boulder clay that raised it above the fen waters, is a tiny community at the edge of Cawdle Fen. There has been human activity here for the best part of ten thousand years, due, of course, to its firm footing in an otherwise marshy world. Five hundred years ago, an agreement on tithes was set up between the rector of Stretham (the neighbouring village, visible by the church spire across the fields), and several householders of Little Thetford. The inhabitants of Little Thetford were obliged to attend the mother church of Stretham on 25 July – St. James’s Day – but perhaps more practical a consideration was that burial rights were reserved to Stretham.

At the South of the village a path passes between the hedges and heads across to Stretham. It is an easy meandering path now, but for a while this was the coffin road, the track the dead took as they were carried to the cemetery over the fields.

I walk it a little. A hazel stretches overhead. Beneath it, before me, a patina of white feathers. The ground is undisturbed. Something has taken a gull from the fields and spent a while up above, stripping it in the branches. It is freshly dusted, this covering, the down is pristine, untrampled, still held above the track by the grasses. I can hear nothing. I wonder if I’m being watched.

The main road runs down to the railway line. Before it a track turns me back on myself, parallel to my earlier route. I follow a deep and full stream, high-sided banks looking down into a filthy brown drainage flow. Water is directed off the fen and then into these channels before it pours out into the Ouse a few hundred yards over on my right. At the back of the village, neat gardens run down to the ditch. The forgotten third of the bigger plots. Waste heaps and compost bins. Rood screens of beech and Japanese maple hide the leave-it-until-Spring messes.

Overhanging the channel an ancient neglected apple tree hangs heavy, still with some wasting yellow fruit on the bough. Much has fallen or is windblown, strewn across the untidy ground. Some can be seen caught in debris in the water. The soft fallen pieces are being torn apart by blackbirds. Whether they are eating the flesh or bugs within it, I’m not sure. In the middle of them, bossing the group, is a Fieldfare. Part of the same family, but much bigger, Fieldfares are Winter visitors from Northern Europe. They breed mostly in Germany or Poland or Scandinavia and then come across here for four or fives months where it may be a little milder. They are plush, heavy, rather lofty thrushes, grandes dames with a covering of grey and flashes of yellow jewels. Hidden mostly in the centre of distant fields they’re hidden and unremarkable, but close up, a different matter.

The cathedral is a clear, 3 miles away, it’s North side now bright white in the afternoon sun. The path will take me along this stream and then, I guess, at some point turn toward the river. I imagine. No, I know. I do know; this landscape is slotting back into place. Thrown and shook and now reassembled. Ahead, a mile or so, and I will click into an old path again, something I recognise this time, and from there I know there will be a footpath I can follow home. The road is familiar, or about to be.