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.