There, beneath the saddle of the hill, where the crops are breaking through into the rocky soil, a distant movement. A clod of earth no longer a clod of earth, a sudden running jumping, halting, skittish thing. Back straight, head up. Then stopped. And all but gone, dissolved and neutralised by this monotony of rocks. Lost again until a dot appears above the skyline.
Chaos. A riot of intuitive, helpless endeavour.
Tumultuous; coverts, tertials, primaries and tail in an agitation of innate fury, the bird rises through the air. Along some invisible channel he pushes up and up. The brilliance, the gleam of the sun off the clouds, the sparkling sky, the glare of it all. I cover my eyes, focusing and unfocusing against the white and the grey. I lose and find him several times in the ascent. Up, up. And all about, as others climb, the landscape is alive to their sound. The chime and jingle of it. His carelessly spilled notes fall from the heavens and surround and pervade and bind the landscape.
When the County heads out toward its borders the chalk and clay overlap and buckle, producing ruffles and ripples in the tablecloth of fen. And here and there hills rise from the flood plain and begin to describe a broad and gentle valley. I’m standing on a worn track that totters with age and neglect along a natural contour girdling this modest rise. The tilled fields are giving way, ahead of me, to something rougher and unmanaged; Campion, Speedwell and Jack-by-the-Hedge blanket the ground that drops away below me. Pushing above these, dried thistle heads attract the attention of couple of Goldfinches, who dip and bob away a few yards as I approach.
There are cars along the road, a kilometre away, but no wind to bring their noise to me; the Skylarks provide the only sound. At a hedge, a gateway, where the track continues and behind a breaking wave of bramble sits a grimy noticeboard. Welcome to Clopton.
The border with Bedfordshire is just the other side of the fields I’m skirting. Along this path much traffic would have gone from market to market, mostly Cambridge to Biggleswade, but every spot in between, and the villages along this line all held markets. Clopton was a Domesday settlement, a dozen or so tenants, a place of worship, a manor house. Farming and eking a living from the passing trade.
More than that, perhaps. There is some evidence that the village even prospered. It was granted a market at the end of the Thirteenth Century and the church, St Mary’s, was reconsecrated in 1352. It may even have been built anew in celebration of such a move (it had a chancel and a nave and possibly a tower recorded at this time).
But the ownership of Clopton and its environs was a messy affair. For years parcels of land were broken up and disputed in part shares and estate wrangles, with owners leaving their inheritances in a convoluted state. Eventually much of the area in and around the village was sold to one Robert Clopton (whose father, also Robert, had been Lord Mayor of London in 1441 and who had, it seems, for his own part, bought up most of the other fractions of the manor). Robert the Younger died without issue in 1471 and everything passed to his brother, William.
Instead of the time out of mind practice of renting out thin bands of earth from season to season, the Cloptons had their hearts set on enclosing the land for pasture, and gradually began to oust the tenants. Fifteen years later, William sold everything (apart from his right to live in the manor house, of course) to a London lawyer, John Fisher, who quite happily finished the job they had started. The depopulation continued toward its inevitable conclusion; even the pastor, who owned a few thin strips of land for tilling was outmanoeuvred, his meagre rows of earth rendered unusable for crop, surrounded as they were by grazing cattle.
Sixty years after the sale, the village was gone, and over the next few years ploughed into and on top of itself. The church, without congregation and falling to ruin, was pulled down in 1660, even its foundations were taken away. The manor house, the last symbol of the village as it was, was refashioned as a farm about forty years later, but even this was knocked to the ground and removed from the site in about 1750.
Nothing remains. There are no stones to stumble over or romantic window arches through which you can gaze. The grass is springy and uneven. Here there was something, it seems, but without the helpful noticeboard even that concept might be dismissable. That there were people here is accepted, but there is almost nothing to reassure or measure. It is the ghost of an idea of a village.
The ground is threaded by paths, but they are the paths of walkers and dogs and visitors, I think. One of these, though, I feel certain, is the High Street, which branches, if you squint more than a little and decide that it must be so, down off the main track and between the two largest mounds. Beneath these, perhaps hardcore and waste. I sit in the footprint of what was the church, or as near as I can estimate it. Across the path the Manor house would have been close.
It has, this hidden wreck of disrupted earth, a crude crescent of water, overgrown and overhung by a mountain of vegetation, that you may be able to work with. I stand next to it and mage-like summon a spell that builds a moat and I spread my arms and smiling and chuckling, I extrapolate the idea, pulling back like some sort of TV special effect, the earth where it sits, dank and still. The ground opens up and water fills miraculously from below, funneling a pretty bank outward and turning it into some idyllic water course. On the new island in the middle, the manor grows at extraordinary speed, brick piled upon brick, stathes clattering over the gaps and wattle plastered across with CGI haste. The manor house builds there before me, rough-walled, tan and solid, thatched, four square.
Only, it doesn’t. The field is full of dandelion and cow parsley. Rabbits mine the banks and the hollows, They watch me from dry and recessed earth beneath an old hawthorn. Its bark is grey and impossibly gnarled. It must be decades old.
The Skylarks’ songs trickle to earth. Two hundred feet above the ancient village, for them, the marks of life and its departure are clearer and starker.