04/01/10. I down a potent little espresso, sweet and hot, and, breaking norms, decide to head north. Another brilliant winter’s morn, with a clear, bright sky and heavy frost. Very cold, well below freezing, but mercifully wind-free. Every twig and leaf is silvered, the fields are sheets of white, but quite unlike snow. The verges and pavements slick with ice, and I am extra careful, running in the roadway. People are scraping away at their iced-up windshields, and pouring kettles of hot water over wiper mechanisms and locks. Through the village and up the no-through-road to Longstanton (which all the locals use and know to be very much a through-road) skirting the old airbase. A black cat crosses my path, he is a long way from any house, but doesn’t stop for company, and then a single magpie settles on the road…one for sorrow. I look around for its mate but it really is alone. A double omen, I think twice… but I am not a superstitious man, and push on.
The air is so crisp and crystal I can see for miles across the fields, across the A14, and up onto the high ground on the western border of Cambridgeshire, with surprising clarity. A heron lifts off from a field, barely able to beat its big heavy wings against the weight of frozen air, and in this light, it appears enormous, perhaps three times normal size. The road takes me round the former airfield, bristling with warning notices … ‘Entry Forbidden under the Official Secrets Act. Trespasses May be Arrested and Prosecuted’, and ‘Protected by Armalite Securities. Keep Out’. Under other circumstances, I’d take these as open challenges ….
I reach the edge of Longstanton, a long straggly village indeed, originally Stanton and Stantone ‘The Farm of the Stone Enclosure’ apparently, and turn right and eastwards down St Michael’s Lane with the old thatched church on the corner, surely a rarity, and in front, under a great chestnut, St Michael’s holy well, vaulted and used for immersion baptism until the 1880s [actually there are some 100 extant thatched churches in the land, many dating from the Middle Ages, most of them in Norfolk and Suffolk; Sherborne Abbey in Dorset had a thatched roof in the 15th century, and even Gloucester cathedral was thatched until a fire in 1122]
The lane leads on past one of those most curious of English residential developments, a neat and respectable mobile-home park of tiny gable-ended prefab chalets, one room wide, with porches and porticos, for retired Romanies I guess, bright and kitsch, called ‘Badger’s Holt’. Must be settled travellers surely with a name like that? Do badgers have holts? I must ask Ayesha, the authority on all things badger. Holt is apparently, ‘a piece of woodland, especially a wooded hill’ and Chaucer has “every holt and heath”; it is also ‘a deep hole in a river where there is protection for fish; also a cover, hole or hiding-place’ [But see holt on Land-Words page]. No mention of badgers so not apparently exclusive to them. I thought badgers lived in setts, no? So it must mean simply Badger’s Wood, but where’s the wood? There is anyway a distinct and delicious smell of horseshit here.
At last I am off the tarmacadam, and on to real ground as I strike north again onto a wide and grassy lane, treed on both sides, an avenue of sorts, that runs along one side of the old Oakington barracks now Immigration Reception Centre in what must be one of the most blatant perversions of the English language ever, Orwellian Newspeak in fact, for it is in reality a high security, dog-patrolled, barbed-wire fenced holding camp/detention centre for failed asylum seekers who are about to be sent back to wherever they have risked their skins to flee from – back to corruption, poverty, hopelessness, and in some cases no doubt, torture and death. No reception here then. Shame, shame on you, you miserable bureaucrats and paltry politicians! Anyone who has demonstrated as much guts, ingenuity, determination and patience as these poor souls (more than most Brits I’ll wager) surely deserves instant citizenship, a job at Tesco’s, and a bus pass, at least. As I pass the main entrance I notice they have a rugby field. Do they teach the Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis to play rugby then, before they send them back to the warzones? I half hope to see a mob scaling the 8-foot high fence, tossing mattresses over the upper strands of barbed wire, and throwing pork chops to the Alsatians, but I am disappointed in this.
I am heading east again down Rampton Drift, another wide, grassy and hedged old drove road, like so many in the fens, for driving cattle, but from where to where and why I don’t know, for they seem so random. The ground is frozen underfoot and the grass crunches like broken glass. I am still skirting the old airfield (soon to be transformed into Northstowe eco-commuter town – aspirational mock-Georgian houses set in a pedestrianised wasteland around a massive Superstore). I reach and pass over the new (mis)guided-busway, still not yet in operation, that has replaced the old,wild, branch-line railway track, overgrown with brambles, the haunt of foxes and badgers and snakes and lizards and all things wild (where have they all gone now?), and turn south and homewards along the pea-gravel service track that runs beside the busway. I notice several wartime pill-box gun emplacements nosing their domed heads just above the surface, still intact and serviceable should the good citizens of the future Northstowe ever decide that enough is enough and rise up against so much comfort and banality.
My trick in running, in order to keep going, is to adopt a 200/100 strategy, which is to run 200 paces, and then power-(yeah!) walk 100, counting all the time. This doesn’t seem to be working so well today, and I quickly slip into a 100/100 routine, then, quite unconsciously, it becomes more like 50/150. I find I am ambling along, watching a cloud of rooks, some 200 strong, take off quite suddenly from a field behind a hedge, swirl up and around in several interpenetrating choreographies, drawing Venn diagrams in the sky, and then settling as fast as they had risen. I saunter on, having quite forgotten that I am supposed to be running. In front, on every horizon, on the slightest of gravel ridges which rise out of the ancient now drained fens I can see the bunched trees that mark the ring of fen-edge villages of this very flat piece of England – Rampton, Cottenham, Histon, Girton, Oakington, Long Stanton. To the south, a great bank of cloud is underlit by the sun, still very low in the sky. It is windless and almost warm. Reaching the Cottenham-Oakington road, I break into a trot, and manage a 30/300 back home. I am surprised to find that my pulled-down-over-the-ears woolly hat is quite covered in frost.