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December 31st, 2010. Misty, mild, damp and dull. A dismal winter’s afternoon for a final walk. I go north. On the edge of the village starlings whistle from treetops. Collared doves fan their pale wings and croon. A heron lifts off from a garden gnome-pond, majestic against the paltry, painted statuary. Each time I look up, lines of gulls furrow the cast of grey high above – all flying northwest, as they do at this hour each and every day. Still they come. Far out in the foggy fields, gunshots empty the afternoon. There are few creatures about. The way is muddy, black with sodden leaves. No snow remains, and only the deepest ruts still hold ice. From a hidden coppice an eruption of jackdaws crackles like fireworks and subsides just as suddenly. The Detention Centre lies desolate behind barbed wire and playing fields, closed down, the seekers of succour sent elsewhere or back home, where they least want to be. A graveyard of dreams. No more the sound of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan and Somali tears and laughter here. Mute wood pigeons roost in leafless trees like strange grey fruit. The hedgerows too are silent.

I reach the guided-busway, busless still, two slick concrete tracks curving off into the dimming afternoon, a swathe of folly through the countryside. Somewhere far off, a pheasant hiccups into life then winds down, answered by others across the track. On my right, the old airfield, fenced and forbidden. No Northstowe new town yet, thank God, a brief reprise – there is perhaps one more skylark spring to come. The flashing orange light of a security truck creeps past in the gloom, defending the ill-gotten gains of the land-grabbers. On my left, from the curl of the stream beyond, an excitement of ducks breaks the silence of the fast-falling dusk. First one, then two, three and four parties of mallard, five to nine in each band, fly west, overhead, dark duck shapes pinned against the sky. Spring’s last wild brood.

A year has passed since I first set out on this journey round the village fields. A year to discover what was here, and what was not. We’ve come full circle now, the seasons and I, back to the beginning, where we started. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”. Knowing nothing when I first set out, I had few expectations, and I can say that now I know a little for the first time. I had prayed for some special encounter, some final revelation, some hope to end the journey but this has been one of the emptiest, most uneventful walks of the year. It is as it should be, for I do not want to give the impression of a place brimming with beauty and light and life, although, at times, it did briefly seem so. This poor patch of England, let’s face it, is an undone place, impoverished, bereft of almost all that is wild and worthy and free. The natural has for the most part been emasculated, suppressed or banished altogether. It has been replaced by the bland and unbeautiful, an ersatz and infertile reality. Only fleet remnants remain, caught out of the corner of the eye, when least expected. It breaks through, despite the weight of arrogance and ignorance and greed. It will abide. But for now, it is a flight of ducks against a darkling sky. That’s all.


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July 31st. 2010. Rain during the night, ending in a soft mizzle this morning. The ground has had a thorough soaking for the first time this summer. The evening is clear and very still. I walk along the guided-busway in twilight. As my dark shape breaks the skyline of the embankment forty rabbits streak from the middle of a stubbled field towards the edge, as if they had sprung from the earth and the clods themselves had grown legs. For a moment the ground shifts ahead of me.

In a corner, amongst a patch of teasels, is a twining white bryony with deeply-lobed, vine-like leaves and pale scarlet berries the size of peas, glowing in the half-light. They are the first berries of the season, but very poisonous. It is said that fifteen berries will kill a child, though I cannot imagine a child eating even one, so foetid the smell and bitter the taste, so I’ve read. It was often called mandrake in parts of Cambridgeshire, its enormous fleshy tuber credited with all the powers of the true mandrake and passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous hawkers. Like all the so-called poisonous plants it was a favourite amongst the old herbalists.

An unbroken ribbon of rooks passes over towards the south-east in ones and twos and small groups, muttering quietly to themselves. They fly high on a steady course, winging dark against the sky. After counting one hundred I give up, and still they come. Through the binoculars I can just make out, at the limit of vision some two miles away, those near the head of the column disappearing into the night. They could be streaming out from the rookery at Westwick but that is out of sight from where I’m standing. And where they are heading is a mystery. Perhaps to a funeral. It was a Fenland tradition of the last [19th] century that rooks always knew when a gamekeeper had died and would form into a long line to fly over his coffin as it was being carried to the church.

A tawny owl hoots from the trees that line the brook and a pale brown shadow flits down low over the ground and up onto a branch, but it is too far away to see clearly. Eight geese fly over from the north at about 50 feet, all abreast in close formation, silently, black against the deep indigo sky. Their pale rumps suggest they are Canada geese but identification is impossible in this light. As they pass overhead one calls down a single u-whonk in greeting. A farmer is harrowing a field in the dark, tractor headlights on. A babble of excited voices and shouts carries across the still night air from the detention centre on the other side of the old airfield – the detainees are either engaged in a spirited game of football or else they’re rioting, as they have in the past. I cannot imagine how they must feel, having ducked and dodged the authorities in a dozen countries and finally made it to the promised land, only to end up at Oakington Detention Center watching television and playing football, waiting to be deported back to what they risked their lives to escape from.

Back home, a single pipistrelle, no bigger than a wren or large butterfly, flickers up and down the dark garden, backwards and forwards, looping round at each end, twisting and turning through the apple trees, appearing, disappearing and reappearing at breakneck speed. At times it flies within two feet of my face and I try hard not to duck. Two hours later it’s still at it, weaving the air.

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28th Feb. 2010. Mid-afternoon. Air moist but rain-free, and not particularly cold, though I am well-bundled in case the north-west breeze picks up. Still walking, I dare not begin running again just yet. There has been a lot of rain, and every paddock and field has acquired glinting pools and lakes overnight. The parkland below Westwick House is a sheet of water and overflowing into a swollen Beck Brook, which is but a couple of feet from overtopping its deep-set banks. The big fields around Longstanton are as much water as land, and hundreds of gulls are swirling about or strutting by the water’s edge. I could be looking at mud-flats by the sea.

I head up the no-through road which skirts the old airfield, double fenced, bristling with warning signs, screened by a belt of low scrubby trees, and patrolled by security vehicles. I climb through the barbed-wire fence and stalk through the shelter belt, putting up bouncing rabbits. The ground underfoot is spongy and sodden. A hound barks not far off, and, for a moment, I fear I have been rumbled. But it is only the honk of a goose. The airfield is open parkland here and I come across a hidden pond, a couple of acres of deepish water, fringed with reed and bulrush. Some fifteeen black-throated Canada geese are cruising out in the open, or grazing the bank. The only other birds swimming are a handful of white-faced coot. I am surprised there are so few waterfowl as this spot seems quite undisturbed and rarely visited. I will come again.

I clamber back over the fence, through the back lane of the village, and past the black hole of the Detention Centre. The green lanes and driftways are muddy and slippery. The ditches are overflowing. It is not long before cold water seeps into my shoes. On an overhanging branch by the track there is a still, dark, squat shape. Too small for a wood pigeon. I’m sure it’s a bird but it doesn’t fly off as I expect. I raise my binoculars and only then does the shape take life and slip away over the hedgerow. It is a falcon. I scour the field to no avail, but then he appears 200 yards off flying up and away from me. Over some bungalows at the end of the lane, on the edge of Rampton village, he stops and hovers 50 feet up. It must be a kestrel, a wind-hover. From this distance I cannot see his wings move at all, it is as if he is suspended by an invisible thread, hanging in the air. He swoops away and lands on the top of a telephone pole 500 yards away. I follow but cannot get a clear sighting as he is against the light. He looks small and hunched on top of the pole. Three starlings sit on the wire not five feet from him, unperturbed – they simply ignore each other. He launches off and hovers again, facing into the wind, his splayed tail showing the distinctive black bar of a kestrel. After 20 seconds he gives up and, in frustration, scatters the starlings. He moves 100 yards down the lane, and begins to hover again, this time barely 15 feet from the ground. Then he drops straight down, and is lost to me behind a hedge. I hurry to find him, and as I get near, he rises and flips away into an orchard, dangling something slim and limp from one foot, a shrew perhaps. A successful hunt, probably the last of the day. I balance on top of a field gate, scanning the orchard. He is nowhere to be seen. Then, at the far end, I spot him in an apple-tree, just before he dips away, jinking like a peregrine, his red-brown back lit by the sun. He is only a kestrel, a small bird of prey after all, and hardly a rarity (though the first I’ve seen in this locality), yet thrilling all the same, a glimpse of the wild in this unwild place. And, as always, something of a gift.

I make my way south and homeward along a very wet Cuckoo Lane. Little Beck Brook is here like a deep grown-up river, 20 feet wide and the colour of milky tea. As I pass a lone old ash-tree by the track, there is a flap and flurry of wings like a wood-pigeon taking off. A green woodpecker undulates away, low over the field, showing its yellow-green rump. I look up into the tree, and there are three neat holes in the trunk about 15 feet up. I have discovered its nesting site. It must be the same green woodpecker I saw weeks ago in this vicinity. 200 yards further up the track are another three trees, two oaks and an ash. Again, I find woodpecker holes in the ash-tree, but none in the oaks. Perhaps the oak wood is too hard to drill. The parliament of rooks at Westwick House is in full voice as I pass in the fading light. It has been a good walk, 6 miles and my legs are fine, only a little foot-sore. And, surprisingly, not another soul about, even though it’s a Sunday.

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11th Jan, 2010. Route4 anticlockwise. Out well before sunrise so a real dawn run today. It is nicely cold, the sky is overcast again, surprisingly light. I stop to chat to a tough little 60ish woman of the village who is delivering the local paper on her old bike. “Out for a run then are ee?”, and then, inexplicably, she starts laughing, loudly. I am a little taken aback, and then I remember, back in the summer, when I was up a ladder clipping the front hedge, she did the same thing, bursting out into laughter when she saw me. I don’t know whether it is me that she finds so hilarious, or the world in general. I hope it is the latter. There was something of a thaw yesterday, and a refreeze last night, so conditions are icy. On the guided-busway track, there is a completely different feel and sound to the snow. It is crisper, and more crunchy underfoot, with a bite, and where it has been compacted by walkers, runners, cyclists, horses and even vehicles, it is slick and dangerous. ‘Do not refreeze after thawing!’. I run gingerly, with small steps. A couple of rabbits flee in front of me, squeezing under the metal paling just like Peter Rabbit squeezing under Mr McGregor’s kitchen-garden gate, a favourite childhood image that comes back to me after half a century. Away from the street lights now the snow in the fields has a definite bluish tinge.

I turn west onto the grassy drove towards Longstanton, and am surprised to find a pair of running shoes in the middle of the track, frozen into the snow, both facing the same way, a stride apart. I’m pretty certain they weren’t here a few days ago when I passed this way. They look fine, but it is difficult to tell. There is a story here. I find it hard to believe anyone would carry a spare pair of shoes on their walk or run, so someone must have abandoned them and continued barefoot or besocked through the snow. I look around for more clues, other items of clothing. I even look in the ditch. Was it that he (for they were definitely men’s trainers) simply decided that it would be fun to run barefoot in the snow, like a Tibetan monk, or was it that he was jogging so slowly that the snow froze round his feet, rendering him immobile mid-stride so that he lurched forward face-first into the snow and had to undo the laces and abandon the shoes. This is not so far-fetched as it seems, for there are reports that the feet of ducks on Canadian lakes and ponds sometimes get frozen into the water, rendering them helpless, flapping their wings, until someone comes along and hews them out of the ice, or hews them for supper.

Past the Detention Centre… no inmates to be seen out and about (do they lock down at night?), only security guards checking cleaners and workers in and out … up the greenway to Longstanton and past the thatched church, locked unfortunately, where I had hoped to sit in the silence awhile. Back on the no-through-road towards Oakington, tarmacadamed and slick with black ice, forcing me to run on the grassy verge, or rather walk. I was just thinking about the lack of life I had encountered this morning when at least 500 wood pigeons pass overhead, flying fairly high out of the west, casting a definite momentary shadow over the land, forcing me to look up. They are remarkably evenly spaced, covering a good portion of sky, flying steadily, like bombers over Dresden. A sight to see.

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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.

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