Tag Archives: Northstowe new town

lastwalk81

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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jogblog4

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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