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THE ICKNIELD WAY

An Appreciation

by A A Bishopstone

My copy of 'The Icknield Way' fell out of the handlebar bag as I pushed my overladen bike into the guards van. Hurrying so as not to delay the train, I picked it up and replaced the pressed thrift that had fallen down from between pages 282 and 283. As the train jerked itself forward, west out of Swindon, on a hot July evening, I turned the book open again, spinning the purple flower’s dry green stem in my fingers and began to read..

I lay awake listening to the rain, and at first it was as pleasant to my ear and my mind as it had long been desired....Full Extract

I had set off a week earlier to ride in Edward Thomas’s path from East Anglia to Wiltshire looking for the road which once had taken livestock eastward and luxury goods west, in a time without motors, clocks and telephones.

Thomas began his journey at Thetford.

I travelled there alone in the rain from Norwich to a campsite in the forest outside the town, pitched the tent, slept, washed, ate and packed up again, before trickling in to the station just before half past nine.

There is still a signal box at Thetford, a dark figure inside levering the heavy frames, checking a board and slipping from view. The signal itself is tall, rather magnificent, almost venerable, kind in its duty and charmingly noisy. It brought the train from Cambridge to a stop. From the back of the train emerged a bicycle followed by the Other Man, his trademark stringback gloves and ready smile.

We set off for the Castle Mound. Whoever built it succeeded in intimidating their twenty first century descendents. It was easy to imagine the huge double ditches filling with dead. Defenders would only need enough arrows, water and some hope of reinforcements, to stay forever.

Thetford, Castle Hill

Soon after leaving Thetford we looked to turn off the road and on to the tracks leading south west through the forests towards Newmarket. The first of these by-ways, which Thomas called New Barnham Slip, was guarded by a combination of sand, muddy puddles and defiant ranks of angry nettles. We pushed and squirmed our way through, delighted to see what we thought at a distance was lavender, turn into a field of pink flowered potatoes. “Look! a deer!” The Other Man had the luck that day. Rabbits jumped into their holes at our approach and just once a lonely ‘pee-wit’ sounded above us.

 

New Barnham Slip

The Other Man and I had been forced off our route by the absence of any PH on the map between Lackford and Newmarket. We had to track back to the bridge at Cavenham. The old half barrel bridge of thin bricks, next to the narrow platform built for motor cars, was under the guard of a regiment of tough looking nettles. It was depressing, at a spot where Thomas himself struggled to convince his readers of the romance of time, to look over the bridge and find the stream pumped dry and a couple of nasty drainage pipes substituting for his marsh marigolds and flags. But there was only the Other Man to complain to and he was cheerily unconcerned by the situation.

 

Cavenham, The Old Bridge

We cycled on past the Devil’s Dyke, a vantage point from which to see all history, to Cherry Hinton, England’s loveliest village. An unshaven man, outside the hospital, asked us for directions we were not competent to provide.

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