Icknield Way

A walk in the Essex countryside

By Antonia Leckey

Every Tuesday we leave the village early – before the tasks of the day ahead bite – and walk a loop through the Essex countryside, taking in a very small section of the Icknield Way, an ancient path known by geologists as the ‘chalk spine of southern England’.

For 90 minutes each week we take a turn off the roads of our lives, and join the 4000-year-old footpath. We pick our way up its vertebrae, climbing the giant whale back as it rises and curves through the East Anglian farmland.

We walk and we gossip, littering the track with our words. We strew the ground with our voices, dropping small details of our lives into the chalky bones, where they join four centuries of chatter, a cacophony of voices, of people who have tramped this way before us, and left fragments of their lives coded into the land. Their dreams, their fears, – all packed down there. And now our dreams, our fears sinking into the soil too. And soon the next. And the next.

Poppy field

We have an idea. A photograph. A single photograph each week, from the top of the hill. Where the land rises no more – where the whale lowers its head to return to the depths of the earth. At the place where we stop and look up for a moment, where our vision is freed from the steady rise of land, where there is space and light. A huge sky over the gentle rhythms of land. Where thin threads of hedgerows join lines of grey tarmacked tracks – where ancient and modern knit a tapestry over the land. Where we look out into the distance and admire the tiny coloured box of a farmhouse, and the three Cyprus trees on the hillside that lend an air of glamour – we could be in Italy we sometimes declare giddily in the heat of a summer’s day. 

Wouldn’t it be good, we have mused on more than one occasion, to document this scene? To show the  canvas of change we witness through the year on our weekly walks. To hold its glorious festival of colour as a series of slowly changing images. To share, for example, with others the astounding electric fanfare in spring, as the earth sparks into life and the fields turn an endless unnatural yellow in the bloom of oil seed rape fields. To show how it is painted away by the lazy wash of green seas of wheat in summer. To capture that single cloud that passes over, light and white, when we look up into the sky, but revealed as a darkened blot spilling over the fields when we lower our gaze. 

And to share with others the sad beauty that replaces all that colour – as all is lost to the brown fists of churned earth in autumn, and the wet air mizzles and drizzles our faces. And the land blushes poppies in a final stirring of life before leaving us – and we are wrapped up to defend against the ear-aching side wind as once again we climb the back-bone of path.

But we never take the photo. Perhaps it is because we could never really capture the detail. It wouldn’t show the darting yellow hammer that flits along beside us, in and out of the same section of hedge each time – either welcoming us or seeing us off – we can never be sure. It wouldn’t capture the skylark that rises improbably from the middle of the field – a straight line up into the blue skies of spring. No one would see as we do the hare that flies by, pausing sometimes to stare – as if to question – but never waiting for the answer. It wouldn’t capture the groups of fearful deer, running in distance, their white tails flashing panic, on and off, like uncertain torches. 

It is at the top of the hill that our route turns away from the old Icknield Way and leads us back to the village. Back to our lives. And the idea of the photo stays there, on the hill, in all the space and light, forgotten once again. We head back, each Tuesday, still chattering, and join the track that leads between fizzing hedgerows of hawthorn and brambles back home. We march back, past the howling kennels, past the wheelie bins for the farmhouse. Back to the village, where the sound of the m11 is a humming backdrop. That huge ripping torrent of a by-way – laying down its own imprint, recording lives as other people in their sealed metal capsules tear along, leaving as they go a wake of life recorded in concrete. To be revealed and pondered as ancient one day.

Icknield Way essex
Icknield Way by Antonia Leckey

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