It was spring and I wanted to climb a hill, but not too far away. Too much driving, surely, equals alienation. Best to stay within a day’s journey on horse or camel back. Let the crabbed soul come along for the ride. No more than one hour’s drive then. I would give in to contour lust, follow Ruskin, worshipper of the Alps, in my own humble quest for ascent.
The place to head for was clearly the Chilterns, the nearest range of hills to Cambridge, sweeping chalky scarps – rise in sober unison, elevate the self painlessly. However, the Chilterns proper, say the Dunstable Downs, are beyond Luton. No one could get the other side of Luton from Cambridge in under an hour. Not me anyway. Formula One speeds in the early hours of the morning? No thanks. So I turned to my trusty Ordnance Survey map for a solution. There it was… Explorer sheet 193 revealed that the first outriders of the Chilterns begin just after Hitchin. My Quest would begin due South West on the A505, which, beyond Royston, follows the course of the Icknield Way – that prehistoric trail which extends some of the mystery of the Ridgeway out into chaste Anglia
There is, of course, no widely accepted definition of what constitutes a hill, as opposed to a rise, or a Mound, or any other kind of topographical feature. According to Wikipedia up until the 1920s the Ordnance Survey used a simple definition to separate a hill from a mountain: a mountain must be over 1000 feet high. This admirably simple and straightforward rule of thumb was, however, abandoned as impractical, and left nothing in its place. Needless to say to try and define what constitutes a hill is even more hazardous and futile. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this walk I decided I must attempt to do exactly that. In the end it was really quite simple to come up with a workable definition. Clearly if a mountain is over 1000 foot high then a Proper Hill must be over 500 feet, yes, indeed, 500 foot would do nicely! I would look for an elevation of at least 500 foot within an hour’s drive of Cambridge. Furthermore said elevation must actually have a well defined summit, with hopefully a trig point on top, from which you could survey the surrounding landscape. And of course there must be some reasonably steep slopes on the ascent which make it a well-defined height. Some sheep and furze bushes and the like would be good too.
Now, it is worth noting in passing that what is often cited as the nearest hill to Cambridge, that is the Wandlebury Iron Age fort, fails on several accounts according to this definition. Not only is it miserably lacking in elevation, but the slopes leading up to the summit are so gentle that a retired academic of ancient years but sound constitution might easily ascend them in on his bicycle, and only get a little bit out of puff. Wonderful spot though it is you just do not get a feeling of being elevated and away from the world, up in the fresh breezes and with a fresh perspective on life. Plus the concrete chimney of Addenbrooke’s Hospital rather spoils the view back towards Cambridge.
And so one Saturday morning in early May I set out in my little car for the wide open spaces of Hertfordshire. After fifty minutes or so the ‘tea gauge’ was reading almost empty so I pulled off the A505 down a B road and rolled down into the village of Willian. This was a promising name, William but with a ‘n’. I was not disappointed. There was a village pond surrounded by willows in delicate new leaf, and on both sides of the road vistas of deep rich meadows, gently rising, and with some very frisky cows gambolling over tussocky grass. There was an inn, and a post office with tea shop attached. Here I sat at a wooden table next to some flock wallpaper that proved to be with out any texture, only printed. Never mind. I took out my map and the two middle aged ladies at the table opposite made encouraging remarks about how it was bright but extremely chilly for walking. I gestured to my scarf to indicate that adequate preparations had been made. Turning to the map I now spotted where I should head for, the place where the Icknield way continues west beyond Hitchin. I continued on through the sub garden city suburbs into Hitchin. Passing a wonderful looking 2nd hand bookshop in a rambling gabled building I made a mental note to come back there sometime, and continued beyond the town centre up the Bedford road. Here on the left was a small side road lined with lime trees and various arts and crafts style villas. Backpack on shoulder I set off on foot into a bitterly chilly breeze cutting through bright spring sunshine. Soon the metalled road gave out and a track through the fields unfolded in front of me. A word about tracks. There are ordinary tracks through fields, bridle paths, or farm tracks, and there are other tracks which seem to have an ancient aura about them. Naturally these were the ones that I was hoping to find. I was not disappointed. In fact this very first track leading west towards the Chilterns and, certainly, marked on my map in Gothic lettering as the ‘Icknield Way’ was just what I had hoped for. It was a broad grassy track, but within the grassy sward were several more or less parallel gently undulating ribbons of white chalky earth, indicating a variations on the path. On either side were thick rambling hedges, with the May blossom just passing over into a rusty pink surf, a little tawdry but wild and lovely still. By counting how many species every five yards I could tell that they were indeed ancient hedgerows. I followed one of the chalky ribbons on its ambling course. Close by the hedges on both sides were violets half hidden by the newly springing grass and cow parsley, and also many cowslips jigging in the breeze. A fine brave sight.
But what was this? A footpath sign, labeled ‘Icknield Way’, sending the walker off at right angles along a nondescript path by a field edge. Surely there must be some mistake! I consulted the map, and confirmed that the official way marked path takes a detour at this point, for no apparent reason. Well, I was sure that my chalky, flower adorned bridleway was ‘the real thing’ and I was not going to leave it.
The path dipped down into small scraps of coppice extending from the hedgerow, and then started to rise again, this time more seriously. Now it was more chalky underfoot, the hedges closed in a little and I felt that I was, at last, ascending into the ‘foothills of the foothills’ of the Chilterns. Another mile and we reached a lonely road. The path carried on on the other side, but now manifested as only an ordinary farm track with no hedges, no flowers and no magic. Perhaps the way markers had sensibility detoured after all. I decided I would follow their lead and make for the village of Pirton, to which the official route had made its way more directly. Half a mile along the road (but on the field side of the hedge, a life saving rambler’s trick) brought me to a pretty collection of houses, some of them timber framed, around a village green. There was even a maypole standing ready. Beyond the green a series of ditches and banks, the remains of a Motte and Bailey. A path running around the edge of this wildflower site, dipping into a weed festooned runnel, and going nowhere in particular, was signposted Jack’s Track. I wondered who Jack had been, and how he got a path named after him. Heartening to see small pieces of vernacular memory, taken seriously, bedded into the social and physical fabric of a community. And wasn’t that what a path was anyway? A memory constantly renewed by each generation, or if not swiftly vanishing. Maybe memory itself, to reverse the metaphor, was a pathway, electrical signals forming habits of connection among neurons?
The pub by the green was empty apart from one young barman. He invited me to come back the following holiday Monday when the whole place would be alive and children would dance around the Maypole. I had to stop myself from remarking that a Maypole dance is a fertility ritual and perhaps more suited to young adults, and that it should be followed by a night of revels in the woods in which ‘many a maid goes out but few return’.
The continuation of the way led almost immediately from the village centre up a gently curving and ascending path with trees on both sides. Through gaps in the hedge a glowing damask field of oil seed flowers was visible, and beyond low, pleated hills capped with woods, also glowing with a soft flames of bronzey green. A noonday feast for the eyes, a surreal carnival of spring colours, a challenge to stay there calm and alive and allow the optic nerves to soak it in without overloading. People complain of oil seed (contracted to a dismissive rape) as unnatural, hyper intense, a postmodern crop that does not belong here. But what about the sunflowers of Provence I ask? Natural and traditional enough. And if a new crop gives England a touch of Provence for a few weeks every year I for one am not inclined to complain.
The path rises more seriously, still curving. The banks to each side get higher and there are some adolescent beech trees growing from the tops. There is nothing I like more than a beach tree in new leaf. No, not like: admire and praise would be closer. The silvered vellum of the trunk, the delicate guilding of foliage above, even the hoary, crinkled roughage of the mast below, combine to speak of the great things of the woods and the wilds of what Edward Thomas called the ‘South Country’ – the whole sweep of the mainly chalky uplands of Southern England, where beech trees, still, thankfully, abound. So yes, this wonderful upward curving trackway did feel like an authentic Old Way, perhaps the folk who way marked the Icknield Way trail knew what they were doing after all. Before long the trail arrived at the first real stretch of woodland I had seen that day, beech trees, but fenced off, and no bluebells, slightly disappointing. Never mind, the path that detoured around it was most rewarding, without realising it I had ascended to the top of a chalk escarpment, and to the right, opposite to the dim wood were wide views across a complex system of folded combes and banks that furrowed the edge of the higher land. This was true Chiltern country, a sight that would have stirred the heart of Thomas, surely, on even one of his dark days. Beyond the combe-land the huge plains of Mid Anglia stretched away, a quilt (not patchwork, fields too big for that) of yellow and pale emerald squares, slightly hazy, but with water towers and wind turbines clear to view on the horizon. Now, I must admit I don’t like the term Mid Anglia. But what better one is there for a view that sweeps over part of Hertfordshire and on into Cambridgeshire? Let’s say the western part of the land of the Angles, held by king Raedwald of the East Angles in the early 7th century, although before long to be to be eyed enviously and then conquered by the mighty Midlands king, Penda of Mercia. So, in honour of Raedwald of Anglia and his lost western marches, West Anglia it is then, and the view across his land is wide, and level and almost infinite.
Before long the path hits a road, but no chagrin in this because across the highway a stile, and beyond that a pasture rising towards a chalky escarpment. There it is, the goal of my walk, Deacon Hill! And 564 feet says the map, which is, satisfyingly, significantly above the highest point in Cambridgeshire – 480 feet, and, in any case, an undistinguished spot just outside the village of Chishill, near the B road for Saffron Walden. Here a sheep pasture rises gradually for a few hundred yards, and then much more rapidly, up to a well defined promontory, that stands well out from the folds of the lower Chilterns beyond it. This is certainly a Proper Hill. With considerable eagerness I throw myself over the stile and begin the ascent. Before long I am scrambling up a slope which appears to be at least 25% of vertical, another criteria I had in mind, the sheep scatter from my path, I am getting out of breath.
On the summit I find a series of folded ditches, which appear to be the remains of a very small hill fort. And yes, there it is, striding the top of one of the ditches, a concrete trig point, just as I had hoped. And, satisfyingly, here on the summit there is a very stiff breeze. The air is fresh and pure, and you can face into it and look out over the wide world. A solitary beech tree is there too, sweptback, and bravely facing the elements, with its new finery.
We stand there in mute appreciation of each other’s efforts, the beech and I. The wind roars. There are no other walkers to be seen. I take a picture of the tree and salute it, then go down behind one of the ditches to shelter. Truly, a powerful spring wind is active today. Later I think of what Ruskin says about the word roar. He is talking about the sound of the sea on a vast sandy beach, and remarks that it is wisely that Walter Scott uses the word when he says “I was born within hearing of the roar of the Solway”. Nevertheless, somehow his thoughts on the sheer power of a single word seem to fit this scene, on a windy hill on the edge of the vast Anglian plains:
No other sound of the sea is for an instant comparable to the breaking of deep ocean, as it rises over great spaces of sand. In its rise and fall on a rocky coast, it is either perfectly silent, or, if it strike, it is with a crash, or a blow like that of a heavy gun. Therefore, under ordinary conditions, there may be either splash, or crash, or sigh, or boom, but not roar. But the hollow sound of the countless ranks of surfy breakers, rolling mile after mile in ceaseless following, every one of them with the apparent anger and threatening of a fate which is assured death unless fled from, – the sound of this approach, over quicksands, and into inextricable gulfs of mountain bay, this, heard far out at sea, or heard far inland, through the peace of secure night – or stormless day, is still an eternal voice, with the harmony in it of a mighty law. (Praeterita OUP 1978, p. 515)
No wonder the mighty Penda was filled with the spirit of conquest. Perhaps he too stood on this hill and heard the same roar, many centuries ago, and felt he was on the edge of the infinite. At any rate it is, for me, a place far enough away and high enough above the plains, to give a feeling of perspective and vantage. I feel glad to have got there, to have felt the wind sweeping my face, and heard the roaring in my ears.