A Solstice Walk – Boudicca Way

In recent years I have got into the habit of taking a walk on the day of the winter solstice, December 21. Yesterday’s walk was along the section of the Boudicca Way that lies between Venta Icenorum and Norwich.

Venta Icenorum, which lies a few miles south of the city close to the village of Caistor St Edmund, was a walled Romano-British settlement that served as the civitas or capital of the Iceni tribe. The town was laid out sometime after Boudicca’s violent uprising against Roman rule in the winter of AD61 and so there is no chance that the famously vengeful Iceni queen was ever connected with the settlement itself. It is also debatable that Boudicca ever walked this precise territory but the Iceni queen is certainly local enough to at least deserve a mention.

Like many recently, it is a drearily grey day and there are few other visitors to the Roman town. I walk a little way along the walls before leaving the site to head uphill along one of High Ash Farm’s permissive paths. Damp and dreich, low cloud has largely expunged any colour from the landscape. The fields are harvested and bare, and the sense of midwinter inertia is strong despite the reasonably mild temperature and lack of snow. Light is at a premium; but the days are changing and more light will be here soon.

At the top of the hill a planting of Scots pine marks the site of an Anglo-Saxon graveyard, a situation that offers views down to St Edmund’s church and the low flint and brick walls of the Roman town. The Southern Bypass buzzes with cars and lorries in the distance. Beyond this, the impassive concrete cuboid of Norfolk County Hall marks the entrance to the city for traffic from the southeast.

The way traces a minor road for a while before dipping downhill into a valley. It then follows a footpath uphill to arrive at Caistor Lane and the curiously named French Church Farm. Another footpath leads north away from the road climbing gently up the valley side. Here, I pass a family – mum, dad, granddad, two kids – eating sandwiches on a bench halfway up. These are about the only walkers I have seen so far. In a field to the right, keeping well away from the mobbing crows that predominate the landscape around here, is a lone pair of Egyptian geese. At the top I emerge at Hallback Lane, a delightfully green, ancient trackway lined with coppiced hazel and ancient oaks. Halfway along is a wizened old oak that is familiar to many who live around here. Dubbed ‘the Africa Tree’, it bears a hollow in its trunk that delineates a fairly accurate outline of the Dark Continent. French Church, Africa Tree, Egyptian geese – something seems slightly out of kilter here.

A path to the right takes me up around the top of Caistor Chalk Quarry, close to the fence that protects it from public intrusion. The quarry is far larger than I had imagined. Steep sandy cliffs frame a deep hole and wide expanse of scarred earth; scattered extraction apparatus, storage hangars and piles of gravel and flint sit on the exposed chalk bedrock. The quarry, I later learn, is the last remaining inland section of the Beeston Chalk formation of the Upper Cretaceous. The exposed seam here is directly connected to the chalk pavement seen thirty miles away at Beeston Regis on the north Norfolk coast. Although this is the first time that I have actually seen it, I already have a connection with this place – a few echinoid fossils gifted to me over 30 years ago by an erstwhile neighbour, a lovely man called Russell who used to work at the quarry.

I join the Arminghall Road and follow it over the Southern Bypass, which is, as always, frantic with commuter traffic. Soon after, I leave this behind to take a footpath across a damp meadow towards the Arminghall henge. Truth be told, the Bronze Age henge probably looks a lot more impressive seen crow-eyed from a drone overhead. Originally, a horseshoe of wooden posts open to the southwest, now it is little more than a symbol on the OS map, a vague rise and depression in a pylon-spanned field. There has been a suggestion* that the henge may be orientated to the winter sunset over Chapel Hill to the southwest. Today though, no sun is visible, and the summit of the low hill, which once bore a church dedicated, like that at the Venta Icenorum site, to St Edmund, is engulfed by the Norwich to London railway line.

A footpath leads along the River Tas behind the large electricity substation that occupies the field next to the henge. A little way along this, the brutalist bulk of County Hall emerges through the trees beyond the railway line that hugs the opposite bank. I pass under the graffiti-adorned pillars of the rattling A146 to emerge just shy of the bridge at Trowse Millgate. Across the ring road roundabout, is Bracondale and my route into the city centre. I am almost home now. Only 3.30pm and darkness is starting to fall, Tomorrow, at least, there will be a little more light.

*See: https://archive.uea.ac.uk/~jwmp/CAA2003.pdf

Thingvellir

IMG_4329a

The winter solstice marks the dark frontier of the annual cycle: that time of year when days are at their shortest; the period of feasting before the corner of the year is turned and daylight and warmth return to awaken barren nature with voluptuous spring. Perhaps it is appropriate to represent this seasonal turning point with images of another type of frontier – a geographical one?

Thingvellir in southern Iceland lies at the meeting point of two continents and two major tectonic plates – the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. Rather than a violent collision of rock, as in the case of great mountain ranges like the Andes or Himalayas, here the plates are pulling apart in opposite directions – the rift valley between the two is actually becoming wider by approximately 7 mm every year. This is, in fact, the only place on earth where seafloor spreading of a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on solid land rather than at the bottom of an ocean. Elsewhere in the world this might seem remarkable but in such a newborn baby of a landmass as Iceland, where it is possible to witness the creation of new terra firma before your very eyes, such phenomena seem almost commonplace.

IMG_4352a

By what we can only imagine was serendipity the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland chose this very place for their annual outdoor assembly. Thingvellir and the beautiful lake of Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, lie at a natural crossroads that connects the south and west of Iceland and so make for a convenient location for large gatherings. It was undoubtedly a pragmatic choice but, even so, the landscape here seems to glow with an inherent magic that goes beyond mere aesthetic appeal. Such magic of place seems to be at its most powerful during the short days of mid-winter when these images were taken. Those early Icelanders clearly knew what they were doing.

Happy Christmas

IMG_4356a

The Turning of the Year

IMG_4891(This winter’s berries)

The turning of the year. These past few days mark the interregnum that sits uncomfortably between Christmas and New Year – a week of virtual Sundays and a period when some of us – those who are self-employed at least – do not know whether they should be at work or not, whether they should carry on regardless or surrender to the seasonal zeitgeist of calorific leftovers, television repeats and relentless retail opportunity. This is a living limbo marked by the dull ache of too much alcohol and rich food, and too little sunlight: rural Scandinavia in a parallel universe on a bad day, where Disneyesque fibre-optic conifers and tattered tinsel replaces the glittering white rime of pines, chain store neon glare subs for the aurora borealis and the petrochemical chug of cars queuing for city centre parking space drowns the imagined crooning of fur-clad carollers, the glassy tinkle of falling icicles and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath sensible Nordic footwear. We are now so far removed from the traditional Christmas tropes that any sense of irony has long been lost, and the multiple identities – spiritual and otherwise – of the winter soltice are now commonly, if erroneously, perceived as having been replaced by Winterval, a quasi-mythical simulacrum close to the hearts of apoplectic ‘PC-gone-mad’ bashers.

IMG_4958 (2)

(Last winter’s icicles)

The weather doesn’t help, of course – too mild, too wet, too windy this year. At least some sort of status quo continues in the back yard where non-denominational  (or possibly JW) goldfinches arrive in pairs to feast on niger seeds as they do every day, a suitably attired mirror-image illusion of avian dandies on opposite sides of the bird feeder. Meanwhile, out in the dun damp arable fields that surround the city beyond the new-build green belt, fieldfares flock – newly arrived winter visitors from Scandinavia, the real place that is, not the parallel universe version. Elsewhere, the TV flickers like a well-behaved heart monitor as a nation prepares for the ritual liver damage and rictus-grinned high spirits that signify New Year’s Eve. Or, rather, the younger ones do: most older folk ensure they are safely tucked up in bed by the witching hour when a nation stumbles forward, arse over tip, across the calendar date line. The circle is, as they say, unbroken. Happy New Year.