Friday, 27 May 2011

England's Oldest Road

If you look at a geological map of England you'll notice a band of chalk which runs from Lyme Bay on the south coast up to the Norfolk coast near Hunstanton. In prehistoric times this outcrop would have provided early man with easier travelling than the thickly forested lowlands. If the chalk was ever covered with trees it was much more sparsely vegetated and the chalk would have been a good deal less muddy underfoot than the clay vales. Whether there was a definite track in those early times has been a subject of much debate, but what seems likely is that a number of roughly parallel ways grew up along the chalk ridge. Many are now followed by modern roads or footpaths.

The track, or tracks, were known as the Icknield Way, possibly deriving their name from the Iceni tribe. Today there is a walking route, a bridleway for horse-riders and also a cycle track along much of the route, all with many alternative routes and diversions. I started out from Letchworth this morning, furiously pedalling on the trail of those ancient footsteps. I was soon in the village of Ickleford, which gets its name from the fact that the Icknield Way fords a small stream at that point.

I laboured on in drizzly, grey conditions along wide grassy tracks lined with wild dog-rose. The old farm-workers used to say when they saw the dog-rose in bloom "That'll be six week till harvest, boy". But this year it started flowering in the middle of May so the calculation has gone wildly astray. A bit more uphill cycling brought me to the foot of Deacon Hill.

I padlocked the trusty machine to a gate and walked up the hill. The views from the top are surprisingly extensive considering its modest elevation. With perfect timing the sun began to break through the clouds as I arrived at the top. As I sat taking in the panorama two Red Kites flew into view, slowly circling and causing a great commotion among the Rooks feeding on the pastureland below.

Belted Galloways were being used to graze the grassland. These animals are said to be the ideal cattle to keep the grass short and encourage the growth of wild flowers. I cast my inexpert eye over the flora and got quite excited when I thought I'd discovered a rare gentian though I now realise it was just a stunted Clustered Bellflower. It looked good even so.

I rode back by a different route through fields and woodlands, mostly on farm tracks and minor roads.

Take care.


  1. I'm loving reading your posts - great combination of interesting info, lovely pics and lots of nature. I feel like I did this cycle ride with you - wish I had!

  2. You mean your legs ache like mine do this morning!

  3. This looks a lovely and interesting route - I love the idea of treading (well,pedalling in your case) where men have walked for centuries.


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