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Thursday Sep 9, 2021

The Roaming Roman Road - Part One

Posted in Walking Stories by Mike Hall
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This is going to be a walk of mixed emotions, it’s the longest solo walk I have done to date, which isn’t that bad some may say, but in this instance, I’m trying to condition myself to being on my own. Grief is no companion to walk with, solitude and time don’t encourage happy thoughts, I tend to just get dragged down with guilt, betrayal and judgement and having time on my hands, everything gets overthought. So I must try and walk things off so that eventually my surroundings can soothe my troubles and allow light back into my life, well that’s what I keep telling myself.

Anyway, cast your minds back to last Wednesday at around midnight, most of you were probably in bed tossing and turning making your pristinely made beds into nests for the night, others, perhaps putting the cups out for the morning or patiently waiting for their pets to come indoors from the garden, quietly being prompted by whispered name calling gradually increasing in volume as frustration creeps in.

Well! I was faffing with my rucksack, taking stuff out, putting it back again, feeling how heavy it was, then chucking stuff out again only to put it back in, such a boy scout but I’m so used to packing for two, my wife used to “reluctantly” have her own rucksack, I have many a picture to prove that, but latterly, I used to put it all in mine due to her knees. I remember on one long mountain trek, she hurt her knee climbing up some rocks and we were about 4 miles away from the car, I stripped her ruck sack down and transferred it all into mine, luckily, an ex-first aider in me managed to strap it up and help her back with a promise of and ice cream. It was painful enough for tears, but she never complained, such strength.

Anyway, its well gone past midnight, in fact the hands on the clock in my kitchen were leaning heavily on 1’o clock. So I spoke to my female companion, looked longingly into her face and said “hey Siri, set an alarm for 5 am” she replied as faithfully as always, so off I went for a few hours kip, my mind was apprehensive, so many things I had to conquer and anxiety was playing heavily on my mind.

The annoying noise that is supposed to be an alarm, more alarming, woke me at 5am. It was dark and straight from the moment I got up, I didn’t want to go, sadness replaced excitement, the thought of doing the walk alone brought me to tears, I looked at the empty bed, and said to myself, “it’s not going to get any better”, this is life from here on. I was trapped, my self-esteem is pretty bashed up but I have to push through this, I have no choice. Whatever I was feeling, I’m doing this for the charity we set up in my wife’s memory, so I need to do it for her.

I went downstairs and un-plugged all the things on charge for the trip, sorted lunch out and stuffed it all in my overburdened rucksack. I filled the kettle for tea, I looked at the now familiar but unwanted reminder of the “one cup one bowl” life I now have staring back at me from the counter top, again, anxiety spoke the words, “I don’t want to go” in my head, I turn away, out of site out of mind, I thought, but is hasn’t worked since I lost my wife, so why should it now. Tea and cereal in hand I sat in my conservatory and listened to the rhythmic drip of the leaking gutter, another job I had been reminded of for many years to do. I remember her telling me off so many times, “how come all your builder type fix up everyone else’s homes except your own, do I have to book you in or get another in!” even the telling offs  I miss, but then it dawned on me, it’s raining!

The coat had been in and out my rucksack, but now it has to be back in, so out it all comes again and finally with a pull of the drawstring and a snap of the clasps its shut! So quick shower and we are off!

I left the house as 05:50, it wasn’t raining but it was wet, the sun was up there but shrouded in mist and murk, with a press of the button, the car burst into life, looking across at the empty seat, I rub the seat pad like I used to affectionately rub her leg to say let’s go, yet another journey. I drove across to the other side of town and parked at my son’s place, he was going to take me to a layby where there was a town sign to show the start. It was but a short walk to a footpath that would eventually take me to the official start of the Roman Road.

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The picture was taken and my tracker watch started, my sons were both notified of live tracking being started and would act as “Mission Control” for the day. I wear this stuff as  it helps me keep my promise to my wife about not walking alone in dangerous or off grid places, at least this kit can track and display my journey and vitals plus has safety built in like fall detection, over or under heart rates and oxygen take up, all useful in an emergency. A relatively inexpensive wearable purchased on the recommendation of many members of this forum.

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I left my son and started the walk making my way to the footpath. It was warm enough for tee shirt and shorts, so pest spray was liberally plastered over the bare bits plus an odd squirt on my socks and up the trouser legs, must have looked funny from the passers-by viewpoint, seeing some sort of frantic movements being carried out as I lifted legs and arms applying the spray almost like a tribal worship to the weather god.

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The first section of the path was over a bridge to a freshly ploughed dampened field, a feint path could be seen stretching from the finger board across to a yellow post maker opposite. I fired up my Satmap and checked the path, straight ahead, so off I went, aiming toward the marker and along the map route from the Satmap. At the end was a well-trodden path through the hedge and a slope up to a path on the other side. My first attempt to scale the slope met with a slide back down due to the damp mud. I stepped back and took a run at it and emerged on the edge of another field, looking left and right I could only see ploughed fields, but I knew it was to the left I needed to go.

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The grass was wet and strewn with nettles, my bare legs gave no resistance to the stings, just simply got stung to the point they were just raging with pins and needles. My rate of speed through them was hampered by snails and slugs sharing the path causing me to hop and skip fairy like in the dew soaked long grass, it’s a good job no one could see. After a while the path widened so the stingers parted like the palm trees on Thunderbirds Tracy island (yep look it up you youngsters) but know there are single cob webs spanning the widened path, like mountain cable cars over ravines and valleys below. Try as I did to avoid them like I was in some action movie dodging laser beams. I just had to give up and push forward; I was covered in the webs like someone had squirted me with crazy string.

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After a mile or so I made it to a road were the finger board pointed through a hedge to the start of the Roman Road. The road to my left just went to the main road, the road that my son drove down on his way to work, to the right the town of Withersfield, beneath my feet lays a large platform with signs saying Gas Pipe, its significance not registering with me at the moment. I crossed the road into the bushes and was shocked to see beer cans thrown all over the place, and what’s more disgusting, toilet paper in amongst the bushes. Why! I’m not going to be a keyboard warrior, but where in our minds does it say its ok to drink and discard and the crap and walk away without a thought. We are terrible race at times.

Emerging from the “pub and toilet” I’m presented with a broad path, that’s more like it, so off I trot, my pace quickening as I crossed the field. My watch springs into life with a message from Mission Control, I have been mentioned on Zoe Ball’s radio 2 breakfast show, not that I am seeking fame, but the charity needs all the help it can get. This lifts my spirits and reminds me of my purpose and the task ahead. I’m still not comfortable with the prospect of such a lonesome walk especially as it was damp, misty and definitely smacked of autumn.  I cross another bridge and noticed the sign saying Gas Pipe, Hmmm? Seems like it’s following me? There is a farm track and a path opposite into some woods, but I could see that it emerges into a freshly harvested field.

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The path is clear and good underfoot surrounded to the left and right by the shards of wheat their purpose now fulfilled and awaiting ploughing back into the field. Eventually I reach a farm track which is supposed to be the Roman Road, it’s strange that it actually turns sharp right to the path I have just walked, Roman Roads are normally straight, but I suppose that time and the ever changing shape of fields and boundaries have caused it to change direction over the years.

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This repurposed farm track was covered in broken asphalt, gravel and strewn with handmade Cambridge white bricks, rubble from a previous life now just hard-core to fill in holes. To each side of me are ploughed fields, rich brown damp soil lay exposed to the elements after a season of slumber under fertile crop. I am witnessing the cycle of life from this path, the former Roman road still providing a service, passing between the fields into the distance like an artery taking crops to factories to be made into food as it took goods and people to cities years before. I grab my note book as I am starting to forget things and scribble while walking.

I look at the grey  damp sky and the path in front,  I check my Satmap and the remaining distance, “Come what may” from Moulin Rouge plays through my headphones, its words resonate in my heart as I look at my empty hand, longing for hers to be in mine. Guilt says “I shouldn’t be getting on with life”. Betrayal says, “why are you thinking of things without her” and judgement says “people will think that you’ve got over grief and don’t miss her” My heart tries so hard not to shed a tear, but what’s the point, just let it go, no one is around, no one can hear my cry, I’m not cold but shivers run through my body, I don’t want to walk anymore, it’s a bad idea, however I need to do this, so time for big pants and push on.

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The weather, constant insomnia, anxiety and lack of self-belief keep trying to turn me back. I need to do this regardless of how I feel as I need to prove my love buy pushing myself, a form of self-harm of sorts. I look ahead through the mist, a vast stack of hay bales towers like a monolithic cube. It awaits its future as fodder or bedding. Rabbits frolic around it base while a squirrel attempts to climb its heights. As I near the massive, they all scarper with haste seeing me as a lone predator.

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The track passes the site of a roman settlement which has long gone, not even a sign to say “site of remains”. The broad track passes “Marks’s Grave, supposedly, It’s unsure who he was or is it a grave even? But an info board offers some explanation and displays the route ahead, the sites of former land marks, which have now been lost to farm and field.

A road cuts through the path of the Roman Road and as I stand on its edge I see my companion, the gas pipe, isn’t far away, just a few feet below me in fact. To my left down the road is the village of Linton, to my right uphill is the village Balsham. Pubs and bolt holes are available in both as are bus stops that can take me home. I want to go home, my sanctuary from the life I didn’t choose but also my prison that denies me of hope, but failure is a price too high to pay and will leave me humiliated. I cross the road and pass through a steel fortified barrier that prevent the road being churned up by “green laners” in 4x4’s. The path narrows through a glade of trees, brambles and nettles and leaves fall on my path as the day awakens and time signals that autumn is on its way.

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The Roman road still shows off its construction, a heaped wide path curved in profile dropping into ditches at either side, its surface hardened by time and use but still serviceable, built from toil and materials to hand, flint and chalk on this part. You have to marvel at its construction, their ingenuity, no machines, modern techniques or materials. No navigational equipment or satellite to plot the line from A to B, but still it goes straight ahead to its eventual terminus. Thousands of years it’s provided a life line and is for the most part in good condition. Contrast that to our roads of today, we drive on the left, but nowadays, we drive on what’s left!

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There are many paths that crisscross the path, no doubt meeting points for people to exchange trade with the passing commuter. According to the info board, old settlements lie adjacent to the road, sadly long since gone and plundered. I carry on the road, which for the majority of the walk is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields of arable crops awaiting harvest or land awaiting the clinical slice of the mechanised plough. However somewhere on my left is Chilford Hall a winery of note being the oldest vineyard in England and the largest in East Anglia being some 18 acres in size. The owner, Sam Alper, purchased the estate in 1966 and was the designer of Sprite Caravans and the founder of Little Chef roadside restaurants. It kind of makes sense, that he should feed those driving on holiday with his caravans in tow.

Look out for part two!

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