"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

On the Roman road with jets and giants - Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Oct 27, 2022

Wandlebury Country Park, signposted off the A1307. Postcode CB22 3AE. We followed the path through the woods onto the beech avenue and turned right along the Roman road towards the A11, before turning back and following the path around the Iron Age hillfort to finish

Patrick Barkham's walk this month was a delightful meeting with a dear colleague for a stroll round Wandlebury Country Park, just beyond the growing sprawl of Cambridge

We had the kind of intense chat that precludes much observation and yet, on a sunny winter’s day, Wandlebury provided a blizzard of stimuli.

It began with an unusually friendly car-park noticeboard, plastered with helpful signs and exhortations to children to build dens and to visitors of all ages to share their wildlife photos, which were laminated and pinned up.

There was helpful information about pond restoration and conservation grazing by ancient sheep breeds and Highland cattle.

Cheerful, chatty walkers headed into the woods up what looked suspiciously like a small hill. The country park is one of the peaks of the Gog Magogs, the infamously non-vertiginous chalk downs that tower 250 feet above the Cambridgeshire Fens. Gogmagog was the last giant of Albion, thrown off a cliff by the founder of Cornwall.

This terrain, where a narrow band of chalk reaches up into East Anglia, has been intensively worked and reworked and turned into stories by centuries of human occupation. Here is history mixed up and spliced together like a collage or sample-filled record, ready to bamboozle and bewitch us today.

Hidden in the damp woods, covered by beeches and snowdrops, are the traces of the vast, earthen banks of a hillfort created by the Iceni. To the north, there’s a Roman road. A 17th-century horse trainer, Tregonwell Frampton, stabled horses here for Charles II and James II. In the 18th century, the stables became home to the Godolphin Arabian, a legendary stallion who sired the finest racehorses for nearby Newmarket.

More recently, the land here has been imprinted by creative minds from Cambridge. The lumps in the grassy meadow are the remains of Cambridge archaeologist T C Lethbridge’s excavations in search of a sun god and a moon goddess carved into the chalk. His fellow archaeologists didn’t accept his wishful digging. This century, the writer Robert Macfarlane tramped here in the snow and drank whisky at the beginning of the Old Ways, cycling along the nearby Roman road to find them.

We walked past Lethbridge’s lumps to admire a magnificent holm oak, standing alone in the meadow like a mad green man, sprouting green in all directions as if gently haranguing an audience. The path meandered downhill to an elegant beech avenue. At its end, we turned onto the Roman road, which once led, arrow-straight, to Colchester. It still runs finely here, muddy underfoot but superbly proportioned and thickly hedged with hawthorn, blackthorn and field maple.

Fieldfares hopped warily in the hedge as we discovered a magnificent, ancient artefact: a venerable car seat (c1987 AD) dumped in a thicket and now superbly reupholstered in luminous green moss.

A red kite floated over to inspect us.

KA-BOOOM!

The serenity was broken by a terrible explosion. Flinching, wondering and looking up, we saw a plane trail high in the wintry blue and eventually deduced it had been a sonic boom. The news later confirmed that a military jet had been authorised to break the sound barrier to escort a plane with defective radar safely down to Stansted.

Returning back along the Roman road, we circled the Iceni’s earthen banks, admired the old stables and wandered through a 20th-century orchard. We’d had a deep conversation, but at Wandlebury, at least, the past was so present that it couldn’t help but intrude – in a rather lovely way.