We are at Wells-next-the-sea and I am all at sea. We left London two days ago, headed to Thaxted – birthplace of my father’s mother’s great grandfather, Thomas Suckling. Already things were improved, people greeted us on the street, chatted to us at the local cafe, it was suddenly easier to pierce our little tourist bubble.
The next day (yesterday) I read from a book my best friend gifted me – The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane – about the oldest walking path in Britain, the Icknield Way. It turned out that the way passed right by the town we were staying in so I immediately wanted to walk it. We all piled into the car and headed out.
Before we left I began to notice a frantic air in myself. I was getting frustrated with Mum and Dad for dawdling when there’s so much to do. In the car I slowed myself down enough to wonder what was underneath it and sadness arrived. We had been listening to Sharon Blackie’s Hedge School podcast the day before, listening to her and Pat McCabe talk about listening to the Earth and cocreating stories together. I became aware of a longing in myself to slow down enough to speak with the Earth, to catch the stories that are in the landscape.
It took some asking and wandering and guessing to find the Icknield Way but I got there eventually. Along the way I had to face an angry pair of Canada Geese, furiously defending their six goslings. Bird protocol got me past them along with a woman with a little dog who was stuck on the path – Jon Young would be proud.
The Icknield Way is barely visible, a slight compression of grass, a trace of a path at the edge of a field, indistinguishable from a sheep trail. Fortunately their are discreet signs that show where to go. Before I began I gave a piece of chocolate as an offering to the Earth and set an intention to connect. I set out greeted by rabbits – much larger than the ones back home. As I walked I could feel the layers of people through history who have used this path, the air was thick with them.
A light rain dusted the landscape. I was not bothered by it but after half an hour the grasses had brushed the water into my socks and shoes and I was soaked to the knee. Each footstep squelched.
I saw what looked like mint and crushed a leaf between thumb and finger only to discover it was stinging nettle – ouch. Fortunately there was yarrow near by which soothed my pains but not my ego.
I felt out of place. The path was thick with history but it felt like someone else’s. I enjoyed the walk, enjoyed slowing down and seeing birds and even a deer but it is clear that I do not know this land well enough to guarantee my comfort here. I can recognise a handful of plants but most of them are a mystery to me. Sometimes you only realise you have expectations when you feel the disappointment. This is the land of my ancestors but so far I do not feel at home.
Mum and Dad picked me up at Icklingham, I wrung the water out of my socks and we headed on to Grimes Graves. The 5000 year old flint mine, descending 12 metres into the ground, dug with deer horn picks is impressive. The archaeological information gives a picture of people engaged in gratitude and reciprocity, offerings carefully placed, fires lit, evidence of ritual practice. Again I could feel the history of the place, sense the people that lived here and how they lived. I am grateful for their example and the opportunity to experience it and again I felt no stirring of connection.
It was not until I stopped to write that I could get a handle on what was going on for me. Grief had dogged my steps all day but I wasn’t able to pin it to any particular experience or idea. Instead I blocked it with silence, pettiness and irritation. Finally, in writing, I pealed back the layers of myself and found this growing sense of alienation.
This land is full of stories, saturated with them. The land is eager to share its stories, to have them told, to be witnessed and seen and listened to. Somehow although I can perceive this and I can act as a witness, I can also perceive that I am not the one to tell these stories. They are not my stories and I do not belong here and my time here is much too fleeting to alter that.