According to my Fitbit, a piece of technology I love more than I could have ever imagined, I walked around fifteen miles. Which means Celia did too, as we spent the day together. It’s not everyone who would be happy to spend my birthday walking in wind and occasional sunshine across the fens, but fortunately it’s not only poetry and dying mothers that has underpinned our friendship. I’m saying about, as Fitbit speaks metric, so it tells me I walked 26.16 km, and my conversion to imperial is approximate at the least.
We breakfasted on porridge and coffee. Celia normally has tea, so that might explain how even before the washing up was dry she’d broken the coffee pot and managed to move the pull-out table from its runners on one side. Mind, I am the person who threw the kitchen scales out of the galley window and into the mud at the base of the marina where they are doubtlessly puzzling the resident fish.
We set off before either of us could do by more damage, changing our shoes for walking boots, and clothed in several layers against the wind. As a first port of call we were heading for Wicken Fen, a nature reserve run by the National Trust. I went there once with Mother many years ago. We always meant to return but it didn’t happen. Celia and her mother had planned to go, but didn’t make it. So motherly ghosts came with us yesterday. Appropriate for me at least since Mother died on my birthday four years ago.
It’s hardly The Pennine Way. I am listening to Simon Armitage read his book, Walking Home, Travels With a Troubador on the Pennine Way, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys walking. With an hour of listening to go, he reads the sentence, ‘I walk therefore I am’; a feeling familiar to anyone who has enjoyed a spell of walking day after day no matter what the terrain. Actually I’d recommend it to a anyone, but maybe not listening to it on the bus as I started doing, as my snorts of laughter drew curious and worried glances from my fellow travellers. Whether they were members of the Communist Party I know not.
Regular readers of this page may recall that Celia and I have a track record for getting lost when we go walking. I was mildly concerned, though I hope it didn’t show, when Celia said she had forgotten her compass and her whistle. I was hoping it wasn’t going to come to that. Maybe she needed to redeem herself in her own eyes, anyway her map reading was exemplary and we reached Wicken Fen in time for lunch. I was hovering over whether to have a baked potato as well as the soup which sounded greenly delicious when the most heavenly cheesy smell filled the air. Home baked scones about to leave the oven. Decision made, and a severe setback for my progress towards becoming an egg eating vegan (sic).
I even photographed the lunch; it was that good. We went round the boardwalk after spending a long time in the very wonderful shop. Celia upgraded the OS map from the one I had onboard and which I believe belonged to Mother, to a new one with larger scale. There was a windmill, and misled by the Wicken flour for sale in the shop, we assumed it was used to grind grain. Not so, it drained the fens and allowed people to grow crops. In one hide a coup,e with strong binoculars some in whispers about birds they could see several miles away. I took a photo of the information board showing the great crested newt which made me think of Janh1 and Sabina. A modern windmill ironically keeping the fen moist to protect it as a wildlife habitat stood diagonally opposite the old mill.
While I had been studying binoculars I couldn’t afford and criticising the design of the monocular in the shop, Celia had made enquiries about the best approach to the next part of our walk. We set off again. One of the most attractive things about Wicken Fen is that dogs are welcome. On the way there we had met a black Labrador who evidently had other things on his mind, but respecting the duties of his breed allowed me to pat him and tell him he was beautiful; two Manchester terriers who were admirably focussed on their owners and in training for a long distance walk in Scotland; a German Shepherd looking important with a toy in its mouth; and some other lovely canines. En route to the toilets at Wicken Fen I was enthusiastically greeted by a rescue dog called Matty who while small, was obviously Collie, and a gorgeous red Cairn called Lola. I cannot tell you how much a walk is improved by chance encounters with dogs.
In the lode there were 48 hour moorings for the local river association, GOBA. I’m not a member, but the possibility of mooring overnight at Wicken Fen could tempt me. A tall hide stood the other side of the water, and a couple with good binoculars stood watching birds they told us were Hobbys. This time we could see them as they looped and swooped in the sky; a military aircraft inconcongrous in the clouds above them.
At Upware, Celia didn’t need much persuasion to divert via Reach and the very good pub whose virtues I have so often extolled. It was Reach Fair yesterday, and the approach roads were closed, but when Mother died (May Day but not a Monday and therefore not a Bank Holiday) it was at the pub that my two nephews, the then wife of Nephew, and I ate lunch. It seemed a good reason for a little pilgrimage. Suddenly, or so it seemed, but we were walking at about two and half miles an hour, so suddenly is probably not the mot juste, I noticed some sculptures a little way from the track. Celia sent me to investigate while she studied the map. Amazingly they were commissioned by SUSTRANS and featured local figures; a fen skater, an eel catcher, a Victorian entomologist. Fab.
There seemed a lot of noise coming from not far away. A match of some sort, I wondered vaguely, but unlikely that a local five a side fixture would attract such vocal support. Then the penny dropped: Reach Fair. The noise increased as we drew nearer. We could see the rides above the trees, hear the exhortations. The lode was narrow. Impossible to turn in. One or two boats came along it, I admit that one of my reasons for wanting to walk this stretch was to see how possible it would be to bring das Boot to Reach and, most importantly, the pub. I was becoming more and more convinced that if we were to do it, Older Nephew, not I, would be helming.
Then we forgot the noise, forgot to look at the width of the water because we were walking through a field of ewes and lambs; the most relaxed ewes and lambs I ever remember. Springing, leaping, joyous and adorable. Oh meat eaters, how could you?
Obviously the pub meant we had to have some Aspinalls cider. Celia bought the first round, leaving me to make friends with a flirtatious Collie called Shep. Why that dog isn’t an international star is a mystery. Scouting agents are evidently failing in their research. The fair was coming to an end. A lot of alcohol had been drunk, including I’d say by the barman who served me when I got our second round of drinks. A local band was playing, not always hitting the right notes, but with vim and enthusiasm. Still, I was glad when it became quiet.
Our glasses empty, we headed for the path Celia had identified as the shortest route back to the marina, or home, as she called it. I have to say, that despite a bladder full of cider, it was magical. During our afternoon walk we had seen kestrels and other nameless birds. Now we walked the rich dark soil of the fens back to das Boot. For both of us the landscape meaning something. Celia’s father was a fensman, but it’s somewhere she hasn’t known until now. For me, this patch of earth held no importance beyond being close to Mother when I came here with das Boot. Now it holds memories, is a place I read by the seasons, feel a partial belonging to, do have something of a sense of home when I am here.