My main impression of the Peddars Way, the long distance footpath that runs from the Suffolk Norfolk border to the shores of the Wash, is of emptiness. We passed through hardly any villages. Much of the time we saw just fields, hedges, woods, distant hills, and scrub. Where in this crowded island and so close to London were the people, the houses, the villages? But the emptiness, the big skies, and the sheer lack of drama of the countryside were lovely.
Much of the Way is dead straight–because it follows a Roman road. We imagined the astonishment of the locals as a Roman legion marched through. But the Romans may have simply built their road along a more ancient way, a way used by Iron Age people to pass along the chalk ridges, keeping animals, mud and enemies at bay, to move from the sea in the South to the sea in the North. We saw bumps in the fields that marked the remnants of Iron Age settlements.
The military still have a presence: for many miles at the Southern end of the Way we walked beside large tracts of land owned by the military. The military swallowed villages, farms, churches, and pubs. Only fragments remain, little more than remains of the Iron Age people, who lived here for many centuries. But the military are present only sporadically, and mostly the military land is undisturbed by farming or pesticides; it belongs to nature.
Another impression is of decline. Once every village had a pub and shops; now few do. We stayed at a pub in Thompson, a spread out village, and the publican (at least we think he was) told us of the struggle to remain solvent. No pub can survive on just drink. They must do food and accommodation. Those born locally leave–not primarily because they can’t afford the housing (although that’s a problem because of second homes) but more because they can’t find employment. Our host on our second night described how her dead husband’s farm had 17 employees but now there is one. We saw giant machines bigger than buses working across the fields.
The farmers too are disconsolate, held captive by the five big supermarkets. The farmers’ produce must fit the image promoted by the supermarkets: big carrots are unacceptable, any blemish will not be tolerated, visual (if not nutritional) perfection is expected. And the prices are rock bottom. The publican on Thompson told us how this had been a perfect growing season–“sun then rain all through the spring and summer”–and the result is a glut of produce and low prices. Whole fields of onions, carrots, and lettuces are left to rot. The publican hears all this news on Tuesday nights, farmers’ nights, when the farmers gather from 9 to midnight (and often later) to share their woes.
But none of this was our concern. We were enjoying the emptiness. Our first afternoon we walked 10 miles from the beginning of the Way. We arrived at the Thompson pub in the gloom and downed a pint.
The next day after a giant breakfast and extended discussion we started late–at 9.30–in the rain. We had potentially 26 miles to walk, rather too much, and we had 16 miles to go before we could hope for food and drink. The cloud and the emptiness made for a melancholic but agreeable feel as we walked, trudged even, and talked of this and that, including mitochondria, the definition of health, Tamburlaine, and the idea of cutting the budget of the hospital sector by 50% and “letting them get on with it.” But David rescued us: after some 11 miles there he was with his Primus stove going for tea and an Eccles cake for me and an apple turnover for Robin.
We seemed to skim across the next five miles and arrived in Castle Acre, crossing the clear chalk stream of the River Nar and passing the substantial but ruined and skeletal remains of the priory, in heavy rain. We had longed for a tea shop, but it had closed five minutes before we arrived. We consoled ourselves in the pub with beer and crisps and as night was falling decided that 16 miles was enough.
The next day was even emptier: we walked eight miles and saw nobody until David again greeted us with tea. The path here coming close to the Wash was more rolling than further South and more beautiful. It was time to go home, taking lunch in the tea shop in Ely that claims to sell more different teas than any other tea shop in the world; nobody has yet proved it wrong. I’d like to have gone on, to have walked the coastal part of the walk. Here’s another reason to go on living.