Words: Max Leonard | Photography: Wig Worland | Date:
FILM: Mark Jenkinson
“… I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.”
– Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way
Popularly known as the oldest road in Britain, the Icknield Way runs from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. It forms part of a prehistoric highway that diagonally crossed the country, connecting important ancient trading ports in Dorset (which connected England to the Mediterranean) and East Anglia (where the Scandinavian goods landed). Generations of merchants, sailors and warriors wore this groove along the chalk hills that form England’s spine followed in latter days by travellers, artists and poets.
In 1913, the poet Edward Thomas published an account of walking the Icknield Way, describing the journey, the contours of the land, its history, flora and fauna with a hallucinatory clarity. Thomas walked to discover – both what lay without and what lay within – employing his legs as an instrument of philosophy, as has been written of Wordsworth.
Starting at sunrise on the Jurassic Coast, the Rapha Continental set out in Thomas’s footsteps, and those of the old-way wanderers since time immemorial, to cycle the Icknield Way.
From the pebbles of Chesil Beach the road quickly rises up through classic English countryside to the tops of the chalk hills, following the path taken of shepherds and cattle drovers who climbed to the thin, barren soil of the ridge where only grass grew, to make their progress across the landscape easier.
“It is particularly easy to think of Southern England as several chains of islands, When the roads along the ridges were made, the hills still more closely resembled islands emerging out of the forest and out of the marsh.”
He called the way a “white snake on a green hillside” and a “shining serpent in the wet” – a snake down which to slide from the modern world and back into an England of ages past, where the White Horse at Uffington, carved in chalk 3,000 years ago, stands on a hillside surrounded by heritage-breed horses, ancient beech forests, Iron Age hill forts and tribal meeting grounds. Along the route, people work the land with mechanical help, yet much of their activity would still be recognisable to their Iron Age forebears.
As with many ancient tracks, formed over the millennia by the constant footfall of people following their desire lines across the landscape, the Icknield Way is still much used. For much of its length the Way remains a rough path or a bridleway. In other places it survives as a narrow country lane, tarmacked over, and often, when it descends off the ridges and back into civilisation, it is engulfed in villages, towns, suburbia. Buses and trucks roll on top of it along roads that unconsciously follow its route – not out of any planners’ respect for the past, but because the people have always travelled that way and their increasing weight has brought progress. Yet even there, under the A road, the Icknield Way persists; its traces written over by the modern and yet indelibly present underneath, all the ages of England co-existing in it and around it. Much of the ancient Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury is now stuck underneath the A25 in Surrey, yet that doesn’t make the route any less hallowed.
Take an Ordnance Survey map of England, learn how to read its contours, and a buried history begins to tell its story. “It is one of the adventurous pleasures of a good map,” Thomas wrote, “to trace the possible course of a known old road or to discover one that was lost. A distinct chain of footpath, lane, and road … leading across the country and corresponding in much of its course with boundaries is likely to be an ancient way.”
Think about it next time you’re stuck on a dual carriageway, cars pinging by, and you’re feeling short of some romance. It’s a reminder that things change, and that, if you keep pedalling, you’ll find a junction, the road will quieten, you’ll find the peace and easy riding you seek.
As the Icknield Way ride drove north, into East Anglia and through Thetford Forest, it left the chalk ridge behind and the riders carved a path across the flattening landscape, inexorably through the fens and to the Norfolk coast where, on a cliff at Hunstanton, the second Rapha Continental UK ended looking out over the North Sea at sunset, perfectly mirroring the sunrise at its start three days earlier.
Where next? As Edward Thomas wrote:
“Today I know there is nothing beyond the farthest of far ridges except a signpost to unknown places.”
These days, Thomas is better known as a First World War poet. In 1915, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles and went to fight, where he produced the poetry that made his name. Not long over in France, he was sent at Arras when, towards nightfall on the first day of battle, he decided to take a breather and fill his pipe. One of the last shells fired passed so close by that the rush of air compressed his lungs, stopped his heart and he was killed.