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This is Keith Carter’s blog, an erratic trail of posts since 2012. A more focused site for the novel, The Umbrella Men, is to be found by clicking here:

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Swaffham Prior to Reach … the long way

My first literary prize!

I would like to say that the reason for my extended silence was the effort of moving house yet again. That would be only partly true. It was mostly inertia.

We now live in the East Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior. Its famous twin churches are below in the distance, about 1/3 of the way across from the left. OK, you can’t really see them but this picture is taken on the roll described below.

The following short essay won a competition, to be published in the Swaffham Crier, our excellent village magazine (https://www.swaffham-crier.co.uk/Archive/2022/May/. ) I should perhaps admit that a) the competition was for 8-18 year-olds and b) mine was the only entry. But hey, a win’s a win…

Before setting out I check to see if Bastardo has visited overnight. He has, and the azaleas – once so promising – have yet again been raided. Bas-tar-do! Looking around me, as if he might still be lurking in the laurels somewhere, I check my rear-view mirror and set off. 

First I have to squeeze along the pavement of busy Mill Hill; I am maybe the only person who will be sorry when the traffic lights have gone. 40mph? I’d blame it on the kids and limit it to 20. Then: swerve out and swoop down Cage Hill, lumpy with buried virtue, left at the bottom and, with the momentum fading, through our pretty village, past the Village Hall, old cottages, new ones, a modern barn, the pub cheekily fronting the famous double churches, right at the school and we’re on Station Road. En route to Reach, the long way. 

Bastardo is not the only one. Phil the pheasant sometimes plods around our lower ground hoping for sweet shoots, and the turtle doves are not above pecking at the odd succulent. Peace and Love are not in our hearts. 

Downhill again and I’m whizzing past the school on the right; an old timber frame and Burgundian roof flash through the fencing to the left, past a road sign signalling both the edge of the village and (I know this having just done a ‘speed awareness course’) that I can now legally go 60 mph. As the road’s edges roughen and move close together this seems impossible, and not just for me.  

Past  a converted station positioned where Mr Beeching’s axe surely inconvenienced but few, past some scattered houses and vehicles half-swallowed by the vegetation, a metaphor for Net Zero. Somewhere it has changed its name to Whiteway Drove and the road is becoming spasmodically rough, making me worry for my tyres; joins in the tarmac are showing. We’re in the country properly now, the fields are huge and ragged-edged and the electricity cables have withdrawn to the far distance. It has a certain beauty, if you like it flat. 

Spotting a vehicle in my little mirror I pull in to one of the convenient passing places and a black BMW with darkened windows roars past, maybe trying to see if 60 is actually achievable. I feel a twinge of pleasure at a loud scraping noise as the car skims across an undulation. You should never trust your GPS and the poor driver is probably just trying to win back time as his has played him a mean trick in his attempt to avoid the traffic lights on Lower End. Still, we all love a bit of Schadenfreude.

Then, suddenly on my left I see him, quite close. Bastardo. He looks at me, defiant. At first we called him Jack and were enchanted at the very idea of sharing our garden with such fauna. But Jack became Bastardo as soon as the azaleas began to bud. Apparently they are  délicatesse to a Muntjac. Luckily only Bastardo’s immediate family (Bastarda, his wife, and his twin brother, Bastardotoo) are there to see me, a grown man, shake my fist at a group of timid small mammals. But what else could I do? They run off, giving me no satisfaction, in the direction of the village.  

I ride on, past the turn-off to the pretty bridge over Swaffham Bulbeck Lode where I so frequently encounter my neighbours that they must think I’m stalking them. Overhead the high-tension cables, never far, stride off left towards the Abbey and right towards their giants’ meeting point at Burwell’s substation.  A sharp right, rather comically indicated on this tiny rural road with a large black and white chevron sign, and we are on to my favourite stretch of this trip – the short northward leg, Headlake Drove, to the crossroads. It’s lovely, the road feels remote – lined with trees and not power cables, dark fertile ploughed land disappearing to the distance right and left like an illustration of perspective. I think Lord’s Ground is a farm but from the sign it could well be a cult. Or a simple statement. The road becomes more undulating, not a feature often encountered in British roadbuilding; it’s as if they simply laid tarmac directly onto the ground – and why not?  It’s rather fun to whiz up and down, spotting the deep scratch marks made by the sumps of expensive German motor cars. 

At the crossroads – which are slightly staggered – we turn right into Little Fen Drove and a section of road so wildly wavey that taking it at any speed is like sailing a dinghy downwind in rough coastal waters. The road surface is in places stretched and twisted to breaking point by the contortions of the earth beneath, making me choose my route with care. The view to the left, across gently inclined fields East towards Wicken Fen, is beautiful. In the distance I see a small group grazing something tender and newly-sown; five or six of them, too big to be hares, too small to be ponies. Muntjacs? Bastardo’s extended family! Is there a plague of these little devils? Are they nutritious and tasty? 

There is a sort of back door to Wicken Fen at the Reach end of the Little Fen Drove, which looks interesting but muddy; though tempted I have never been in, for fear of ending like a Russian tank in the Ukraine, fated to be towed out by a local farmer.  The farming gets more industrial as Reach approaches, with a huge malodorous heap of something fertility-inducing and a series of hangar-like barns whimsically labelled ‘Swan Lake’ to the right.  I like to think a ballet troupe practises there weekly, but it’s probably just piles of inert grain. Over the bridge at the next corner is the best view of the ride, looking southeast up what could almost be called a hill; it’s just a few fields and hedgerows but something in the proportions is pleasing, plus there is an incomprehensible dog-poo bin to muse over. 

Off down Great Lane – someone had a sense of humour – towards Reach. To the right a public footpath may well be a short-cut to the road to Swaffham Prior, I have never tried, for the Russian tank reason. Also, why cut out lovely Reach? Small, quiet, on the way to nowhere; along a narrow corkscrew street sit squat honest yeoman whitewashed houses, well-maintained and probably occupied by clever people doing incomprehensible things in IT as much as by farmers; around a corner so exciting it gets a convex mirror, on to Fair Green and the village opens like a bloom, houses separated wide, a modest church the architecture of which humbly mumbles the word ‘methodist’ beside a pub where I will definitely bring my friends Jane and Danni who will see the joke. 

Someone walking three boisterous dogs stages a show of controlling them for my passing. I call out ‘an excellent canine discipline’ to be encouraging but fear that the only audible word as I pass is ‘discipline’, which the dogwalker probably takes as a complaint. At the start of the appropriately-named Swaffham Road the houses squeeze the road up against the Devil’s Dyke which is pretty with hawthorn and brambles and exudes desperate dark-ages labour and futility. Further on you can see in the distance the windmill, water tower and both church spires, too far for photos. We’re on the home straight now, past Prospect Trust, which visitors from London can scarcely believe, an excellent source of a variety of edibles and worthy in every way, over the railway bridge… 

… I like to pause briefly at the top to savour the rush down the other side and to wonder if the path the railway once took will again be put to use to get into town once cars are banned or rendered an unattainable luxury by the price of hydrocarbons. I imagine a maglev powered by its own on-board mini nuclear fusion source silently swishing us CO2lessly to Kings Parade in minutes. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s planned. 

Coming back into Swaffham Prior I wonder how many ‘big houses’ a village really needs; probably fewer than we have, but they do raise the tone of the place. On the right there are piles of stone-based materials of various colours and textures that might be art – it reminds me of something I once saw at Tate Modern – but probably is to do with the heating scheme holes being dug in the road. There is a red traffic light. I wait a while, but there are no cars so I go anyway; a dog-walker spots me and shouts words of encouragement. At least, I think that’s what he’s shouting.