Imbolc is part of an ongoing mapping project where I document my walks and what I find on the way through writing and painting. These are then made into simple maps that can be printed out and followed by other people.
Thoughts and Findings from a walk down the Fosse Way on Imbolc: an illustrated essay.
The lane beneath me runs two millennia deep: the Fosse Way. Marking what was once the western frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, and running 370 near-straight kilometers from Exeter to Lincoln; beyond its bounds? Barbarism! It now spends its length alternating between farm track, driveway and A-road.
Roman roads run five layers deep: an investment in longevity. Fosse, from the Latin fossa, means ‘ditch’. Whether road or ditch came first is not known, but the Fosse Way is now little more than its namesake. That it continues is testament to its use.
In the three kilometers of Fosse Way I walk, the A-road transects it thrice. On the second transect, their paths converge to ford the Cam Brook at Dunkerton Bridge, the crossing stood time’s test in a way the Way did not. 10m above its placid waters, drivers today don’t notice the natural border they are crossing.
I join the old track where the new road departs it: the A-road rolling ergonomically over a landscape the Roman road once cut in two. At this point stands an apple tree offering me its last fruits. The tree is the relic of a forgotten journey: a core tossed from a car planted the tree that feeds me today. I take one, wipe off the pollution and place it in my bag. When I come to eat it, I will tap out the core’s precious cargo before finishing it - reciprocating the gift I have received by spreading the apple’s seeds along my way.
Imbolc is part of an ongoing observational project where I collect, write about and paint my walks. These then get made into print out sheets so that other people might follow my walks.
Pausing, I take out a flask and perch on a dry-stone wall to sip my coffee, taking in the man-made marks around me.
The wall. Held together by ivy and more gap than stone, it has been superseded by a barbed wire fence. Failing it’s primary objective it now belongs to nature, offering safe haven and foothold for fauna and flora alike.
Across the valley the hills flank strains against the lattice of hedges and lanes that chain it in place.
“GA JS BO PR JG.” Sprayed in black on the bole of a beech; the fleeting friendship of five people now permanently commemorated. As water seeps down the trunk, paint blends with bark; the tree’s tears hiding it’s shame.
The remains of a McDonald’s meal mashed into the track; blood red ketchup seeping into thick black mud. Roman road or ketchup packet - which will prevail? The former dates back 2 millennia; the latter takes half that to degrade.
A couple of fit women jog past in their running best, breaking their cheery chat to say “hello.” A few paces on one of them blows a snot rocket from her nose into the bank. They jog on, laughing to one another.
Last year on Beltane I walked this path: banks of wild garlic; hedges in bloom. I plucked one of these blooms for no reason - depriving a bee of its nectar; a tree of its fruit - an action regretted no sooner than taken.
Imbolc today: new beginnings and fresh starts. A delicate clutch of snowdrops push up through a bin bag under an abandoned 5 bar gate. Outliving flowers and seasons; the same bag and gate will stand witness to new blooms heralding new springs for years to come.
Down the way more sheathes of snowdrops, these ones yet to bloom. Galanthus nivalis, “milk flower of the snow” - native to southern Europe, naturalised in Britain. Next to them the furtive fingers of wild garlic reach up out the mud. Allium ursinum, “garlic bear.” Rumoured to be favoured by the grizzly, what this epithet lacks in grace is made up for in exactitude.
All around, the listless surface of the soil belies the storm of activity within its depths: spring is springing.
A stream gurgles forth from the mouth of a plastic pipe that protrudes from the flank of the hill; tapping its lifeblood. Downstream it disappears as quickly as it emerged under the concrete of a farm yard.
Back on Cam Brook, its banks are lined with stone dotted with fossilised shells and Fibonacci ammonite swirls. I find a small clam fossil in the water, next to it is a fragment of a snail's shell. Separated by millions of years, the same basic principle still unites them. The fossil feels hard and cold under my thumb, the snail shell shatters as I press it into my palm. Fossil and shell, enduringly permanent and fleetingly ephemeral. I toss the shards of snail shell back in the water, maybe they will defy time and transcend from shell to fossil: transient to permanent.
5 more minutes; two more fossils: now every rock begins to look like it could once have harboured life. I pick up what I think is a bone, but is just a calcium encrusted stick. The inquisitive water swirls in eddies around where I stand, trying to see what I’m up to, keen to get involved. Pocketing the fossils and a sherd of pottery, I move on.
Up ahead a Stone Age farm is marked on the map. On its site stands a plantation of trees enclosed by neat lawn, as seen from behind the fence that lines the path - an heirloom of antiquity packaged in a supervised wilderness.
I see a giant puffball that turns out to be expanding foam.
What was recently corn is now nothing but stalks trimmed at a uniform height, their buttressed roots stark white against dark brown. Nothing has grown here since the harvest, and the earth is slippery under my feet: the barren soil and its claggy texture speak of pesticides and monoculture. I adjust my gait to the ridges of roots, gaining a better purchase.
The next field over I’m stopped in my tracks. At the bottom of the valley a low brown creature scampers about - an otter? a beaver?! I whip out my binoculars - two more creatures come up over a rise! Two heads- followed by shoulders... then walking jackets as an elderly couple come into view and call for their dog. I stow the binoculars and move on.
The woodpecker’s familiar finger-drum greets me home to my valley. A deflated emoji balloon smiling beguilingly from the hedge.
In a combe off Newton brook, the marshy turf is crammed with plants, dead man’s fingers neighbours land cress. Oenanthe crocata and Barbarea verna: a nasty death and a tasty source of iron.
Up on Duncorn hill, the base of the hazel is littered with shells. The bleached remains of snails lie next to cracked hazelnuts. Two shells from different kingdoms: both with the same purpose. In the roots of a neighbouring ash, a crushed package of miniscule bones betrays an owl’s roost.
On the opposite declivity: my stretch of A-road and its Roman counterpart. The former can be traced by its steady motion of silver; the latter by its ancient silvicultural stillness.