Monday 30 August 2010

Along the Icknield Way

I've concluded it's a mistake to ever give Micky a day off. When he gets going again he is just too full of himself, and far from showing any signs of tiredness on this trip, the further we've gone, the fitter and fitter he has got, which means he has even more capacity for pranks than usual. Within a mile of leaving Rachels' at Hockham Hall on the morning of Monday 16th August, Micky was snorting with glee at the smell of pigs, and dancing about all over the place at any excuse whatsoever. With the fingers on my right hand still far from right, so to speak, I was struggling to keep him under control one-handed at the same time as holding Magic's lead rein but in such a way that I could drop it quickly in emergency. At which point Jake (my son) telephoned to say that a lorry had run into the back of the car during his driving lesson in Dumfries and although he thought he and the instructor were OK, he was clearly shaken, and it wasn't what he needed two days before his test. Particularly given that the car was now off the road. Ho, hum, the trials and tribulations of everyday life, which serve to remind me how lucky I am to have dipped out of it all for the summer.

The B&B I stayed at on Sunday night had said goodbye full of good cheer about how I would never manage to ride anywhere within 10 miles of Thetford without getting blown up or fired at, and even if they weren't using live ammunition on the MOD ranges, then it was inevitable that I would be accosted, or the ponies spooked, by squaddies in camouflage jumping out of a bush. And if I survived that far, I'd never get across the A11 in one piece. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that my map, and the information I'd carefully gathered in advance, was more to be trusted than his advice, and that the southern end of the Peddars Way riding route includes a fantastic new underpass so there was no need to dodge the traffic on the A11. Having planned my route carefully, the bridleways I followed were well clear of any military activity. And even the voice at the end of the phone at the level crossing who asked if I could get across the railway in less than a minute turned out to be a wind-up as no train appeared until 5 minutes after Micky, Magic and I had successfully negotiated the railway crossing.

Roudham was an unexpected surprise, welcome compensation for the lack of any historical interest at many of the places I'd visited over the weekend. The information boards in the millennium shelter next to the remains of a previously thatched church told me all about the rich history of the village and the drove road which runs through it. Whoopee. Who cares that Micky and Magic stood stuffing their faces while tied to the church fence, and still fein disinterest in my historical musings. Roudham was enough to reinspire and revigorate me.

The lovely sandy track lined by ancient trees which led down to West Harling Heath was another unexpected treat, such a contrast to the cabbage country we'd ridden through only a week before. Only afterwards did I learn that Riddlesworth Hall School, which we rode through (well along it's drive and in front of it rather than through the buildings) was where Pricess Di was educated.

At Knettishall Heath we picked up the Icknield Way. Even if there wasn't a sign to tell me so, and even if I hadn't read a lot about the many different people who had used it over the centuries, no-one could be in any doubt that this is an ancient route of incredible interest. In places the long distance Icknield Way Path or trail diverges from the historic track, but for much of the way through to Euston and on west to the 134 you can walk or ride right along the Icknield Way, imagining the cattle being driven along it in one direction and sheep or pigs in the other.

We diverged from the official route to cut through the forest on bridleways and forest tracks down to where I'd arranged grazing for the ponies overnight and somewhere for me to pitch my tent. Delayed by a few stops to sort out the slipping pack saddle, and having taken our time enjoying what we saw along the way, it was gone 8 p.m. by the time Micky, Magic and I reached Wordwell, tired and hungry after a long day of over 23 miles. As a result of which I really hadn't a clue what the farmer meant when he said "There's another one of you around the back". I don't suppose Karen, who used to live locally and was staying at the farm for the summer, would be particularly flattered to be likened to me, nor her Arab to my rotund Fell ponies. But how lucky for me that she was, and that I was yet again spared eating my now very beat-up oatcakes or a packet of tortilla chips for dinner by her invitation to join her for supper in her caravan.

By the time we'd eaten and talked, and talked some more, it was late and I really couldn't be bothered putting my tent up when there was a perfectly good stable to sleep in, with Micky and Magic electric-fenced and hobbled directly outside. In comparison to a tin sheep hut on the footslopes of Ben Nevis it was comparative luxury, even if the shavings on which I laid my saddle blankets and sleeping bag weren't exactly clean, but if you're used to sleeping in a proper bed, perhaps not. When I spoke to my friend Helen she seemed shocked at my sleeping in a stable, which she described to her husband as being "like Jesus". If only!

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