Today is an easy day; I have decided I only want to walk as far as Royston where I have been before and want to revisit.
It is a pleasant walk from Buntingford that utilises part of the ancient Ickneild Way that crossed the country from Wessex, from whence I began this journey, to the far off East Anglia. I am thrilled to be walking this ancient trackway, first walked by our prehistoric ancestors, high on the chalk ridges avoiding the impenetrable forests, and later appropriated by the Romans. Much of Roman influence is apparent in this part of the land; I have been skirting Ermine Street for quite some days, lamenting that a roadway made for pedestrians, the Roman infantry, should now have been appropriated by motorised vehicles making it too dangerous to attempt on foot.
The two old tracks cross at Royston, the name meaning Rose town commemorating the woman Roisia who laid, or restored, the town cross at its centre in the time of William the Conquerer. Before that it had been the nearby Therfield that was the settlement of importance, the town heath that I cross to come into the town is still named for the older settlement. Therfeild and neighbouring Kershall (whose name means cold spring) have been inhabited since Neolithic times.
Therfield however, does not have the air of history that Royston holds in its very air. It, like Kershall, which for all its central information board telling of its ancient cross, of which only a stump remains, and singing the praises of the nearby St Faith’s (which was locked shut when I had passed it by some minutes earlier) had an air of dormitory town, almost ghost town like in its lack of inhabitants, though today is Saturday. As has been my experience the past two days as I cross Hertfordshire, the beauty of the plains, as well as being humanised by endless monoculture, is pierced by the angry barking of guard dogs and the persistent retort of gunshot, always far off in the distance, but menacingly territorial nonetheless. Is it the flatness of the terrain that makes the owners of this land uncomfortable, less secure with their tenure?
I do not want to linger, no air of welcoming community content with its lifestyle here, but a determined reiteration of ownership, of a looking both ways to see if intruders come. I wonder if our ancient ancestors here felt that too or if this is a modern phenomena that came along with the enclosures?
Royston has none of this. It feels very much like a town in its own right, comfortable with its identity and its right to be. It feels inhabited, alive, and comfortable with its past and its present. I stop at the remains of the ancient cross to read the tourist information board and am approached by two different locals, both at ease with talking to a stranger, interested; pleased. The first, a woman, can’t resist coming up and admiring my colourful clothes, the second, an elderly man, wants to stop and talk travel. He was in the infantry, so having had enough of walking, did his later travelling by scooter.
He tells me, interestingly enough, about the wool trade. How it was so important to us, how our wealth grew from it, how the industry at Bradford on Avon (in Somerset, and where I will be passing through later in the summer) was transferred to Bradford in the NE. I am intrigued by this, wonder if it too came about in the search for cheap labour, if it was discovered that northern people would work for less wages than their southern counterparts? Did we really give away our source of wealth, our livelihood, our trade that fitted so well into our landscape of grazing sheep, our need for warm clothing and fatty meat in the winter, for greed’s sake? Surely we were not so short sighted?
My elderly informant says he woke up thinking about Royston’s cave this morning, he thinks this significant. It is rather strange as the reason I have so wanted to overnight here is to visit the cave! I have been here before and the cave is not easy to visit, it is hardly ever open, and last time I did not get to go inside. I go across the road to the entrance, only to find that my few minutes conversation have made me miss the last guided entrance to the caves until tomorrow afternoon, when I will have already left.
I wait determinedly outside for the last group to emerge and as they do I seize my opportunity and go down the steep, steep steps and along the steep slope down into the cave, making it just before the guide has packed up her things. She lets me have a quick look around and gives me a leaflet of information.
I am strangely unmoved by the place I have looked forward to visiting. It does not have an air of mystery, nor sanctitiy, it is certainly unusual, carved as it is out of the solid chalk substrata, with its chimney hole reaching up way above our heads at the top of the bell shaped room, but it does not speak of its past purpose in its atmosphere. No one actually knows what it was built for, or by whom, or when, but it is suspected to have been in use by the Knights Templar, and later the freemasons. It is carved all round with figures of religious, secular and pagan symbology. There is some speculation as to whether James I had it built when he brought freemasonry to England in 1603.
I decide Royston’s importance goes back further than its mysterious humanmade cave. It is full of pubs, inns and eateries, and I imagine, with its two famous trackways, it always was.