The idea came to me after I had just got back from South America after a long trip to Peru. Perhaps because I was badly jetlagged, everything about England looked strange, different — and certainly worthy of as much exploration as I would give to a foreign country.
The few other times I’ve ever had really bad jet lag — the sort where you walk in a trance, as if under water and sedation — have been when I’ve travelled abroad, not travelled home. The only cure then has been total immersion in the new culture.
So I felt like plunging into England — and to do so by the darker, underground ways, like a mole, tracking the older paths.
It was easy to live in the countryside, as I did in Oxfordshire, and not know what was stirring beneath its surface. Most rural dwellers in England were blithely unaware what the farmers around them were doing, let alone the poachers. If I made a journey, as well as being an investigation of the deepest past, I wanted to explore what was happening now — how the countryside was changing.
The question was which journey to make. There were many old trackways threading their way around England. Not far from me ran one of the oldest and most intriguing, the Icknield Way.
Unlike many of the older paths, this had not been commodified into a long distance trail with accompanying guidebooks, signposts and people to hold your hand. For much of the Icknield Way’s long route from the south coast near Dorset diagonally across the country to Norfolk, it was still half covered by bramble and tunnelled by elder, beech and oak, forgotten and ignored. This prehistoric track dissected England in a way no modern major road did, since most ran arterially out of London. A century ago, one of the poets I most admired, Edward Thomas, had tried to follow its traces.
As early as 3000 BC, it linked the world of the Mediterranean, whose traders landed along the Dorset coast, with the world of those Northern Europeans who came to East Anglia — a prehistoric highway between these two points of entry to England, slicing diagonally across the country from Dorset to Norfolk, with lay-bys at all the great prehistoric sites: Maiden Castle, Stonehenge, Avebury, a string of hill-forts and finally, on the Norfolk coast, Seahenge.
London and the South East were completely avoided; only far later, with the Roman invasion, did all roads start there and Dover become such a principal port. But that suited me fine. I wanted to take the temperature of England as a country not a city, and to slice across it from the South West to East Anglia was the perfect way to do so.
When I travelled in Peru, or Mexico, or the Himalaya, what interested me most was their prehistoric past, their Inca, Aztec or Buddhist inheritance, both because it was so different from the present, but also so formative; moreover, new technology was allowing archaeologists to reveal far more about that past.
I wanted to follow the same line of pursuit in England, although there was a significant difference. In those countries, they revered their prehistory; here we patronised our earliest history by homogenising it. The Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages were all distinct cultures; yet we think of them, if we think of them at all, as if they were one long and bad Ken Russell movie — a bunch of savages in woad, with a few Druids chanting. This was a superb chance to show that the history of England — or the formation of England — should end in 1066, rather than beginning then. Everything since has been our present.
What I was not prepared for was everything else that lay ahead on my 400 mile journey: poachers, Druids, dyspeptic farmers, the Rainbow Circle holding vigils by moonlight, obsessive birdwatchers, mad publicans with beards, rentier landlords, the army firing at me on Salisbury Plain, gamekeepers with guns, and the whole panoply that now makes up the modern English countryside.
Hugh Thomson’s The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England has recently been published by Preface (£18.99):