Peddars Way: Almost Roman

Peddars7 25 March 22

Black oil beetle, wandering in the north Norfolk dust. As a larva, this beetle climbed into a flower and waited for a solitary bee, hooking itself onto its unwitting host and hitching a ride to its nest. There it ate the eggs, pollen and nectar and slowly grew into an adult, ready to emerge on the Peddars Way.

Peddars Way

Back on the trail after a winter hiatus. The final quarter of the 46 miles is quiet save for skylarks, and you can imagine, if you choose, the legionnaires’ feet of 2,000 years ago. Where were they heading? To a coast of fitful weather and colourful cliffs?

Some have called it the Roman road to nowhere; it was built to intimidate the rebellious Iceni, rather than to obviously link towns. Today it is flanked by blackthorn, one of our fiercest shrubs – albeit its thorns are cloaked with beauty in springtime.

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Norfolk has no mountains, but in the north the trail rises through arable fields and falls once more, rolling over the bumps of moraine dumped by the icesheets long ago. In little villages, ducks sleep and chickens keep watch.

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And then the road ends in a glory of sand and salt.

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Or does it? The coast has eroded southwards in the last two millennia and Romans would have had to march a little further to glimpse the North Sea. We do not know what was at the end; possibly a ferry port across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

But back to the south for me.

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A few comments about Peddars Way for anyone else considering walking the National Trail. The first leg starting from the south includes a very dangerous road crossing (over the A11!) which should be avoided, possibly by beginning at Stonebridge. In general it is an easy trail to walk and well-signposted, and wildlife and historic landscapes are abundant.

Peddars Way: Timekeepers

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” – Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

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This is a village, an old, busy village, with streets, moats and people. Houses of wood coated with clay and capped with thatched roofs clump in any old direction, shepherds and dogs passing by. Reeves inspect fields, villeins and free workers sweat as they thresh grain, and disagreeable types languish in the stocks. Oxen pull ploughs – but they are gone.

The thought remains. Great Palgrave is the ridges under the clouds in the above photo; the village failed in the 15th century, leaving only the bones of its roads and structures behind. Elongated bumps in old English fields almost always indicate archaeology, but some of it is much bigger.

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St Mary’s Church is a treasured survivor of another lost ancient village. Houghton-on-the-Hill reached the 19th century before its population drifted elsewhere. The church dates from 1090 AD or possibly earlier, and its walls wear bricks crafted by the Romans, no doubt recycled by later peoples from a nearby ruined villa. Inside are 11th century wall paintings.

The Peddars Way goes forward, yet time drifts backwards, and the road that the Romans built 2,000 years ago points remorselessly on.

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But some may call it young. A watcher rests beside it: a longbarrow that was already 1,700 years old when the legionnaires arrived.

Peddars Way 3rd stage1

Inside this mound are bones of Neolithic people – the earliest farmers, they who set in motion changes to the British landscape that evolved into a dazzling mosaic of semi-natural habitats, inadvertently supporting such a rich community of animals and plants.

It is a sobering thing to look at this barrow and know that the Romans and Iceni – perhaps Boudica herself – saw it, even as they must also have seen the bracken turn gold.

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I can only guess at their memories of their walks, and their thoughts as the trail led onwards towards the sea.

Walls, Walls, Walls

…and only plants know how to climb them.

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These are the bones of Pickering Castle, a watchman of the north for centuries. Today it rests on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, flanked by a market town also made mostly from stone.

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It’s almost symbiotic, the connection between humanity and rock. It shelters and guards us, while we craft it into new purposes. But it does not always need our hands to build walls. There are other, much older edifices, and those watch the North Sea.

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The cliffs at Whitby are of Jurassic age, and dinosaurs and crocodiles sleep within them.

Even without fossils, their patterns catch the eye.

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An invitation to walk onwards, to learn more lessons of the walls.

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Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

Mattertal mtns Jun 19

And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Down the Trail

Poppy unopened CH Jun 19

The poppies still in bud will have a surprise: they won’t flower alone. Every plant here has its attendants – winged, busy and bold.

Swiss butterflies1 Jun 19

Butterflies are abundant, and so are smaller creatures.

Bug on herb-robert Jun 19

The red and black stripes of the minstrel bug warn predators that they taste foul.

Bug on flowers CH Jun 19

And of course, the colouration of bees signals their ability to defend themselves.

Bee on round-headed rampion Jun 19

But despite subtle warnings, the path is peaceful, winding over gentle slopes of meadow and coniferous forest, the shockingly tranquil toes of the Alps’ mightiest giants. Not that the mountains let you forget them; there is still a snowpack flanking some streams, and all the water ferries glacial dust into the Vispa.

Vispa River Jun 19

That milky hue – the colour of a snow leopard’s eyes – is mountain blood and bone. Glaciers scratch the peaks as they move, scouring rock to powder and sending it to the river via by their outflow streams. It is a familiar story from mountain ranges everywhere, but I’ve not seen many that do it with such haste. Water here is hasty; it has to be, with valley rims on both sides soaring over three kilometres above the river. Streams leap from the glaciers in waterfalls so numerous, I suppose that no one has ever thought to give them a name.

Yet this is a valley of humanity, as well as wildlife. The village of Täsch is at least seven hundred years old. Today it largely survives on tourism rather than agriculture, but relics of former times are in the streets – a drinking trough for livestock lives on.

Tasch water trough Jun 19

Flowers, insects, water, people – none are alone. They are all part of the fabric of the Mattertal.

Walking in a Paintbox

So many colours! All shining between snow and sun.

Alpine meadow Jun 19

Hurried breakfast, out on the trail. It is a switchback – what could be more Swiss? – and it is fragrant, pine sap perfume leaking from a thousand trees. Red squirrels flit between them, much darker here than their lowland kin.

Red squirrel CH Jun 19

The Matterhorn is veiled – clouds encircle it, as if entranced. Somewhere to my right are the misshapen summits of the Monte Rosa massif, western Europe’s highest mountains after mighty Mont Blanc. It is always winter up there, and even ten thousand feet beneath the Rosa, the snow is yet to die.

Trail 50 waterfall and snow Jun 19

Waterfalls infuse the Vispa River with glacial glow. But the meadows sparkle on with every colour in the paintbox.

Mountain houseleek

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Globeflower

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Yellow alpine pasqueflower

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Alpine aster

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Every forgotten bank and unnamed corner is as rich as England’s best SSSIs. Up to eighty species of plant per 100 square metres – this is a garden of wild things, stretching onwards for mile upon mile.

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The trail has not ended. Many hours have passed. Time to pause and reflect.

Dagger in the Clouds

Matterhorn: king of mountains, definition of mountains, the raw heart of a mountain after ice and erosion have stripped everything superfluous. Standing high, monstrous pyramid of unbreakable gneiss.

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Switzerland: home of mountains. I’ve been needing to come back here for a long time. Even the train from Geneva painted alpine through the windows, pure white ridges and their epaulettes of clouds, cut in pieces by high towers of bare rock. At their feet are lakes as blue as gentians, and meadows that remind the rest of Europe that modern agriculture does not have to mean environmental death.

From the train CH

From the train2 CH

And so, into the Mattertal valley, on a cog railway that clings to the narrowest of ledges between mountain shoulders and a canyon that plunges to a milky glacial river, criss-crossed by stone bridges that make you giddy even while seated on the train. But, for certain, there is only one mountain, and rounding the last curve of track it greets you, a dagger pointing above the station to the stars.

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The Matterhorn is irresistible to humanity. Flanked by higher peaks, yes, but none so perfect, none so tyrannical. It is easy to imagine the terror of early travellers across the 11,000 foot Theodul pass, shadowed to the west by this highest of triangles. Early mountain people speculated that the summit held a city of the dead – unreachable, and mystical.

But not everyone was convinced that it was beyond mortal man. It was my own country that supplied some of those who first scrambled up there – in a time before crampons, GPS or headlamps. Edward Whymper survived that day in 1865; four of his party did not. The rope that broke on their descent now lies in a glass case in Zermatt. It is hardly thicker than a human finger.

Matterhorn rope

Today, most people who climb the Matterhorn do so under the watchful eye of highly experienced Alpine guides. The mountain ignores them, shouldering its glaciers and dazzling the valley just as it has since humans learned to count time.

Matterhorn glacier

As Luna rises over the forests of Monte Rosa’s flanks, it is time to reflect with a map and ponder tomorrow’s hiking trails.

Luna and pines CH

Not going too close to the king of mountains. But its presence adds a royal intensity to the path.

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There is only one mountain, and this is its realm.

Canada: Song Dog Days

September 2018

Could we ever spend a hour looking through the eyes of a coyote? I think it would overwhelm us. We see the wild in passing, usually from a car these days. The coyote hears it, smells it, lives it. The stories that they could tell!

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It’s the last evening in the park for me. And I could ask for nothing more: a family of coyotes in the fescue prairie west of Riding Mountain, resting and watching, as coyotes do.

And wandering a little.

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Coyotes are omnivorous, just like foxes and bears. Berries are on the menu tonight!

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Four coyotes? Perhaps more. Certainly three adults and a pup.

coyote dog days4 sept 18

They’re waiting for winter. I’m waiting to travel again. Hard to believe, just eight days and so much wildness. Now we’re bound for Toronto and the long journey home.

I had some concerns about returning here after my long absence, afraid that the old essence had become diluted by relentless over-development and over-tourism. And there are problems, it is true; not on the scale of what Jasper and Banff are enduring, but even the prairie hasn’t escaped commercialism. I was especially concerned at the new road being built in East Block of Grasslands, a highly questionable action that seems to have gone unnoticed by Canadian NGOs. And Canada’s federal and provincial biodiversity protection laws could be tightened up. That is not news. Nor is the bubbling friction between people and large wildlife in some rural districts.

But there is still so much life in the Great Lone Land. Taste of the air or the glow of a lynx’s eyes? Hear it in the coyote’s song and the catch the shadow of an owl on a forgotten farmstead. It is something, intangible and free. Coyote, bears, moose, prairie dogs – they’re still here.

Long may they remain so.

Canada: Waterside

September 2018 – Canada is riddled with water. Rivers, waterfalls, mountain lakes – frequent material for tourist advertisements, yet quiet corners remain where wild creatures swim.

beaver1 23 sept 2018

Beaver: ecosystem engineer. They’re a hot topic in the UK at the moment because the reintroduction of the closely-related European species has shown a lot of promise, not only for biodiversity but also in reducing flooding of towns. Beavers change the environment, more than any wild animal except perhaps elephants. They slow rivers, create pools, fell trees – creating microhabitats, in other words, which other species eagerly use.

And the beaver’s fans don’t get much bigger than moose! These fabulous ungulates often browse in the marshy habitat created by beavers.

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This one is clearly ready for the rut. A moose’s antlers can weigh close to 80lb, one of the heaviest crowns in the animal kingdom.

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The weather’s still turning.

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But a woodchuck is still awake. Hibernation hasn’t called him to a winter burrow yet.

woodchuck rmnp sept 18