Here’s a story I tell the pupils at school.
Some time ago I was told that I had Celtic feet – which meant that (at least partially) I was descended from the Celts who came to this green and pleasant land three thousand years ago.
Now, I don’t know if that’s true of not, but it makes a good story. So let’s assume for now that it is true.
(Even the name Celt is misleading; the Europeans who came here were a diverse group from all over the mainland of Europe. The name itself, Celt, came much, much later; and invention of a much more modern age.)
When my ancestors arrived, England was a very different place. It was covered with dense forests inhabited with bears, wolves and lynx. Getting from place to place was difficult, slow and dangerous. When my ancestors arrived, the country was already populated, and not everyone would have been happy to see the immigrants from across the channel. Life was hard – and short.
At the end of the Iron Age, the people had begun to clear land for farming, they hunted, built large structures and traded.
Although the population was tiny by modern standards, perhaps only a hundred and fifty thousand people, the people spread out from Cornwall to Orkney.
It might well have been the case that if my ancestors were traders they might have climbed the hill that I now work upon. In those ancient time there was a road that stretched from the south coast in Dorset, up through the chalk hills of south and east England to the Wash on the East coast. We now call that ancient road, the Greater Ridgeway, and it separates the school from the school field.
The Ridgeway (the eighty seven miles of it that remain) is crossed by our pupils every time they go to the field to play sports.
For me, I grew up somewhere else, but knew about the Ridgeway from a book that I still have; a book of photographs by the landscape photographer, Faye Godwin.
I loved her work. I bought the later works, and for a short time was taught by the lady herself.
Some forty years after The Oldest Road was published I frequently revisit Godwin’s work, and now living in Buckinghamshire walk parts of the Ridgeway Trail as often as I can. My favourite parts are, inevitably, those furthest from home, but they can still be reached in a couple of hours.
I often think of all those who have walked this ancient road before me, from my (possibly mythical) Celtish ancestors who would have found an already ancient road by the time they arrived, to Faye Godwin, lugging her Hasselblad and tripod until she found the right location to take one of her wonderful landscapes.
I also tell my pupils that this is the best country in the world. This is the part of the story that I really believe.