“King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’”

from Mercian Hills, Geoffrey Hill

This particular end of East Anglia is riven with ancient dykes and trails, lying, as it once did, on the border between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and the middle kingdom of Mercia.

Both East Anglia and Mercia, and indeed all Anglo-Saxon fiefdoms at various times, were not unified states but nebulous territories and marshy regions only nominally under control of this or that minor warlord or proto-baron. There was no one border, but a criss-cross of thresholds built and broken and filled and rebuilt over centuries.

Devil's Dyke (1853)

Devil’s Dyke (1853)

The ancient borders around Cambridge are thus scored out by a series of defensive dykes – the Devil’s Dyke, for example, running across the fields north of the city, and Fleam Dyke running to the south-east, from Fulbourn towards Balsham. These Dykes would once have joined the marshes of the Fens with the wooded hills of the Chilterns, making them hard to circumvent.

For several miles they are walkable, and are prominent and ancient features on the landscape, with their own micro-flora (the rare common juniper, for example, is found here and there along Fleam Dyke).


A newish novel by Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, has attempted to strip English back to its Anglo-Saxon pathways, so to speak, and uncover in the language something like the ancient ways and tracks which divide up the English landscape. To my ear it reads like nothing so much as Cormac McCarthy, which only suggests that the Anglo-Saxon, pre-French roots of English run deep. Either that or Paul Kingsnorth has been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy.

Here is Mark Rylance, reading out a bit.