Walking the Dry Road

in Historic artefacts/History

WCould causeways really be roads to the grave, a corruption of corpse ways? This was proposed to me by a friend, as we walked down a lonely causeway in late Spring. I dismissed it straight away.

To me causeways have meant a road across marshland. It seems Wikipedia kind of agrees with me, talking about a track across a wet place. When the word was first used it comes from the word ’causey’ or tramped, trampled. Imaginatively unpicking etymology like this is always complex as words are close in meaning and so easily shape shift.

But tonight, as I watch the moon rise over my long garden, I can’t stop thinking about the narrative his idea suggests, the dream vision of the road into nowhere. Once upon a time, roads led into fairyland into the unknown. Tonight I walk them with no effort, on google maps. On the causeways a journey can be more magical because all around the walkers there rise the mists of the marsh, the spirits of water, ready to suck a traveller down to a grave of mud. The walker must stay supported by the impacted land, crossing magically, by the magic of humans. Or perhaps the rider has to rely on the earth not giving way to the horse. Horses are excellent at picking their way but it feels counter-intuitive to trust an animal that could easily disappear into quicksand, especially when hampered by having to carry the extra weight that humans demand.

For tidal islands such as St Michael’s Mount and Lindisfarne, and Eilean Tioram to the west of Fort William the causeways that lead from the mainland to the islands easily disappear at high tide. The destination is clear but the way can only be taken at times of day during those moments when the moon is right and the seas obey its gravitational pull. These are predictable, to a great extent, but again it is counter-intuitive to trust safety to a time of day. The presence of other forces threatens to overwhelm those brave enough to set out.

Many causeways are nowadays very different experiences. The otherworldly romance has been extracted, as tracks become motorways. But beneath the soil the cars may be driving over artefacts buried to bring good luck to the endeavour. Wheels whizzing over tarmac may be blessed by any votive offerings that survived the construction rape of the countryside.

During the later mediaeval period, in post-Norman times, more causeways were built across floodplains. This did not only happen in famous fenlands but in the lesser known watery stretches, smaller but which still had an important local impact on traffic. As in the Surrey fens. Mediaeval canal digging, building on the presence of drainage ditches, intervening in the water table to create water meadows and farm watercress beds was part of the management of the land. Much of the countryside could not simply be crossed. The causeway was essential to traverse the land.

Inland island was selected by monasteries for construction of their important buildings. As in Newark Priory, now ruins surrounded by the River Wey. It can be approached on the Wey path via Newark Lock and Mill. But for those who can awake on Easter Day a dawn service is held in the ruins at 6am. Parishioners trek across the field to the ruins, a bonfire is lit, and pascal candles are lighted in the flames. Fire banishing water.

In one of the larger wetlands of England, Romney Marsh, the town of Old Romney arose out of the wet bog, close to the sea. The other habitable spaces are now still the towns or villages, old Lydd, Ivychurch and Old Winchelsea. At high tide the sea swept around these areas, going further inland. The marsh people reclaimed the area gradually, despite the threat of malaria an illness once common in the swampy climes of South East England.

For places to function outside of isolation, causeways could be supplemented by travel via water travels. And the main drainage channels, dug to help with farming to support the large settlements also provided walking areas from the collection of silt either side. The wide channels were difficult to cross and became natural property boundaries for parishes and estates. Churches colonised the high areas, often surrounded by a ring ditch. In the marshes towers still rise out of the mist and the reeds, refusing to be swallowed by nature, strong in their loneliness. In the marshes the old ways can still be seen.

In deep Essex, one road is particularly known for its danger to travellers, the Broomway,or Doomway. Walking it rashly has killed travellers. Many of the dead are buried in the little Foulness churchyard on Foulness Island. Others have not been recovered. Walking across Maplin Sands is dangerous. Disorientating. Foulness is thinly populated. It has a tiny village store, no pub since ‘The George and Dragon’ closed in 2007. Under Ministry of Defence control and anyone wishing to visit must get advance permission though from April to October, on the first Sunday of every month, the Heritage Centre is open and people can visit. It is not somewhere you could ever accidentally happen upon.

Lucy M. Boston, the writer of the Green Knowe books for children, introduced me to the mystery of inner floodlands.  Green Knowe was based on her home at the time, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire. When Tolly arrives, a boy, for the first time, on a train through drenches of rainshowers, he discovers Green Knowe is surrounded by watery levels he is unable to wade. He is rowed to the house by lamplight over the drowned gardens. With wide eyes I travelled with him, the atmosphere lit by the starry moonlamp, his senses flooded with the dark wet of the unknown green. In such a house, an inland, temporary island, ghosts may come visiting and the past has room to breathe. Its isolation unlocks the doors to otherworlds and the intelligent spirits still resting in the walls, stored in the old oak trunks.

A causeway, high above water is vulnerable. Its dry safety could be taken away at any moment. It stirs the senses, raising alertness through insecurity. Be aware! What is out there? Something lies beyond the edges of the road, waiting with the patience of the inhuman to rob the unwary traveller of her identity, submerge her. Don’t give up your sense of self to the neverworld. Because ways, be carefulways, trust the causeways.

Stay alive. Stay on the road! Make it to the church.

On the road where the funeral procession goes. The corpse way.

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.

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