Hitchin isn’t far from Letchworth, but it feels an extra degree removed: it’s not a stop on the fast service from Royston. Only slow trains stop here.
This is a slow run from Hitchin. For how long can I keep going? Most roads have a field beside them. It’s not always easy to get back on to the road from the field, however. Thickly brambled wild hedges are impenetrable. But usually there’s an exit eventually, maintained by a steady trickle of trespassing walkers.
I’m off the Icknield Way and through Norton Common. Leaves are beginning to fall. Then through the fields towards Ashworth. The wheat crackles in the wind like popcorn. Sometimes it is bronze, sometimes blonde. Reaching marathon distance seems feasible at this point. A place called Arbury Banks is signposted: it’s an old hill fort, 1000-700BC.
This may be the site of a battle in which the Romans defeated Boudicea, a tribal queen and leader of a British alliance hoping to force the Romans to brexit.
Tacitus describes a confident Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus marching up from Londinium to quell the uprising. They may have marched close by my Gold Card route and then on the Icknield way, getting to the place where I am running around now.
Suetonius had the fourteenth legion with the veterans of the twentieth, and auxiliaries from the neighbourhood, to the number of about ten thousand armed men… His legions were in close array; round them, the light-armed troops, and the cavalry in dense array on the wings. On the other side, the army of the Britons, with its masses of infantry and cavalry, was confidently exulting, a vaster host than ever had assembled, and so fierce in spirit that they actually brought with them, to witness the victory, their wives riding in waggons…
The two sides face off: well-organised Roman veterans against the upstart freedom fighters led by Boudicea.
Boudicea, with her daughters before her in a chariot, went up to tribe after tribe… “But now,” she said, “it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows…
The Roman governor tells his men to discount appearances, to separate the signal from the noise. The posturing is all hot air, he says.
Nor was Suetonius silent at such a crisis. Though he confided in the valour of his men, he yet mingled encouragements and entreaties to disdain the clamours and empty threats of the barbarians… “Such was the enthusiasm which followed the general’s address, and so promptly did the veteran soldiery, with their long experience of battles, prepare for the hurling of the javelins, that it was with confidence in the result that Suetonius gave the signal of battle.
Suetonius has the lie of the land and has, perhaps, been a bit more strategic in his setup than the British. His legion initiates a devastating attack.
At first, the legion kept its position, clinging to the narrow defile as a defence; when they had exhausted their missiles, which they discharged with unerring aim on the closely approaching foe, they rushed out in a wedge-like column…the very beasts of burden, transfixed by the missiles, swelled the piles of bodies. Great glory, equal to that of our old victories, was won on that day. Some indeed say that there fell little less than eighty thousand of the Britons, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded. Boudicea put an end to her life by poison.Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals. Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Ed.
From this site of Roman triumph I run through fields trying to rejoin a road. All a bit aimless but a farmer doesn’t seem to mind. He’s driving through the cropped field in his truck. He waves at me. Forty kilometers still seems like an achievable distance. I plan a detour around Ashwell’s periphery, keeping its church on my right. Ashwell’s church is where I plan to take my first slug of water, but I give in early. There’s not enough Roman spirit in my legs. It seems good enough to finish Icknield off in the usual way. I buy a bottle of water at the Ashridge Caravan Club.
There seems to be a relationship between the feeling of duration and heart rate. All through this run my heart rate has been low and time has been passing quickly. The higher the pulse the slower time seems to pass. This is a slow but quick run. Legs ache symmetrically and their dull nagging is good company. The dead badger is still there, looking relatively fresh.
Another runner approaches the pedestrian rail crossing from the other side, but has to wait until I’m over. I’m sure I’ve been going for longer. I’m still thinking about Boudicea and Brexit, imagining her as an early ancestor of both May and Johnson and Suetonius as Tusk and Barnier rolled in to one. What did the Romans ever do for these gently fragmenting British tribes?