We set out yesterday to walk from [“Thaxted”:http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=51.954819,0.341907&spn=0.004404,0.009956&t=k&z=17&om=1] to [“Chickney Church”:http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=51.928773,0.288734&spn=0.004406,0.009956&t=k&z=17&om=1] without a map.
I got most of the route right, which means there were only two wrong turns — and, in fact, both of them are marked as perfectly legitimate footpaths on the OS map, even if the hedgerows had been grubbed up and they are now just a line of chalky tussocks along the side of a ploughed field. Taken with the wrong turns, this journey is about five miles — a significant distance even by air, since the whole thing lies “under the Stansted flightpath”:http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1267/1396364464_78dc2ce456.jpg and the planes that overflew us at the end had their undercarriage down, which, over Thaxted, they don’t.
None of this seems to bother the wildlife. I saw a fox at the top of one field about twenty metres away — the first I have ever seen on foot, though I once startled one while freewheeling on an ancient bicycle down a gravel road in Lapland. This one came out of a stand of bracken, a creature larger than a tomcat, but moving much too fluidly for a dog. In the slanting sun, it was the kind of warm coarse ginger colour that you see on a marmalade cat; then, after a few paces uphill, it turned to look at me square on. Again, there was something curiously cat-like about the way its ears made equilateral triangles, though these were very large in proportion to its face. The wind was gusting quite strongly towards me, so the fox studied me for about twenty seconds before turning and flowing uphill into more undergrowth.
By one of the three sixteenth century houses along the path, there was a ploughed, dry field with two herons in it. I have no idea what they were doing there. Finally, walking back across some stubble, I put up a hare. Again, I have never been so close to one on foot, though it was across the field almost before I could grasp what I was seeing; not quite before the light — even lower than at the fox sighting — made its back blaze golden orange. Not a colour you will ever see on a dead hare at the butcher’s.
The return journey, without detours, is only about three and three quarter miles, and offers some “glorious sunset”:http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1074/1396363328_38fce6742e.jpg views. Chickney Church itself is one of the numerous and almost deserted little Saxon ones around here. I suppose the bridleway to Thaxted — up the valley of a little stream, and then across the downs to the headwaters of the Chelmer and up on the other side to the church at Thaxted — must be around a thousand years old at least. There is also a village just off the route, anachronistically planted to make Americans giggle, called “Sucksted Green”.
I have owned the relevant Ordnance Survey sheet in the past, but couldn’t find it and there is no longer anywhere in town that sells maps on a Sunday. So I looked at the peephole maps on the OS site and tried to memorise the route. I also had Google Maps on the phone. This shows nothing but roads in map form, but some footpaths do show up in aerial photography and so do field boundaries and copses. So that was in fact enough to recover from being lost, when I already knew from the map what I should be looking for. But it was an object lesson in the superiority of OS maps to the simpler modern type. The things that an old-fashioned map shows are just much more informative than the stuff which shows up on even the most detailed satellite photographs; and Google Earth, over Stansted, is so detailed that you can see individual passengers queueing on the tarmac for a Ryanair flight.
It is also possible to take five of the little pinhole OS pngs and stitch them together into a single map that covers the whole route. But it’s more fun to get a little lost.