Winter bus ride
Blue sky with scudding clouds, pink tinged by the morning sun but dirty with threatening rain. Bare trees casting long low shadows across fields like the rib bones of some enormous extinct beast lying fossilised in the landscape. The bus chugs up hill, climbing out of the river valley- Norfolk is not pancake flat, there are some small hills. The road winds, except a few straight stretches that would gladden to hearts of those poor Romans who found our ways so baffling. But these are narrow country roads with passing places, and water-logged ditches on either side, so on occasion cars coming the other way have to reverse hundreds of yards back up the road to let this bus through. The driver is cheerful but determined not to back down, and after a short stand-off, we are on our way again. Ploughed fields gleam with standing water that reflects the sky, and the silions look like the ridges of chocolate icing on a Yule log cake.
The way is lined with sparse villages, houses dotted sometimes half a mile from the village proper; ancient cottages that might be five or six hundred years old stand side by side with bungalows built in the last ten years. Place names are evocative; we pass a hamlet called Silver Green- is that not charming? Each village has a church or two, depending on your choice of flavour; the original old one is usually flint built, the foundations probably Norman at least, if not Saxon. Some of these places have had a church on the site since the eighth century. The workmanship on some is breath-taking and the skills lost. No one can fathom how some of it was done; no one can knap flint like that now. We pass through one village that dates its own founding from 894AD.
We pass my favourite field, home to a flock of rare breed sheep, kept as pets, black sheep (though there is a single white ewe). The adults who were sheared in the spring have coats that are darker than the unsheared lambs, now fully grown; they are a rich shade of chocolate rather than the dusty black of the older sheep.
Further on, the earth ramparts of the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum come into view, along with a small amount of stone work. Most of the stone was robbed out, and some is used in the church that stands within the long fallen walls. I often wondered if it stands on the site of the temple of Mars that all Roman forts and towns had, along with shrines to local deities. The Iceni worshipped Andraste, a fierce warrior goddess whose totem was a hare. I have looked for hares today but have seen none; they are surely lying low amid the winter wheat and in the hedgerows rich and heavy with fruit like rose-hips and tiny sour wild apples and crab apples. The place hardly remembers the Romans, for the town lasted only a few hundred years at most and when the people left they took everything of value they could carry. They went probably to where the city of Norwich is now, and I know that I am not far from journey’s end. Other passengers sense this too, and conversations seem to change tone, to excitement and expectation. Most, like me, are going in to shop for Christmas; some are getting another bus to go elsewhere. It’s been an interesting hour or so of observing the countryside but now I must get ready for the crowds of the city.