Walking with Elspeth Owen on 21 December


Grantchester: Broadway to Cemetery

I am walking with the artist, Elspeth Owen, whom I met just last year. Elspeth is engaged in her own long-duration walking project, In the Dark (2-31 Dec 2009). December is a Blue Moon month (it has two moons). To mark this phenomenon, Elspeth (Material Woman) is remaining out of doors for the duration – finding shelter in a self-built hut, made from recycled materials already in her possession.

Each night, Elspeth walks on a radial path from her base, the radials forming a circle. For the first 14 nights, at a point on each of the radials, she buried a beaded necklace she had made. For the next 14 nights, she will retrieve them, one by one. This night, she is going out to find the 4th necklace. It is Winter Solstice, but in fact we don’t really talk much about that.

It has been snowing hard for some days. It is also minus degrees temperature. We walk out together just after 7pm. We each carry a large golfing umbrella. It is still snowing. We walk through the picture-postcard village of Grantchester, Elspeth’s home. Snow lies thick on the thatched roofs, as if it’s been carefully crafted on, for cinematic effect. We turn off Broadway at Coton Road, and follow this street for a few hundred metres, then take a left turn and walk down a lane. We notice immediately when the street lights end. It’s like crossing into another zone. The snow makes everything quiet, though there’s a distant, persistent hum of motorway traffic. The lights of cottages and farm houses twinkle warmly and I can’t help but think of Elspeth sleeping in her make-shift shelter which doesn’t look, to me, like it provides enough for these extreme conditions.

At the end of the track we cross into a field, following its perimeters. A couple of old, coppiced trees mark what would have been a boundary at some point. I am struck by how flat this landscape is. Coming from the West of Scotland, I am not used to this sort of horizon. It’s very open. I feel a bit at sea, without a bearing, nothing to locate me here.

Though it’s night its surprisingly light. We don’t need torches to find our way. It’s too cloudy to see the moon, but the snow acts as a reflector and there’s light pollution, presumably from Cambridge. The sky has an orange glow. The lights that reflect up from the motorway are like UFOs sneakily peeking over the edge of a bank.

We reach the edge of this field – we could be in the country – but then we cross a footbridge over the M11. Elspeth tells me the traffic is less than usual and slower moving. We continue walking, heading round another field and finally arrive at the cemetery. There are no churches or any buildings near it – only the road that is hidden partially behind an avenue of trees. It belongs to a church sited some distance away. The church doesn’t have any land nearby on which it could house its cemetery, so it acquired this plot.

Though Elspeth has passed this place many times in her car, she never knew the cemetery existed till she looked at the map in preparation for In the Dark. Her friend had arranged to walk with her one night, as part of the project, and Elspeth mentioned going to this cemetery. It turns out that her friend’s friend is buried here. It seemed fitting that this was where they should leave the necklace.

Elspeth refinds the grave stone easily, in spite of the dark and the weather. Anna May, 28th Oct ’41 – 25th April ’97. Much loved mother, wife and friend. In fact, it’s not a stone but a lovely piece of carved wood, made by Anna May’s son, in the shape of a house –  or a shelter – with a pitched roof. Elspeth tenderly digs up the necklace, itself sheltered behind the wood shelter, replacing the soil carefully.

We walk back the way we came, snow still falling. It is only about a 2 ½ mile round trip, but by the time we re-enter the village, with its orange street lamps, it feels like we’ve travelled much further.

It also feels like a privilege to begin my own walking project by participating – albeit momentarily – in Elspeth’s.


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