A return to scenes from a carefree childhood rekindles happy memories for Fiona Reynolds.
I had a free-range childhood. My parents loved the outdoors and life for my four sisters and me was full of adventure. We holidayed in Northumberland, Snowdonia and the Lake District, but, closer to home, near Rugby, there were always places to explore.
We waded through mud looking for Roman pottery near Tripontium when the M6 was being completed; we skated on the Oxford Canal when it froze over and we made endless trips to Badby Woods. When I was invited to speak in Daventry, my heart leapt at the prospect of revisiting the scenes of my childhood.
Badby Woods is where I most wanted to go. I knew these lovely woods would bring back memories. We went there most Sundays, racing through drifts of bluebells in spring and falling leaves in autumn, skipping in the sunshine and shrieking in the rain. I once swore I saw a badger looking at me from the depths of a hollow beech (I’ve always had a vivid imagination).
Beyond the woods is Fawsley Park, where we’d extend our walks, running down the hill to the ancient church which stands, as it has for centuries, in the Capability Brown-designed landscape with its majestic clumps of trees and serpentine lake. Now, my connections there have deepened, because this place also inspired two of my predecessor Masters of Emmanuel College.
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Lord St John of Fawsley, Master in the 1990s, lived in the Rectory at Preston Capes, just south of Fawsley. He loved this landscape, as did an earlier Master, John Preston, who died in 1628 and is buried in Fawsley Church. Preston was a close ally of the Fawsley-based Knightley family at the height of Emmanuel’s Puritan influence.
In 1627, one of Emmanuel’s most famous puritans, John Harvard, came to study. Little more than 10 years later, he died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his name immortalised in the college he helped establish there.
I feel an intense connection with this landscape of my childhood. Sitting astride the Warwickshire/Northamptonshire border, it’s particularly beautiful, with mellow ironstone villages and gently rolling countryside, protected from the surburbanising pressures to which larger towns have succumbed.
I start my walk in the village of Badby and take the Nene Way across the fields to Newnham. Beyond that village, I turn south, crossing the Nene and climbing towards Everdon, through fields seemingly only just vacated by medieval ploughs, their ridge and furrow rippling in the low winter sun.
I pass serene Little Everdon Hall, standing peacefully in its deer park, and the village of Everdon, hardly bigger, with its glorious 14th-century church. Then it’s past delightfully named Snorscombe Mill and Farm and up the hill to the Preston Capes road to pick up the Knightley Way. I feel the impact of this atrociously wet winter as I climb, slipping and sliding in the mud.
By the time I reach Lord St John’s village, I’m more than ready for a rest and where better than in the churchyard, from which his beautifully lettered gravestone surveys the countryside he loved. It’s a magical place and I rest, imagining my two predecessors, centuries apart, in whose footsteps I’m walking.
Revived, I cross the fields to Fawsley and enter the landscaped park, remembering our family’s games at the water’s edge and the fresh mussel shells we’d find.
Musing, I walk up the green hill as the afternoon light fades, reaching Badby Woods in the gloaming. Now, my imagination, as well as my memory, is on fire, and I wander through the woods looking for places half-remembered, but intensely felt. As the light goes, I return to Badby tired and happy, my 10-mile walk reconnecting me with places I’ll always love.
Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’.
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