A hundred miles north of the capital, the A1 London – Edinburgh road crosses a forgotten and largely empty swathe of farmland. Forgotten because today it’s on the way to somewhere, but at the centre of nowhere. And empty because of what happened here more than six centuries ago. The Black Death arrived suddenly in Lincolnshire, in September 1348, but, within a few weeks, a third of the population was dead, and this once prosperous and populated piece of agricultural England lay devastated.
The county was laid almost to waste by the scale and speed of the catastrophe. Two hundred and fifty villages were abandoned. Historians argue whether the Black Death was the direct cause, but it hardly helped. These were thriving and established settlements, with names ending in -thorpe, -ing, or -by, recording the Viking occupation of the Danelaw, that tract of eastern England which had been conceded to the invading Norsemen nearly five hundred years before. But history stopped for these villages, and many that did survive remain as just a name on the map, or a few buildings scattered around a church or a farm.
These are not the flat expanses of the Fens, nor the picturesque hillsides of the Wolds, but Jurassic vales where the Lincolnshire Limestone and glacial Boulder Clay configure a rolling landscape of endless fields, sparse remnant woodland and scattered hamlets.
Countless travellers have passed by here throughout the ages, from the Bronze Age Celts, crossing this landscape from the North Sea along the Salt Way, to highwayman Dick Turpin and today’s lorry drivers on their beloved Great North Road. The modern highway follows Roman Ermine Street as far as the ancient junction near Colsterworth, where the legions forged northnortheast along High Dyke towards Ancaster (Causennae) and the fortress hilltown of Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) beyond.
In Friday night’s train from London, it’s just an hour’s journey to reach my destination. A stone’s throw away stands the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, that most controversial of all post-war Prime Ministers. This mistress of free trade economics grew up above a Grantham grocer’s shop on the corner of Broad Street, now fittingly almost within sight of a huge Asda superstore, the town’s modern commercial heart. But the statue and the older shopping centre in town both carry the name of a far greater player on the universal stage.
The small village of Woolsthorpe, where the Romans had once mined iron ore, had survived the Black Death, its name recording both its earlier Viking past and its continuing mediaeval trade. Three hundred years later, a small house here was the birthplace of Isaac Newton. After school in Grantham and a degree at Cambridge, Newton’s visit home in 1665 was prolonged by the return of pestilence in the Great Plague. And so it was that a legendary apple tree in his Woolsthorpe garden gave birth to much of modern physics.
On a grey and bleak Saturday afternoon, I head east from Bassingthorpe. Less than a handful of houses and a barn remain, with only the much larger church recording the four-hundred strong community which once farmed the land. Over the hill to Westby, and Burton-le-Coggles with its French-sounding name and stubby spire reminiscent of Normandy. Beside the fast Boothby Pagnell road, a shrine of fresh flowers stands by a guilty oak tree, where a teddy bear and Christmas cards to a girl named Kelly adorned the verge when last I ran here.
My recently-acquired GPS reports that I’ve five miles behind me, and fifteen more ahead. The satellites instantly recording my position owe their flight to Newton’s legacy, largely laid out in the Principia of 1687. One of the greatest accomplishments of abstract thought, this monumental work states the foundations of the science of mechanics, describing the mathematics of orbital motion, and the movements of the solar sytem. Newton identified gravitation as the fundamental force controlling the celestial bodies, but he never found its cause.
The universal forces occupying me now are from the hills, and the resistance of the wind. One thing I’ve learned from my GPS is that if you have to walk, do it uphill. You lose less speed than if you grind punishingly, but heroically, to the top, only to pause breathlessly and lose the potential energy gain of sailing effortlessly down the other side.
I turn onto quieter lanes and through the doubly Viking-named village of Ingoldsby, enjoying a modern renaissance witnessed by the recent extensions to its once tiny school and playground. Another walking hill through Lenton, as the lane twists and turns, wriggling and then at last unwinding itself along a straight section. This nine-foot wide stretch of tarmac is King Street, the Roman road from Bourne to Ancaster, and diminutive sister of the A1.
A mile beyond the roadside willows, as I turn left, lies the Roman settlement at Sapperton. Twelve miles gone, says Roger, the integrated distance readout a product of the modern differential calculus refined by Newton. The wind is behind me now, the air’s density measured and the speed of sound both calculated in the Principia. A long drink, another left turn to pass the warm windows of the Ropsley Fox, and onto a long but gentle easterly dipslope. A steady toil, heading west, towards a weak and chilly sun. The hazy rays of white light from our home star are diffracted and refracted through the evening atmosphere, appearing orange and purple through a grey cloud blanket. Newtonian optics.
Eventually, there’s a flat and sheltered mile behind the hedges into Old Somerby. A body continues in uniform motion when no external forces are applied, and mine conforms like every other. Newton’s First Law of Motion, simply stated.
Force = mass x acceleration. I’m running slightly faster between all the walks today. The 4.5 kg I’ve lost since December is a meagre 5 % of my body weight, but it means a little extra speed on the road. Newton’s Second Law of Motion.
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Third and final Law of Motion. The Earth spins faster eastwards as I run westwards around it, although I doubt you noticed the difference.
Soon there’s a more mundane, but equally inevitable, reaction to the distance run and the time under my feet. ‘Boothby Pagnell 3‘, reads the roadsign in front of me, and two more lie unstated beyond. My spirit sinks with the evening gloom, and twilight finds me on a grim walking break still two miles from my goal. A passing LandRover slows, then stops, its hazard lights winking brightly through the murk. A friendly driver jumps out to offer me a lift. ‘I thought you were limping’, he says. ‘I’ve trained for a marathon myself, and I know just what it’s like’.
Such thoughtful and tempting kindness, which I politely decline. Counting the telegraph poles now, I run three, then walk two. Again. And again. Twenty more minutes go by in the dusk. A final assault on Bassingthorpe’s hill, and then the relief of running down past the old Manor to the house at last.
I sit on the doorstep, as the night falls. The bright sky of open country, and the stars of all the universe are peering out. Amongst them are the satellites circling high above, telling me that my 20 miles are all done, as indeed am I.
It’s rocket science, it really is. Thank you, Newton.
65. In the footsteps of Brunel: Bristol Half Marathon
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
144. East of Eden – evolution and enlightenment
75. The Cruel Sea – the Indian Ocean tsunami
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles