Great Stones Way: day three

Stonehenge

 It’s the summer solstice in two days’ time. From the relative comfort of my Dorset home, back in the mists of time, I had harboured thoughts of attending the celebrations at Avebury. I’d even gone as far as investigating the cost of a pre-dawn taxi from our holiday cottage in Potterne – thirty five pounds. B and Pathfinder Powell didn’t seem too keen. ‘That’s ok’, I’d said recklessly, ‘happy to go alone’. In the real world, intention has almost entirely dissipated: the thought of rising at 3.30 in the morning no longer fills me with glee.

The impending solstice also affects the chronological order of our route: we’re due at Stonehenge on Thursday along with a conservative estimate of 10,000 others. B and the pathfinder would like to actually see the stones and there won’t be much chance of that with a mob of druids thronging the joint. Moreover, Hutton and I would like to see the new visitor centre and as English Heritage are partaking of half-day closing on Wednesday, which will last until Friday, we’re bringing this stage of our journey forward to today.

I have a cunning plan: we take one car to Woodhenge and will walk the processional route to the stones in the footsteps of the ancients, thereby taking in all the landscape has to offer. There are already a few old vans parked on various verges with even older hippy types spilling out onto grassy knolls but we find a place easily enough. Hutton has written reams and reams on Stonehenge but nothing concerning its wooden neighbour. To be fair, it’s pretty much a reproduction of where the original timbers were placed and its whereabouts probably wasn’t even known when Hutton first passed by.

 Durrington Walls, however, where we begin our walk, was in visible existence. Hutton begins promisingly with the statement that ‘Durrington is a place of great antiquity where there was a village before the beginning of history’. Correct. Sadly, having got that news out of the way, he then drones on and on about chapels and churches, topics with which he’s far more comfortable. Durrington Walls enclose what was once a large Neolithic settlement which may well have been where those who built Stonehenge resided with their families. On this sunny morning, one of the final bearable few before the heatwave begins, the long grass is still wet with dew. We stride through wondering whether shorts were such a good choice as we towel our legs down. The grasses are also full of moths and butterflies which rise and flutter away on our approach although I manage to trap a ‘common blue’ in my camera lens. You may call it common; I don’t.

 Leaving Durrington behind us, we take a short walk south to the Cuckoo Stone; a huge and lonely sarsen surrounded this morning by grazing ewes and their fast growing lambs. No-one knows why it’s here. Hutton surmises that it was possibly dropped on its way to Stonehenge. The problem with this theory is that there’s evidence to show that the Cuckoo was once upright, suggesting an intention. Perhaps it was a way marker. In 1995, the National Trust archaeology team purchased the stone in order to preserve the archaeology beneath it. Good work NT but who did you purchase it from? Good morning, I’d like to buy the biggest free standing stone you have please. No, I don’t mind if it’s fallen over. Hutton tuts.

Skirting the leafy way of the disused railway which is garnished on the right by the officers’ quarters at Larkhill, we arrive at a gate of some importance. Here we attain our first view of Stonehenge in the distance, as would those not taking the route from the river in the dark past. Hutton waxes lyrical: ‘Stonehenge is beyond such memories and sentiments … it stands wholly within the shadow, over the horizon not only of history, but of legend’. ‘The horizon of history’ – I like this and we think him quite poetic this morning until he spoils it all by quoting vast tracts of Lear. We tell him to shut up.

 From this viewpoint, we are looking straight along the Cursus. Well, we would be if you could see it but, of course, its visibility has been lost to the modern day traveller. The Cursus is approximately 1.9 miles long and between 330 feet and 490 feet wide and was constructed several hundred years before Stonehenge. The second photo is a highlighted image courtesy of English Heritage. Looking at it on the map and in this image, it appears as a racecourse, for which the Latin word is – cursus. I consult Hutton as to his thoughts but he’s sulking and isn’t speaking. Neither does he have anything to say about the King Barrows alongside which we amble on our way to The Avenue.

 These days, the barrows are mostly clothed in trees so it’s not until we pass the first group that we emerge back into the open to begin our processional walk. And thus not until this point do we discover that the vast tract of land we’re about to cross is full of cows. An involuntary ‘oh’ escapes me and the other two think I’m still exclaiming the beauty of it all until the pathfinder sees what I’ve seen. It’s a tricky moment in time. The pathfinder has turned very pale and quiet. The alternative route would be to continue on this path and walk down along the road but that would be hideous. We trundle off to inspect one of the barrows while a decision is made.

 Good news! We are to take the processional route down The Avenue in the footsteps of our forebears. Some of us process. B and the pathfinder fairly gallop the best part of a mile as if plotting the route of a new cursus. Half way across, I shout to B to stop. I want her to look back at the barrows, the beauty and symmetry of which, like everything else, can only be appreciated from a distance. It’s a lost cause: they’re rushing for the gate and trying to ignore the cows that are, of course, ignoring us. It was brave of the pathfinder and it means they at least get the pleasure of walking slowly along the rest of The Avenue, the other side of the fence, which is absolutely the best way to reach Stonehenge.

 Having arrived, we would like to actually go into the stones but English Heritage, in their dubious wisdom, don’t let travellers in without a ticket purchased from the visitor centre. Ostensibly, that’s fair enough but a couple of years ago they moved the visitor centre and it’s now a mile and a half away. This is also ok we’re informed, because you can go there on the shuttle bus. Providing you’ve got a ticket. That would be a ticket you’ve bought from the visitor centre. English Heritage doesn’t do irony. They ‘manage’ a place that folk came to from all corners of the kingdom on foot but don’t have a ticket booth at the site for today’s walkers. They only cater for people who arrive in cars or on coaches so, having walked at least four miles, we have to trudge the extra mile and a half in order to get a bus back. Further, it’s lunchtime. And just before I finish this rant, let me tell you that another couple arrive on foot with PRE-PAID timed entry confirmation and are denied access until they go to the bloody visitor centre and retrieve paper tickets.

 On the positive side, the new visitor centre, once we crawl in, is excellent. It’s difficult to describe the façade: it looks like one of those weird buildings they have on Grand Designs but it somehow seems to fit cleverly into the landscape. (Photo courtesy of the architects, Denton, Corker and Marshall).Today, of course, the place is full of spotlights, portaloos by the hundred and temporary parking areas in preparation for the solstice arrivals but none of this paraphernalia would normally be here. And the award winning exhibition is truly impressive. My favourite part is the digital wall which gradually changes from the original bare landscape to show the evolution of the Cursus, the barrows and the phases of construction of Stonehenge over time. Much to Hutton’s disgust, it’s fairly rammed with schoolchildren. And why not Edward? They’re not about to read Highways and Byways in Wiltshire.

After this, and following our picnic, we take the shuttle bus along the new service road to become proper tourists visiting the stones. It’s lovely and Hutton, who’s now back on speaking terms, has loads to say on it all. He begins with the ideas of my hero, Stukeley, back in 1740 and follows on with other antiquarians before asking, ‘how much further than that have we got? Very little…its purpose is inscrutable.’ Exactly 100 years since he wrote that, and despite all the archaeological advances, we might justifiably repeat those sentiments.

 

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Great Stones Way: day 2

Monday: Overton Hill to Alton Barnes White Horse

Prior to today’s walk proper, we are paying a visit to West Kennet Long Barrow, parking for which is conveniently situated in a layby on the hideous A4 opposite Silbury Hill. It’s an ideal spot for a photo opportunity; and for getting mown down by pantechnicons and suchlike.

Commencing our walk over Pan Bridge and up another ‘rise’, Pathfinder Powell is suddenly alerted to the presence of black cows. Not too big, not too many, but cows nonetheless which are blocking the entry to the barrow track. I am all for pressing on. B is wavering from loyalty and the pathfinder is resolute – she’s off back to the car. This bovine denial of all things ancient is a shame but we are who we are. I’d be the same if the only route was via a very high bridge. Meanwhile, the cows shuffle off to another part of the field and B and I make our escape through a small gate to begin the next ascent.

This place is wild flower heaven. We turn to look back at Silbury Hill which is rising majestically from a sea of poppies and daisies. It’s exquisite and once again far more startling than the close-up view we experienced half an hour ago. Of Silbury, Hutton writes, ‘that inexplicable hill vast and conical, as if it were a barbaric pyramid’. I think he means barbaric in the sense of primitive but you never know with Edward.

The West Kennet Long Barrow is a Neolithic tomb that was in constant use for at least a thousand years following its completion around 3650BCE. I have to check that and it’s right. Fairly old then. The twin sarsens that were placed to block the entrance were erected around 2000BCE when the tomb was closed. Hutton gives us its length – 330 feet – and writes the place off as ‘something of a ruin’. That Hutton, he’s such a chump at times.

I once came up here with a bunch of new age types following a guided tour of Avebury. At that time, some aliens had constructed a rather impressive crop circle in the adjoining field which seemed entirely apposite. It was charming, although today’s floral display just inches ahead I feel in terms of dressing. Anyway, on that occasion, we all duly trooped inside the barrow which can be accomplished by sidestepping the frontal megaliths. It’s quite dark in there. Once inside, our leader sat on a rock quietly tapping away on his bodhran whilst his girlfriend flattened herself against a stone and advanced into some sort of hallucinogenic induced trance. ‘Ohmmmmm’, went everyone else. ‘Ermm’, I mumbled, heading back outside for a breath of fresh air and a chat with my shaman.

In fact, in as much as facts prevail in these parts, a current theory suggests that the acoustics inside the tomb played an important part in whatever rituals the ancients undertook at West Kennet. B and I go in because we can and because it would be rude not to.

As B notes, it’s not oppressive inside; no bad vibes and not a ghost in sight but I don’t feel I’m missing out by not venturing the full 42 feet of the interior that’s accessible. However, on emerging from the otherworld, we do traverse the whole length along the top where we see bright red butterflies with black bodies, swallows playing happily and Pathfinder Powell watching us through binoculars from the safety of the A4. Because of the topography and architectural design, the pathfinder thinks we’re on the ridge of the hill; she doesn’t realise we’re actually standing on the West Kennet Long Barrow. Clever stuff this mystical landscape. As I keep saying, you’ve got to see the whole in order to join the dots.

Back at Overton Hill, the car park seems unusually busy this morning. A Royal Mail van screams around the corner and stops in front of the three thousand years old tumuli. ‘Expecting something from Amazon?’ B asks struggling with her boots. There’s also a BT Openreach van, a British Gas van and a refuse lorry up here. I suspect this to be a Neolithic holding bay for tradespeople seeking a hiding place. Two ladies ask us to take their photograph to mark the beginning of their jaunt along the Ridgeway. They’re going in the opposite direction, all the way to Ivinghoe which is a mere 87 miles. ‘We’ve just completed The South Downs Way’, says one of them with a degree of jollity and we are suitably impressed. However, Pathfinder Powell, astute as ever, notes a distinct lack of rucksacks. They’re certainly not laden down like we three snails with our homes on our backs and we surmise that they must be paying someone to transport their baggage along the way. Not proper hikers then.

Rejoining the Great Stones Way, we are as big game hunters beating a path through a foliage-ridden route that may not have witnessed a traveller since the last of the ancients passed this way a few millennia ago. In fact, we won’t see a living soul until the end of this section. Even when we arrive in the village of East Kennet the place is as silent as the grave; well, with the exception of a few lorries taking an environmentally unfriendly short cut along a miniscule lane to the A4, but they are driven at top speed by unseen persons.

We skirt Manor Farm and begin our ascent of Lurkeley Hill. This is no rise or incline or any other of those false euphemisms: it’s a very steep hill with a hard-core chalk path which necessitates many stops along the way. I walked most of this route a couple of years ago in the opposite direction which was considerably easier. On that occasion I only saw one other traveller in two hours. I wonder if would-be hikers believe it to be too far from the main highlights of the Avebury World Heritage environment. In truth, nothing could be further from – well, the truth. The more we pause, the more opportunities there are to see the landscape in all its timeless glory. From up here, one can see the West Kennet Long Barrow which I’m almost sure isn’t possible from anywhere else.

And of course, Silbury Hill sits where it’s proudly remained for who knows how long. I recall that on that previous journey, I emerged from the woods at Cow Down on the other end of the track and caught my first glimpse of Silbury. I subsequently recorded my sense of awe and nothing less than spiritual well-being on stepping into what truly seemed the otherworld.

East Kennet also has a long barrow which, when constructed, was an even larger affair than its neighbour in West Kennet. For unknown reasons, its survival was not similarly successful and being now covered in centuries of turf and trees it’s difficult to see. I recently read a piece by someone who had tried to locate it by enquiring of his dowsing rods as to its whereabouts. Certainly Hutton has nothing to say on the matter but this is hardly surprising given his supercilious dismissal of the West Kennet Long Barrow. A much easier means of locating the East Kennet barrow might be to look at the Ordnance Survey Explorer map on which it’s clearly marked. It’s over there somewhere.

Meanwhile, we trudge on until, after a mile or so, Lurkeley Hill gives up on its attempt to beat us into submission and decides to behave more kindly by turning itself into a far more manageable state of affairs; but we still stop constantly to look at the scenery. For me, this part of the Ridgeway is my favourite among many worthy competitors. Its slopes and valleys, with their multitudes of paths and tumuli, are difficult to better. Whilst looking down on a random display of sarsen stones, we notice a strange post. Even through binoculars, it’s difficult to discern the shape atop it which looks somewhat like a badger’s head. There’s definitely no chance of encrypting whatever has been written there although, on reflection, it may have said ‘to East Kennet Long Barrow’.

At the place where the Wansdyke crosses the Ridgeway, surely a point of great significance, I bring up the thorny subject of lunch. B and Pathfinder Powell are rather rigid when it comes to meal-times; although, it has to be said, not so inflexible when it comes to the contents of their picnic boxes. Having completed our official stretch of the Great Stones Way, we choose a spot to eat at the foot of Knap Hill. Keeping strictly to my Slimming World regime, I have cold chicken curry and saag dahl. I have to content myself with the discovery that cold saag dahl is actually rather nice whilst those two prepare for the advance on their goodies.

They’re eating five times as much as me on this holiday with fairly pathetic attempts to disguise the fact. Yesterday, they stopped off in Devizes on the pretence of purchasing some healthy salmon for dinner, only to be forced into the subsequent confession of scoffing tea and coffee cake on the wharf. The day before it was a sneaky Victoria Sponge. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to confront them with a packet of pork pies I found slyly hidden in the fridge behind my fat-free yoghurt. B is currently launching into what she refers to as a cheese and ham sandwich. Let me tell you, this comprises half a piglet and a round of cheddar jammed between two bread vans.

And this isn’t the half of it: when they’re not talking about making a bloody bread pudding – a feat which the pathfinder has the nerve to say she can accomplish with MY raisins that I religiously count on to my morning’s Weetabix – there’s a veritable sack-full of Haribos and chunks of Kendal Mint Cake which they give to each other in tiny portions. Don’t they know that I know they had a slab each whilst I was taking a Paula? How did they think they were going to whistle with their teeth stuck together with sugar? Even Hutton looks askance.

We have already decided not to continue onwards to what the guidebook calls the end of this particular stretch of the Great Stones Way. It comprises almost twelve miles without consideration of our earlier walk to and from the West Kennet Long Barrow. More importantly, a large part of it is on tarmac which we are keen to avoid. Pathfinder Powell looks at Knap Hill and suggests we could go up there for a stroll. It looks a bit steep to one whose stomach is still coming to terms with the saag dahl and my heart is set on seeing the Alton Barnes White Horse.

We wander back over the little road and come across twenty or thirty schoolboys who, having tramped into oblivion and back, have now been forced to erect a number of tents at the edge of the field in record time. We leave them to their own miseries and trot up the aptly named Walkers Hill which is part of the Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve. I had the feeling the horse would be visible from here but in fact it’s further along the ridge towards Milk Hill. The pathfinder intends us to take a circular walk along the trail and back to the Wansdyke; and back to the Ridgeway; and back to Knap Hill. I don’t know where she gets her stamina but it transpires that her mind has been temporarily addled by an excess of Kendal Mint Cake because when we finally reach the horse, she gives in claiming an inability to walk any further. I can’t say I’m sorry.

The Alton Barnes White Horse is 180 feet high and 160 feet long. Dating from 1812 – music please – it was designed by a journeyman inn sign artist affectionately known as Jack the Painter. The horse can be seen from a distance of twenty two miles; indeed, there are few days this week that we don’t see it on the way to somewhere else. On two different April Fools Days in the past, it has been transformed into a zebra. Now, on one hand, I would like to see that. On the other hand, I have to say it’s looking a bit grubby today and not at all like its beautifully scoured cousin over at Uffington.

It’s sunny but a little windy up here as we sit next to the horse and embrace the perfectly stunning views across the huge landscape. On a distant ridge, we see miles of smoke and wonder whether stubble is still being burnt. On another day, we’ll discover that this is a clue to the war games being undertaken on Salisbury Plain. For now, however, we enjoy the flower covered serenity of this glorious spot in England’s finest.

The Great Stones Way 16 – 23 June 2018

Sunday: Barbary Castle to Overton Hill

There are four of us beginning our journey along The Great Stones Way: myself, my friends B and Pathfinder Powell, and Edward Hutton whose 1917 edition of Highways and Byways in Wiltshire will inform me historically and geographically. Hutton gives a solitary sentence to Barbary Hill in which we learn it to be 800 feet above sea level and the possible site of Cymric’s victory over the Britons in 556. I get the feeling Hutton never actually travelled here unlike the South West Glamorgan Pigeon Federation who have several hundred birds in the car park waiting to race back to Wales this morning.

Pathfinder Powell recounts the Tale of the Acton Pigeon: some years ago, having journeyed downstairs in search of tea, and to open the back door in order to let the morning in, she returned to bed to be startled by a loud bang emanating from below. Bravely, the pathfinder retraced her steps only to find a stunned homing pigeon lying inside the front door. Said pigeon, being in possession of a telephone number which it weakly squawked, happened to come from Acton. The pathfinder, residing not a million miles hence, popped the pigeon in a box and drove it home whereupon it was returned to an ungrateful owner who didn’t even bother to offer his thanks. Cross, I suppose, because Percy Pigeon hadn’t won the race.

There are also quite a few ramblers, some of whom we walk with until they become increasingly herded and corralled by their very loud leader who is trying to organise a group photo. In any case, they are taking another path and we aren’t unhappy to lose them and have Barbary to ourselves. The views are stupendous, as they’ll continue to be throughout this stretch of the Way.

Our path is an up and down affair; the up bits are a little challenging although not in comparison with some of the later stages when we will be fitter and more accustomed to what the guide book deceitfully refers to as ‘a slight rise’. B gallops on ahead. Pathfinder Powell and I dawdle to the rear discussing pelvic floor muscle exercises. The pathfinder has an aversion to al fresco peeing. Possessing the bladder control of a gnat, I have no time for such niceties and we quickly introduce the ‘backstop Paula’ into our routine. The eponymous Paula refers, of course, to Ms Radcliffe’s infamous call of nature during the London marathon. The backstop involves me doing a Paula whilst B and the pathfinder face outwards equidistantly with a view to whistling loudly upon the appearance of strangers. Naturally, we only attempt this when no strangers are in evidence; and naturally vast troops appear the minute the decision has been taken.

On this stretch of the route there are several groups of despondent looking schoolboys dragging themselves and their oversized backpacks towards us. We try a cheery ‘hello’ but no-one wants to engage. I think it cruel that, having finished the torture of early summer examinations, they are now expected to tramp the Great Stones Way as some sort of reward. Or penance. Well, that’s private education for you.

In fact, everyone we meet is travelling in the opposite direction to us. Here comes Bill and his remarkably well-dressed entourage. ‘Come far’, I ask him? ‘Worcester’, says he. It’s an unexpected reply and I try to make light of it: ‘what, this morning?’ (chuckle). ‘Yes’, he says, ‘it’s only an hour from Barbary’. Now Bill is no spring chicken and he’s here to say ‘hello’ to his mum who was born in Cricklade but spent her life on and around the North Wessex Downs. Loving the area as she did, she asked for her ashes to be scattered up here and once a year, on Mothers’ Day, Bill and his family make the ascent to pay their respects. It’s not Mothers’ Day today; it’s actually Fathers’ Day but Bill’s car broke down earlier in the year so they’ve all come today. ‘We’ve apologised to her’, he reports a little sadly.

 

B and the pathfinder are striding on ahead. Pathfinder Powell, in charge of the map, informs us that three beech copses are imminent and B says she’ll pop into number three for a number one. I don’t much care for woods so the pathfinder and I hang about on the track whistling until B emerges with news of a crop circle below Hackpen Hill. We venture in and there it is.

What more can one hope for in a mystical landscape? Well, actually, a red kite wouldn’t go amiss and here’s the first of many available in this neck of the world. A birding friend of mine is anxious that the red kite will see off the buzzards that have taken so long to re-establish themselves in the south of England. I don’t think she needs to worry too much as this kite is being shown the door by its smaller predatory neighbour.

According to the guide book, there’s a chalk white horse on Hackpen Hill. We make a half-hearted detour to locate it but the way is tricky with nettles and boulders and we give up. Maybe the next project would be to traverse Wiltshire’s white horses of which there are eight scattered around. In the meantime, we journey on to Berwick Bassett Down where a dew pond awaits our perusal. It’s rather pretty. A dewpond is sometimes known as a mist pond or a cloud pond, both of which sound more attractive to my tinnitus infested ears. They’re artificial sources of water used in the past for feeding livestock and are generally replenished by rainfall rather than dew, mist or clouds. Hutton offers copious instructions on how to make one. Not today thanks, Edward. We don’t have any livestock and if we did, well we’d use this one.

Across the track from the pond is a dog-leg that would take us off on a white horse trail should we so desire. We don’t. We might another time but this is day one and we’re still trying to get the hang of it all. The dog-leg is marked by standing stones, an increasing number of which are becoming visible as we get nearer to Avebury and its ancient landscape. Shortly, we’ll approach Fyfield Down which is famous for a multitude of sarsen stones from which the ancestors chose a number to construct a few rings down in the valley. Hutton notes that, by the time he got to Avebury, 650 megaliths had been removed from the circle to make houses and farm buildings with.

 

Tired, but feeling fitter by the minute, we stop to rest on a handy bench that overlooks the Lansdowne monument on Cherhill Down. It was erected by someone I’ve never heard of in commemoration of someone else I’ve never heard of. It’s probably worth further exploration on another trip as a) it seems to follow us for a large part of The Great Stones Way and b) it has one of those elusive white horses to hand.

 

I’d quite like to have my lunch now but the others want to wait until we reach a signpost they can see in the distance. I don’t mind too much as it’s on the edge of Fyfield which is a site of special scientific interest boasting the largest assemblage of grey wethers in England. Initially, I’d thought the grey wethers comprised some sort of man-made arrangement which I am keen to see. However, Pathfinder Powell allows me to hold the map briefly and I can see the area is positively dripping in the things. A handy noticeboard informs us that the sarsens were given this name because of their likeness to sheep from a distance. And – yawn – a wether is the name for a castrated ram. I check with Hutton. He mentions them four times, three of which are afforded capital letters as if they represent an actual place. On the fourth occasion, almost two hundred pages from the first reference, Hutton, probably bored with the whole debate, denies the wethers their capital appendage so those of us who stuck with him remain none the wiser.

Worse, when we arrive at the gate to make our entry onto the down, we discover about three million more cows than sarsens. The pathfinder doesn’t do cows. Neither, apparently, does the person who has defaced the sign warning that at least one of these beasts hasn’t been ‘wethered’.

Pathfinder Powell gives B and I permission to go alone. ‘Oh, that’s fine thank-you. We’ll stay with you,’ we say with a degree of disingenuous magnanimity. We find a cow-free patch of ground on which to enjoy our picnic. I have made Slimming World BBQ chicken for everyone. Last evening, I gave them Slimming World chicken korma. This evening, those two will produce a roast chicken supper. B announces, rather ungratefully in my opinion, that she’s already sick of fowl. Hutton says he’s not on a diet and will stick with a few cold cuts, a plate of oysters and a plum pudding. Actually, he’s not that far removed from B and Pathfinder Powell who have supplemented my healthy but meagre offering with a selection of sweets and cakes.

And now it’s time for the last part of this stretch of the Ridgeway as, refuelled, we stride onwards in the direction of the Overton Hill car park where, hopefully, the second car is still in situ. Many of the trackside fields hereabouts have been planted with corn and barley and poppies are much in evidence, especially on the borderlands. It’s such a joy, and one increasingly unusual in these pesticide-riven days, that we stop several times just for the pleasure of enjoying them. There are also clumps of wild purple geraniums and buttercups aplenty trackside. These are the flowers that will accompany us almost throughout our journey along The Great Stones Way. And because there is a plethora of wild flowers, there is also a multitude of butterflies and moths. Hutton pays no heed to such frivolities but I suppose that when he was writing such things were too naturally abundant to warrant comment. It’s a shame he didn’t possess a crystal ball. He might then have realised that there were other things worthy of record for future readers.

All of a sudden, I look to my right and there is our first glimpse of the mighty Silbury Hill. To my mind, the thing about Silbury, and indeed all the other important sites in this ancient landscape, is that you have to view them from a distance to get a sense of the wonder of it all. There’s little purpose in driving to the layby alongside the hill to take a few snaps: one should come upon it on foot, as did the ancients, to see it as they might have done for the first time as they processed along the Ridgeway. We should try to imagine Silbury and all the surrounding barrows when they were white, sparkling in the Wessex sunshine. To the rear of Silbury, we can just make out the avenues and stones of Avebury and we stand awhile, attempting to join the pieces of our oldest jigsaw.

 

Willows compendium

‘Any word from the hospital’, enquired Mole?

‘Serious foot surgery’, replied Ratty. ‘The doctor’s had to construct prosthetic toes’.

‘Will Toad be able to stand up again’, asked Mole?

‘Depends on how much he’s had to drink’, Ratty replied.

‘The doctor?’

‘Mole’, asked Ratty, ‘do you get the feeling we’re being watched?’

‘I know something you don’t know’, said Alice smugly.

‘Doubtful’, said Ratty. ‘We know she just tried to buy her Friday night wine with a Visa card. We can hear her thrashing around inside’.

‘What’s a Visa’, asked Mole?

‘Something the new man might need’, answered Alice enigmatically.

Ratty took a step backwards: ‘new man? I told you someone was watching us’.

‘There he is ‘, exclaimed Alice.

‘Morning men’, said Badger.

‘#me too’, cried Alice.

‘Are you sure’, asked ratty?

‘Morning Alice’, said Badger. Mole gulped.

‘Splendid day, men’, mused Badger.

‘Any news of Toad, Sir’, enquired Ratty?

‘Toad is back on his feet and the doctor sends a missive to say he’s recovering well with the help of his wine merchant’, reported Badger.

‘Who’s that next to Mr Badger’, asked Mole? ‘He looks a bit calcified’.

‘That’s a big word’, said Alice’.

‘No whispering in the ranks’, said Badger sternly.

‘Challenging news from the hospital’, reported Badger. ‘Apparently Toad was in recovery until the doctor tapped his head to wake him up’.

‘What happened, Sir’, asked Ratty?

‘Well’, said Badger, ‘seems that Toad fell off his feet again. Splints in the legs don’t you know. They’ve ordered a special fixative from Northern Ireland’.

‘Did they get permission from the DUP’, asked Alice?

‘Who’s that woman with Badger’, asked Mole?

‘Arlene Foster’, informed Ratty.

‘She’s not wearing much’, commented Mole.

‘It’s summer’, said Ratty.

‘News is flooding in’, said Badger.

‘It’s difficult to keep up’, observed Mole. ‘Things used to be so quiet around here’.

‘Firstly’, continued Badger, ignoring the heckler, ‘it seems that the doctor fell over on Wareham Quay. Someone picked him up. No damage done’.

‘I’m surprised anyone noticed’, said Alice. ‘There are prostrate drunks all over Wareham Quay’.

‘Secondly’, continued Badger with intent, ‘Toad has sent a missive reporting that, following plastic surgery, he’s ready to be collected despite feeling a bit damp here and there’.

‘Aren’t toads supposed to be damp’, asked Alice?

‘Do you think someone should cut back that rosemary’, asked Mole?

‘Saturday, Saturday night’s alright for fighting’, sang Toad.

‘Take it steady old boy’, advised Badger. ‘The doc’s coming for lunch tomorrow and we want you on your feet’.

‘I’m still standing’, hummed Toad.

‘But for how long’, queried Badger?

‘He’s a bit bossy’, whispered Toad. ‘When did he arrive?’

 

In which I lose a river – twice

Earlier this week I visited Stour Park in Blandford in the company of my parents. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to return – alone. I don’t, of course, mean I didn’t relish their company: I mean that I wanted to do a ‘proper’ walk in the other direction. Turning left as opposed to backwards.

 

In this weasel, other equally welcoming signs will appear. The others will be more obvious in meaning than this one. By the way, the River Stour at this point is renowned for otters and kingfishers as well as the other types of fauna and flora one might expect. Having no idea what electric fishing is, I enquire of one of many folk on the bank clad, Robin Hood-like, in woodland green.

 

Here are a few members of the Environment Agency looking not unlike fisher folk on the sea of Galilee. They’ve set out with a view to stun a few fish, weigh and measure them, check their general health and chuck them back from whence they came. Good work chaps and ladies.

Round about here, I ask Laura, one of the merry men (and women), how easy it is to walk downstream. ‘Virtually impossible’, says she pleasantly, ‘although you could cut down Long Arm, cross at Short Wicket, run through Dead Leg’… I look suitably blank. Laura says she’s in a dreadful rush to help her colleagues and ferrets in her bag for a map. Very generous. You’d be better going upstream’, she advises as she legs it down to the next bench for a quick fag.

I study the map. It appears to be an entirely useless depiction of a blue wavy line with some red dots running alongside. Just then, I hear splashing below. Perhaps it’s an otter. No, it’s a very wet black Labrador which belongs to Barry. Barry is from the seventies. Or maybe the sixties. He has a blue denim shirt and two gold earrings. I ask if he’s seen any otters. ‘There aren’t any otters’, he says knowingly. ‘They’ve cleared off. And I’ve told that lot to clear off too’, he comments, nodding his brown head at the Environment Agency. ‘Disturbing the breeding woodpeckers’, he adds by way of explanation.

I make the mistake of asking Barry, who clearly hasn’t spoken to anyone else in eons, about the possibility of walking downstream. Yet again, I get the heads-up on Long Stretch, Dead Leg etc. etc. plus a confusing set of information about bridges and points that I might reach in the dim and distant future. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘when you climb the five bar gate and cross the field, it’s a bit overgrown’. I actually heed all these directions and, let me tell you, it’s only when I surmount the gate and am attacked by stinging nettles that I realise the truth of Dead Leg.

I turn tail and wander back past the electric fisher folk to the bridge that carries the road into Blandford. I am not to be beaten in my quest for a proper walk even though I’ve probably done a mile as a warm-up.

 

Here’s the view of the Stour from both sides of the bridge. Pretty, isn’t it?

 

 

And here’s the gateway to Bryanston School. I um and er a bit about going through as it says ‘private property’. However, there’s a suspicious looking type hanging around outside so I enter looking a bit confident. Inside, I meet a woman with the obligatory black Labrador who tells me I can turn right and follow the river. Thank-you.

Here are some pictures of the river. I want you to look at them carefully because it’s the last you’ll see of it for some time. Shortly after this, I lose it despite two people telling me I’ll be accompanying it to wherever it chooses to go.

 

Where I go is along this path. On and on and on. At one point, I hear a splashing noise which alerts me to the fact that the water couldn’t be too far away. Perhaps it’s an otter I think optimistically but, no, it’s another black Labrador. It’s owner informs me that I can easily walk to Durweston, cross the bridge, and take the trailway back along the other side of the river.

 

I walk for miles. Literally. Nothing to see except trees and more trees. No sign of the river.

 

 

At one point, I come across this unattractive church which, naturally, is shut. The sign tells me to enter through the west door. I’ve lost all sense of direction but it makes no difference. All doors are closed. There’s not a grave in sight which I take to mean the school dinners aren’t too bad.

 

Eventually, I come to Middle Lodge. The road is bloody endless. At one point, having passed the school buildings, I flag down a passing car and ask for directions for Durweston which I am politely given with the coda, ‘it’s quite a long way’.

 

Looking back, I discover that I’ve finally escaped the confines of Hogwarts. It’s only taken me an hour and a half to walk through their private grounds.

 

 

But look – I’ve emerged into the glorious North Dorset countryside. I feel as if I’ve escaped a terrible torture. But where’s the river? On and on I plod. A surprising amount of vehicles pass, all expecting me to hop onto the bank out of their way, and none bothering to stop to ask if an old lady needs help.

And finally, I end up in Durweston. Or Stourpaine. Or some random playing field where I sit on a handy bench and eat my picnic whilst watching very small people practising for sports day. It’s charming but you’ll have to take my word for it as, these days, you’re not allowed to take photos of other folk’s children. It’s also very, very hot. What a lovely summer we’re having I think, wondering where the hell I am. I ask the playschool leader for directions and she speaks to me as if I’m four years old, repeating everything she says three times. Playschool leader tells me how to find the trailway and what a lovely walk back along the river it will be.

And look, I’ve found the river again. But who lives in a house like this?

 

 

Not very nice people apparently. I told you there’d be more signs. Friendly, aren’t they.

 

Here’s the old railway bridge that used to carry the Somerset and Dorset Railway into the Stourpaine and Durweston Halt.

 

 

And here’s a sunbathing hare.

And, surprise, surprise, a small spotted pony. No sign of Monsieur Martin though.

 

 

And this is the view from the pony’s paddock. Again, look closely because it’s the last you’ll see of the river on this walk. After this, the trailway just drags on for three miles into Blandford. It’s the most soul-destroying route you could wish to take unless you happen to relish plodding on a gravel path alongside the A350. Not a river in sight. Nothing. Plod, plod.

 

I feel I should offer you something along the way so here are three lonely poppies and a glimpse of Bryanston. Eight desultory miles which do NOT comprise the Stour Valley Way.

 

 

 

When the Dorset Blue becomes law

Not that long ago, depending on your perspective, there used to be something in Dorset called The Great Heath. You might be familiar with this if you’re a Thomas Hardy fan; although Hardy’s ‘Egdon Heath’ was, in truth, a composite of the many heathlands in the county. Nonetheless, if you are a Hardy admirer, your favourite tome, like mine, might be The Return of the Native in which The Great Heath is, arguably, the main ‘character’. I strongly urge you to read just the first chapter in this book, even if you can’t face the rest.

Paul Nash, passed a deal of time writing, painting and taking photographs in Dorset after his mind-numbing spell as a war artist in WW1. Betjeman commissioned him to construct The Shell Guide to Dorset, a beautiful little wire-bound book which, these days, will cost you a few hundred quid if you can get your hands on a copy. Nash begins his thoughts with a contemplation of The Great Heath in respect of Hardy. I know you might think this all a bit of pretentious high culture but it isn’t: it’s an insight to the importance of the unique topography of the land and a contextual social history.

The Great Heath used to stretch from the other side of Dorchester to the New Forest. Treves is a little more specific: he gives Canford Magna as an important boundary. Today, Canford Magna is a bit of a non-event unless you happen to have been educated at Canford School. That used to be the old manor, built on an even older place that assumed huge importance in the history of England. Read your books if you want to know more.

 

Irene and I went up on what is now known as Canford Heath the other day. We caught a bus that took us through the huge housing estate and past all the industrial outlets. You can see how close it is to civilisation by this picture of the recycling plant that happened to catch fire whilst we were enjoying our picnic. We walked for two or three hours, largely in circles, as there’s not much of the heath left. There would’ve been even less if it hadn’t been for Michael Heseltine.

What’s left of the Bronze Aged Canford Heath comprises the largest lowland heath in the UK. In 1946 it was marked for housing development in preference to the New Forest and Poole Borough Council gave itself permission for development in 1984. Mind you, building had commenced in 1963, rather late in the day compared with the rest of The Great Heath which had remained virtually unchanged until homes for heroes were demanded post WW2.

The birds in this photograph are Martins and the one in the previous picture is a Stonechat. Irene and I are up here because it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) where, if you’re lucky, you can find rare species such as the Dartford Warbler, the very rare Smooth Snake, the Sand Lizard, the even rarer Dorset Blue Butterfly and suchlike. Fortuitously, following three decades of house construction, someone mentioned this to the then Minister for the Environment, Michael Heseltine.

At a time when it was de rigueur to hate the miner-bashing Tories, Heseltine emerged as a saviour. In a legal case that destroyed all vestiges of so-called Environmental Impact Assessments, Heseltine revoked Poole Borough Council’s self-aggrandizement and overturned permission for further house building. Good on you Tarzan!

So here we are, wandering around in not the most enchanting of places in Dorset. But it’s a little bit of the countryside that’s been saved. And there’s a sufficient amount to be grateful for a little tranquillity close at hand.

 

Seen it all before

Anyone remember that song by Billy Joel – We didn’t start the fire? Loved it but, and I can tell you this first hand, having seen him several times, he hates it. Playing to and for the audience, Joel always reaches a point in the show where he asks for requests. And, as everyone knows Piano Man will be the finale, we scream for our history lesson.

 

I’m not going to be the first person to say ‘been there’ done that’. Or maybe I am. I’m a once ardent, but now diminishing fan of Woman’s Hour. It doesn’t help that I once considered myself a sociologist. When I wore a younger woman’s clothes (aka the ‘me too’ lyrics of Piano Man), I thought I knew how to deal with the world. Then I got a bit savvy – a euphemism for experiencing life in all its realities. Then I got even more savvy and realised that I knew enough French to realise that ‘savvy’ is a derivation of ‘savoir faire’. Worse, I went to France for a year and discovered the impossibility of locating a French national who could adequately explain the difference between ‘savoir’ and ‘connaitre’. They ‘know’ but it’s top secret.

All this waffling drivel is recorded in the light of two of today’s experiences. The first is a tiresome cold which, like We didn’t start the fire, goes on and on and on. I visit the pharmacy to seek healing. Of course, back in the day, we used to call it the chemist’s. In fact, back in the day, we used to say ‘in the old days’ but that’s a bit ageist. Or some other excuse. The pharmacist’s advice is ‘better out than in’. It’s a bit like when you used to feel poorly they’d say ‘get it down, it’ll do you good’. And ten minutes later, ‘bring it up, you’ll feel much better’.

The second is trying to purchase some Friday night wine with your visa card only to be told that ‘visa has gone down all over Europe’. And being so drunk on the thought that you might imminently be drunk, you think the price of plonk has decreased if you use the piece of green plastic. Further, the explanation that some ridiculous football show in Russia is somehow linked to the inability to purchase wine in the hinterlands of Dorset. For once those barbarians in Russia, having successfully entrapped the likes of Linekar and his cronies, a dreadful attack on our well-being will ensue.

Wait, is this the cold war? Again? How tedious to be a child of the first round, let alone the second. Same old, same old. Is there nothing left with which to control the plebs apart from re-runs? Is there nothing new you have to offer? It’s a pretty poor show. Twas ever thus.

And just in case you can’t remember, here are the lyrics of Billy Joel’s history lesson: https://www.google.co.uk/search?source=hp&ei=hpsRW8aOC6HL6AS9qYqQCA&q=we+didn%27t+start+the+fire+lyrics&oq=we+didn%27t&gs_l=psy-ab.1.1.0l10.1344.4457.0.7359.10.8.0.1.1.0.206.1203.0j7j1.8.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..1.9.1279.0..0i131k1.0.HNs0VxlcvP0https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFTLKWw542g

and here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFTLKWw542g