Mine host bears a passing resemblance to Ian Paisley, although differentiated and improved by the fact that he’s still breathing. Further, he has an identical voice which is somewhat disarming. When I enquire about the possibility of red wine, the options given are ‘glass or bottle?’ I hadn’t thought about a bottle but now you come to mention it …Said bottle clasped tightly in the weary traveller’s hand, ready to take back to my billet, Paisley waves a couple of glasses: ‘Two receptacles is it?’ Well, actually I’m on my own. ‘Just you! Oh good girl yerself’, he says happily. I congratulate him on having relocated to such a lovely village. ‘Oh, there’s a few pound here so there is’, says Ian gleefully, ‘and you don’t have to look over your shoulder to see who’s coming in the back door of a Friday night.’
On arrival, I mention the little community garden across from my wooden shack and Graham, clutching my case, says if I look long enough, I’ll see the red kites that come to dine on small birds and animals amongst the allotment. And at that point, I think ‘well this will do for me’.
Mind you, getting here verges on the torturous. The directions I’d downloaded bear little similarity to any roads I travel. I’m not supposed to go to Wantage but, finding myself six miles from the town, I proceed and enter its environs. Wantage was the birthplace of King Alfred, a man famous for burning some cakes. Even then, the cult of celebrity was based on being known for doing little of interest to anyone with half a brain cell. At one time, Alfred was also erroneously accorded responsibility for the construction of the White Horse I’m on my way to visit; as it was already over two thousand years old by the time he turned up with a plate of blackened pastries, this turned out to be yet another example of fake news.
For some reason, I imagine Wantage to be one of those interesting little towns crammed with antique shops and exclusive boutiques. It isn’t. Like almost every other town these days, it has about twenty five charity shops and Home Bargains and is as charmless as it’s possible to be. I’m guessing it’s gone downhill; sunk into a quagmire. Betjeman lived here for a while and wrote two poems about the place, one of which is called On Leaving Wantage. Sounds like a plan. Spotting an ancient building, Regency Furniture and Second-hand Books, I perk up temporarily. I’m not in the market for any regency furniture which is just as well as there doesn’t seem to be any. I might like an old text about the Ridgeway though. The shop is very dark and narrow and I walk for some considerable time through a dusty book-lined corridor before coming across Richard Griffiths hemmed in behind a desk. I think I must be the first person he’s seen in years and he inexplicably berates me about the evils of computers. On and on and on he goes until I grab a book and escape backwards. It’s a book of letters written by Betjeman. I’ll take it on my walk along the Ridgeway tomorrow. If I get lost, I can read it whilst I’m waiting to be rescued.
The following morning, Lucy the chambermaid arrives to see if there’s anything she can do. We look at the bed which is of sufficient size to sleep a family of ten and which I have destroyed all on my own. ‘Shall I make the bed?’ she asks tentatively, with not a little inference that this might be outside her job description. ‘Would you mind?’ I help her rebuild it. There are eight decorative cushions with which to dress the bed and neither of us has a clue where they should be placed. ‘Do you need any tea-bags?’ she suggests vaguely. ‘More biscuits for emergencies’, I reply. Then comes the big question:
‘Why have you come here?’ I recall last night’s dinner which I took looking at a 3000 years old chalk horse in one direction and John Betjeman’s cottage in the other whilst reading my copy of the laureate’s letters. ‘I came to the White Horse on a school outing 55 years ago’, I offer. Then I make the mistake of asking whether there’s anything interesting in nearby Farringdon. ‘Aldi and Lidl’ says Lucy. ‘You should go to Wantage. They have Home Bargains there’.
I’m on the Ridgeway, reputedly the oldest road in the country and, as I walk towards Wayland’s Smithy, I am embraced by timelessness. For a long while, I am all alone in the morning sunshine, just another solitary traveller on a route well-trodden. Unexpectedly, a man runs out of the past accompanied by a dirty Neolithic dog. ‘Good morning’, I greet him happily but the exhausted man has run through so many years he can only lift a vaguely acknowledging hand as he passes by. Wayland’s Smithy is about a mile and a half in the wrong direction but it’s worth the detour.
Wayland was initially apprenticed to the trolls who, as everyone knows, were masters of metal craft. Wayland was a quick learner and soon outshone his bosses by becoming the best smith in the western world. Legend has him living in caves and burial mounds all over Europe, secretly repairing metal objects for gods and kings. Clearly, this is yet more fake news because when you see his Berkshire smithy, which comprises a chambered long barrow constructed 5000 years ago, you just know this is THE place. Today, it’s hidden in a verdant copse and epitomises everything I’ve come to the Ridgeway for.
Back on the track, I turn tail in the direction of my original destination – the enigmatic White Horse. The morning has progressed and the place seems suddenly and annoyingly full of people. This is MY path after all and for a time I speed up and slow down as needed to avoid hordes of ancient ramblers. Just when I think I’m alone again, Running Man comes back in the opposite direction with the misshapen dog. Those two must have committed a most heinous crime back in the day to be punished by running back and forth along the Ridgeway for eternity.
Once they’ve gone, I set to in considering tomorrow’s breakfast. Earlier, I noticed that kippers were available and I wander along debating the pros and cons of taking this option on the morrow. On one hand, there’s nothing better than a kipper with a couple of slices of bread and butter. I’m not sure how mine host will react to the radical suggestion of untoasted bread. I don’t want to be a nuisance – we’ve already had to go through all that nonsense of bread without seeds. Last night, when I enquired about the possibility of diverticular bits being present, they totally misread my enquiry: ‘oh yes’, they exclaimed proudly, ‘our delicious brown bread is home-made and packed full of seeds’. And when I said I’d just have the white thank-you, they were dismayed. With tears in their eyes, they turned away muttering sadly that they would ‘tell the kitchen’.
Kippers would be just the job if you could eat them and be done with it. The trouble is that they always turn up in overwhelming pairs. Never do you hear a person asking for A kipper; they are always spoken of in the plural: ‘I’ll have kipperS please’. Further, kippers are very loyal. Not content with being chosen and eaten, kippers stay with you the whole day long, turning one’s digestive system into a fishy echo chamber in which they repeat themselves for hours: ‘hello again; yes, we’re still here; not done yet’.
Thus being so preoccupied, I fail to notice Desmond striding towards me. Desmond is from ‘up north’ and is very LOUD. He doesn’t do any of that hail fellow, well met stuff. ‘In the words of Shrek, are we there yet?’ he booms. Being still stuck in the pub kitchen, I don’t get the reference to Shrek.
‘Depends where you want to be’, I reply.
‘The Smithy thing’, he shouts, ‘what is it?’ He’s so loud that the Saxon band ahead, who I’ve been trying to unhinge myself from, stop and come back to see what’s occurring.
‘It’s a hillfort’, says the Daily Mail reader. ‘No it’s not’, I tell her, ‘it’s a long barrow’. Why have I bothered to start a row in the middle of timelessness? Because I’m cross that I’ve now become part of their group.
‘Well, in the words of the donkey, where is it?’ shouts Desmond. There’s a whole part of modern culture that seems to have passed me by. What bloody donkey? I pull Desmond to one side and point out some trees in the dim and distant past as a point of antiquarian reference. A man on crutches who has now limped back to the Daily Mail reader viciously informs Desmond, ‘if I can do it, you can’.
‘Cheerio then’, shouts Desmond as he marches off into the dark ages.
I spend some time pretending that a passing sparrow in a hawthorn bush is the most interesting thing anyone will see along the Ridgeway. This, of course, is a ruse to extricate myself from that other lot. But the ramblers have turned and so has the weather. The sun is blocked by huge black clouds and the heavens open so I shelter under a tree and make a few scribbles in my Tower of London notebook. I don’t look up because I don’t want to engage with anyone. Dogs come and go, approaching me as a point of potential interest but, finding no companionship, wandering away in search of prehistoric squirrels.
‘Writing your memoirs then?’ There’s always someone who can’t leave well alone isn’t there. I suppose I must look reasonably interesting: an old woman sat under a tree in the pouring rain, tied up in an unattractive waterproof with a hood stuck to her head. Really? Mind your own business I don’t say and he doesn’t so I’m forced to explain the problems that conjoin the aged with memory loss and the need to write everything down. ‘Very good’, he responds as if I’ve passed some early onset dementia test.
Walking up and along the track to the White Horse, and a flock of pretty sheep have pushed themselves against the fence. Shorn to the extreme, they are seeking shelter from the wind. I stop to speak to them when, to my left, I see the red kite sweeping and soaring. It’s such a joyous moment.
Later, I will visit the tiny museum in Uffington which is housed in the former schoolhouse made famous by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Thomas Hughes grew up in the village. The museum is, naturally, staffed by Joyce Barnaby, a woman with admirable and extensive knowledge of almost anything connected to this place. Although the museum is so tiny, I pass an inordinate amount of time there talking with Joyce. In particular, I am very interested in the scouring of the horse. Considering the horse is 3000 years old and no-one knows who made it or why, I find it amazing that folk throughout the ages have continued to care for it. In the millennium, all the villagers of Uffington climbed the hill to clip the grass edges and hammer in more chalk. Today, the ubiquitous National Trust maintains the horse and scouring takes place annually. But they are just the current carers.
Thomas Hughes wrote a little tract called The Scouring of the White Horse in which he vividly describes how the village folk, including the squire, spent two days doing exactly what those before and since have done. Once completed, everyone moved to Uffington Castle, a hillfort to the left of the horse, for feasting, games and general reverie. There are other white horses in England, notably in Wiltshire, but, largely, they’re Victorian. Some have disappeared, grassed over in time; others are maintained for our pleasure. People place whatever meanings they want on the Uffington White Horse but still they flock here in the hundreds and thousands. To say it’s remarkable is the best I can do. Tribes and governments have come and gone; beliefs and values have disappeared, yet still the horse remains, surveying the landscape over which it reigns supreme.
On the way down, I see the red kite again in the distance and stand for some time in contemplation hoping it will come close, but it’s busy over Wayland’s Smithy. Finally, I sit on a bench near the car park looking back at the horse and watching more visitors trudge up the hill towards it. Except that no-one is really trudging. Two grandparents come through the gate with a small child aged about three years old. ‘Can you see the horse?’ asks Grandpa. The small person looks around, anxious to please but clearly looking for a live animal. ‘Over there, on the hill’, says Grandpa. The boy sees it and all the emotions in his little world pass across his face in a millisecond: ‘It’s there, it’s there’, he cries pointing excitedly. And just at that moment, when all of us have been busy looking elsewhere, the red kite soars from the grass where it has hidden less than twenty feet in front of me. And all the emotions in my small world fly over my head and it makes me cry.