Horse country

 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Every answer begs a question

Today, I undertook my first proper walk since the tendons in my ankle went west in Bromley a couple of months ago: over 5 miles in a designated area of outstanding beauty (see photos for proof).

For a change, I wasn’t alone. Sally and Tony collected me and I was duly bundled into the back of their car with little idea of our destination, and not much more on arrival. ‘Are we there yet?’ I felt like a small child being taken on a day trip – I loved that feeling. Can’t remember the last time this happened. We went uphill and down dale, through woods, along roads and across wide open fields – you can just see the remnants of a path if you click on this photo.

Were we in deepest Dorset? Possibly. Thorncombe, the starting point, certainly resides in our beloved county today but, until 1844, it nestled in Devon. Further, it’s only 5 miles south of Chard, which is in Somerset, so we managed to criss-cross our way over a number of borders and step along a variety of labelled paths. It seems that a walk can be no longer recognised unless it coincides with historical nomenclature so, from time to time, and age to age, Pathfinder Tony informed us which route we currently followed. And that begs the first question: where do the names come from?

Sometimes, we traversed The Monarch’s Way: a massive 615 miles long path that covers swathes of England’s green and pleasant along which Charles 2nd made his escape. At other times, we found ourselves on the Liberty Trail – a mere 28 miles that rebels from Dorset and Somerset took in order to join forces with the Monmouth Rebellion. Mostly, we followed the Jubilee Trail, parts of which I’ve previously trodden on the Dorset Ridgeway.

At Forde Abbey, we noticed a sign stating there were another 90 miles to go until we reached Bokerley Dyke. We’d all heard of it but, as none of us were able to say anything useful about it, more research was required. The Jubilee Trail begins at Forde Abbey (which begs the question ‘why?’) and continues until it reaches the dyke that used to form a boundary between Dorset and Hampshire.

All of this was duly noted whilst sitting on a wall outside the abbey with our lunch. Sally is currently a member of Slimming World which means, by default, so is Tony. I averted my eyes from their meagre midday break and concentrated on my avocado and corned beef sandwiches, my packet of mini-cheddars and my bunch of grapes. As a respectful nod to their willpower, I sadly ignored the Viennese Whirl that was winking at me from the corner of my lunch box. Never mind, I’ll have it for pudding tonight after my spaghetti bolognaise which won’t have been made with low fat mince and grated courgette.

Even though I was able to make such a grown-up decision, I managed to revert to childhood as I recalled the days of the I Spy club wherein a completed book sent to Big Chief I Spy was rewarded with a feather and a merit badge. Those two, being minutes younger than your narrator, couldn’t recall this club which, by 1953, had half a million child members. They claimed to know nothing about the News Chronicle within whose pages Big Chief I Spy resided. But they did remember the books they had: I Spy on a Journey; I Spy at the Seaside. Each for 6d unless you wanted a coloured one for the princely price of 1/-.  ‘I never went to the seaside’, said Pathfinder Tony. ‘What do you mean?’ I demanded. ‘You lived at the seaside!’

This being the season, despite an early start this year, bluebells abounded. As Sally said, whilst crawling through the undergrowth to get the ‘right’ snap, the glorious woodland carpets never look the same in photographs.

There were other flowers which demanded more questions and answers. ‘Lady’s Bedsores’, says Sally. Doesn’t sound quite right. Heart’s Ease – which, to my mind, has a much more interesting name: ‘Love-in-Idleness’. Here we have Ladies’ Smock, also known as Cuckoo Flower due to its coincidence with that bird, and found in wet grassland. Correct. And the rather attractive Yellow Dead Nettle also available as Yellow Archangel; a member of the mint family recommended for ‘ old, filthy, corrupt sores and ulcers’. I thank you.

Later, Tony points out this finger post which sports the grid reference. They notice everything, these two and it’s left to yours truly to investigate on the WWW. And your avid researcher learns absolutely nothing apart from the fact that British road signage has fallen through a loophole of centralised traffic procedure. Basically, apart from a law stating that all signs had to be removed during WW2 to confuse invading Germans – and let’s face it we don’t even know what county we’re in – and replaced in the late 1940s, counties could do pretty much what they wanted as long as the signs were in white with black writing. Except for the red ones. And the blue ones.

And yet to be researched in the annals of ancient way markers, is this lovely stone we happened upon. No stones were necessary for us however. Even though there were times, mostly whilst painfully trudging uphill, that I doubted Pathfinder Tony’s trusty digital directions, he saw us successfully through, managing to skilfully avoid a field full of calves and temperamental mothers on the way; safely home to a Radox bath and a bottle of the red stuff. Another grand day out thanks to kindly friends. And a load of research to undertake.

Tiny steps

2017_0302swyre0003Even those of us ancient beings who sadly fell from grace via a slippery manhole cover in Bromley, thus tearing previously unknown tendons, eventually have to rouse themselves from the confines of the settee and try to return to the old routine. There’s only so many baby-sized jumpers that can be knitted with enthusiasm; only a finite number of DVDs of Dickens’ greatest hits with Dutch sub-titles one can bear. It’s time for tentative, tiny steps if I want to be walking before my grandson.

2017_0302swyre0004I plan a little walk – only two miles. I am doubly inspired my father who will attain 91 years of age tomorrow. Firstly, on the same day that I was being lifted from a Bromley pavement and transported to safer environs by a passing gas man, he and my mother  walked to Old Harry and back, a round trip of four miles. Secondly, since they moved to Dorset, those two have also walked to Swyre Head and back after which he painted a beautiful picture of the view which is the reason why anyone bothers with this particular amble. I’d never been before.

2017_0302swyre0009There are a lot of sheep to negotiate on this walk. I park in Sheep Pens Car Park which might be a clue. Everything I do at present takes an age. Whilst I’m changing into woolly socks and walking boots, I notice Doris and Archie setting off through the gate on their way to the highest point on the Purbeck hills. Doris is striding ahead with gay abandon. Archie looks despondent and down-trodden. He’s bent almost double and tags along behind wrapped in an aura of resignation that I know has accompanied him for many a year.

2017_0302swyre0013I track up the hill and look down on Encombe House, another pile belonging to the landed gentry that, allegedly, both Madonna and Brad Pitt discarded in their search to own a bit of England’s heritage. They open the joint once a year to the plebs but on the only occasion I’ve ever bothered with it, they wouldn’t let my then small son in. ‘Too small. He might break something’. Well, up yours then. I turn away and here’s Doris and Archie and their unpleasant dog sitting on a bench. The bench is adorned with poppies.

2017_0302swyre0008‘Hello’, I begin. ‘Why are those poppies there?’ Archie is curled up in a life-threatening heap, No way is he about to communicate anything but Doris gives me a potted version of history which I later research. On 18 March, 1938, an RAF Swordfish plane fell to the Dorset earth here. And, obviously this being a damned spot, a Liberator plane also crashed on 15 June, 1945 with the loss of 27 lives. And now you come to mention it Doris, I can see there’s some sort of inscription behind you. Any chance of you moving so I can take a snap? No. Apparently not. Those two are glued to the spot. I decide to stroke their unpliant dog as a way in but Archie suddenly springs back into life: ‘don’t touch Ivor’, he advises. ‘He’s a bit snappy’, and instantly falls asleep again.

2017_0302swyre0015I am really irritated, especially when I later arrive home and discover that there’s not a single picture of this bench on the WWW. I press on to the top of the hill and find the gate that opens onto THE view. Thinking I might rest my weary legs on another handy bench prior to proceeding, I find that this too is occupied by two people and a large rucksack. No matter, I can see I’m at the point where dad painted his picture.

2017_0302swyre0017And here t’is. Surely the best view in Dorset, if not the world. The weather is glorious and the leg has, temporarily, stopped hurting. There is no other place to be and I spend a considerable amount of time just looking. Keep your benches. It’s just me and the sheep and this. I walk through a random gate which is like a portal into ancient, untouched times and track along Smedmore Hill.

 

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And passing through another gate, on the way to who knows where, I spy Bob and John sat on a bench overlooking Smedmore House; the neighbours of those over at Encombe.

 

 

2017_0302swyre0029Is this your bench then’, I ask by way of jocular introduction? ‘Well, yes’, says Bob. And yes it is. Bob used to be the gamekeeper at Encombe House and his wife, Angela, worked in the estate office. She’s dead now and this is her bench. This is the downfall of speaking to people that only want a bit of peace and quiet. I discover things and they move away. ‘There’s often a robin here’, continues Bob sadly. It’s blowing a gale up here. How the hell does a robin survive? There’s nothing to perch on. And Bob and his mate turn tail and leave. I feel sad. I’ve barged into their silence. I sit on Angela’s bench for a while. He picked a good spot.

2017_0302swyre0032And, with the open sea behind, and the vista of Poole Harbour ahead, I trudge back through the fields and past the farm with a tinge of sadness. But I can see Bob and his friend some way ahead. They aren’t wrapped against the elements like I am and everyone else I’ve seen on this windy Purbeck morning. And yet again, I am minded of my friends, Derek and Abna, middle-aged men who have never left Dorset and who somehow manage, without thinking, to remain an integral part of this timeless and enduring landscape.