Getting away

On a gloriously sunny morning, when vast swathes of humanity are indoors watching an event on TV, I head north to the old Neolithic chalk grasslands of Martin Down. Actually, these earthworks aren’t so old: they’re the remnants of a WW2 firing range.

 

The ancient downland, which has been unploughed for centuries, is important for ground-nesting birds. (Have you noticed how this blog is evolving into a birding site?) This morning, the grassland is full of sound: some insects, but mostly skylarks which, every now and again, ascend, soaring into the sky. I doubt those latter-day riflemen disturbed them: I recently read Lewis-Stempel’s moving account of nature at the front in WW1 wherein, despite continuous shelling doing its very best to destroy the habitat of the once beautiful Somme, the larks continued to soar; much to the delight of the battle weary country type Tommies.

Naturally, I have instructions to follow for this walk and, as ever, I lose my way. This overgrown hollow is full of butterflies and moths, none of which stay long enough in any one spot for my photographic skills to capture. In this very sheltered place, the sun is fairly beating down and the temperature is akin to the hothouses at Kew. Alas, and not according to the plan, I end up back on the track I’d previously followed.

 

I’m supposed to be walking diagonally across a field and past a barn. No sign of either. No sign of anything, in fact until four horses and their riders cross in the distance. ‘Fancy a canter’, shouts the one in front? ‘Definitely’, says the one at the rear in an uncertain voice.

 

I walk for some miles with the downland to myself until, suddenly, the place is teeming with birders. Clearly, I’ve hit an ornithological hotspot. ‘Seen any turtles’, one group asks of another? ‘Loads, comes the reply. Not a drop of water in sight but even I know they’re talking about turtle doves. I wish my friend Sally was here: she has a deep-seated desire to see a turtle dove.

 

It’s so hot, and I’ve walked so far already, that I decide to take a rest on Ronald’s bench. Poor Ron – he didn’t last long did he? Anyway, I’m surrounded by birding types. I’ve noticed that they fall into a typology of two: those (always men) who hang around in flocks and are dismissive of people whom they deem to know nothing; and those nice ones who are embracing and keen to make helpful conversation. Luckily for me Sean, who asks if he can share the bench to eat his lunch, is of the latter variety.

Ever since I purchased the binoculars, folk seem to start their conversations with ‘looking for something special’ or ‘have you seen anything of interest’? No and no I have to explain. I wouldn’t have a clue what I’d seen. I just got the binoculars so I can see further. I don’t say that last bit. Yet. ‘Lot’s of turtle doves’, says Sean and, at my request, he helpfully tells me how to spot one. Apparently, I have to know what a collared dove looks like so I lie and say I’m familiar with that breed. Sean has come all the way from Yeovil with his pal. ‘You might call it a bit of a twitch’, he says. This is helpful because now I learn that twitchers rush around the countryside to see birds whereas birders just go for walks.

There’s no sign of Sean’s pal so we have quite the chat about one thing and another until the lost friend appears from nowhere. ‘Lots of turtle doves here’, says the lost friend. Who knew? He gets nowhere with the turtle doves so we move on to my favourite bird – the red kite. Forty-six red kites at Beaconsfied recycling tip last weekend. ‘Did you happen upon them when you were recycling’, I ask? Sean’s friend looks askance. Of course he didn’t; he went there to see the red kites. Eighty-three in Cornwall. Well, obviously England is fairly overburdened with red kites and turtle doves I muse as I munch on my Slimming World Louisiana Chicken.

My redundant instructions mention a church so I head off down a handy lane for about two miles until I begin to see roofs and suchlike. Must be near civilisation.

 

 

Now, this old water pump in the village of Martin is definitely on my crumpled piece of paper so, even though I’ve misplaced a barn, I’m back on course.

 

 

This memorial isn’t listed in the points of interest which is irritating. I would like to know why, in the middle of nowhere, there’s a sign telling me I’m 37 miles from Glastonbury.

 

 

Here’s All Saints’ Church which I’m supposed to visit. It’s got a beautiful overgrown churchyard but the joint is very disappointing.

 

Oh look, is that a turtle dove?

 

 

And I wander across sheep-ridden pasture trying to find my way out. Who wrote these instructions?

 

Eventually, I end up back on the reserve but not before I’ve been accosted by a woman who asks me if I’m looking for anything interesting. I can’t be bothered to fill her in so she starts telling me that turtle doves are just sitting around the place. Really? However, she does tell me how to hear one and this is very useful because, as I’m running away from her, up Pentridge Hill, I hear one purring in a hedge.

I walk all the way up to Grim’s Ditch which is either a bronze age or early iron age earthwork running for fourteen miles. And let me tell you, I feel like I’ve walked it all. There’s not a soul in sight but every time I think I’ll stop for a pee, around the corner comes a type muttering about bloody turtle doves or, just for a change, early orchids.

 

Mind you, the view up here, across the Wiltshire/Dorset/Hampshire countryside is pretty spectacular.

 

Daughter number two texts at this point to say the wedding dress was simple and clean. Clean? Did she think it had been bought from a car boot sale? I finally find my way back to the car. From the instructions and the actual route and the state of my feet I calculate that I’ve probably walked at least eight miles. And let me tell you, I could think of worse places to be.

 

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There and back again: Commoners’ Way

There’s going to be a spot of action this week: no rain is due in the foreseeable future so it’s time to get walking again. I’m on the top of a hill in the village of Kingston with directions for a new circular walk to Corfe Castle and back. This photo was taken courtesy of my zoom lens: in truth, it’s further away than it looks. Also, owing to the fact that I’m on a hill, it hasn’t escaped your intrepid explorer’s thought processes that there might be some hateful upward striding on the way back. I’ll do a Scarlett O’Hara and worry about that later.

First, there’s a lot of fuss and bother before I’ve even left the car behind. All the bother is me changing into walking boots, transferring worldly goods to backpack and generally faffing around. Susie has escaped from the cottage across the road and arrives to investigate and to be made a fuss of. Look carefully and you’ll see she sports a pink ribbon in her hair. I think this is more to do with vanity than any practical use as it doesn’t seem to be enhancing her vision. In fact, she probably thinks I’m the postman.

Second, there’s St James’ Church to visit. Kingston already had a church but it was deemed unsatisfactory by the third Lord Eldon who coughed up £70,000 for a new one. I don’t know what was wrong with its predecessor. I know what’s wrong with it now because I have to tramp down the side of it. It’s a private house with a frightful dog that runs from room to room barking and snarling at me. St James has a pretty churchyard but the inside is boring. Pevsner I am not.

At first, the over-stile, across-fields walk is charming. It’s Spring (sort of) and the lambs are plentiful and pretty and not as noisy as they were the other day up at Garston Woods where you could barely hear one’s friends’ constant chatter for the endless baaing of lost children.

 

The way is getting a little trickier as the fields disappear into a path between the trees. I will only meet one other person on the first half of this walk. Here he comes: a wild old man with a long white beard and flowing locks. Looks familiar but I expect he thinks the same of me. Dorset is full of we oddities traipsing around. I think he’s David Sterne from Detectorists. Can’t see the Labradors.

 

Because we’re British, we exchange observations on the weather and David tells me he’s glad the ground is drying out. I get lost in a wood and, on finally crossing the Purbeck Way and eventually relocating the path, have to disagree with him. My downloaded directions advise me that the way might be muddy. Are you having a grin? In all my walks, this is the first time I’ve had to fashion a stick from a branch in order to get through. I am fearful of the quagmire.

I’m not entirely sure I’m on the right path as I wander across a number of fields, stopping to clean my boots with a handful of dock leaves. According to the plan, there should be a house on my left. There isn’t but there is a small herd of deer, startled to see the mad woman of Dorset make an unexpected appearance. And there should be footbridges.

Do you mean this one? Ok. I’ll just negotiate a route over the tree trunks. Wait – what’s that noise? Doesn’t sound like a pheasant. Which is because I happen upon four geese that are employed to guard the way. Fortunately, they leg it only to leave space for a random bunch of turkeys. Happy Christmas, I say in passing.

 

 

Finally, I’m away from all that unexpected nonsense and out in the open of Corfe Common; the largest stretch of common land in Dorset where folk still pay a peppercorn rent to house their livestock. I only see a solitary pony as I amble the last mile into Corfe where I treat myself to a jacket potato. With tuna. No butter on the spud thanks – I’m doing Slimming World. And no tomato with the salad. People specifically ask for tomato, the waitress informs me sadly. Well, give them mine then. I study the directions. It’s not looking good for folk who don’t like walking up hills.

I know this picture of the next main part of my walk isn’t particularly interesting but, see that clump of trees on the skyline? Well, that’s where my car is. Depressing or what? Good job the day is glorious as I trudge uphill looking for Blashenwell Farm, number seven on my instructions.

 

 

I walk for a long time and it’s by no means terrible. At last the weather is wonderful and you have to walk the Purbeck alone to appreciate the splendid solitude of it all. However, speaking of solitude, I haven’t seen a living soul since the tomato debacle and I can’t find Blashenwell Farm. I’ve run out of road but here comes Julien on his bike. He’s not very happy at being accosted by me. ‘Are you with a group’, he asks? I look round cautiously. There doesn’t seem to be numerous people to hand. ‘No, I am all alone’, I say pitifully. In this photo, where Julien is cycling away from me as fast as he can, there’s a road between those posts. Well, who knew? Not exactly obvious is it?

And who knew that when I finally located the unsigned Blashenwell Farm there would be this amazing mill wheel? It would have turned mill stones to grind barley and oats for animal feed for the farm.

 

I’m not so far from the end-game now but the last mile is torturous. There are no pictures because, frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d make it and all my strength was taken up with trying to breath. I walked UP a green field, pausing, as instructed, to look back across the valley; UP through a wild garlic infested wood; UP some steep steps alongside a row of cottages; and UP to the church from whence I began my walk. Fortunately, it was still springtime in Kingston. I collapsed in my car seat and, of course, felt rather smug

 

 

 

 

 

A random day out

Driving over Fontmell Down, it’s difficult to see the road ahead, let alone the stupendous views that are shrouded in something more demanding than a seasonal mist. The fog is all encompassing; it positively drowns my little car. You have to guess when it’s time to shift down a gear in preparation for the descent into Melbury Abbas. Melbury Abbas. Who lives in a place like this? On the best of days it’s a black hole with a twenty miles per hour speed limit that is redundant in the face of Wiltshire County Council’s diktat to heavy goods vehicles: do NOT use the lower Shaftesbury Road! Push your lorry up a 300 feet incline at top speed. Do NOT alert yourself to oncoming traffic! If you get stuck (which is inevitable), add a number to those on the blackboard in the garden of the damaged house on the bend.

I’m sick of this bloody weather. Fed up with sitting indoors looking out at grey skies and pouring rain. Which is why, last evening, I hatched a plan to take myself off to Wiltshire for the day. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter as much if it’s raining there. My destination leads me through Westbury, an old stamping ground of my long-passed youth. Haven’t been here for eons. A friend remarked that it’s now commuter ground. Where are they commuting to, I ask? ‘Doesn’t matter. Anywhere that isn’t Westbury. They have a good railway station’. As I cross the town’s boundary, Dylan is booming out of the radio: Positively Fourth Street. I think it was playing last time I was here in 1964. Funny thing – the place is a dump but still I dream incessantly about the road from Westbury to Edington where I used to live and in these dreams, although I can see the road, I’m always stuck in town.

So I travel that much worn road, anticipating every bend that I’m still familiar with, all the time with the chalky white horse overlooking my journey, and onwards to my destination. I’m off to the Wiltshire Museum at Devizes. Allegedly, they possess a larger quantity of bronze-aged gold than the British Museum and I have a free entry ticket. It’s a soulless journey but, of course, one always arrives. And look, I’ve parked at exactly the same time that Wadworth’s delivery dray passes. This is not some random exhibition – they still deliver the beer in this way. Hartley said, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. He hadn’t been to Wiltshire. It’s always the same.

The museum is a joy although, I must report, not much gold in evidence. No matter. I pass a good two hours inside and the ever-joyous Phil Harding presents many informative video clips along the way. I’m a big fan of Phil – he of the sweaty hat bands and dirty fingernails. Apparently, he receives regular suggestive fan mail from women who’d like to run their fingers through his feather.

I must admit that my most favourite thing in the museum isn’t archaeological. It’s the John Piper stained glass window depicting Wiltshire in the vibrant round. Here you have it all: a white horse, Silbury Hill, the processional route to Avebury, Beaker-ware which is plentiful and so on. I love it.

 

Culture done and dusted with, I take a two hour trot down the Kennet and Avon Canal to the foothills of the magnificent Caen Locks. It’s a couple of years since I did my canal walks from Bath to Hungerford and whilst this stretch isn’t the most picturesque, the twenty nine locks, rising to an incredible feat of engineering of 272 feet in two miles, remains admirable.

 

Along the way, I pass the nests of two swans, seemingly unperturbed by innumerable, muddy passers-by. And after this I go to Trowbridge for a cup of tea with my long-time friends. Do you have peppermint I ask? Of course they don’t. As I say, the past is not a foreign place in these parts.

 

 

 

 

Big skies

Unforeseen events precluded today’s planned outing to the back of beyond. However, browsing through some back copies of Dorset Life at my parents’ house, some time later, it appears that the afternoon might be rescued with a smaller foray into the countryside. A circular walk entitled ‘Knowlton Church to Gussage All Saints’, allegedly a mere two and a half miles, looks promising. I feel that whoever wrote the directions missed a thing or two.


 

 

 

 

Every cloud … the afternoon’s skies are ENORMOUS when I park, as per instructions, at Knowlton Rings. Said instructions have nothing to say about this weird and wonderful site – they merely want me to press on down the lane. However, I’m having none of that.

There’s bountiful evidence that folk have been here before me. The church, partially constructed from standing stones, is twelfth century and stands in the centre of a Neolithic henge. Thus, 4000 years separate them. There’s no known reason why the two have been conjoined. Oh, I love a mystery. In the fifteenth century, the population of the hamlet of Knowlton was decimated by the plague. Today, the joint is haunted by a phantom horse and rider, a kneeling nun and copious other lost souls.

Here stand two spiritual yew trees. Walk through the gap between them and witness the votive offerings that modern day folk still leave. I love all this stuff although, I have to say, this place makes me feel inexplicably uncomfortable. Apparently, there used to be a line of yews on this horizon.

Anyway, Dorset Life doesn’t want me to hang around: it wants me to continue down Lumber Lane, so I do. Now and then, the instructions speak about the road ‘rising slightly’. Well, that’s your idea of slightly. Seems like a seriously uphill lumber to yours truly. Still, glorious countryside. At the top, I turn left, walk for eons, turn right onto the muddiest track in existence and totally miss the point at which I’m supposed to descend.

 

I didn’t take this photo. I stole it from the interweb. Some guy called Jim Champion took and doctored it. I don’t take any photos when I emerge from the muddy track to find myself looking out over prehistory. My camera is too tiny to give any worth to what I can see. Whilst I feel the beginnings of panic because I know I’ve deviated from the path, I somehow know that I’m looking over the Dorset Cursus on the edge of Cranborne Chase, crossed by Ackling Dyke. I don’t take pictures because the countryside is simply too big. And too ancient. It’s a tiny bit scary in its vastness.

According to my instructions, I’m supposed to descend into the village of Gussage All Saints at the Drovers Inn. I don’t. I reappear by the church. Those aren’t floodlights – that’s the sun bouncing off the stones.

 

In Anglo-Saxon, Gussage (All Saints) means ‘the place where the stream dries up’. In my language, it means an extremely affluent village in which no-one can be seen. The phone box now houses a defibrillator. I hope it’s removable; otherwise, folk short of breath will have to stagger up the hill to gain respite. And look – there’s the missing pub.

The dreaded instructions now direct me to Amen Corner. Wait, weren’t they a 60’s rock band? And there’s Amen Cottage. People used to gather here for prayer. Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Bowerswain, I must take a left turn, ensuring the stream is on my right. Very good but no-one mentions the snowdrop-covered grave. Who drowned here in the place where the river forgot to dry up? Whoever it was, the land-owners are making sure there’s no repetition and have redirected the path into another abyss. Daylight time is running short and now I’m stuck on a muddy path to who knows where. For the second time on this walk, I’m a little uncomfortable. Still, there are no alternative options.

This is the final treacherous path. In the distance I can see Knowlton Church and press on until I finally meet Lumber Lane once more as the day closes in.

 

 

 

As I relocate my car I look behind to see the dying day and note the skies are still defiant in their hugeness. It was an unexpected walk but glorious nonetheless. On the way home, I play Bowie’s dying Dollar Days in which he repeats the line ‘if I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it means nothing to me’. Not sure I believe him.

 

 

 

Irene

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone better-behaved, self-effacing and reserved than my friend, Irene. If one was asked, what does she have opinions on, we’d say ‘nothing that I know of’; apart from buses.

Irene doesn’t do cars. So, if we plan a walk a little off the nearby tracks, we must journey to and from the starting and end points by public transport. Nothing too bad in that you might think, especially as we have old folks’ bus passes, but today we’re going somewhere for which I have an almost exclusive parking permit. This fact is disregarded: if you want to be really ambitious, I’m advised, I can get the number 9 from my house into Poole where I can then change to the number X5 on which she will eventually embark. I don’t. I have to go to Tesco and I don’t have enough hours in the day.

We arrive at Longham Lakes, one of my favourite places for a variety of reasons: peaceful, calm, beautiful scenery, lots of birds, well-cared for paths and so on and so forth. Irene hasn’t been before which is surprising for one who never travels without binoculars. And she loves it. Well, why wouldn’t you? We take a leisurely stroll around the lakes, remarking on a passing heron and the number of coots.

Every now and then, a swan or two departs in a noisy flapping of wings. In the distance, the geese honk their way to who knows where. Paddy O’Connell has a ‘slow radio’ slot on his Sunday morning programme where all one hears are the natural sounds of the landscape and I suggest a recording of this place might fit well.

In front of us, a large rabbit suddenly hops onto the path. It’s so big that, for a moment, we think it might be one of the brown hares that frequent these parts; but Irene says it’s just a big rabbit. Yes, all is well in our world.

 

 

But, being prepared, Irene has a map which indicates we may leave the path. That sign says no entry to unauthorised persons, I remark. Well, the gate’s open she says with a previously unseen radical hat on her head. We go through the open gate and pass a sign warning of quicksand. That sign must’ve been moved here says the intrepid explorer. Then we pass another quicksand sign. Strange. I’m a little on edge.

We arrive at the exit bridge but there’s no exit. I’m all for going back but then we spot the river and have a little wander until our progress is halted and we turn back.

 

 

We are accosted by angry men with rods by the waterworks. ‘What are you doing here, they demand? Didn’t you see the signs?’ One of them shows us his permit for which he’s paid £120. ‘You’re probably on CCTV’, he threatens. ‘And you probably have Japanese Knotwood on your feet’. Since retiring, I’ve noticed that I’m less inclined to get into a confrontation. Thank goodness for Irene who bats the aggressiveness to one side with a previously unseen sneer.

Finding our way out, we jump on a passing bus. ‘Shall we go upstairs?’ And we’re like two kids gaining the front seat. She’s right: you can see a lot more up here.

 

Boulbon

In all the years I’ve been coming to Provence, I’ve never been to Boulbon, which is strange as it’s a mere twenty minute drive from where I’m staying. Looking in my notebook to see what can be said about today’s visit, I see that the first thing I wrote was ‘there’s a good view from the cemetery’. Fortunately, there’s a bit more to the place.

To begin with, Boulbon is worth a visit just to wander around the labyrinth of ancient streets and lanes

 

Eventually, you’ll come across this fourteenth century carving. Most of the depictions of saints in this tiny part of the world are either of St Eloi or St Roch. This, however, is St Christopher with his feet submerged as he carries the Christ child across the Rhone. As we know, folk round here are keen on the story of Jesus being born in Provence, so maybe this is somehow related.

 

Probably the main reason for a visit to the village is to see the eleventh century feudal fortress come chateau. It’s been added to and updated over the centuries, to accommodate the vagaries of the war machine but, today, is largely ruined. A quick perusal of any relevant literature will inform tourists that you can’t get in due to private ownership and the instability of the joint. That doesn’t mean you can’t try.

 


 

 

 

 

I find a street that turns into a path which becomes a track and make a torturous ascent. I say torturous not because I don’t like hills or the way is both stony and slippery, but because of the crowds. Down in the village, with high noon approaching, there was barely a living soul to be seen. Up here, just as I was negotiating a particularly difficult step past the last tumble-down house in near-civilisation, I suddenly find a man with a small child in one arm close on my tail.

Bonjour, I say, clinging onto a tree in order that he can pass. Bonjour, he replies. I stagger upwards behind him only to hear the snapping of twigs behind. Turning round, I see a woman who’s even older than me virtually on all fours. Bonjour, I say. Bonjour, she replies and begins to speak some impenetrable language that she clearly thinks is French and I know isn’t. She’s trying to ask if I’m with the man and the baby.

Now, we seem to have formed some sort of rambling troupe in which no-one knows where they’re going. No sooner have we re-grouped than two more climbers appear. Bonjour, we all say politely to each other and make suggestive noises and grunts regarding the castle.

I forgot to mention an ancient woman had emerged from the shack with two bin-bags full of dead foliage and weeds. She looks up the path. Bonjour, we all say but she glares at us. She doesn’t seem overly happy at so many idiots passing by her house, all of whom, it transpires, have English as their first language despite coming from a variety of countries. Of course, none of us get anywhere near the castle: some of us realise broken ankles are in the offing and others just get fed up with it all and lose the will to live. I begin my descent and pass the withered old crone again with two more bags of weeds that she’s surreptitiously dumping somewhere or other. I don’t speak.

Once I get back down, I wander across to the other side of the village and begin climbing another hill. This one leads to the cemetery via St Marcellin’s Chapel to which it’s adjoined. It’s difficult to find anything about St Marcellin that doesn’t involve cheese so I don’t know who he was. His twelfth century chapel is built on the site of an earlier edifice and is, of course, shut. It’s a mystery to me why all the interesting chapels are never open whilst all the boring churches never seem to close their doors.


Close to hand, I can see the windmill but it’s not THE windmill, renovated and complete with sails, that can be seen from the road below the village. That windmill has completely disappeared so I make my way to the second best option

 


This involves another climb through the terraced cemetery where the grandest tombs are right at the top, nearer to God. They remind me of a row of ornate beach huts.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Finally, I reach the top and see the ‘proper’ windmill in the distance. The views up here are amazing and worth the climb. But now it’s surely time for lunch. In the Café du Commerce, where all the local workmen are eating, I join them in a chicken curry which is dish of the day. It bears little resemblance to the curry at home but it’s very tasty.

 

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.