A circular walk taking in a hillfort, a posh house and a weathercock.
I drive the to the White Horse car park at about midday with a flask and a sandwich and a vague plan – I’m never sure which direction I’ll go in once I get there; up to the Horse, or in the opposite direction, toward Wayland’s Smithy. I didn’t know how far I’d walk or if the weather would be kind to me – a sunny breezy morning had turned a little grey. All I knew was I needed to walk, and for some distance, until I gained that meditative slightly “out of my head” experience that walking – especially alone – can bring.
It was not too busy an afternoon, though recently there have been times it’s been impossible to park (as it was in the winter, just before lockdown v3.0) and I notice new signs up suggesting, if you can, not to visit at busier times. I like to walk and not see a soul for miles, but that’s become increasingly difficult and anyway, it’s not MY path is it? It’s for everyone (unless you drop your litter all over and leave dog crap hanging in bags in the hedge – if that’s you, please stay away).
I decided the Waylands Smithy route was the one to go for. I’ve walked this so many times I have to remind myself to look up and about. It’s different today from our winter visit, and different again from last May. I’m surprised I can see clearly into the fields, has a hedge been taken out? No, I think it’s just that the tall plants are still asleep…the cow-parsley, hogweed and poppies, long grasses and brambles haven’t yet filled in the gaps between blackthorn and hawthorn. There’s a small ball of mistletoe in the nearest hawthorn, its evergreen leaves still noticeable through the green fuzz just appearing on its host, soon it’ll be hidden away in there (from humans at least) until next winter.
I don’t visit the long-barrow this time, instead I stay in the small woodland opposite, always filled with dens but I’ve never seen anyone building one – perhaps they’re magic dens. Spending time up here on the chalk can have you believing all sorts of things and not much later on, after crossing the B4000 and entering one of the more lonely stretches I become convinced someone is walking just behind me, on my right shoulder. When I turn there is no-one there, no sign of anyone around at all. It wasn’t too unsettling, just a bit uncanny, and I don’t really believe in ghosts (until I do). But where else would a tramping ghost be than on a 3000 year old trackway?
Spirits or not, there’s always an atmosphere up here even on a bright summer day, and today is not that, with clouds rolling across, low in the sky. It’s quite oppressive – the still air, and the uniformity of light playing tricks with distance. Soon, I think, I’ll sit down and have a bit of coffee and a biscuit, maybe I’m a bit delirious
At Idstone Hill I turn towards Alfred’s Castle and Ashdown House. It’s a farm track with the usual difficult deep ruts where tractors ran in winter. A cowshed (with cows) and a strange concrete tank type affair set into the roadside. I spend the next kilometre wondering what it’s for – storage? water? something only farmers know about? I also start to feel a small but definite protest from the little toe on my right foot – its been months since I walked any distance – and I decide to be in denial for a little while longer. Not much longer, because five minutes later I’m sitting by a gate looking at my poor red, not yet blistered toe and wondering if the remedy is ‘sock inside out’, ‘sock off entirely and make the best of it’, or ‘ring a taxi to collect me from the B4000 car park’. I would never do that last one (well, maybe if I couldn’t walk at all). Sock turned inside out and cursing my newly widened feet – a year in mostly slippers/no footwear will do that – I set off again.
When approaching Alfred’s Castle the first thing I see is actually the big house beyond it. Hard to miss with a great big golden ball atop its cupola, Ashdown House looks like it’s been plucked from Amsterdam and popped down in the middle of the downs. It was built in 1662 by William Craven, as the story goes for Elizabeth of Bohemia, sister of Charles I. William was very close to Elizabeth, she lived in his house on Drury Lane – they sound like they were fairly inseperable, and may have secretly been husband and wife. however, Elizabeth died before Ashdown’s completion, and William never married*
While I quite like a stately home (mainly because they usually do a nice scone and cuppa – not today though because pandemic) I love a prehistoric earthwork more.
Alfred’s castle is small compared to it’s more famous neighbour at Uffington, but the banks and ditches are easily visible. Why the name? King Alfred won a great victory against the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown, in AD 871. Being located just to the west of Ashdown House, Victorian antiquaries associated Alfred with the Hillfort, which was built centuries before the battle took place. No – one knows exactly where the battle was either (but that never stopped a Victorian antiquary). I decided to plonk myself down upon the ancient fort and eat a sandwich. I’d tried ignoring my toe, which was now making me limp quite a bit, but it was having none of it…thank god for the two rather dusty paracetamols I found lurking in my bag.
As I sat and wondered what the bus service was like in deepest Oxfordshire, a group of women about my age appeared over the bank. Two walked ahead while the third was bent almost double, her bright, oversized woven scarf’s fringe almost brushing the ground. As she came close I noticed the pendulum, and realised she was dowsing. I haven’t bumped into anyone dowsing ‘in the wild’ for years. Years ago there used to be a person at the Rollright Stones who’d lend out dowsing rods for you to have a go – I did have a go but didn’t find anything, apparently due to sceptisim. Yes, I suspect leylines are not ‘a thing’ (this island is crammed with ancient sites, it’s easy to find a straight line almost anywhere ). I see Alfred Watkins theory as an early version of psychogeography “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”** And if people want to see magic in the landscape in this way then let them…I do (see above) spend quite a lot of time considering the supernatural, going on about trees and being thought a bit odd.
This individual was feeling a bit weary, and after a short discussion about how climbing stiles was not as easy as it used to be we parted ways. I set off in the general direction of where I thought I should be going…this is the point a cup of tea and a scone and most of all a sit down would have been lovely. I walked past the house (very impressive) and down to the road, where the route says I should “cross the road and go through the kissing gate”. It doesn’t mention the ridiculous steepness of Weathercock Hill and I have a moment of what…really? so give myself (and my toe) brief talking to, and we make it to the top. There’s a perfectly lovely sheep and lamb up there to greet me and, contrastingly, an equally perfect folk horror vibe to the general scene. Lowering skies, bare trees and the weathercock itself looming alongside.
I make my way back to the car and end of walk treats, it’s a rather dull tramp through the fields. I’m pretty tired but I have the calm brain only a long walk can deliver me – even the blistered toe can’t take that away.
*There’s a costume drama in waiting here, it would be a nice change to the never ending Jane Austen adaptations.
**http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2 (via Wikipedia)