Who said that if a plan can go wrong, it will do?
That was certainly the case this time. My friend J had waxed lyrical about the starling murmurations, those glorious dancing swoops of the birds as they come in to settle for the night at this time of year. Apparently they can be seen to spectacular effect on the Avalon Marshes, down on the Somerset levels, so I fixed a date in my diary, and got out my map. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought to plot a circular route to end up back at the RSPB reserve for the show as this is an area of ongoing peat excavations, low lying and drained with a maze of rhynes and ditches and I wondered how accessible the paths would be on the ground. Especially when I spotted what’s happened just above Sharpham Bridge.
Anyway, I ended up with a walk along the remains of the Glastonbury canal which looked promising and I was all set – bag packed, lunch made, the lot. And then I looked at the weather forecast – 40mph winds on the way. Now I’m not an ornithologist and I could be wrong here but I somehow doubted that those birds were going to be doing all that wonderful swooping and swerving in the teeth of a gale. They’ll probably have been blown so far that they ended up in the Midlands.
Time for Plan B and a bit of pragmatic searching of weather forecasts for somewhere which looked a bit more balmy. Like Wiltshire. Mere light breezes of 18mph were on the cards over there which sounded like zephyrs in comparison. But where to go? Then I recalled that last winter a stunning sunset had stopped me in my tracks. Back then I had pulled in to a random layby and found these rolling hills demanding to be walked one day.
Today looked like being that day.
From the layby alongside the gallops, I set off for the copse on top of the hill ahead. I may not have been in the teeth of a gale but it was still pretty windy. Maybe that was why I barely saw a soul out there, other than two bouncy black and white collies and a black clad man with a mane of silver hair, who was graciously demonstrating the notion that owners get to look like their dogs.
I’ve not got a lot to say about the walk itself, but that is not a bad thing. It was a rectangular route, up one side of the ridge top of Cherhill Down,
around Cherhill Hill,
along and down over West Down,
back along the Roman road – now just a rough track – in the dip of North Down (which is directly south of West Down. Yes, I know), and ending up back by the Beckhampton Stables gallops.
The Stables sportingly allows public access to their glorious expanse of downland once training has finished at lunchtime and when I reached it, many dogs had arrived to race around and revel in all the space. And that’s what made it a great morning for me too. I mean, I cannot say that this was a particularly exciting or eventful walk but strangely, of all the walks I have done, this is one of the few I could return to again and again. It was not particularly demanding, the hills were gentle and the way pretty clear, but the variety of views – and the feeling of wide open space – was exceptional. I loved it and shall be back to enjoy this landscape later in the year.
Now what I have studiously avoided mentioning so far is what there is at the top of Cherhill Hill. Which is odd really because it is stuffed full of fascination. For a start there are the earth ramparts and ditches of Oldbury Castle, an iron age hill fort which provided welcome relief from what was beginning to feel like a hurricane up on the exposed top. I’m not an ancient historian but even I cannot fail to feel a sense of wonder at such a huge construction surviving from so long ago.
Not your thing? Well, how about this being the natural habitat of butterflies and seven different types of orchid, not to mention one of the most ridiculously named insects ever – the wart biter bush cricket.
I am not making this up.
Wart biters are apparently found in only five UK sites, take two years to go from egg to adult, and sound like complete divas. They have very specific requirements… long grass at certain times of the year and shorter grass at others, a tricky balance to maintain notes the NT website wearily.
None of the picky critters were out that morning, but what about this…
Yes, it’s a peacock.
Ok, it’s a white horse. Why did I not go closer, get a better picture you ask? Because the wind was whipping up that scarp so strongly that it was buffeting me about and I couldn’t walk in a straight line (I am of sturdy stock, approaching the traditionally built).
But enough of white horses, what is that over the way?
It’s the Lansdowne monument. What? None of these names meant anything to me. That is not particularly surprising, but as one with a fascination with monuments and memorials verging on the unhealthy, my eye was caught by the dates. Why would the third Marquess choose to commemorate an ancestor who was well over a century dead? Extensive research (hello Wikipedia) suggests that Petty was indeed a good and highly able egg – if you overlook his surveying of Ireland for Oliver Cromwell. It appears that he is best recalled as an economist, the concept of laissez faire being one of his bright ideas. Worth remembering perhaps, but why did it take 150 plus years to do so – why weren’t Marquesses 1 and 2 quicker off the mark with their commemorative plaques? (So 1 was busy being prime minister , and 2 suffered from ill health, but 3 managed to fit it in around taking his turn as home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer.) And why put the memorial here, a place with which Petty had apparently had no connection?
I’d hazard a guess that this whole thing has little, if anything, to do with Petty himself. The date of the monument – 1845 – coincided with the famines in Ireland and rural unrest and migration throughout England and Wales. By this stage, the Lansdowne family held large estates locally – and thus wielded great power. What better way could there be to make this plain than to build a panoptical spire to overlook their people and their lands?
One which still casts a long shadow.
(I have no idea why the font keeps changing at random – any ideas anyone?)