UPDATE: The crowd funded book on Indiegogo, you will get in the post, is now at a soaring 50%!
“Bollocks. F** off” Not exactly the sort of effortlessly witty retort that a Jane Austen would have a wandering Mr Darcy say to the young bloke who dared to suggest that the August Boomtown fair he and other working lads are preparing in the cradle of the South Downs way was the sort of thing that an old codger like me might enjoy. At least he was good enough to reply “that’s more like it. See you there then“, though when the hills start to thump and pump perhaps he has a point. Good on yer mate and go to hell! I was already prepared for the sight of a half built pirate ship on the hill, among the rising stages, past the near vacant farm lot where Juniper Enterprises let you drive tanks, to create a bit of local enterprise, from the bush telegraph of walking gossip along the ancient road, that I got my very first taste of today, in a ten-mile walk into Winchester. Walkers are a necessarily chatty lot, even the ones on mountain bikes and there were lots of hails and well mets in the first encounters. It’s to prepare already aching legs to help the Dragon In The Post campaign by walking the hundred miles from Winchester to Eastbourne.
Two miles up from the mad little village of …… then, where I’m staying in right now, I’d already decided that such a city boy knew nothing about this hale and hearty, horribly healthy living lark and was cursing myself for wearing heavy denim jeans instead of shorts, let alone Convertible Trousers. Ah me, the things these people have, though all the good climbing and hiking shops seem to have closed down in Winchester, like the soon to be closed Royal Hampshire County Hospital in the remorseless search for more groaningly wealthy real estate. But walking is about awareness, preparation, kit and being able to adapt to the wind and weather, the changing aspects of a landscape’s face, which today remained ravishing nearly throughout. There is very little that is hard about the South Downs Way and, as a mate said, you are rarely more than two miles away from the pub. God it was lovely to get up there though, out through the gorgeous Hampshire fields of near ripened wheat, curling in the breeze like a lass’s careless auburn hair, and to see how well-appointed the ancient track through the landscape is. A right turn by the big hay barn and on to a path that was not only the ancient thoroughfare from the south coast up to Winchester, the capital of the kingdom of Wessex, but which also crosses The Pilgrim’s Way, that I walked a little of to. That track between Winchester, east through South London to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. Appropriate then for all the work on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark at Phoenix Ark Press, not least because in the little discoveries about St Margaret’s Church in London and that seething tavern, brothel and theatre district where Shakespeare’s brother Edmund died in 1607, dominated by the Bishops of Winchester’s London palace, two of the most prominent grandees of the church were Henry Beaufort and William Waynflete.
Their huge sculpted tombs dominate that astonishing church behind the altar of Winchester Cathedral, in what many say is the heart of monied England and deeply conservative too. What you might expect from a church town which also houses a prominent British public school. Beaufort was of course an unreformed Prince of the Church, born in France in his beautiful fort and cousin and protector of the young Henry VI. That saintly, mad and vulnerable king at the heart of the Wars of the Roses, who plays such a critical role in Shakespeare’s Trilogy Henry VI, some of the first real English dramatised histories ever to be written and which heralded Shakespeare’s appearance on the London stage. In the play, when Beaufort confronts the Duke of Glouster with the threat of the pope he cries “Winchester Goose, I cry a rope, a rope!“, referencing that fairly unjust running theme about Winchester and Bishops profiting from those Elizabethan ladies of the London Streets, prostitutes called Winchester Geese. Then the old saying was ‘go a pilgrim, return a whore’. Beaufort certainly sired an illegitimate child and in Shakespeare is portrayed as dying cursing both God and Man, a sounding bell for Reformation attitudes. Waynflete is just as interesting though because, in a see that was second only in importance to Canterbury itself, he founded that most beautiful of Oxford colleges, Magdalene, became an elder Henry’s chancellor and also met the rebel Jack Cade in St Margaret’s Church in July of 1450, hard by the White Horse and Tabard Inns, on Long Southwark road. There he arranged a pardon for the rebels, who had marched into London off Blackheath and sacked the city, then fought a pitched battle across London Bridge, but as the forces quickly dissolved and he began to get an idea of who this mysterious Cade was, swiftly reneged on the deal, hunted him down and had his decapitated head paraded on a cart through the London streets. It would make a great film not least because Cade was a clear stalking horse for the Dukes of York and Essex and the rebellion, that also challenged Edward III’s laws on ta and the working age, in the Complaint of the Commons of Kent, really began the first English Civil War. Those were the days when the entire South Downs and East of England was of course so open both to pirates and French marauders, that saw such threat in the overspill of soldiery from the eventual failures of Henry V’s wars in France. Which also produced such corruption. bad governance and resentment against arbitrary power reflected in the so called Green Wax laws. Perhaps it all deserves a jolly pint of Bishops Finger though, that meaty ale so much in evidence down here at Rawlinson End, because the Pilgrim’s Way is marked by exactly that, a Bishop’s pointing finger. It is only approaching Winchester itself of course that you begin to feel how that ancient centre must have dominated everything, not only in the structures of faith and power, but as a centre for the English wool markets, of trade, learning and of legislation.
But back in the clouds, after a little picnic in the sunshine near Cheesefoot Hill, of smoked trout pate sandwiches, boiled eggs, vine tomatoes and a chile cheese that could blow you stinking hiking socks off,all washed down with Apple and ginger juice, these heroic steps were feeling decidedly springy, bucked by hares breaking out through the nodding barley, Emperor butterflies flashing off the gravel tracks and sunlight dashing brilliance off the cannon-shot clouds and the gentle ripple of the Downs southward. So naturally I forget everything that my flat mates had said and took a wrong turn away from St Catherine’s Hill that added a good three miles to the walk and brought the need for some real Bishop’s Finger. Never fear, beyond Tyfford Down and the odd Victorian Waterworks, I shortened with a guilty hitch hike courtesy of the Hampshire Highways man, until I decided I was breaking my own rules and he might be a cereal killer (pun intended), so got out and then another a trudge on tarmac into Shawford and a welcome slouch at the Bridge Inn.
There you can pick up the Itchen Way instead, that meanders so beautifully past that ravishing little river and walk the 3 miles straight into Winchester proper. It was there I started to see the need not to make too many rules about walking though, not too many deadlines or finishing lines, I mean, because the whole point should be both some achievement and the freedom and sheer discovery of it all. So I got a tiny sense of what medieval pilgrimages must really have been like too, when people set out into a dangerous and unknown world – in the relaxation of the shining river and the sudden encounters on the path, dancing with wild flowers, birds and giant Peter Rabbit Dock leaves; A wiry, bright-eyed gent proudly catching a pouting Grayling as silver as his shining hair, kids throwing themselves into a weir gushed pool, dripping, excited dogs chasing river sticks and the very strange fellow I caught texting in his roadside car, dressed like a Scout master, who advised me he does the walk every week.I met him standing in the bushes. Well, the Winchester Ashford road does conceal the biggest dogging site in Hampshire, so who knows?
No such nonsense on this walk, but the noisome hum and rush of another kind of road, on the shoulder of the curling Itchen, that hurtling stretch of the M3 Motorway that caused such a battle at Twyford Down, when they cut through one of the putative sites of King Arthur’s resting place at Sleeper’s Hill and the powers that be did not want their cricket pitch disturbed by views of traffic. It’s an odd feeling coming out of the miracle of sun freckled copses, light and shade, past neat lawns with devilish Gargoyles on the banks worthy of a Dragon In The Post, passed vaguely guilty looking woodland grazing cows, right under the M3 road bridge, graffiteed with a healthy phallus or urban love notes to whoever wos here, united for a time, back into the sheer lost gentility of Winchester.
But with your back on the M3 the nasty hum of modern hurry and worry, going nowhere, drops away again and I remembered that I had once been on the same train as Laurie Lee, as I passed St Catherne’s hill. That neolithic hill fort and later associated with St Catherine was also damaged in the motorway building, but has been restored and gave a sense of the astonishing history of the downs, with many sacred or numinous sites nestled in these hills. It also perhaps solved a little mystery of the Catherine Wheel, since there was once a water wheel here that dominated what is called the Itchen Navigation. Southwark of course had its Catherine Wheel tavern among the hundreds. So to the grounds of Winchester School and the skirting brick of Cathedral buildings appeared. That ancient target. People everywhere now, changing footsteps and at last the Bishop on The Bridge Pub, right by that statue of King Aelfred, Alfred the Great, who drove the Danes from Wessex and where the South Downs Way traditionally begins. A conundrum over a glass of cider then as to whether I should walk from Winchester or ‘home’ from Eastbourne, and only to discover that my lift back had changed his mind and is as unreliable as everyone else in bloody Hampshire. No, perhaps that’s not it, because country life is all about spaces and changes and these lot go on about things like tides and navigating different ways! On the other hand mate, have some Bishops Finger! Over five quid is far too much to charge for a five mile bus ride home too, but how could anyone complain on a day like that? Hmmm, gather the arnica and run a bath, then a flying lesson tomorrow at Phoenix Aviation to help the Dragon fly.
If you enjoyed this article or are interested in crowd funding a fairytale DRAGON IN THE POST, you can read part of on Facebook or at Wattpad.com and supporting a little publish too please visit and contribute now to the campaign up at Indiegogo.com by CLICKING HERE . The picture is a public domain image of King Alfred in Winchester. The Boomtown Fair runs from the 8th to the 11th of august.