“NEVER wake a sleeping Dragon,” said the red-haired lady who came from Bishop’s Waltham mournfully, lying next to her best friend in the mizzle and long grass. We were on the edge of a barrow on Old Winchester Hill, with soaring views out towards The Solent. I had stopped after a good 12 miles to lean on my hazel staff, on the first leg of the 100 miles hike from Winchester to Eastbourne and since we have only 10 days to go and have just crept up to 75 percent funded, I wasn’t missing any opportunity to tell any traveller I met about the Dragon In The Post crowd funding book project and the RNIB too! Odd these two hilltop lady wayfarers should believe in the reality of dragons more than a dragon fantasy author, claiming that in other realities anything that exists in the psyche must be real!
But then you begin to study the lie of the gently undulating South Down hills, thinking yourself into the psyche of pre-scientific and prehistoric peoples, like the Bronze Age dwellers who occupied Old Winchester Hill, so start to see curling dragons everywhere, embedded in the slithey landscape. This area is remarkably Tolkienesque, with its Sleepy Shire-like villages, such as Exton where I stopped for Water and a pork pie lunch at the Shoe pub. Thing is, I did and do want to wake a sleeping dragon, and make her roar. Which is why I got just a nervous nod from the chap at the National Park notice round the way as I stamped my staff and, Gandalfesque, commanded a dragon to awake! He told me instead the way to the Sustainability Centre beyond, which to someone on now aching feet was far more than the ten minutes those unrelativistic folk on mountain bikes imagined. Dear god, like the taste of the humblest food, when you’re burning up calories like Smaug, I think I’ve never had the most delicious hot bath in my entire life, when at last I got there around 5.30. I thought at first the Centre was aesthetically totally unsustainable, looking a bit like a red brick crematorium, in the building that was once the Mercury Naval training centre and probably a haunt of spies, until it closed in the nineties and perhaps moved to a barrow under Langley.
Until I met the relaxed, nice and efficient Sarah, who explained about the accommodating kitchen facilities and the splendid TeePees in the campsite, but especially the near palatial Yurts, with their beds and wood burners. Where I’m afraid I again played the door-to-tent travelling dragon salesman to the nice couple just setting up. Well, I had stopped in the little grocery shop cum Post Office in Exton, to buy a banana and ask the lady who avoids the Internet like the plague to put up a charity fund-raising leaflet (and will throughout). Then I told her about this coming Thursday’s studio interview with BBC Radio Solent’s Katie Martin, sometime after 2pm. After so much work done, perhaps we can wake a sleeping dragon or two, before the end.
Although if it’s dying a death instead I was to find the crematorium analogy very relevant indeed, in the centre that evening, since in the woods beyond there is effectively an organic burial site, used almost every day. Which brings in those barrow rings, perched on the top of Old Winchester hill too, where some of these circles were simply the remains of ancient huts, but others of course were important burial sites, which placed the fact of life and death at the very heat of every community, as it always really is. Perhaps that gives the generous nipple of the hill it’s feeling of ancient peace and very natural solemnity, which the sign reassures will never be disturbed for archaeological purposes. It was remarkably unphasing and rather moving at the centre too, to stand among the light slanted trees and realise people’s relatives were turning unobtrusively back into life’s mysterious mulch. Not quite so the serious faced young Swiss German Sustainable-Architecture students, since being sustainable can be a horribly serious business, who invaded that evening, on their journey from London to Glasgow, Noydart and Edinburgh. Who also interrupted my selfish chicken tikka with after dinner presentations that included a piece related to Scots Independence, referencing the film Braveheart, Annie Lennox and Sean Connery. With a Rural Skills centre boasting a plastic bottle Green House and a little cafe that does evening meals, if you prebook, the Centre’s an excellent stopping point then, on the first big leg from King Aelfred’s statue in Winchester (more of that later). A gentle place where you can be splendidly incorrect too and order a takeaway Currie and a beer from the cafe, to contemplate the day’s great adventure!
Which I confess began not at the statue at all, contemplating the superior route from Winchester to Eastbourne, rather than the other way around, because you have the wind behind you and don’t have to climb Beachy Head, but up the road from my home in Tichborne. I’ll do the last leg after the train at the end and literally walk back home (um, it was late, and I have already walked it the other way – see below). So a start delayed by final packing, last-minute doubts and off! A mixed day of sun and mighty clouds, but of course, when the sun shines the true glory of Hampshire glows: new cut wheat fields after the harvest, a tapestry of endlessly variegated greens and browns and a world left rather to me, with so few on the way. Not at all the Chaucerian vision of the rollicking Canterbury Road, dreamt of by itchy footed souls at home dying to take to the open road, as you follow this 8000 year old drover’s trail through the landscape to the coast.
First walking is a battle against scale, as inch by inch that 100 starts to shrink, or against disbelief that it can, and second a question of shifting perspective, in the sense of coming in and out of your head and noticing things, or walking through your own thoughts and memories. You only really start to touch the South Downs beyond Lomer Farm, at Beacon Hill, a forested track and haunt of banana yellow butterflies and wild flowers, so called because of the Beacon fires traditionally lit here to communicate with the farms to the coast, so very much a touch of the Riders of Rohan. A metal Exton beacon was erected above the sleepy village for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
In my case a passing with some sadness about local inhospitality or meanness of spirits, but perhaps H’s country wisdom at the bar is right, let mother nature sort it out.
It was dropping down towards Exton, passed early ripening blackberries and hazelnuts, the sloes too that come as slowly as country thoughts and rhythms sometimes, along well rutted tracks, that I first started to taste the real journey of it though, the size and openness of the landscape and an ancient history too. The pace is set by the army principle of walking for an hour, before five minutes breaks, but I lapsed over breaking ruck sack straps and more and more food stops. I’ve come well kitted with food, and energy bars too, but it’s water that’s the real issue when the sun burns. Burn it did, though never hugely consistently, among the rich carpets of thick, low cloud, pinnacled by spires of brilliant white and only starting to drizzle on the last three miles. How we’re made by the metaphors we hold in our minds though, meaning thoughts of bandages. Between Exton and a bed-stop it was those points like Winchester Hill that must have dominated a landscape and given it meaning for thousands of years, but gave me a sense of purpose and a meaningful journey too. A tradition. For a time very wealthy, ordered Hampshire disappeared. An old vision so driven over by the cars that hurry down the roads now, which I screamed at when several wouldn’t stop, just to tell me where the sustainability Centre was. But all in all it was a very fine day, interspersed by my sudden shouts of ‘lovely’ and ‘freedom’ and followed tomorrow by the long walk to Cocking, if my feet don’t fall off! See, since it all gave the centuries a context, like an organic author trying to fight back against big publishing houses, and although William Wallace was no peasant farmer and died not in York but London, Braveheart interpreted by Sustainable Swiss Germans isn’t all that bad!
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