Walking across the sands to Lindisfarne and seeing the White Horse of Uffington were the two particular things I wanted out of my trip to England. When I had squelched my way from Stratford past Oxford, passing the beautiful villages and slightly disappointing countryside
of the Cotswolds along the way (nothing like the Teme valley, which is going to be a touchstone for me, apparently; I think because I was so surprised by its existence), I crossed the Thames at Radcot Bridge, and felt to myself, as I struggled with my umbrella and poncho and raincoat and various blown-down trees, that I was nearing the end of my trip.
Of course, it still took me another two weeks to get to the south coast, and another three and a half months to get to this point of writing about it, but once you cross the Thames you’re in southern England for sure. I kept waiting for my first glimpse of the sea, rather forgetting about the downlands I had to cross first.
I first read about the White Horse of Uffington in some book on “Wonders of the Ancient World” when I was eight or ten, along with Wayland’s Smithy, Stonehenge, and Carnac in France (among other less northwest-Eurocentric marvels). The White Horse, the famous chalk drawing on the hillside, caught my imagination most. It’s so beautiful and so simple, and yet something that has been done for several thousand years, for the grass grows back over the chalk and people have to cut it clean every year.
I crossed the flat plains between Swindon and Oxford with the downs rising before me. I stayed the night at the sign of the White Horse
(not in Uffington itself but in a little village nestled at the foot of the downs called Woolstone), and in the morning climbed the steep hill to the Uffington castle (a hill fort, concentric rings, which I saw but did not climb on) and the horse, which are protected by the National Trust. I followed the mown paths across the grassy hillside to the horse, wandered around a bit, realised I was several hundred feet above the best viewpoint, dithered a while, and eventually decided that I didn’t need to go back down (with my heavy bag) for half a kilometre and back and around and up again before walking the rest of my day. I kind of regret this; I wish I had an amazing picture of the horse to share with you, and to hold in my mind, but instead I’ve got the glimpses of it across the plains, and looking down from right above, and the glorious morning.
After all the rain of the past few weeks, my walk along the downs was stupendous. At first the Ridgeway — the oldest path I took, going back to prehistoric times, and my third National Trail — was a bit disappointing, being more of a dirt road than anything. It wasn’t as romantic as the Roman road my sister and I walked along for a painful few hundred yards in Spain once, where all we could think was “I hope it was easier to walk on when they built it.” It wasn’t the springy turf I had imagined, either; but that came soon enough.
Wayland’s Smithy was a short ways along from the White Horse. It’s an old barrow with standing stones, related to some tale about a giant divine smith called Wayland. (Sorry, I haven’t looked up the tale.) It was mentioned in my book of ancient wonders, if I recall correctly, and crops up in other things that have to do with ancient English folk beliefs. I want to say it’s mentioned in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but I’m not sure if it is; it might be somewhere in The Dark is Rising sequence; or it might come into something by Neil Gaiman, one of the Sandman graphic novels perhaps. It’s that sort of place.
I’m pretty sure it, along with the White Horse, is mentioned in G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, which is a stirring romantic account of King Alfred against the Danes that I recommend to anyone looking for a stirring romantic and very Christian historical ballad.… A mighty man was Eldred, A bulk for casks to fill, His face a dreaming furnace, His body a walking hill. In the old wars of Wessex His sword had sunken deep, But all his friends, he sighed and said, Were broken about Ethelred; And between the deep drink and the dead He had fallen upon sleep. “Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale; Why should my harmless hinds be slain Because the chiefs cry once again, As in all fights, that we shall gain, And in all fights we fail? “Your scalds still thunder and prohesy That crown that never comes; Friend, I will watch the certain things, Swine, and slow moons like silver rings, And the ripening of the plums.” And Alfred answered, drinking, And gravely, without blamee, “Nor bear I boast of scald or king, The thing I bear is a lesser thing, But comes in a better name. “Out of the mouth of the Mother of God, More than the doors of doom, I call the muster of Wessex men From grassy hamlet or ditch or den, To break and be broken, God knows when, But I have seen for whom. “Out of the mouth of the Mother of God Like a little word come I; For I go gathering Christian men From sunken paving and ford and fen, To die in a battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why. “And this is the word of Mary, The word of the world’s desire: ‘No more of comfort shall ye get, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher.'” Then silence sank. And slowly Arose the sea-land lord, Like some vast beast for mystery, He filled the room and porch and sky, And from a cobwebbed nail on high Unhooked his heavy sword.
That was literally a random selection from the book. It’s stirring stuff — and the story about King Alfred burning the cakes makes its way into the tale, too, as it ought.On the other side of the downs I found a number of little churches that had been founded by King Alfred, and in the town of Pewsey there was a statue to him, erected by King George V with the following inscription, which rewrites history more radically than Chesterton:
From the White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy I left behind the Saturday tourists, passing a few joggers, cyclists, and riders — the Ridgeway is a public byway, with restricted vehicular access but open to more than walkers — with the wind in my face and the sun in my eyes and the land green about me except for the haze that fortunately covered most of Swindon.
I walked to Ogbourne St Andrews, taking shelter from a rainshower in a rather fancy Indian restaurant that had taken over the pub marked on my map, where I had a nice lunch and they politely pretended I wasn’t wretchedly muddy (I did ask before I went into the restaurant proper). I passed ancient forts and modern gallops, where they train the racehorses of Lambourn, and the odd jumping ground.
On the other side of Ogbourne St Andrews I found the downlands of story, with the beech trees golden in groves along the hills, the turf as delightful to walk on as in all the stories, and in general the quality of air and wind like something out of Narnia.
And I passed a few more modern white horses, for when you have all that hillside before you, what else will you do?