Last Tuesday my German friend O visited (a month before she gets hitched to a fellow storyteller) and we went to Avebury to rendezvous with Z, resident of The Lacket – her family home nearby in a ridiculously picturesque National Trust village. If you can imagine a filmset for a movie about fairies intruding on a quaint English hamlet, this would be how it would look … but it’s for real. A line of thatched cottages surrounded by recumbent sarsen stones, Lockeridge Dene feels as though it straddles the worlds between mortals and the Good Folk. In exchange for giving our hostess some feedback on the incredible story she is writing about her and her famous grandmother, who was married to Scott of the Antarctic, we got to stay the night. We shared stories by the fire in the ‘Little Room’ as the living room is known, the shelves and walls steeped in history (rare volumes; memento mori; old photographs of famous friends and relatives).
Sipping sherry left over from her father’s funeral and eating some creamy camembert on home-made rye bread, we talked into the wee small hours. Then I staggered out into the night – and nearly ‘drowned’ in the sea of stars above my head – a spectacular star-field, due to the lack of light pollution (or anything from the 20th or 21st century) around. I stumbled my way to the Roundabout – the cute thatched ‘gnome’ house which was to be my bedroom for the night. I felt very privileged to be staying in such a place. Thank you Zzzzz…
Stars like sarsens
scattered across the sky’s meadow.
A house heavy with bristly thatch,
eaves, a furrowed brow.
Timbered frame riddled with history,
the ghosts of literati,
the Polar extremes of Scott and Peter Pan
(the explorer’s son named
after their friend Barrie’s creation).
A lost father immortalised in the Neverland of ice,
leaving Wendy to run the house.
The garden, a habitat of Tinkerbells,
hedges good enough for a Woolf to jump in.
A cow-licked meadow
of glacial erratics,
a stone circle workshop,
Avebury in utero.
Here, great dreams and fragile visions are born,
eminent Victorians nurtured,
erudite Edwardians pandered,
visiting diplomats indulged.
Ineluctably, at the Lacket,
magic is forged,
protected in a vale of deep peace,
where time takes a hiatus
(wristwatches stop in the middle of the night,
stuck on the Roundabout of dreams).
A funeral sherry is sipped
in the snug of the Little Room,
beneath the sepia gazes of
the famous and familial.
The timbers, spines of rare books,
stained with the centuries of
mercurial repartee, firefly passion, hearts
breaking like an Antarctic ice-shelf,
minds locked into themselves,
imprisoned in the past,
imaginations roaming free.
The next day, we went for a walk up Cherhill with Kevin, gurned to the camera in front of the Lansdowne monument and white horse, before ending up at the Black Horse for some quaffing.
The next day I accompanied O to Bath, and met up with my Icelandic friend, Svanur (aka, ‘The Viking’ as we affectionately call him), who was passing through town on his way back to his homeland, where he works as a tour guide. The last time I’d seen him was Easter 2012 in Cornwall, so we had alot of catching up to do – which we did over a few beers. His wife, Suzanne, and friends joined us for a pleasant afternoon sat in the beer garden of the Pig and Fiddle. Skol!
On Saturday my friend Robin visited and we walked the Wansdyke – even though we set off at 4pm, the heat was still formidable, and it was hard work to get up onto the ridge. Stretching from Bristol to Marlborough, this ancient earthwork is attributed to the Danes, hence its name, Wansdyke, or ‘Woden’s Ditch’, but it might well pre-date this. The fact it links several significant ancient sites – hill-forts, long barrows, and camps – makes it feel more like a processional route than a defensive structure. This is certainly how it feels, walking along it. I remember once on the way to Tan Hill (its highest point, and site of a famous fair) I found a verse and melody popped into my head, something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to Tan Hill Fair, I hope to find my true love there.’ It seemed to arise out of the rhythm of my progress along the ancient way – the May trees, in full blossom, enhancing the sense this was the sacred route to the Hill of Bel-Tane. Higher up, there was a trace of pleasant coolness, and the going was far easier – it felt like one was a giant striding over the land; that one could go on for miles. Just as well, as we had several to go to our destination – the Barge Inn, Honeystreet, where there was a summer knees-up – and the shadows were lengthening (‘our shadows taller than our souls’). By the time we dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey and made our way along the tow-path to the pub, the sound of revelry guiding us, it was getting dark. We arrived five and half hours after setting out, having walked around 12-3 miles, with detours (navigational haziness; a Roman road that was now a blocked right of way; a vast field with no way out like the one in Ben Wheatley’s new film ‘A Field in England’). We were in need of sustenance – alas, the kitchen had shut. The slender bar-maid failed to inform me there was a BBQ, so I got us some Ford Prefect peanuts and myself, a pint of ‘Croppie’ (de rigeur in Wiltshire’s legendary crop-circle pub, a favourite watering hole for cerealogists, stranded aliens and yokels). These were consumed with ravenous haste. Then I managed to grab the last veggie-burger (minus a bun) and some cake – thus was our West Country repast for the night. Fortunately, the beer was good and the atmosphere pleasant. We sat and watched the bands for a bit – even vaguely dancing at one point, although the swaying might have been more from exhaustion, and being on the state of collapsed. Replete with the fullness of the day, we staggered off to find a place to wild-camp, which we did, nearby in Alton Barnes, by the squat Saxon church – found at the end of a Corpse-path in the middle of a field. Dog-tired, we didn’t notice any ghosts – only something rustling in the undergrowth and the police helicopter overhead, searching for rogue males, no doubt! Nevertheless, it was a peaceful and pleasant night’s sleep – it was so warm, a mat and sleeping bag was all that was needed. I awoke, hearing the first bird break the dawn – before being joined by the feathered choir for the morning’s chorus.
We arose and walked up to the ridge, stopping at Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to enjoy the sublime view – the mist burning off in the Vale below. It was only 7am and we had the whole morning before us, a good feeling – and practical, as we avoided the heat of the day. Following a seldom frequented stretch of the Ridgeway, we reached Avebury from the south in a couple of hours, arriving via the Avenue of menhirs (this was about my fourth time walking up it in a month and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day). We’d run out of water, so replenished our bottles, and I brewed up by the roadside like a tinker. There were no buses back to Calne, alas – so we grabbed some sarnies from the NT cafe, and hoiked ourselves along the road, thumbing up. Drivers looked at us as though we were escaped criminals. Fortunately, at the Beckhampton roundabout an old hitcher on his way back from a car-boot took mercy and gave us a lift up the road – it wasn’t far (7 miles) but boy, were we grateful: my feet were blistered enough by the time we got back. Limbs scratched and dripping sweat, this bardic bod was in a sorry state – but I felt exhilarated too. Our footloose foray had been a success. We freshened up and had some lunch – again, the simplest food can be so satisfying when you have a proper appetite (and not just eating out of habit). I got changed and ready for a tour I was due to lead in Bath – no rest for the bardic! I gave Robin a lift to Chippenham station, then blatted it over to Aquae Sulis, where I met up with a couple of Americans from Maryland, on a whistle-stop tour of English culture spots (Winchester, Stonehenge, Avebury…). Despite being wiped out by my Wansdyke walk and the heat, I think I acquitted myself well. An hour and a half later, I was given a very nice tip and bought a pint of Bell-ringer in the Coer-de-Lion, Bath’s smallest pub – this most certainly needed to lay the dust of the road down, like the pump used to do by the Marden river in Calne. By the time I got back to the Wiltshire town I was not much more than a bardic zombie, shuffling around sore-footed and staring, looking for a take-away.
The following night I went back to Bath for the Storytelling Circle at the Raven, which I used to run. It is now hosted by David Metcalfe, a fellow Fire Spring member. At first, there was only a handful of ‘usual suspects’ there, but it rapidly filled up and there was a good crowd and an entertaining cross-section of offerings. I told the story of The Far-travelled Fiddler from my forth-coming collection of ‘Northamptonshire Folk Tales’ – being published by The History Press – in the week I had received a proof of the gorgeous cover from Katherine Soutar. To see seeds sown in early Spring (when I submitted the manuscript) come to fruition is immensely satisfying, and offers some consolation for my ‘exile’ in one-horse Calne, which the visit of friends and various sortees makes more bearable.