The heat of yesterday seemed to have left a hazy morning when Jay dropped me in Droxford. Mostly thin cloud above, muting brightness and colours below as I hiked up Wayfarers Walk – a lane at this point – to the edge of the village where small children being dropped off at a small school eyed the good luck balloon floating along tethered to me. ‘What’s the story there?’ I think I explained to one of the mothers. After all I’d brought the balloon to attract attention and had decided to let it drift along with me for the whole walk.
I think asking questions is – or should be – a child’s basic right, but I wasn’t sorry to move on, beyond the school and end of the lane to the peace and solitude of open country. Apart from a distant tractor with harvester which disappeared over the shoulder of a hill. It was gradual uphill going to a much steeper slope below which the track turned right though a wood towards a saddle between hills.
A bramble or something got the balloon in the wood. I noticed it trailing along the ground on the other side. What now? I’d keep it throughout the walk. It might have perished but its soul goes marching on!
The sun was coming out now over the wheatfields, a few already cut to stubble. The Meon Valley ethereal beyond, below a veil of cloud across Hampshire vaporising into blue sky.
On the saddle was a junction of lanes. Back on the hill I could see a writhing track that looked designed for go carts but Google Earth has given no clue.
Beyond the junction Wayfarers Walk went down the side of a golf course through a stretch of bushes grown thickly beside and over the path like a woody cloister.
A problem with golf courses was getting across them. Apart from navigation – and flying golf balls – there might be no right of way. I was questioned by a man hosing the green when I came to a break in the bushes but a relaxed chat led to friendly directions and a photo of him at his work.
Crossing the course I came across a seat. Always make use of them on a long walk and I did. 3 old golfers came up when I was drinking and asked me if I was alright? Well I was splayed out a bit and – drinking water – looked as though I was hooked up to a plasma bag;- my water ‘bottle.’ Another friendly chat and they proceeded to play from the green I was at the edge of. In a professional manner. One hit his ball so hard I couldn’t see it fly!
Trees and a hedge. Harder to leave the course than it was to get in. There was a ‘B’ road too. Straight for that kind of road though and without much traffic. Easy enough to find the footpath leaving it too.
I’d been going down a gentle slope since the beginning of the golf course and that continued. The trail through Hampshire became narrow with undergrowth between a hedge bordering a field and woodland. It was here that I met a couple of other hikers. One at least was a postman and he was 75! Fitter than I was for one’s age – what one might call ‘spry’ – but he’d had the ideal job for it. There’s a lot of walking in delivering mail so that was first rate preparation for what a nurse had told me was good exercise when one’s older. Walking’s moderate exercise so it’s just right for the heart without straining it. Something one should watch when over 60. Then the conversation moved on to a more ribald topic: ‘Betty Mundy’s Bottom.’ It was a dry valley going up towards a chalk ridge. There were millionaires properties up that way too. There was a garden full of statues. Property is an altar I refuse to worship at so I brought up the subject of a certain notorious property magnate who was against The Ramblers association. After an entertaining round of shared condemnation I left them thinking I’d be running into people on the trail to talk to throughout Hampshire. What with the golf course and Percy yesterday. As it turned out there was no-one else really until Berkshire.
Betty Mundy’s Bottom was a defile carpeted by blocks of woodland and wheatfields leading to a long slope up to some of the highest ground in Hampshire. I nearly got lost at the start of it on a lane when it veered uphill through a wood. A map check revealed it shouldn’t have done that. It also revealed that the lane was ‘Sailors Lane.’ Did someone naming this part of the world have an innapropriate sense of humour? Good for them! ‘Innapropriate’ is a word that sets my teeth on edge: a mealy mouthed kiss of death office politicians charter of a word from the politically correct.
Blessed be the politically correct, for they shall inhibit the Earth.
By that time the photogenic regularity of a hedge and grass verge was hinting at serious money; but I didn’t see any statues. There was an extensive property though on the point of a major expansion.
Once round and past that Wayfarers Walk crossed a narrow wheatfield between conifer woods where I found a big flint stone shaped just like a giant’s mitten. I was more into geology than who owned what. It’s not clear exactly how flint was formed but it’s found in chalk and chalk covers a great deal if not most of Hampshire. I’d entered the great swathe of it below Droxford and most of the hike would be across a chalk landscape I would not be leaving until I came off the Malborough Downs to go home. Chalk was deposited as a marine sediment in the Upper Cretaceous when the giant marine monsters then were given more seagoing room by a rise of 300 meters in ocean levels. Again it’s not clear why this happened but today a rise like that would submerge southern and central England and leave features such as Dartmoor and the Pennines as small islands. After the chalk’s formation – and the comet that took out the marine reptiles among other monsters – the newly forming Alps warped the chalk strata and erosion sculpted it into ridges and escarpments such as the South Downs and Malborough Downs.
Oh by the way there was a 2nd millionaires property forcing a steep detour uphill through another wood; but that was nothing like as bad as the miles down a dangerous main road added to my route by a landowner 2 years ago on the Surrey Sussex border. Just a pleasant shady hike around 3 sides of a box tilted uphill then back to the planned route.
Before long I was actually ascending up to the South Downs. The western end of it – where the South Downs Way crosses Wayfarers Walk – is a dotted line of higher hills and ridges rather than the more obvious line of chalk downland. I’d stopped for a map check and water break where the trudge uphill started. Under blue skies with puffs of cloud it felt warm to hot but not as severe as yesterday. Maybe there was a bit more breeze and I was travelling light.
The ridge ahead was nearly 200 metres high but I was already at 100 metres in Betty Mundy’s Bottom. The trouble with hills is the convex slope. What you see at the top isn’t the top but a shallower slope out of sight of your incline. And so on. The view’s worth it though. I was amazed to make out the refinery at Fawley on the South Coast. About 15 miles away as the crow flies. In this part of the world one gets used to views being hemmed in by nearby hills, woods or houses. Plenty of opportunities for photos of faraway Fawley along with the occasional flint walled building.
There was a lot of Hampshire to see at a stile on the other side of the ridge too. Beyond the stile though was an easy grassy slope down through occasional trees spaced out like a park not far below one. In contrast to a typical South Downs scarp slope: steep and a long way down.
In the parkland I caught side of a deer on the edge of a wood and shot on maximum zoom. Not one of my best shots but at least the deer shows up well in the sunlight against the dark green shadowy backdrop of the wood. Once in awhile deer can be seen – usually when on foot – in Hampshire at least.
Further on I came to a wheatfield with a difference. The footpath led straight across it towards a tree which was the proverbial speck on the horizon! A notice notified me of ‘ground nesting birds please keep to footpath.’ Had no intention of doing anything else.
It’s size and parched look under the sun reminded me of a desert once I was crossing it under this hot sun going camera happy. Sometimes my mind becomes a kind of radio playing music. I was wandering through a county so rather than a walk I felt ‘walkabout’ to be more of a correct word. So I should be thinking about that beautiful music in the film ‘Walkabout’ starring Jenny Agutter wandering through the Australian desert. What came to mind instead was the theme to ‘The Big Country.’ Long ago my mind had played that in South Africa when I was on a motorbike crossing a real desert! Now I was crossing a Hampshire that few people see: a prairie sized field under a sky big enough for ‘The Big Country!’ That exultant theme and this landscape expressed the excitement of the challenge of freedom. Braving the unknown. I was doing that again with this walkabout. YE-Haah!
Later on this trek I was to find my definition of desert for this field closer to the truth than I realised. A low big leaved plant like an alien intruder on an otherwise bare path was a clue.
The tree was part of a hedge with another wheatfield on the other side. Smaller though thankfully. Elsewhere it looked as though whatever wasn’t wood in this part of England was wheat. Great stretches of it. At least I think it was wheat and not barley. Checking my photos against Google Images seems to prove this.
Beyond all that lay Kilmeston. This village began with well kept paddocks where there was a horse wearing a zebra coloured cover, incongruously. Actually a zebra is a kind of horse. A weed choked path brought me to a neighbourhood of small village greens, tree tunnels and fields between rustic cottages. I saw no people. Just a rabbit. And later another horse.
Beyond that were meadows and a big house on a hill. And a big cloud. I’d noticed this near the horizon while crossing the wheat region but now I was out of the confines of Kilmeston it was a lot closer, covering the north and east, having the kind of grey hue that spelt out steady persistent rain.
By the time I’d reached some gardens near the house there was an overcast quality to the light. Hinton Ampner was the name of the place. National Trust and well worth visiting one day. I was actually about to come out of the ‘South Downs National Park’ here. I’d entered it south of Droxford. Here I could take a few photos from a gate, of a garden of grassy aisles flanked by junipers and lush foliage, but the light was bad enough to give the scene the sombre feel of an Agatha Christie murder.
I tried to move faster. It looked as though it could start raining at any time. There were a few pubs in a long village – Cheriton – strung out along a ‘B’ road and stream, actually the source of the River Itchen. The pubs weren’t in sight of Wayfarers Walk though. ‘B’ roads in villages have pavements and lack of hedges so the going was easy, so I pushed on.
And on along the road. The rain held off.
Long enough for Wayfarers Walk to strike off right on a hill through a strand of trees. When I got to the other end I could see Arlesford, my objective, on the next hill. At that moment it started to rain.
That’s all that happened though. Spits and spots. It kept that way across another golf course, over a bypass and along the edge of town until I got to the pub Jay and I were to rendevous at. I had time to clean up and get a drink before she arrived. Oh one thing though. The sole on my right boot had begun to detach itself.
Back at Jay’s we relaxed with red wine and ‘Sharpe’s Waterloo.’ ‘Over the hills and faraway’ from that series was more stuff I played in my head, being the right kind of sentiment for this kind of venture.
Casualties were mounting though. Apart from the strap on the bag yesterday the balloon this morning had been ‘brambled’ I guess. The water bottle – which I’d hoped wouldn’t leak – persistently did so. As for the boot…
Jay’s husband suggested I go to a shop in Fareham to get the boot sorted out but that was the last thing I wanted. Tomorrow would be a long hard hike with full kit over hills and if I started that with a ‘shopping experience’ next thing I’d know would be ‘oh it’s midday.’ As an alternative he suggested a lash up job with sailors darning equipment and duct tape, saying if I turned up with a boot like that on one of his missions he wouldn’t accept me, but I had a schedule to keep, so I got to work and somehow mastered that job.
I more or less started the following day’s more urgent hike by getting lost at Arlesford. There’s a small river winding around the northern side of this big village or small town; confusing one’s direction and mapwork with it’s twists and turns so I wound up on a ‘B’ road and had to backtrack. It took me a long time to get clear.
Lovely start to the first day’s walk in full kit though! A level stroll along this stream under shady trees after going downhill from the pub past flowers and even a tree fern and palmettoes. The river weeds and gravelly sandy shallow bottom were in full detail under crystal clear water in the sunlight of a beautiful morning. One of the best features of chalk scenery are these occasional streams. An ancient thatched mill was built over it dated 1258 judging by the date on the warning notice against fishing that still was on its wall! Plenty of birds about too; from the swan I saw just after getting to the river to the numerous ducks everywhere with the odd duckling family. What was most memorable was a tiny bird persisting in hopping towards me along most of a bench I sat on. Turned out to be a baby sparrow; one of it’s parents showed up too, seeing how it was doing cadging food. I felt guilty not having any, getting what turned out to be a good photo.
I started to pull away from the river past a building site and a big property among the trees of a hill across the river. Arlesford was the biggest place on this route and was still picturesque. Wasn’t sorry to be leaving it though as the map told me I was on the verge of heading north again. I had a long way to go with a heavy backpack and camera.
Wayfarers walk, initially constrained by neat fences, became wild with undergrowth again and the summer heat was getting serious; making me think of the African Savannah. Lions and Puff Adders would feel at home here now lolling or lurking in the foliage in ambush. All I had to worry about really might be an adder that would usually be gone when sensing my approach. Also it’s venom is weak, only being dangerous to dogs, children and the unwell. Still would need medical attention though which would screw up the walkabout.
There was a fallen tree, the bottom of it with it’s roots being by the track. Most of the earth coming up with it was pure chalk, white as the driven snow! Incredible how Hampshire could be this verdant when it was less than a few feet from the surface.
The walk became a quiet lane. Up and down gentle slopes with the river to the west.
At a farm Wayfarers Walk struck northeast up a long slope though a big bare patch on the map that I was afraid would feel like a desert but there was a hedge on the south side of this farmtrack giving shade all the way up past the weed choked ruins of another farm to another wood.
Past ‘Oliver’s Battery:’ an Iron Age hill fort with – it seems – signs of Roman Occupation. Hard to tell though for it was submerged under trees and greenery. Must have been one part of Britain where there were far fewer trees when it was built. The ‘B’ road from Arlesford to Basingstoke went straight through it.
On the other side of that was a vegetation choked path across a dip between fields that had me thinking about adders again. Up on the left was a much more modern earthwork than the Iron Age fort. A cross between an abstract rectangular version of that fort and a bunker. It had sloped sides with vents or some sort of structures like that sticking up here and there. I can only think of a submerged reservoir, having once worked in the construction of one.
Onward into open country: quiet long lanes past a maize field, then wheat and the odd house with a view all the time for miles across a valley to the west. Eventually I knew that I was going to have to do more than a dog leg back down a tree fringed track to that valley bottom and the ‘B’ road, then start up it northwards. It was worth it though. There was a pub where I would meet the road and I’d managed to time it for lunch.
The flint walled Woolpack Inn and that road were suddenly in front of me. With an old couple sitting outside at one of those trestle tables. Inside it was nicely rustic and I’d soon got cleaned up, got on good terms with the barmaid and was getting my liquid refreshment: lager interspersed with orange juice with ice to limit alcohol dehydration. The pub was actually hosting a wedding party but the rush hadn’t arrived yet – just a barfly or two, a few people marking time until the main horde showed up. Lucky I’d got there before them, or it would have been a long wait for the meal or walking northwards hungry.
By the time I left they’d shown up. Many outside.
Not far up the road was a quandary. Google Earth showed – or seemed to show – an obstacle on Wayfarers Walk where it left a lane going off from the road. I was trying to learn from not heeding it 2 years ago and meeting with near disaster so I chose the alternative – which seemed more open – leading through a farm. I chose the farm but when I got there it had that patina of a 2nd home rather than a farm. At least the place seemed deserted so I shouldn’t have to cope with “Can I help you?” While I worked out the best way to the walk. Gratifyingly.
“Can I help you?” (Oh ****!)
The man was charming but insistant and dismissive of Google Earth. The walk was signposted and there was a way through on the route I’d rejected. I was right about the 2nd home or a well to do one anyway. Oh by the way the walk was on the other side of that hedge, not along it on this side. ‘Can I help you?’ encounters can be embarrassing and this one was to the last. Could have been worse though for some are code for ‘can I hinder you?’ Ever get that feeling you can’t win?
Wayfarers Walk went parallel to the road then along it through the village of Brown Candover. There was a ‘wildflower verge’ there. At this time of year wildfowers were cropping up in many places I passed. There was a stream too which – when I took a few close ups – could have passed for a aerial view of a tropical river on an alien world;- with some imagination the weeds could have been exotic jungle.
Then there was a church off the road behind a huge lawn. Wayfarers walk went up the side of it.
And uphill on an easy slope mostly, past wildflower strewn hedgerow undergrowth then beneath branches and foliage meeting overhead cloister fashion again. Suitable for a church. Not to mention useful in hot weather going uphill. A tunnel of foliage with a few breaks by a farm where there was a crossroads of tracks and where I photographed a shepard and his dog rounding up cattle on a field across a dry valley. The foliage tunnel went on uphill for a very long way.
Eventually it framed wheatfield upland seamed by hedges and lines of soaring trees. The slope continued.
There was a line of small trees too. Looking newly planted. Their ornamental look gave a different feel to the landscape. Almost like walking through a garden or maybe a model.
I could see a long way to the south. Probably all the way back to that ridge marking the end of the South Downs. Maybe that crop of woodland was where I’d crossed it.
The slope just went on and on. Until it flattened out where there was a tree tunnel, a view of combine harvesters clearing a distant field between woods and a walk through a wood. By then I was going generally downhill, though only slightly.
Well kept verges and fences spoke of serious money again but – thank God – this property – mostly on the right – didn’t have private notices everywhere. Maybe because they’d realised Wayfarers Walk went straight through here. The trees looked photogenic and even the industriously tidied haystacks in a field looked like experimental cuboid art exhibits. I continued down a narrow lane. The top of a noisy hedgetrimmer machine on the other side was devouring a hedge top like some robotic form of life.
Down to a country road, up that a short way towards smoke from a bonfire, off that road luckily before the smoke, along another small residential lane in a dry valley past cylindrical hay bales like giant cotton reels. Up a sharp incline round the house at the end of the lane and its pleasant gardens, up to more Hampshire scenery of wheatfields and woods.
Then I was on a long straight lane, down and up which was the village of Dummer, with a pub and bus stop which would be the link to my friend’s place in Basingstoke. Dummer was my days objective.
I saw a puzzling grey mass behind the trees on the horizon. Not some warehouse complex surely? The viewfinder on maximum zoom would settle it. It was my first sighting of the Malborough Downs! One can get used to seeing hills not much higher than trees if that, because they and other things limit the view in this part of the world so anything bigger such as a major range of hills can come as an optical surprise.
A couple in the distance were walking towards me. When we met and had a brief conversation there was real surprise regarding how far I’d come. Something I take childish pleasure over. Also the reply of jaunty heroism regarding the pub. “I’m gonna make it!”
Dummer was what English villages should be. Shady lanes and signposts under huge trees, no traffic, a small church on high ground, a beautiful manor house behind a high wall and – joy – a picturesque pub! The car park seemed deserted though.
A horrible suspicion dawned upon me when I saw a small notice on the door. It turned out to be fatal as the pub didn’t open until 6 and I’d got there just after 5! The name ‘Dummer’ seemed to change to ‘Bummer.’ Dried up waterhole. It really was like that: My water carrier had run out a few miles back on the trek.
Nothing for it but to trudge to the bus stop past thatched cottages and residences festooned with flowers. Shame about the pub. It seemed a long way and I almost missed the stop tucked into a hedge on a bend. So – it seemed – had many buses for there was no timetable.
At least I’d looked after my mobile better than on my epic trek down that Roman road 2 years ago. I could phone my friend and managed to get in touch. But it got better and better. “We were expecting you next weekend.” was the cheery response. Luckily I was talking to one of my 2 oldest friends and most of his family had just departed so the situation there was the same as a week later. I could prevail on him for a lift and stopover as long as I trudged back to the pub.
When I got there the seat by the side of the building was still a luxury. So much so that I couldn’t care less about the strange look a member of staff gave me when he turned up early. He was the odd one out anyway;- other travellers – on wheels – started arriving and were perplexed at the pub’s opening time.
I thought Doug was one of those. He had to attract my attention and wondered how I couldn’t see him? I was more tired than I thought. It can go like that on a long hike. One perseveres for as long as it takes but afterwards fatigue catches up. Hell, I’d run out of water and couldn’t get life saving beer so I might have been dehydrated too.
Doug and I met when I’d just moved from an environment full of houses to one that seemed on the edge of a real wilderness. I was 12; so to move to an area of common heathland and pine plantation in Berkshire at that time of life when one was into exploring and nature was like moving to Africa or Canada.
Doug was in the same year and grade as me at school. Even then he was powerfully built since he actually had Viking ancestry, whereas I was a weedy individual and would remain so for a long time. Those differences didn’t matter for even then he was also a great naturalist, his knowledge of animals and plants always much more extensive than mine. So he soon became the ideal guide on those expeditions I wanted to mount, exploring the wilderness of ‘the common;’ identifying animal tracks, birds, insects and pond life while we caught anything of the creepy crawly variety.
Much of what I caught escaped. My parents had a tough time of it. My mother discovered newts walking along the landing, my father had to evict lizards every time he wanted a bonfire since they preferred that to the rockery I tried to get them to colonise. He also had to help evict a grass snake who’d got into their bedroom and wanted to make a home under their wardrobe. When relatives joined us my parents spent the night in my bedroom where they learned all they never wanted to know about the sex life of the Common Toad. It was probably that which condemned relatives to my bedroom which became notorious as a hazardous zone for them, especially grandparents. I called it my Gerald Durrell phase. Happy days.
We drove off but not to his place to begin with. It was compulsory with Doug to have a natural history tour or lecture. Never mind a day’s hike, dehydration or eyes smarting from suncream getting into them;- when in Rome do as the Romans do. Not that I didn’t appreciate it. The car was a real comfort after the hike, the topic he loved – and I more or less did – was a damn sight better than more than a few man made affairs my ear has been bent with. With any luck my mind might retain some of it.
There was also the view. Doug took me to Farleigh Hill. Part of a rumple of chalk hills between the Malborough Downs and the North Downs to the east. From there I could see across a nearby motorway to the high ground of the Malborough Downs where over to the left was a faraway radio aerial. That more or less marked my objective for tomorrow. To the right was a pale stretch of industrial buildings and office blocks amidst the darker mass of trees and suburban roofs: Basingstoke.
I was standing next to a hip high plant where a lot of its burrs could attach themselves to me. Goosegrass, warned Doug. I was too tired to heed him properly and had to take scenic photos so after that we had to spend some time getting them off me.
Somewhere along that route we came across a nettle leaved bell shaped blue flower. I was taking enough photos of wildflowers on this trip to fill a garden. There was the subject of Ash dieback as well, which could become as bad as Dutch Elm disease. Doug also had a bat detector that could pick up on faint sounds of grasshoppers or crickets which the hearing of fellows our age could miss.
Not a sausage. Doug blamed pesticide drenched crops for killing many of them. That was when I thought of that wheatfield I’d crossed. Indeed it was a biological desert for that reason Doug asserted;- pesticides killing off any other plants in them -such as wildflowers – which removed whatever animals depended on them also. Most likely small fry, but small in nature is no guarantee of unimportance. Bees – much under threat – being a good example. So when I thought of a desert while crossing that prairie sized wheatfield I was closer to the truth than I realised.
We drove off the hill and passed a cyclist about to go up it. He had a water supply attached to his bike. Doug took water in his bike carrier but was disparaging about the modern emphasis on staying hydrated. Not with cyclists but with cases like joggers when they’re only running a mile or two. I knew where Doug was coming from for I too was getting fed up with excessive nanny state emphasis on personal health, and safety of course. We were probably wrongheaded but it was the comradeship of old timers. ‘Wimps,’ ‘what’s the world coming to?’ etc.
Doug lived in a semi on this side of Basingstoke centre. Like Jay he had green fingers and apart from a well stocked garden there were more plants obscuring the front window. Otherwise it was homely and cluttered. One never knew when one would pick up something interesting to read out of the clutter. One of his sons who practically lived in a small side room under the stairs augmented this with a computer and – being a military enthusiast – model tanks, terrain and a few life size weapons.
The bathroom was okay for a bath although there seemed to be no way of getting the plug out afterwards. “That could be a problem.” Doug later remarked, though he seemed confident about dealing with it. I felt much better of course and what with a stroll through the balm of evening for some cans of beer and a knock at the door later heralding an ordered Chinese takeway my well being was on the up. Unlike most times here when I had a sleeping bag and settee cushions I even had a bed for the night. Not that I minded about the other times. It was good that a friend could offer a roof for the night, period.
The following day I forgot to take the paperback I was reading at bedtime. When I realised that I considered it a contribution, bearing in mind my old friend’s hospitality. Just as well. That dammed oil the nurse had told me to put in my ear had wound up on the pillow. Doug later reminded me of it in an email as ‘the leaking of your brain through your ear.’ Nasty.
When he took me back to the bus stop in Dummer Doug understood my reluctance to go back to the pub. It was further than he thought, he admitted. Now though the motorway was only a stone’s throw away judging by the map. Odd how some trees and a winding lane over rising ground seemed to mask it the sound.
The motorway was in a cutting and I crossed it on an interchange of tarmac and tension I didn’t want to be a part of. It was also potentially hazardous I thought since the map didn’t show a footpath by the access road on the other side. There was a partially overgrown one though behind a crash barrier so I was okay on that, walking down past a swathe of pink flowers that Doug said did well after fires if I remember correctly.
Across a clear dual carriageway, down a lane past a house with a white picket fence and sunflowers into another field. The dark block of a wood was on the other side.
When I got there everything opened up: the landscape, the view and the path which developed into a broad grassy way that would have been okay for covered wagons. I looked at in that way for in the distance were ‘them thar hills:’ the Marlborough Downs, like sunlit uplands across the prairies. It was ‘The Big Country’ all over again.
Why not give in to that urge to wheel an arm over one’s shoulder with a “Wagons.. Rollll!?”
YEEHAAH! Freedom. I love it.
© D Angus 10 14