What and where is Wessex? It’s a question I recall asking a member of the Wessex Youth Orchestra as we all happened to be squished together in a tiny funicular railway in the watery French town of Evian about a year ago. As you do. Anything for small talk. He mumbled something about being from Eastleigh and not really having a clue or caring about it. A romantic setting for Thomas Hardy I proposed? Or some distant kingdom of peasant clans waving their flint axes from atop their hill forts in an effort to appease invaders? He shrugged with a nonchalance the locals would have admired, and I wandered off to eat crepes.
Fast forward a year and I may or may not have been in Wessex, spending a few days with my Dad and his better half Sonia in and around Wiltshire. It is pleasing country, as reassuringly English as the sound of Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2. A landscape of curved chalk ridges sweeping into abundant valleys, fields criss-crossed by translucent waterways, tractors and tanks. Villages and towns have a well-to-do air, though these are not immune to the pervading obsession to construct new housing as cheaply and as oblivious to surroundings as possible. But there remains a lot of cutesiness, and a lot of money, and a lot of good looking pubs.
One of the big attractions of this part of Wessex, of this part of England, are a clump of rocks commonly known throughout the world as Stonehenge. It’s little more than a hop in the car, skip over a cowpat and jump over a stile from Dad’s place and can be approached via a walk from Woodhenge via Poophenge, across ancient plains, meandering past burial mounds and alongside the modern pilgrims of the A303. Sat in a tailback, it may well seem easier to move some massive slabs of rock many miles than it is driving to the southwest on a bank holiday weekend.
Stonehenge itself is fenced off to non-fee-paying visitors like myself. But it’s literally a case of standing on the other side of the fence and getting practically the same view. A bonus with being on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence is in observing the parade of tourists who dutifully circumnavigate the rocks, reading the placards, taking their selfies and, mostly, looking a little miffed with the whole costly experience. Impressive as it is in getting these rocks in this position for whatever reason many solstices ago, I struggle to fathom how an experience here can be somehow profound and spiritual.
Around this part of Wiltshire, Salisbury represents the largest town and its impressive cathedral and medieval centre proves popular with visiting Russian agents among others. On the outskirts of Salisbury, Old Sarum is typical of the many mounds that became hill forts, commanding fine views of the surrounding country. If those iron-age peasants were to walk through this country today, they would find harvest in full swing: crops cropped, fields ploughed, haybales stacked and the green extravagance of summer only slightly on the wane. Only an occasional pocket of sunflowers might just kid them they are in Provence. French marauders.
One of my favourite aspects of the Wiltshire Wessex countryside are the rivers and streams which shape and colour the landscape. They are tranquil affairs, meandering gracefully at a snail’s pace through verdant woodlands, grand estates, sunny meadows and thatched-roof villages. The River Avon is perhaps a Utopia of Middle Southern England and, apparently, good to fish. I was fortunate to be with a warden of the river, who could guide me along some of its length and check for those fishing licences.
The reward for all this toil, traipsing through a sunny late summer in England was ice cream in Salisbury. In a land in which tradition appears widely cherished, what better tradition to uphold?
Other traditions of Wessex seem to include giant white horses, tea and cake, and naked rambling. On reflection, none of these particularly surprise me, though the sight of a couple walking their dog in the buff on a hill wasn’t exactly on my must-sees. Let’s just say it was a very small dog.
Such delights were the fruits of a lovely walk close to Warminster, taking in more ancient forts and golden fields around Battlesbury and Scratchbury Hills. Somewhere along the way was a perfectly irregular village cricket green, backed by a church and only lacking the crack of willow on leather. Elsewhere colourful blue butterflies vied for attention with languid tractors making hay and naked ramblers making, well…making eye contact awkward. Oh yes, them again. I could cope with the naked ramblers but the yappy chihuahua with a Napoleon complex was a bridge too far.
In times of such frightfulness one is best advised to turn to a cup of tea and slice of cake. Sat in a sunny position next to an orchard, sheep mowing the grass and a garden centre just around the corner, there is enough here to soothe the feet, the stomach, and the eyes. I’ve had better cakes but hardly many better contexts in which to eat them.
With recovery and a little time to spare, the culmination of explorations of possibly a small part of the ancient kingdom of Wessex came up the hill from cake, a hill on which proudly shines the White Horse of Westbury. A hill which – given the day’s exertions – could be climbed by car to reveal ever expanding views. Below, the luxuriant kingdom meeting the frontier of – say – Swindon.
These white horses (and the odd kiwi) are reasonably frequent features of this landscape. They generally have vague-ish histories involving something done by some god-fearing yokels several centuries ago before becoming overgrown and cleared again and covered up during the war to prevent the Luftwaffe from using them to navigate, only to be restored by a wonderful group of community goodie-two-shoes with names like Gerard and Margot. And thank goodness for that, for they are an impressive sight to behold.
The horsies tend to look better from a distance; up close all that emerges are slabs of greying concrete perforated by a few weeds and a shape that is mystifying to decipher. Perhaps a birds-eye view would be best, partially explaining the parade of paragliders attempting to jump off the hill and catch some thermals.
From here, the town of Westbury beckons, and its rail station taking me further west, beyond the borders and into a land of possibly even greater in-breeding. Travels continue, and next time I randomly come across the Wessex Youth Orchestra in an Alpine country I might debate whether their unknown homeland is short for Western Essex. I mean, it might be a billion times more refined, but I certainly came across a couple of exhibitionists ‘avin it large.