The divide

Welcome to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where the time is 10:55 in the morning, the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius and you should watch your bags at all times eh calm down calm down. Imagine. Everybody loves a cliché when they’re not victim to it, so here I was suddenly in the north, a stark, leaden shell suited contrast to the flowery air of France. It is said – mostly by Liverpudlians – that Scouse humour is unparalleled, and you’d need to have a sense of humour to live here. Boom boom.

The north was right proper grim, mostly due to the arrival of Storm Hannah. I have known a few Hannahs in my lifetime and they have all been sweet and agreeable and no offence at all. Storm Hannah, by contrast, was a true harbinger of misery, decimating the promise of spring as quickly and as conclusively as a hi-vis revolution in Queensland.

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The saving grace was that this soggy, cold weekend around Lytham St Annes was perfect for central heating and afternoon naps, for cups of tea and slices of cake, for red wine and takeaway curry with treasured friends and football maniacs. Occasional breaks in the rain allowed for a brisk walk in a brisk breeze beside a sullen waterfront, outings that only really made the arrival back indoors all the more comforting. Cup of tea? Aye.

wilts00aIt was a more placid day departing the north, incrementally brightening on my journey towards London and then onward to Salisbury; the very heart of a conceptual south. Perhaps near here, somewhere within the borderlands of Wiltshire sits that romanticised version of England; of thatched cottages and village greens; of tinkling brooks and sun-dappled woods; of church fetes and coffee and walnut cake. Perhaps, indeed.

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The promising return of spring added to the ambience of a walk in west Wiltshire, footsteps traversing a mixture of quiet villages and busy farms and flourishing woodlands. The woodlands sprouting green and carpeted with bluebells, the farms a hive of rebirth and earnest bustle, the villages cute and clustering around a church and a pub. Church or pub? Hmm, let me see…

wilts02Praise the Lord for a pint outside in the open air, soaking up the sweetly chirping birds and the smell of the country. And thank the almighty for a gentle downhill totter back to the car, parked beside the marquee on the green next to the church in the contented village of East Knoyle. Everywhere around here is easy to suspect as a secret filming location for Bake Off.

[In a Noel Fielding whisper]: In Bake Off this week our contestants go t’mill t’fetch t’grain t’make a barn cake t’take to creecket. Oop ill un darn dale in an accent neither befitting Noel Fielding nor the Wiltshire-Dorset border. Yet it is precisely here, in the affluent southern town of Shaftesbury, that the most revered depiction of life in the north persists in our psyche. That Hovis ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, many of my generation and older see this as The North. Even though – upon deeper inspection – its narrative is delivered in an undefined country twang that could be at home in Dorset. It must be the bloody brass band that does it, for only Northerners trudge up hills to the melancholy parp of a brass band.

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wilts04“When I were a wee lad you didn’t see us lot wasting our time with Instagrams of food and posing for selfies,” Dad clearly didn’t say as I took a photo of some coffee and cake and indulged in a selfie. Because this wasn’t Yorkshire and neither was it the 1940s anymore, though you suspect some in Shaftesbury would be pleased to turn back time. At least to the years before that bloody advert sent people flocking to a hill to take Instagrams and selfies.

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wilts05Back in a more reassuring south, a morning in Salisbury offered increasing photographic opportunities, marvelling at the famous Cathedral with its famous 123-metre spire and its famous clock, a renown reaching as far and wide as Russia. The water meadows glowing under the sunlight, it was briefly warm enough to amble in a T-shirt, a clear signal that things were still on an upward trend. The birds continued to tweet and to chirp and to wade and to pose in such land of growing abundance.

Indeed, it was a day for the birds, a time of year for their lusty antics and devoted nurture. Apart from bluebells and an impending relegation battle for Plymouth Argyle, nothing says spring more than the sight of recently arrived chicks, coddled and cajoled by their stressed-out parents who are quick to snap.

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The new life of spring offers a time for optimism, for hopes and dreams of what lies ahead. It’s an optimism that extends to the many people on narrowboat holidays milling at walking pace through the murky waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A holiday at this time of year is a risky proposition (tell me about it!), and it didn’t take long for cloud to build and release its patchy drizzle.

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The rain held off sufficiently to climb Martinsell Hill, which is the third highest point in Wiltshire apparently. And, even with a degree of dreariness, the views were expansive, taking in much of the county, much of the south: clusters of civilisation nestled among a gently undulating patchwork of green and brown and yellow.

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From here, Dad and I headed across a ridge towards Oare, which I hope (but sadly suspect not) is pronounced in a wonderful countrified “Oo-arrrrr.” It would suit, because I am certain the number of tractors per head of population is well above the national average. As are the proportion of bluebells, culminating in a delightful peaceful pocket of woodland on our route towards Oare Hill.

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wilts10Bluebells really were in profusion across England at this time, evident everywhere during this sojourn in the south and among the storm-laden lands of the north. Spreading across the country like the philosophy of Nigel Farage, only exponentially more unifying and much easier on the eye. They would have been a clear highlight, if it were not for that slab of coffee and walnut cake in Honey Street before catching my train west. A very perfect bookend to this haphazard instalment of North and South. And preparation for the tea and scones still to come.

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The only way

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wsx04aThe 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?

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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.

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Wsx07In 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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