There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Wantage and the Vale of the White Horse

After visiting Yorkshire in 2012 and 2013, this year’s wedding anniversary foray into the world of fine dining took us south to Wiltshire.

On the way we paused for lunch in Wantage. Now in Oxfordshire (it was Berkshire until 1974) Wantage sits at the base of the Berkshire Downs in the slightly pretentiously named Vale of the White Horse.

The centre is off the main road and finding it is a challenge, our first attempt ended in Waitrose car park our second in a retail park where Argos, New Look, Sainsbury's and the rest of the usual suspects hang out.

Opposite the car park a pedestrian sign pointed left, informing us the town centre was 560 yards away. We had come that way and encountered no centre, but we could see a church tower in the opposite direction, so we turned right and two hundred yards later, there was ‘downtown’ Wantage.
Wantage town centre is actually 200 yards to the right

Cocooned in a blanket of the last decade’s bland 'could be anywhere' architecture, the old town is not a hidden gem, but at least it’s still there. There is even a market square – with a market - though they were packing up as we arrived. No market looks its best when half the stalls are empty and the other half are being disassembled. The square is dominated by a statue of Alfred the Great who was born here in the Royal Palace in 849, though the site of the palace has long been lost. Although we were unaware of his local connection, we both recognised the statue as being King Alfred before we saw the plaque. As nobody could possibly know what he looked like, I thought this odd. Lester Piggott was born here, too - the Berkshire Downs are prime race horse territory - and everybody knows what he looks like, even if he does not have a statue (yet).
King Alfred, Market Square, Wantage

We shared a huge ham sandwich, and enjoyed a half of Arkell's excellent 3B in The Bear on the market square, which claims to have been serving travellers and locals for 500 years (though I am happy to report the facilities have been updated).
The Bear, Market Square, Wantage

The church of St Peter and St Paul sits in a quiet, almost delightful, corner. King Alfred was baptised in an earlier church on this site, but the oldest part of the current building is 13th century. It is squat and solid looking as though intent on surviving whatever seven centuries of weather could throw at it, although on this balmy summer's day it looked seriously unthreatened. We could have looked inside but for our reluctance to gatecrash a wedding.
St Peter and St Paul, Wantage

The old centre is small but pleasing enough - it obviously pleased John Betjeman, who lived here from 1972 to 1984. What he would have made of the new retail development I can only imagine: 'Come friendly bombs and drop on Wantage'?
Wantage, part of the old centre

From the retail park the A338 took us through areas of nineteenth century and 1990s housing. There is nothing wrong with any of the town’s many districts, but they appear to have been dropped down with no reference to each other or any attempt to think about the whole. Wantage is a town of many parts, and the whole is less than the sum of those parts. This, I should point out, is a judgement on the architecture, not the community of Wantage about which I know nothing bad.

Leaving behind the King Alfred’s Arms, the King Alfred Academy and the King Alfred Dog Grooming Parlour (I made one of those up) we headed down the Vale of the White Horse to sites which were old when King Alfred was new.

A B-road skirts the north edge of the downs winding past camp sites and tea rooms, while to our right the plain stretched all the way to the River Thames and beyond.

A tiny road into the hills took us up to the National Trust car park that gives access to the downs. With the temperature nudging 30 we walked the half mile to the top of White Horse Hill across gently rising chalk grasslands, alive with fluttering butterflies. I wish I could identify more butterflies with confidence, but perhaps we saw Duke of Burgundy butterflies and Brown Argus, among others. The white horse (sometimes called the Uffington White Horse), for which the area is named, lies just below the top of the hill.
The head of the Uffington White Horse

The stylised horse was linked with King Alfred in the middle ages, but is actually much older. Formed from trenches packed with crushed chalk it has been securely dated to the late Bronze Age, which ended in these parts around 700BC. The same stylised horse - assuming it is a horse - appears on pre-Roman Celtic coinage, though whether that image is of this white horse, or they are both copies of some other prototype is unknown. It is by far the oldest of the assorted white horses on the chalk hills of southern England.
The Uffington White Horse - aerial view
(Thank you Wikipedia) 

The horse is 110m long, so from close up it is impossible to make sense of it. In fact there is nowhere from where it can be seen as a whole and the best view, like the photograph I have stolen from Wikipedia, is from the air. We detoured to the National Trust's suggested viewpoint, and this is all we could see; wherever you go the head is hidden by a fold in the land. The villages of Great Coxwell, Longcot and Fernham reputedly have a better views, but from a distance of 5km or more.
The White Horse - the best view from the ground

A hundred metres away, beside the highest point of the hill....

Lynne at the highest point of White Horse Hill

... is Uffington Castle, an earthwork consisting of ramparts either side of a roughly circular ditch enclosing 32,000m² of grassland. Built in the 7th or 8th century BC, it was occupied throughout the Iron Age. There are two entrances, one facing the White Horse, and it is conjectured that the inhabitants of the castle made and maintained the Horse - it would grow over in a year or two left to its own devices (signs encouraging volunteers for this year's 'scouring' were posted at various strategic points). This makes sense up to point, but I cannot quite understand how the inhabitants of the castle knew what they were doing, when there was nowhere they could stand to view their work in its entirety. I find this perplexing.
Uffington Castle - just a ditch and two ramparts

Below the hill is a grassy tump with an artificially flattened summit. Nobody knows why or when it was flattened but medieval minds looking for an explanation decided this must be where St George slew the Dragon. This story may be true if (a) St George existed (b) dragons existed (c) St George slew a dragon and (d) he performed that act in Oxfordshire.
Dragon Hill below the Uffington White Horse

Of these, (a) is a runner. St George was born in 280 in Lydda, outside modern Tel Aviv, and was martyred in 303 at Nicodemia near Istanbul. Despite his being patron saint of such diverse places as England, Ukraine, Portugal and Lithuania there is no evidence he travelled beyond the Palestine/Asia Minor area. Make what you wish of (b), (c) and (d) but I have seen the place where St George actually killed the Dragon; it is on a river bank outside the Corsican village of Quenza. And that is a fact. Or not.

The dry valley next to the tump is known as The Manger - where else would a chalk horse find his fodder. The unusual markings along the sides and base of the valley were made by retreating glaciers at the end of the ice age. I am not aware of any more fanciful explanation for these.
The Manger below the Uffington White Horse

Having walked a couple of miles up and down the hillside in distinctly unEnglish temperatures we were tired and sweaty, and as time was getting on we decided to make the forty minute drive to our B&B rather than take the 2.5km walk to Wayland's Smithy. But we returned the following morning…


On a cooler morning when the day’s maximum was not forecast to exceed the mid-twenties, we set off from the same car park along the Ridgeway. Although it is a modern long distance footpath running 87 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns to Overton Hill near Avebury the Ridgeway is based on a 5000 year old trail.
Setting off towards Wayland's Smithy

We started on the grassland, but soon found ourselves following chalky lanes between wheat fields, some already harvested and the others looking ripe and ready. Along the narrow path we seemed in constant danger of being run over by one of the countless mountain bikers taking advantage of a sunny Sunday morning, but they all thanked us pleasantly when we moved aside to let them pass.
Along chalky lanes to Wayland's Smithy

Wayland's Smithy is a Neolithic long barrow. If King Alfred is ancient to us, Uffington Castle and the White Horse were ancient to him, and Wayland's Smithy was ancient when the first spadeful of earth was dug from the ditch at Uffington.

Wayland's Smithy
The ‘long barrow’ lives up to its name being 56m long by 13m wide. It was constructed in two phases, an original timbered-chamber oval barrow, built around 3500BC, was converted into a stone-chambered long barrow about a hundred years later.
Wayland's Smithy

Wayland (or Wolund) was the Germanic smith-god and his name is has been associated with many prehistoric sites. According to myth, if a horse throws a shoe and is left overnight at the Smithy, with a silver coin on the cap stone, in the morning the horse will be shod and the coin will be gone. Did no one notice this is exactly the same arrangement you would have with an earthly smith - except they don’t work overnight and unseen?
Lynne at Wayland's Smithy

We walked the two and a half kilometers back to the car park and set off towards our daughter's home, which, coincidently, is within sight of Ivinghoe Beacon at the far end of the Ridgeway.

1 comment:

  1. It has always perplexed me too that the only decent view of the Uffington White Horse when the lines are coordinated and the proportions are right is from the air. It was created when there were no planes or even balloons so humans were very definiteiy earthbound. I don't believe in UFOs either so why and how did they get the perspective right?

    A fascinating blog. Thanks!