The cottage in the woods. It's a lovely image, redolent of tranquility and security. It's accessible, too, on the edge of the meadow. Light reaches its windows whilst the woods provide shelter and fuel.
Deep in the woods matters might be different. Tolkien grasped the potential of gloomy depths. Think Mirkwood, where even the Elves became a little weird, and the Old Forest. Of course, the peculiar setting of Bombadil, ignored by the film-makers. Those fictional woods make me think of the unconscious, dark and mysterious, ready to trip up the unwary. In traipse the Hobbits only to find that good intentions - a metaphor for the superego - just isn't enough. Bombadil, a magical figure of mixed mirth and wisdom, rescues them. Who is he? To me Bombadil represents a balanced soul, conflicts resolved and at peace with his inner make-up. He's the character who has been through therapy, or whatever passes for that in Middle Earth. In that case Goldberry, the River-Daughter, is therapist and Bombadil her successful protege. So they're in a relationship: who doesn't fantasise about his or her therapist? I like the way in which he enacts wisdom when his guests get into a tight spot with willow trees and barrow wights. And yet somehow those chapters are written off as an unwarranted excursion into Nordic mythology.
As for me, I'm encouraged by my preference for the cottage on the forest margin. There I may delve within or expand without. It's a healthy location.
There again, Bombadil's eccentricity is a healthy reminder that there's no such thing as "normal" - only the dullness of convention as defined by others. Growth may not make us like the others, and healing is even less likely to.
Tracks scratch and scrape the surface of the hills, exposing the bleached bones of the land.
It's a time of white, early June: bare chalk, the last of the hawthorn blossom, and ubiquitous cow parsley. White foliage as summer's counterpoint to winter frost.
Here we are just a mile from Seven Barrows, the inspiration (so it is said) for Tolkein's Barrow Downs. These hills are scattered with barrows, and around here they are especially prolific.
I wonder what it was like back then when the barrows were being built? Were the hills populous? I suppose that they must have been to build a line of hill forts and all those barrows. Archaeologists have found the remains of field boundaries and huts. Probably it was a thriving upland region, safely free from the enveloping lowland forest.
But chalk is chalk, porous then as now. The hills must have been dry, though the grass and crops grow well enough. Dry places make for tough people. For a moment I imagine tough upland tribes, like ancient bedouin of a temperate country that is harsher than first appearances might suggest. Hardy people with robust horses, I expect, because the chalk country grass is so good for growing bones.
The hill forts, so-called, seem more like great concentric corrals. Maybe there were mounted games?
Yes, this must have been a land of equestrians. It's just so suitable for riding and for keeping good horses.
Besides, it's such a nice idea, those ancestors riding about here. And there is the famous and very old Uffington White Horse carved on the scarp slope hundreds of feet from muzzle to tip of tail. Isn't that proof enough? Well, enough for a dreamer.
It's a kind of vindication that Brena is laying her hooves upon the ghostly tracks of the prototype for the great White Horse that was - and is - carved upon the land. That's important to me. Brena and I, we're the most recent travellers. Part of a great continuum, we're not alone. Not if one excuses years and centuries.
Out here I am free.
Free to roam. Free from modern baggage. Free to dream, to imagine, to think. It's a wonderful liberty.
All I need to find now is the travellers' cottage where we may rest and share tales. If that place isn't a metaphor. And if it is, there will be meaning to extract and a signpost somewhere along the trail. The magical sort of signpost that reveals itself only when one is ready to receive direction.
In the Dark Ages this was one of the four Royal highways of England, on which travellers were granted the King's protection. It is said to pre-date the Roman occupation, and is mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters. Running through the villages that dot the spring-line, it is the Icknield Way, which parallels the even older Ridgeway up on the chalk hills to the south.
It's a traveller's trail, with access to settlements and water - unlike the dry, desolate Ridgeway. More than that, it is the sort of trail that would be associated with a civilised kingdom, connecting places via villages offering supplied and lodging. Those travelling along it would have been farmers and merchants wishing to buy and sell, not armies needing to live off those unfortunate enough to live adjacent.
It's a peculiar experience to ride along the Icknield Way. Now mostly it's silent, almost untravelled. Towns and villages are connected, for the most part, by more modern routes along which vehicles speed. Further west, it is true, the Icknield Way has become a minor road - and one, I believe, that inspired Tolkien's description of the walled path below Weathertop.
But I did meet a group of teenagers out on a bicycle expedition, loaded with baggage. At last a group of modern wayfarers. They seemed well prepared and even a little intrepid. I was impressed. And then Brena and I had the Icknield Way to ourselves. But I knew that the old trail isn't dead yet, not when people set out to journey along it.
It's all very well to dream about the spring and summer that will come like two friends following one-another along a familiar trail. I may as well ride out and meet them. They will be there. So shall I, and we shall share happy times. We always do, it's in our nature. And it's in my nature to dream of other things too.
The roan stallion carried me along a grassy Downland track. We’d cantered along the level valley bottom then trotted up a short rise to rest in the lee of a beech copse. Low clouds scattered occasional drops of rain from a grey winter sky. Doru reached down to graze the thin upland grass. A good hundred meter sweep of grass separated me from the far eaves of the woods, a tangled mass of willow, spruce and beech. Not a sound disturbed us in this secluded spot. Then I saw her, and not for the first time. Off to my right, deep in the shadowy beech wood, a grey horse stood silent. On his back a tall woman watched me. I could make out little in the gloom, but I knew her flowing dark hair and dull green garb. She was a mystery, and that made her all the more beautiful. I wanted to ride after her, as I had desired before. But each time I had felt as if a hidden hand restrained me. Then when finally I set off her horse was too fleet footed. Each time I had lost her. What a fine game she was playing with me! The romantic in me wanted to meet her, talk, obtain her phone number and meet again. Ride together, socialize and, to be honest, perhaps hook up too. Let’s be more subtle, then. I raised my right hand in greeting. She responded likewise. Then a roar behind captured my attention. I turned to look. It was the gamekeeper on his quad. That was no problem for me: I was riding on a right of way. As for the lady, she might have some explaining to do. I turned back, but she had gone. I sighed, for I longed to meet her.
The roan stallion carried me along a grassy Downland track. We’d cantered along the level valley bottom then trotted up a short rise to rest in the lee of a beech copse. Low clouds scattered occasional drops of rain from a grey winter sky. Doru reached down to graze the thin upland grass. A good hundred meter sweep of grass separated me from the far eaves of the woods, a tangled mass of willow, spruce and beech. Not a sound disturbed us in this secluded spot. Then I saw her, and not for the first time. Off to my right, deep in the shadowy beech wood, a grey horse stood silent. On his back a tall woman watched me. I could make out little in the gloom, but I knew her flowing dark hair and dull green garb. She was a mystery, and that made her all the more beautiful.
I wanted to ride after her, as I had desired before. But each time I had felt as if a hidden hand restrained me. Then when finally I set off her horse was too fleet footed. Each time I had lost her. What a fine game she was playing with me! The romantic in me wanted to meet her, talk, obtain her phone number and meet again. Ride together, socialize and, to be honest, perhaps hook up too. Let’s be more subtle, then. I raised my right hand in greeting. She responded likewise. Then a roar behind captured my attention. I turned to look. It was the gamekeeper on his quad. That was no problem for me: I was riding on a right of way. As for the lady, she might have some explaining to do.
I turned back, but she had gone. I sighed, for I longed to meet her.
Well, we know of the pitfalls in relationships between Men and Elves (or Fairies). Strange partners apt to vanish then come back to snatch the children, marching to a different drummer, fickleness, jealousy. Come to think of it I've received all but one of those from humans, and she'd have taken the children if we'd have any. Oh well, a writing project can include some cleansed daydreams and might-have-beens.
I have done a little research for the writing project in progress - now that the text book is (almost) out of the way. What might have my equestrian nomads have worn? On one hand I have the Huns and Mongols as models, on the other hand Tolkien's Lord of the Rings characters. (There are also historical accounts as to how the Mongol Horde smelled, but let's not go there right now. It's not nice.) The LOTR characters are most romantic, of course, therefore best for my kind of book. The men are easy enough: think Aragorn or Boromir. Cloaks, boots, stuff like that. As for the women: well perhaps not quite as shown in the picture. I mean, at least she ought to be wearing leggings. However Arwen and Eowyn fared better. Patient not to mention obsessive people have done some interesting work to recreate the LOTR film costumes. A part of me is quite envious of Arwen - imagine her splendid layered flowing riding garb when she rescued Frodo. No, don't snigger, men are allowed to be envious of such things once in a while. Besides, all that has just given me a fresh idea for the developing book. I have a character who could look just a little better - indeed prettier - which I assume would have mattered to a bunch of equestrian nomads.
Slipping out between storms we explored the quiet ways of the parallel world out there amidst the chalk hills. An old farm track set off south, heading uphill from a village that has a pub but no shop or post office, then down into a dry valley.
Here the track leads gently downhill. We walked, my eye on an approaching shower. With a little luck it would pass by us to the north - and it did. The field on the right, behind the hedge, belongs to a racing stud. One day I cantered Brena up the track only to notice a group of young Thoroughbreds watching us. They did not move, and I imagined a thought bubble rising from them: "you call that galloping?"
Other tracks converged to join mine. Here's a view looking down into the valley. Many are the times that I have ridden here, and most often I see no-one else. Occasionally a farm worker is out in a field. However the tracks don't lead anywhere in particular, which is why they were never made into asphalt roads. Once, however, I did come across a group of Japanese tourists on foot with a map. They seemed to know where they were going.
Then we plunged into the tangled woodland that lines the valley bottom, an old coppice wood of spindly willows and whatever else can survive the dense vegetation and dry soil. For this is a chalk valley and there is no surface water. The surface remains just a little damp after two days and nights of hard storms. Once the villagers would have come here to cut osier for baskets and hurdles. But no more, alas, and probably the craft ceased to have commercial value half a century ago.
Here's a coppice tree that has just grown and grown. This one looks like recent growth that has been cut back - it may have begun to obstruct the trail - then thrown up a flurry of shoots. Caught at the right diameter, cut and trimmed nicely these make great riding crops. See how bright the foliage blooms after all that rain.
Away into the distance the trail led, rough and hoary. If Hobbits or Dwarves had appeared I might not have been terribly surprised. Tolkien was a local man after all. This is a place where the imagination can run wild, at least in a certain general direction. And very often it does just that. Like Aragorn I should be riding in long supple boots and a travel-worn green cloak.
Emerging onto an arable plateau at the valley head I gazed across a stormy vista. Grey sheets of rain swept across a sodden land. Wind gusted in mockery of man and beast, threatening a soaking. However I was not alarmed. My raincoat was tied across the front of Brena's saddle whilst she is quite waterproof. And a rainy day does make for undisturbed riding. A few gusts, a little rain, and the day-trippers scatter back to town.
Back on the ridge storm clouds sped past, a dark contrast to the bright canola fields and the righ green chalk-land grass. Now, the ride over, sun graced our stopping point. There was no more need to wield the mailed fist of storm, rain sheet and thunder. Brena and I had regained our transport and mobile shelter. "But look," the sky told me, "your parallel world can be a wild place. It will be just whenever I choose. You are the guest who treads these trails by nature's grace and favour."
Over the northerly vale a temporary blue sky smiled down, knowing full well that another downpour would follow a couple of hours later. But for now we basked in the sun here on the very fringe of our parallel world. Here mystery ended and modernity began, a surprisingly sharp division. Is that why most people who park here don't go a mile from the safety of their cars? True, a few ride bicycles or motorcycles off the beaten track, however speed and machinery tend to favour a certain blindness.
Here on the fringe we relaxed. Brena grazed. I drank coffee and lay in the grass. How much longer could I postpone our return to the busy modern world? At least until the next bank of dark clouds drew close.
The sheep upon the hill-fort graze upon the memories of millennia.
For nearly three thousand years these concentric chalk ramparts have stood above the vale, in their organic simplicity surmounting rather than dominating. For a few centuries people lived here, then abandoned their home to shepherds and drovers. Invading Romans found the fort empty and disused, and passed by.
Here it is today. Abandoned to shepherds.....and to dreamers. Thomas Hardy knew this spot on the far north fringe of Wessex. Tolkien too was familiar with Uffington castle. It is Weathertop and stands not far from the Barrow Downs - the final photo in this post was taken in their midst. If you had seen the fort on a dark thundery night as I have, each blast of lightning silhouetting those ramparts, you too might have thought of Gandalf fighting off the Ringwraiths.
The sheep graze upon memories, and also upon the imaginations of dreamers both famous and humble.
It being my birthday, Danielle and I went to Oxford today. There are a few things to report on, however today I shall concentrate on a pre-dinner visit to the Eagle & Child pub - once the favourite drinking spot of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis.
The Eagle and Child is a very small friendly pub in central Oxford, and rather busy owing to its auspicious associations. Here I am outside looking a little like Indiana Jones, which was deliberate since I'd just visited the Ashmolean Museum. I feel the need to seem a litle intrepid passing through those august doors so as not to appear too ordinary a visitor. After all, once upon a time T E Lawrence was a regular.
A narrow passageway leads from the street, spawning a pair of drinking nooks to left and right, opening into a long thin bar with a counter to the right. At busy time a queue spreads into the passageway, leading to calls for assistance from the barman akin to Barliman's cries to Nob at the Prancing Pony. The ale is good, of course, and the food on offer looked wholesome.
Beyond the counter is the so-called Rabbit Room, where Tolkien, Lewis and their friends used to meet. It's a small space, homely and well suited to talk - and to the convenient placing of fresh orders with the barman. I can imagine Hobbits in here, and the occasional Dwarf and Ranger.
We breasted a sunny ridge then descended a rutted track to a warm broad valley. At the bottom we turned right, northwards, following an indistinct track between great fields of waving grain. This is a right of way, but so little used that the grass grows thick and high. We passed two hikers wading waist-deep through the vegetation.
Then at the head of the valley came the Ridgeway, here a winding strand of white chalk across a green rolling landscape. It may look like a well worn farm track, however this is the relic of a Neolithic trade route and perhaps the oldest road still recognisable on this island.
We reached a gate at the side of the trail, marked by a simple sign. I jumped down from Brena, tying her to a convenient tree where she could graze in the shade. For we had reached Wayland's Smithy, a well-known point on the Ridgeway. Of course, as we shall see, this is an ironic place to visit with a barefoot horse.
Wayland's Smithy is a Neolithic burial mound, around five and a half thousand years old, headed by impressive Sarsen stones. Behind lies an earth mound almost two hundred feet long by fifty wide. It is a strange, ancient place so old that its original purpose is obsolete and its ritual function - beyond interring a few bodies - obscure. Now the tomb looks like a peculiar piece of sculpture amidst a grove of trees. A convenient figure gives scale.
The figure of Wayland was a Norse blacksmithing deity. After all wasn't the forging of iron a magical activity that endowed power upon the smith and those who wielded that which he made? How Wayland became connected with this place I don't know. But a tradition grew up locally that a horse left tied outside with a silver coin in the evening would by morning be shod by supernatural forces. That's odd really: I'd have expected Wayland to have been busy fashioning blades.
From there it was a short ride up to the vast concentric earthen rings of Uffington Castle, then a longer and quite silent ride down the gentle dip slope of the ridge seeing no-one. Up here it is just the main ridge track that attracts visitors. Brena and I had a great sweep of wide open green countryside to ourselves. I responded by taking in the view, and Brena by trying to eat as much of the vegetation as possible.
Yesterday Caroline visited again with her gelding Kevin. I arranged a ride down near Lambourn in racehorse country.
The hills are swept by the broad straights and curves of myriad racehorse gallops with their deep, springy and quite exclusive turf.
But the sparse sweep of the hills are dotted by Neolithic burial mounds and the concentric earthen ramparts of ancient forts. Indeed modern man calls these structures 'forts' however no-one alive knows what they were used for.
This landscape is a palimsest of journeys through the ages, most of them involving horses. Neolithic dwellers left the great drove route along the chalky crest. Romans added a few routes. Farmers from the Dark Ages onward added trackways. These all still exist, though most are now used differently.
Around Lambourn the gallops are the most obvious feature of the landscape after the hills themselves. Together with Newmarket, this is the core of the national racing industry. In each valley there is a racing stable, perhaps several, and the vast spaces needed to exercise the horses. Everywhere is grass - turf for exercise, grazing where fine calcium-bearing grass springs from the chalky soil, pastures for good hay.
The first photo shows the view as we rode uphill alongside an all-weather exercise track. This one must be at least a mile long, gently rising all the way.
The second photo shows a little-used trail, probably an old farm track, heading towards the concentric ramparts of Uffington Castle. The fort is huge but has quite a shallow profile viewed on the level.
The Neolithic Ridgeway runs from left to right immediately in front of the fort. This is the trail that we took, heading west with the wind on our faces and the sun on our left cheeks.
There was a long distance walk in progress and a good hundred people passed us in the opposite direction. They were walking forty miles in the day, and a number did enquire in jest whether a horse may be hired.
We were walking on the right as there we found a wider grassy verge. It was natural, too, for Brena to walk on the right as she is a continental horse. I do have to remind her sometime that in this country we use the left side of the road.
Hedgerows are crowded with the frothy white of Cow Parsley, a snack beloved of horses (and, presumably, cattle). This is a lovely time of year. As T S Eliot wrote:
If you came this way in May time,
You would find the hedges
White again, in May,
With voluptuary sweetness.
So it is here in this season of rebirth. The land is white and green. Hedgerows are white with Hawthorn and Cow Parsley. The remainder is clad in green of various hues. It's a land of green and white dancing in the breeze.
The next stretch took us straight across a broad bright field, for here the farmer had not cleared the trail with herbicide. (They are supposed to do so across open fields such as this.) Here the old farm track has completely disappeared, now existing only in a legal sense and available to walkers, riders and cyclists. I trusted intuition to find the way, backed up by a map, and also found to my pleasure that Brena is happy for me to half-open a map whilst mounted.
It was an odd experience to ride across an open field such as this. Not much riding in southern England has this spacious character. Suddenly all references are far away. Plodding specks in a vast expanse, we could see for miles. It was like being on a small boat in the sea - freedom, exhilaration and loneliness all wrapped up together.
We were alone in a long, shallow valley where not a thing stirred - an agricultural wilderness. It was a little eerie, and I thought of the people and horses that must once have laboured here. What a bustling place this must once have been, in certain seasons anyway.
After the expanse of grass, we turned east again towards our parking place. There was one final ridge to climb, and here we "opened the taps". We must have cantered for the best part of a mile, enough to tire both horses.
A little experimentation showed me a good position with quite a forward seat, all my weight in the stirrups, giving Brena the freedom that she needed to use her body most efficiently. I had been looking forward to a good long canter for just this reason.
Then it was just a short mile's walk downhill to our vehicles, parked on a grassy square surrounded by gallops and the white railings peculiar to racing establishments.
The horses got the chance to graze on tethers, appreciating grass rich after an overnight rain storm. Indeed a good dousing has rejuvenated turf and crops alike.
Such are the rides that we enjoy in a landscape that inspired Tolkien's Barrow Downs.