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Two ‘Green Road’ walks in Oxfordshire

March 20th, 2017 No comments

Five Horseshoes, Oxfordshire

Bluebells, Christmas Common, OxfordshireOxfordshire. Image shot 05/2009. Exact date unknown.

Length: 15 miles
Time: 6 hours
Start/finish: Watlington car park (OS Explorer 171)
Grade: Moderate
Refuel: The Five Horseshoes
Picnic spot: Maidensgrove Common

The Thames makes a great sweep down from the crossing at Wallingford and below Whitchurch and Mapledurham to reach Henley. The Chilterns sprawl out from the centre of this crescent in a mess of wooded valleys. The area is relatively close to London – easily reached on the M40 – but offers some surprisingly remote walks.

The Five Horseshoes stands on the edge of a large area of common ground fringed by woods. A 16th-century coaching pub, it has a reputation for excellent, well-priced food – haunch of vension, braised rib of beef – and along with the usual range of alcohol, some exceptional homemade ginger beer for those thinking of the walk back.

Begin in Watlington, perhaps Oxfordshire’s most attractive market town, and follow Hill Road east from the crossroads towards the “White Mark” carved out of chalk on Watlington Hill. Swing past Christmas Common, and then plunge down deep beech woods and along the ancient Hollandridge Lane that comes out at Pishill (locals prefer you pronounce it “Pish – ill”). Read more…

The Marches by Rory Stewart

February 17th, 2017 No comments

Thomas de Quincey calculated that Wordsworth walked a staggering 175,000 miles during his lifetime.

He was almost constantly on the move, composing as he went, ‘to which,’ de Quincey added, ‘we are indebted for much of what is most excellent in his writings.’

To put this in context, the circumference of the globe is only 25,000 miles. So Wordsworth could have walked seven times around the planet.

Walking in Wordsworth’s day was the act of a radical; it was to ally yourself, as the young poet wanted to do, with the peasant and the peddler. While more aristocratic artists of the day might take the Grand Tour by coach to Italy, he chose to walk through France during the year of its revolution. To feel connected to the world and people; to make an atlas of his own feelings and spiritual progression.

Rory Stewart follows in that mould. His first book, the acclaimed The Places In Between, saw him walking right across Afghanistan just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, an adventure that was both brave and revelatory.  And this was just the beginning of a far longer walk that saw him cross Pakistan.  He went on to further adventures in Iraq where he was appointed a governor after the invasion and wrote memorably about the fog of ignorance that pervaded that administration.

Now he has come home, so to speak, to Wordsworth country.  In The Marches, he has written an account of a walk across and around England, beginning with a traverse along Hadrian’s Wall, built when a Roman emperor wanted to keep out alien migrants. Read more…

Art in memory of Oscar

October 30th, 2016 No comments

 

20161030_110147A visit to the memorable Artangel installation at Reading Gaol, that most Victorian of prisons with its red-brick cruciform shape and wire-grilled segregation.  I filmed ‘Oscar‘ for the BBC here when it was still an active prison some 20 years ago; it closed in 2013 and is now scheduled to be sold off.  But before it is, Artangel have continued their bold and imaginative curating of art spaces that no one normally reaches by getting artists and writers like Ai Weiwei and Anne Carson to leave messages in the cells that reflect Oscar Wilde’s incarceration here.  The finest of these offerings by far comes from Steve McQueen – a sculpture in which a prison bed is swathed in mosquito nets like a cocoon of the imagination.

20161030_111831I revisit Oscar’s cell – C.2.2.  When I filmed here, it was being used by two inmates so was even more crowded than in Wilde’s day – although he had to endure a harsh regime of physical labour.  ‘The most terrible thing about it is not that prison breaks one’s heart – hearts are made to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone,’ as he wrote in De Profundis, his book-length letter from the cell.

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Wilde’s cell with a rose left as offering

On the day I visit, Patti Smith gives a three hour reading from De Profundis in the prison chapel.  She sings a short burst from two songs at the opening and close – first from Nina Simone’s  ‘Wild is the Wind’, then from her own ‘Wind’.  There are sections of the letter where, as Patti admits (‘What did that last bit mean?  I have no idea…’) Wilde can lose the reader as he goes off on wild and lonely tangents.  But there are also passages of haunting beauty: ‘I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.’  It is a fitting tribute and one Patti delivers with passion and empathy.

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Steve McQueen’s ‘Weight’, with gold-plated mosquito netting

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Oscar, the film I made with Michael Bracewell for the BBC, is still available on iPlayer

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Stonehenge as a Recycled Monument

December 7th, 2015 No comments

Excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felinEvery year brings new theories about Stonehenge – some loopy like the one I covered in an earlier blog about the idea that Stonehenge was a platform monument.

But these discoveries in Wales come under the auspices of the respected Mike Parker Pearson.  And while it has long been known that the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills, the idea that there was an earlier monument in Wales, which was re-cycled to form Stonehenge, is a fascinating one.

It comes about from the discrepancy in dates. The Craig Rhos-y-felin bluestones seem to have been extracted around 3400 BC – but not erected in Stonehenge until 500 years later, in 2900 BC. While Wales is some way from the Salisbury plain, it can’t, the theory goes, have taken a full 500 years to transport them. So there may initially have been a Welsh monument using the stones, which was later recycled by the builders of Stonehenge who may have valued their provenance.

The possible method of extraction is also fascinating. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard  of the University of Southampton.

This is all highly speculative. But the investigation of a possible site for the Welsh monument is proceeding apace.  Professor Kate Welham of Bournemouth University thinks the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries in the Preseli Hills. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

A recent issue of Antiquity has more detail on this

Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments
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Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.

The Riches Of The European Bronze Age

December 3rd, 2014 No comments

Dea MadreAnother reminder this year of the riches of the European Bronze Age which we still underestimate so much – this time in the form of an artefact allegedly looted from Sardinia and now up for sale in New York, magnificent in its stark simplicity.

Adam Nicolson’s superb study of Homer and the Bronze Age, The Mighty Dead, and my own travels through Bronze Age Britain in The Green Road into the Trees have whetted my appetite for more.  And a chance to go to Athens recently and see some of Schliemann’s findings from Mycenae, like the so-called Mask of Agememnon, in the flesh – or rather metal – only confirmed that.

A chance to see something closer to home is at the British Museum: The Mold Gold Cape, discovered in Wales and the most spectacular of British Bronze Age findings, which should have crowds diverting from the Egyptian rooms, but few know about.

Oxford Mayday

May 1st, 2014 No comments

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As part of an occasional series – where I get up early so you don’t have to, as in previous posts on Stonehenge solstice  etc. – a frontline report from Oxford Mayday, which by comparison was a relatively genteel affair – the only rasta locks I saw were on a security guard, one of many stopping anyone from jumping into the river off Magdalene Bridge.

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But from the moment the choir started singing from the top of the tower at 6.00 am, this had a magical quality:  green men parading, a terrific samba band up the High St and Oxford buildings looking at their most dreamy in the morning mist.  A lot of very hungover and loved up students emerged from clubs and pubs: a strange mixture of disco shorts and dishevelled black tie.  And in the middle of it all, a talented band playing mournful latin music in front of the Havana cigar shop…… what a way to wake up to spring.

 

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for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring: The Blue Road into the Trees

April 23rd, 2014 No comments
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bluebell woods (c) Hugh Thomson

“The bluebells in the beech woods that surrounded and disguised the embankment came as a shock.  I had forgotten that they would be there, a soft purple rather than blue, as I came in from the bright sunshine of the fields and saw waves and islands of them spreading below the trees, not so much lighting up the forest as glowing within it:  purple shadows.

They spread across the ridge.  A heavy-seeded plant, bluebells travel slowly across the ground: it had taken many, many generations for them to cover such distance.  The carpet of blue flowers managed to be a celebration both of the transience of spring and of the permanence of the English landscape.

I followed a path that was covered with beech-mast and threaded through with white wood anemones.  Looking down through the trees at the wheat fields to either side, with the young wheat still tight in bud, the stalks shimmered blue under the green of their tops, so that when viewed from certain angles they looked like water, an effect exaggerated when the wind blew across the fronds and sent a ripple of green-yellow across the underlying blue.”

a seasonal extract from The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England, which has just won the first Wainwright Prize for Nature & Travel Writing

following Edward Thomas and his ‘map of the soul’

January 10th, 2013 No comments

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, LondonBlown away by the quite phenomenal Nick Dear play The Dark Earth and The Light Sky about Edward Thomas, now showing at the Almeida Theatre on its first run.

I wrote about Thomas in The Green Road into the Trees – indeed in some ways the book was a centenary version of his own book, The Icknield Way, when he took the same route in 1912. Nick Dear has a fine phrase for Thomas’s travel books which he describes as ‘maps of his soul’, rather than more conventional guides, and as a result did not sell.

Dear does a few things exceptionally well:  he doesn’t sentimentalise Thomas at all – he often comes across as a monster in the way he treats his wife Helen in particular;  the play does not climax with Thomas’s tragic death in the First World War which often over-colours accounts of his life – this is the chronicle of a death foretold;  he shows how the friendship between Thomas and Robert Frost was pivotal for both men’s poetry – Thomas started publishing and Frost got recognition.

But above all it focuses on Helen, who for me had always been a shadowy presence.  She comes across as a tragic figure, quite beautifully played by Hattie Morahan, dealing with her husband’s depression and death wish with alternate light and sadness.

In The Green Road into the Trees, I quoted the lines of Thomas that haunted me from his own account of my journey:  ‘I could not find a beginning or an ending to the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.’

Well at least it gets you out and about early

December 21st, 2012 No comments
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all photos (c) Hugh Thomson

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Having complained in an earlier column that most people celebrate the wrong solstice at Stonehenge – i.e. the summer one – when archaeologists think that it was built for the winter solstice, seemed only fair to go along today and see what might be happening. Even if it meant getting up at four in the morning to drive there.

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The Druids were out in force and drumming up a storm.  So were about 1000 more people, but nothing compared to the summer when you can easily get 30,000. Fewer people come in the winter because usually there’s no sun – but today, despite the recent rains, it dawned beautifully clear.

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One celebrant who came every year told me it was the first time she’d ever seen the sun for the solstice dawn.

Made for a great atmosphere.  Chief druid Rollo Maughling (Panama hat, below right) led some ecumenical prayers in which Gaia got the odd mention, as did the war in Syria and – an unexpected left field one – the centenary of the US membership of the IMF (I’m taking him on trust on this one).

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The odd friendly heckle from the crowd added suggestions for the service – like a spontaneous cheer in the honour of the late Sir Patrick Moore. Or a cry that went up at one point – ‘give him some room, druid coming through’ – when one berobed and bearded sage arrived late after  trouble parking on the A344.

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More by accident than design I found myself right by the drummers as they got going and almost got speared in the face by a stray dear’s antler on the back of someone’s mask.

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But the moment the sun came up was a moment to melt the ice splinter in any sceptic’s heart:  the stones warmed by the dawn, the music and the celebration.  As the self-styled King Arthur Pendragon, who has spent a lifetime campaigning for more open access to the stones and is now in his 60s, said to the assembled media, ‘one can see the divine in the spirit of the place.’

 

 

 

 

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