And what will late January bring, I wonder?

Week three begins on 16 January 2022

Mid January has moved on from the dull damp days of the New Year and high pressure has delivered a week of bitterly cold nights and some very clear days – once the morning mist has faded as the low sun has got to work. 

Walks with picnics and a flask have supplanted the series of light lunches which might have figured in this retiree’s 2022 diary had not the Omicron variety of covid swept the land. 

Danebury Hill Fort, begun c 1000 BCE, is irresistible on a bright winter’s day; a very special place. For two hours Alison and I monopolised a bench just below the trig point, with a 360 degree view of north Hampshire, basking in warm sunshine.

Andover boasts the Museum of the Iron Age, treasuring the finds from the many digs in the 70s and 80s. Though the exhibits and displays begin to look tired, a band of volunteers maintain some cultural respect on behalf of Hampshire’s Cultural Trust, formed when the County Museum Service was moth-balled during the Austerity years.

Here is this week’s tree one of many mature beeches which crown the ramparts and rings of the fort’s defences; tall, slender, wind blown, its roots clinging to ground badly eroded by processions of ‘lockdown’ escapees exercising. Already its new buds are catching the sun, as their tips glint and turn our eyes towards the heavens – and a glimpse of the tiny moon.

On a branch in nearby scrub, a vigilant kestrel tantalised us for several minutes, choosing to lie low.  It put me in mind of GM Hopkins’ great poem The Windhover, written in 1877 – though his inspiration comes from the bird in flight – not biding its time, as ours did… 

‘…… dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/of the rolling level underneath him steady air….’

Regular readers of this blog will notice the recurrence of prehistoric hill forts; Balksbury and Bury Hill last week, and now Danebury. And there will be more! They draw me like a magnet! 

For the past year I have been tracking the course of the ancient Old or Hard or Harrow Way – which passes through Andover on its ridgeway journey from Sneaton, near Lyme, over the watersheds and Salisbury Plain and on beyond Andover, Overton towards Basingstoke and eventually through Surrey, Sussex and Kent to Dover. 

This ancient route predated the Romans, and the Celts who expanded Danebury, Bury and Balksbury hill forts. Its origins belong to the generations responsible for Stonehenge and Avebury. 

Not surprisingly it’s difficult to track in places – though much of it would have been used as a drove road well into the nineteenth century, passing as it does through Weyhill, the largest sheep fair in England. And there remain many sections of the track readily identifiable on the OS map and even called the Harrow Way – especially around Andover, on the way to, and in Basingstoke. I am presently gripped by ‘which route did it take to avoid Andover Great Marsh’ ? which after gravel extraction in the twentieth century became known as Anton Lakes. I fear there will be more episodes on this topic…  

Which brings me neatly to books about trackways, and their authors. The acknowledged experts are HW Timperley and E Brill whose Ancient Trackways of Wessex, first published in 1965 and republished in 2013 contains an encyclopaedic knowledge of the paths in this part of the world.

 It contains details about paths and drove roads many of which in the intervening 50 odd years have all but disappeared, but also plenty of material to help pin down what evidence remains. The photo below shows a local stretch of the Harrow Way which still remains identifiable.

The Green Roads of England by R Hippisley Cox, first published in 1914 by Methuen also deserves mention. Cox, a passionate amateur in the business of neolithic civilisation, produced 100s of plans, illustrations and maps of the ancient British landscape which he realised was ‘disappearing at speed all around him’ in 1914. These were published again in 2010 by the Lost Library of Glastonbury, reprinted as a facsimile edition by Replika Press of Haryana in India.

The time scales of these routes, and the lives and economies of the people using them, remain almost beyond our comprehension. 

It is hard to imagine a world in the millennium before the Romans, where Iron or Bronze Age peoples using these green trackways were as mystified by the already ancient Stonehenge and Avebury, as we are in the twenty first century. So much time lies between the neolithic makers of Stonehenge, and those Bronze Age and Iron Age builders of Danebury, as lies between Danebury’s origins and today.  

Were Avebury and Stonehenge as remote and strange to them, as Danebury is to us?  

The more recent Romans so often steal the historical show with their readily available artefacts, written records, buildings and technologies. But Graham Robb in his The Ancient Paths (Picador 2013) pushes back hard on the assumption that the people of the Iron Age – the Celts – were an illiterate, ignorant unsophisticated people. We learn that Robb ‘blows apart two millennia of thinking about Iron Age Britain and Europe …and puts several scientific discoveries back by centuries…every page produces new solutions to old mysteries…. A magnificent piece of historical conjecture’. 

Well! The Celts may not have been literate, but they were certainly numerate with an astonishing grasp of astronomy – if Graham Robb’s hypotheses hold ! But whatever we make of these, there is no doubting the astonishing achievements of the Celts at Danebury.

It would seem that routes, trackways and droves enjoyed a surge of attention a decade ago, to judge by the (re)publication dates. And The Ancient Paths is readily available from the bookshop of the Army Museum of Flying at Over Wallop – strangely – a hub of celtic astrological theory ?

And here is this week’s astrological moment, a ’wolf moon’, shown rising dramatically behind Glastonbury’s Tower on the evening of 17 January. Whatever might the Celts have made of that?

Finally : music… I was rather touched to receive this text last week:

Women’s Hour? Of course I looked it up! It turned out to be a piece about the play Folk presently on stage at Hampstead’s theatre, and an interview with Nell Leyshon, its author. It deals with the remarkable Cecil Sharp who collected thousands of songs from rural communities and ’tidied’ them up – making his reputation and fortune by mining and copyrighting this rich seam of aural tradition.

Without his work so much of this previously neglected native resource would have been lost – but the singing women who made it possible gained very little from his process. It sounds to be a very powerful play presenting familiar themes of exploitation and privilege – and moving music.

It put me in mind of the wonderful Sarah Morgan, resident of Hurstbourne Priors who 15 years ago founded choirs in Andover, Winchester and Eastleigh, and promoted local traditional song material. The Askew Sisters & Craig Morgan Robson – five musical women – performed and recorded songs drawn from the repertoire of the Axford Five who lived and sang in the villages around Axford, a few miles to the south of Basingstoke (not far – I should add – from the route of the Harrow Way)

Her obituary can still be accessed from the Guardian website; the CD, though no longer available from Wild Goose studios, is still available on…. yes, Amazon, and possibly other secondhand sites.

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