Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Ridgeway

Strapped for cash and time, T&I found ourselves looking up the section on Oxfordshire in the Rough Guide to Britain. 5 years into being here, I am finally discovering what there is to do outside the square mile of spiky buildings I frequent. We got on a bus to Wantage, had brunch in its bustling market square and then hunted around for a bus that would take us to White Horse Hill, site of the famous 3000 year old chalk drawing of a horse that is possibly the oldest and second largest of the ancient chalk figures that dot the British Isles.

The bus ended up being a milk van with dirty windows that only ran 3 times a day on Saturdays - so obscure was the service that a waitress at the big pub on the market square emphatically denied that it even existed ('We don't do Swindon anymore'). But we found it and it filled up with people, all of whom seemed to be over the age of 73, cackling incessantly the whole way in a dialect we could barely understand, and led by an inimitable elderly gentleman who insisted on saying the cheekiest things to everyone. English villages are such odd things, particularly in the south of England, populated by urbane sophisticates driving Lamborghinis and studying feng shui. But these were Rural English People - the volk of romantic nationalists, the Eurocrat subsidy defender's raison d'etre - these little old men and women.

We got off the bus and walked up the hill to the chalk horse, on the sort of effortless green grass that only the English countryside manages to produce. It was a clear day, and walking high up on the Downs (the highest point in Oxfordshire - a not very high 262 m.) we could see all the way across the valley to the Cotswalds - hundreds of square miles of baize meadow and corduroy field in neat patchwork, stitched together by hedgerows. We were chilled to the bone, our faces whipped by the wind, it was all very elemental and I was very grateful for the purchase of a thick jacket from Debenhams the day before.

On the crest of the hill, we met the Ridgeway, a 5000 year old path, between fields, meadows and past the occasional grove of trees, which we might have walked for days. This is exactly the sort of place you might bump into Sir Vidia or Vikram Seth - all these Wiltshire recluses - on a country ramble. No human habitation in sight, although this was always only a short walk away - nestled in the valley below every few miles: Kingston Lisle, Sparsholt, Letcombe Bassett. It was so cold that I had the enormous pleasure of shattering every puddle we passed (imagine living in Canada!). Horses grazing, the occasional jogger, a police car ('Has anybody been driving this way?').

Socks flapping in the wind? On closer inspection, these turned out to be a row of once living (now dead) creatures tied to a barbed wire fence with bits of orange cord. There must have been about fifteen of them, each not more than six inches long, little pink snouts and paws, their coats matted, flapping in the wind but stiff from frost - or rigor mortis. Rats? Moles? My instinctive explanation: cruel children. Only they would have the time (mental note: I still havn't read Lord of the Flies). I went off at a tangent: this is how the Holocaust happened, we're still on the slippery slope, etc. (mental note: this may have something to do with the fact that I'm reading Elizabeth Costello). In subsequent conversations and discussions, the following alternative explanations have emerged:
1) Farmers/gardeners often kill moles because of what they do to their gardens. (And then they string them up in the hope that other moles will look up as they cross the boundary and shudder?)
2) No, they string them up to attract predators of moles, which then do the needful.
3) This is an ancient Celtic ritual.

T wanted to take a picture and I said 'Do what you like!' and walked off in a huff. I should have let him, then I could have blogged it (everything I do I do because I want to write about it?)

We got off the Ridgeway onto the path to Letcombe Regis and descended into the valley four hours later, past more misty meadows with what I want to say were Shetland ponies. But that's only because I don't know the names of any English breeds of horses. These were the ones with the shaggy hooves. Not Shetland ponies I know...something else. Virginia Woolf had to do no research when she wrote. Bloody woman. (Woolf, Plath, Murdoch, Kahlo - The Hours, Sylvia, Iris, Frida - Hollywood was obsessed with biopics of brilliant angsty women. Hollywood was on a first name basis with them. Intimate. What would they have thought? I just realised that I always thought Sylvia had ended it really horribly. Head-in-oven. Actually, the gas would have done it quite peacefully.) Shetland ponies. No, must find out what they're called. [I'm doing a futile Google search.]

Letcombe Regis turned out to be a hamlet with big posh houses in which the sorts of people who drove Lamborghinis and studied feng shui lived. T insisted on peering into a window and saying 'Look at these houses', his thick North American accent bouncing around embarrassingly in the silent streets of Letcombe Regis, while a woman (I was going to say housewife for some bizarre reason, but how the hell do I know? She just looked housewifely at that point in time) peered out at him anxiously, while she tidied up her living room. T also insisted on stopping and unnecessarily asking for directions, just to make conversation with a family playing in a stream; then I, catching the bug, waved unnecessarily to a woman walking her dog (Irish setter? - more blasted research) in a field, so that she stopped and looked at me quizically: 'Do we know each other?' No, I'm just being friendly you t**t (I'm still not sure *how* bad a word that is).

We walked back to Wantage and climbed on a bus to Oxford. This time we were joined by a bunch of men - no women - all dressed for a night out on the town. If you live in Wantage, you party in Oxford, apparently. An hour later we are back in what now looks like a bustling metropolis.

Comments:
sweetie, those are clydesdales. (but about the dog, who knows.) you've heard my opinion on t**t, but it seems to be one of those words that operates in different registers--some people learn/use/hear it as mildly pejorative, & others as quite vulgar/offensive indeed.
 
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