Naturally this blog focuses almost entirely on the north of England, as that is where we live. However, it turns out the country does have a southern part. And though much of it tends to vote the wrong way Sarah has selflessly been down there to see what it’s like. Here’s her special report ‘The Soft South’.
“As much as I love my work as a funeral celebrant, I do find that time out is very important. And also time away, on my own. This year I have discovered a great organisation called Walking Women, who provide a range of holidays for women that involves, well, walking. Yes, walking, and also meandering and cafés and opportunities for mooching. I particularly enjoyed my trip with them to Northumberland in March – see the post here – and last weekend I was off down south.
I’d decided I would be ready for a break around the end of August so had booked this ‘Kennet and Avon’ holiday a few weeks back. Where’s that then? No, I didn’t know either – somewhere ‘down south’ and somewhere I’d never been before.
I really enjoy the setting off feeling of going away on my own. Tank of petrol, my rucksack and a bag of fruit pastilles. Phone off. Funerals diary with Ronnie. Freedom. I’ve decided to break the four hour journey in Gloucestershire to revisit Hartpury (where I did a bee keeping course a few years back) and also Highnam. Just outside Hartpury village is the church and ancient tithe barn. It still feels ancient.
This barn would have been used by Gloucester Abbey to collect local taxation – paid to them in the form of agricultural products.
Ah yes, a reminder of why I come away. For this lovely feeling of peace.
I collect windfalls from the churchyard (which I make into pear jelly, like quince jelly, when I get home, I have enough for one jarful).
Next stop, Highnam, the church of Holy Innocents.
I’ve come here because it’s home to a lovely collection of monkey puzzle trees – as featured on my blog here. (Thanks to Agent Jeff in Hereford for the photos for the monkey blog). It’s a bit of a dull day the day I arrive, and monkeys don’t look their best. But nevertheless I have visited them.
It’s time to move on, as I am headed for Froxfield. As I continue south I notice that the brickwork changes, and as I get into Wiltshire it’s often a mixture of brick and limestone. And it’s… sort of softer. Everywhere is so picturesque and I drive through villages with thatched rooves that seem to have become part of the landscape.
I arrive at Froxfield, our base, and set up home in the 17th century The Pelican Inn.
The next day, after a good hearty meal and sleep in a strange bed – like all good adventures begin – it’s ‘day one’ of my holiday. And our first stop on our walk is the Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital.
No, it’s not actually a hospital, but a sheltered housing scheme – see the website here, which describes them as follows:
The accommodation was first founded around 1695, under the Will of Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, an important social benefactress, who wanted to build a set of houses and a chapel for widows from Wiltshire, Somerset and Berkshire. Over the course of time, this group of houses came to be called ‘the collegiate’ and is now referred to by residents as ‘The College’.
Today, these 50 historic self-contained units, known as cottages, are fully modernised and maintained to a good standard. They are arranged in four terraces in the form of a quadrangle, with views into the serene and secure grounds, with the ancient chapel at the centre of the green. The residents, all female and over 55, are from a rich and diverse mixture of backgrounds.
And they are lovely cottages set in a quadrangle with a chapel in the centre.
We are given a personal tour of the grounds by a resident, Lorna. (She’s at the front of our group on the lawn, in front of Gaynor, our guide, with her dog Pickle).
We leave ‘the college’ (as the residents call it), and get the bus to Great Bedwyn. See what I mean about the ‘soft’ landscape and houses….
This canal has 105 locks on it, and is 87 miles long including the river Avon and the river Kennet at either end. As we are passing two boats just going into a lock, both with solo crews, I eagerly offer ‘help’ with the proviso that I am ‘urban’, but the help is gladly received as opening (and closing) a lock involves a lot of crossing over to the other side and winding and pushing… all boats carry a special ‘winching tool’ which fits onto the mechanism on the lock which opens the gates. I am delighted when the person who is showing me what to do, let’s go of the tool and it flies out of his hand and into the lock! Yes, it can happen even to experienced boat-hands!
These are the oldest working steam engines in the world still performing the job they were built to do. Marvellous! They have a number of ‘steaming days’ during the year to fill up the summit pound (canal reservoir). Their website is here.
We leave this fascinating piece of canal history, and walk on through unspoilt Wiltshire countryside, arriving back at Great Bedwyn.
Think I’ll have heaven renewed and the flames of purgatory re-animated!
As with all good holidays there is a choice next, so me and my new friend from Tasmania decide to spend the rest of the afternoon in the pub, The Three Tuns, chatting while the others walk back to Froxfield and we are picked up a few hours later. Well, it is a holiday after all!
The next day, ‘day two’, we walk in the ‘other’ direction, towards Hungerford. The hedgerows are full and dripping with late summer abundance.
We walk along the valley which contains the canal, the road and the railway. A bit like a ‘Ladybird book of Britain’ illustration.
I could have quite happily spent the rest of the day here, there are swans and cygnets, and ducks, we spot brown trout in the clear chalk stream, and the banks are full of wildflowers, not all of which I recognise. I’ve not seen this before, an orange balsam – Impatiens capensis. I am familiar with the larger pink balsam which I’d always thought as ‘thuggish’ although I know that it is a good source of food for bees (though it can become invasive).
Moving on, we have a boat to catch.
I’ve never actually been on a canal boat before so this is a lovely experience, although I am astounded at how slow they go, plus I know from our experience yesterday what hard work (and faff) it is going through locks. I decide never to have a canal boat holiday.
As you’ve seen from the earlier photograph, this canal, like many canals in this country, fell into disrepair with the arrival of the railways – as they provided a more efficient and faster way of transporting goods. It’s only from the 1960s onwards that various groups have formed to restore the canals. They are now a leisure activity, and this canal is managed by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust – in fact this boat trip is run by their members and raises money to manage the infrastructure around the canal, like the pumping station. Whilst I do think they have done great work in restoring the canal, I did find some of their attitudes – especially to those who live in boats on the canal – to be stuck up. But then, I remember, I am in the south of England.
Pompous attitudes aside, we see a kingfisher, my first, on this stretch of water, and I am delighted.
In Hungerford we have a mooch in the antiques shop and eat ice cream at the delightfully old-fashioned café, called The Tutti Pole – a ‘tutti pole’ being a stick carried during the Hocktide festival, a medieval festival, that is now only celebrated in Hungerford.
Our last day dawns grey and drizzly. It’s only a half day, as everyone has plans for heading back home later. We’re off to Littlecote House.
This has been a medieval mansion in private ownership. After the war it was inherited by the Wills family (tobacco), and then sold to the businessman Peter de Savary. Warners Leisure bought it in 1996, and it is now a hotel. But a lot of the very old part, and the gardens, is accessible to the public. And, it’s free!
We wander through the ancient rooms and wood panelling, but it is the garden that I enjoy the most.
Yes, I know it looks like an algae covered swimming pool, but it is in fact an artificial bowling green. Yes, artificial. We’ll be returning to the theme of bowling greens at some point (a topic of frequent conversation for Ronnie and I – the beauty of bowling greens).
But for now, that is a glimpse into the ‘Soft South’ – the soft, rolling, gentle brick and limestone South of England, as seen from my three days in Wiltshire.”
All seen on a ‘Walking Women’ holiday. Highly recommended.