Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A week-end in Wiltshire

I just had a wonderful week-end in Wiltshire. It was the best I could afford for my 66th birthday celebration; trips abroad, except in winter, seem to be outside my price range these days.

I stayed in Swindon. Not exactly a tourist destination; but there’s a hotel there, which I consider to be the best of its chain (and I’ve stayed at more than 100 of them). Comfy beds, nice staff, great breakfast, less than 2 miles from town, and has a lift. It was also cheaper, for my dates, than any other hotel in the chain in southern England.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon. It took less than 2 hours – fastest ever on that route. I walked into town, had a couple of beers at Wetherspoon’s, then trudged up the hill to the Old Town.

For me, there’s one best pub in Swindon: the Goddard Arms. Its address – 1 High Street – tells it all. Their Hog Roast Pie isn’t bad, either. Nor their wine.

On Saturday, the weather was partly cloudy, but dry and reasonably warm. I decided to do one of my longer walks. So, I took a bus to Marlborough – my old stamping ground, having been at the College there in the late 1960s. I set out westwards, through Preshute and Manton to Clatford. My plan was to walk up on the Downs as far as I could, and get whatever transport was available back to Swindon.

I went past the “Devil’s Den,” a trilithon of sarsen stones which, 50 years before, I had noted as having about it a kind of “evil electricity.” It still had that feel! And it caused me to mis-navigate; meaning that when I got to the top of the hill, I was in the right place, but the wrong side of a fence I couldn’t climb. Requiring a substantial d├ętour.

Then I picked up a westward path, towards Avebury. There were many runners coming in the opposite direction; I later found they belonged to a club called the “Swindon Striders.”

I branched to the right, on to the “White Horse Trail.” This took me through a beautiful wood, with sarsen stones carpeted with lichen, and great numbers of bumblebees, butterflies (of many colours) and bluebells. Anyone who believes there is a human-caused “species extinction crisis” ought to visit that wood in early summer, and see the bio-diversity for themselves.

When I came to the Ridgeway path, I could see the hills of Gloucestershire in the distance. Turning right, it wasn’t long before I could see the hills of Oxfordshire. I passed the spot where, back in 2007, I had written my (so far) only profitable literary work, an essay which won me a prize of £1,000. Deciding it was time to come off the hill, I turned left and made for the village of Broad Hinton.

On the way down, I had to divert off the path to avoid a swarm of bees. Only the third time I have seen bees swarming in my 66 years! I had to wade through waist-high crops to get around them. And they were spread over a wide area. It was half a mile before I reached the shade of a copse, and could get away from them entirely. Are bees endangered? Not in Wiltshire.

At the bottom, good news! There’s an hourly bus back to Swindon, even on a Saturday. And there’s a pub – the Barbury Inn – right there. The people were friendly, and the first pint of Stella didn’t even touch the sides! Then, I took the bus back to the Old Town; and the Goddard Arms fed me again. The fish pie was even better than the Hog Roast.

To Sunday. I decided to take the bus (which, for those of a certain age in the UK, is “free”) to Oxford. And the buses on that route are especially comfortable. As a Cambridge man, I have a degree of contempt for all things Oxford. But I enjoyed my wander around what I used to dub “the second-best university in the world.” And the pint in the King’s Head afterwards.

On the way back, on the upper deck of a double-decker, I noticed that the front window was absolutely splattered with the remains of bugs that had flown into it. And as we travelled back towards Swindon, detectably more bugs added themselves to the carnage. Those who claim that there are less bugs than there used to be, and cite as “evidence” that their car windscreens don’t get as many as they used to, ignore the aerodynamic improvements in cars, which have taken place in the meantime.

But perhaps the highlight of the whole trip was my brief stop in Faringdon. This is a beautiful small town, but it has some very strange local politics. It prides itself as a “Fairtrade Town,” and claims that it signed the “Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change” back in 2007. But my main excursion was up the hill, to All Saints’ Church. Part of it dates from the late 12th century, and the vicar and his wife (at least, that’s who I assume they were) were happy to let me browse, and to chat to me. I’m not a churchy person, but that is a church worth visiting.

A pint in the Old Crown Coaching Inn, and the lux bus back to Swindon. The rest of the evening was banal, but it included (lots of) food and drink, and I enjoyed it. So was completed my 66th birthday week-end in Wiltshire.

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