There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Buckingham and Stowe

My parents moved to Buckinghamshire when I was five and stayed there fifty years, so it might seem surprising to those who do not know the county that I had never been to Buckingham. Buckinghamshire is long and thin and we lived in the south, a stone's throw from what was then Middlesex and is now Greater London, while Buckingham is in the far north, and there was just no reason to go there; it is not on the way to anywhere, it lost the title of 'county town' to Aylesbury in the eighteenth century and with 12,000 inhabitants it is hardly a major centre of population.

By chance our daughter now lives near Aylesbury (a town of little charm where even the duckling connection is only historic) so whilst cat sitting we decided it was at last time to visit Buckingham - it is only twenty miles away.

Our arrival was inauspicious, a new suburb under construction south of the town will apparently require an inordinate number of roundabouts and the road works were tedious. Then there was a deviation in the town centre where a road was closed for repairs.

Whether Stowe is part of Buckingham is a moot point - the approach road starts within the town but the long straight drive quickly reaches parkland and heads straight for a Corinthian Arch, another Arc deTriomphe for my collection. Disappointingly the road swings right instead of passing beneath it.


The approach to Stowe's Corinthian Arch
In the eighteenth century fashionable people travelled the country to see grand gardens and Stowe, as the National Trust slogan runs, is ‘Gardening on a Grand Scale’. Viscount Cobham was proud of his great estate and wanted to show it off, so in 1717 he built the New Inn to accommodate visitors. Fashions change and the New Inn closed in 1851, but it has recently been restored and now looks as it might have done in its heyday.


Lynne at the New Inn, Stowe
Beyond the modern reception area, we joined the path behind the Corinthian Arch, and walked down Bell Gate Drive to the estate.

From the (not noticeably octagonal) Octagon Lake there is a magnificent view down over the water and up across the sward to Stowe House. This is a garden of landscapes rather than flowers, and over three generations the greatest landscape gardeners of the age, including Capability Brown, spared neither expense nor effort in transforming natural countryside into a fake natural countryside which was more suited to the fashion of the day.


Lynne, the Octagon Lake and Stowe House
The Temple family made their money from sheep farming. In 1571 Peter Temple leased the Stowe estate and by 1584 his son could afford to buy both the estate and manor house. The Temples became baronets and grew wealthier and in 1683 Sir Richard Temple started to build the current Stowe House. Like the garden it was worked on over several generations by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir John Vanbrugh and Robert Adam.

His son, also called Richard, was a soldier and politician. He became Viscount Cobham and married into even more wealth. Lord Cobham created the garden, though work continued for a generation or two after him. He was the richest man in England, richer than the king, so cost was no obstacle.

The lakes and walkways are populated by shrines, monuments and temples in classical style. Between the Octagon and Eleven Acre Lakes a cascade is crossed by a bridge bearing an artificial ruin. Ruination can result from malice or neglect and a well preserved ruin, like a Cambodian temple (neglect) or Glastonbury Abbey (malice), is always of interest, but I dislike purpose built ruins. Two have previously appeared in this blog; the chocolate teapot that is Mow Cop and the small temple on the Sandon Estate which is undoubtedly regarded as an aesthetic highlight by the grazing sheep. To me, these say 'more money than sense' and are grounds for questioning the taste of the builder.



The Ruin on the Cascade, Stowe
On a circuitous route to the house we passed the rotunda which houses a copy of the Medici Venus. Much of the garden involves fakery and copies, though occasionally it rises to the heights of 'derivative'.


The Rotunda, Stowe
For two generations the owners failed to produce heirs and the estate passed from uncle to nephew. This, and the family’s tendency to enrich itself by marrying heiresses and collecting their money, titles and names led, in the mid nineteenth century, to Stowe being owned by Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 2nd Duke of Chandos and Buckingham. While marrying into wealth and climbing the ranks of the peerage from Baron to Viscount, then Earl and finally Duke, they spent as though money were infinite and earned a reputation for arrogance which was unhelpful when the wheels came off. Four generations after Stowe’s owner was the wealthiest man in England, the 2nd Duke of Chandos and Buckingham was the country’s biggest debtor owing £1.5 million. (Well over £100 million by today's standards). An auction of the house contents in 1848 raised a paltry £75,000 and he skipped off abroad and the house was left to deteriorate.

By the 1920s it was facing demolition, but was saved by JF Roxburgh who wanted to found a school and needed a building. Most of the country's great 'public schools' - which are of course not open to the general public - are old foundations; Stowe is probably the only twentieth century foundation among them, but it has been a remarkably successful venture. Well known 'Old Stoics' include David Niven, Richard Branson and George Melly.


Stowe House
The school has outgrown Stowe House, though additions have been sympathetic, but it still uses the old building so only a few rooms are open to the public – Stowe School was closed for the summer, but they were hosting several summer schools.


The Old Library, Stowe House
The Old Library remains a school library. The old books went in the sale of 1858, but the restocked mahogany bookcases still line the walls and look down in bemusement at the reading lamps and laptops of modern library life. The ceiling has been recently returned to its former glory with more gold leaf than we have seen since Mandalay.
 
The ceiling of the Old Library, Stowe House
The music room has good views over the park and some interesting murals. I do not know who painted the beings with dragon's hind legs, a woman's upper body and wings, but when he decided to balance a vase of flowers their heads did he not think this might be a step too far?


Music Room murals, Stowe House
The Marble Saloon is said to be the masterpiece of Vincenzo Valdrè (I thought I had never heard of him, but I had been looking at his paintings on the ceiling of St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle only a month before). The columns are scagliola made to look like Sicilian jade and the statues are plaster replicas of 'the sort of statues that would have been here'. The design is 'inspired by' (does that mean 'copied from'?) the Pantheon in Rome, but the Marble Saloon is elliptical instead of circular.
 

The Marble Saloon, Stowe House
This shape caused enormous problems for the builders of the dome and added even more expense - but money is no object to those on the fast track to bankruptcy.
 
The Dome of the Marble Saloon, Stowe House
Back outside we walked through the park, past the Temple of Easy Ancient Virtue…


The Temple of Ancient Virtues
… and Captain Grenville's Column - there are columns to all sorts of odds and sods dotted around the landscape -….


Captain Grenville's Column, Stowe
and down to the Temple of British Worthies, a curving roofless exedra displaying busts of the good, the bad and the ugly. The eclectic selection involves several monarchs (including Alfred the Great - who seems to be stalking us at the moment - and Elizabeth I as the token woman) a couple of pirates (Raleigh, Drake) one or two genuine greats (Shakespeare, Newton) and some who induce the question 'who he?' The name of eighteenth century Whig politician Sir John Barnard has not come winging down the centuries.

Lynne (who is not worthy) [Oh yes I am! L] and the Temple of British Worthies, Stowe

Continuing towards the river we caught sight of this monstrosity.


The Gothic Temple, Stowe
Called the Gothic Temple it was designed by James Gibb in 1741, right at the start of the Gothic Revival. I doubt any Goth, original or revived, would recognise it, though it does seem to foreshadow Hollywood gothic. It is smaller than it looks from a distance and is available as a holiday let - a strange but interesting place to stay.

Returning to the river we crossed the Palladian Bridge, which has featured in many costume dramas as well as on National Trust membership cards, and made our way back to reception for a cup of tea and a sandwich before making the short drive back into Buckingham.


The Palladian Bridge, Stowe
It is impossible not to be impressed by Stowe, but perhaps not in the way the builders intended. It was the product of great effort and expense over several generations by people who had a lot of money, little sense and even less taste. It is well worth a visit, but is best not taken too seriously.

Nearby, Buckingham's small centre is largely Georgian. In 1725 fire destroyed a third of the town and provoked much rebuilding.


The White Hart, Buckingham
The market square has several jarringly modern shop fronts but is dominated by the town gaol. The gothic-style building was erected in 1748 and paid for by Viscount Cobham. The rounded front was added by George Gilbert Scott in 1839. Sir (as he became in 1871) George Gilbert Scott was a local boy who made good and designed, among much else, the Albert Memorial.


Buckingham Old Gaol
Having lost the status of ‘county town’ it was hoped the refurbished gaol would help keep the county assizes in Buckingham, but they followed everything else down the road to Aylesbury.

The gaol was later used as a police station, a fire station, an armoury, an antiques shop and a café before becoming the town museum in 1993. The cells now house an interesting exhibition covering local history, rural life and the Buckinghamshire Military Trust.


The cells, Buckingham Old Gaol
On the ground floor around the worryingly small exercise yard, once open to the sky but today rather hot under its modern roof, is an exhibition of the life and times of Flora Thompson, writer of, among other things, Lark Rise to Candleford. The book, and to a lesser extent the recent television series, was partly autobiographical. Flora Thompson was born Flora Timms (the heroine of Lark Rise was called Laura Timmins) in 1876 in the hamlet of Juniper Hill (fictionalised as Lark Rise) just 8 miles from Buckingham. Candleford is based partly on the larger village of Fringford, and partly on Buckingham. The exhibition includes a collection of costumes from the show.


Flora Thompson's typewriter
George Gilbert Scott also designed Buckingham’s workhouse, which has been demolished, and made 'improvements' – as was the Victorian wont - to the church and to the fifteenth century Chantry Chapel, the oldest building in the town. A chantry chapel is one built and endowed for the purpose of saying masses for the dead to speed them through purgatory. It is now a Quaker meeting house and part time second-hand book shop and cafe. Manned by volunteers its opening hours are limited, indeed it closed fifteen minutes before we got there.


The Chantry Chapel, Buckingham
So now I have been to Buckingham. Stowe apart, there is not much to see, but I am glad we made the effort - and the town has some pleasing corners.


A pleasing corner of Buckingham
Just out of the picture to the right is a modern terrace, built in the same red brick and designed to blend in with the older buildings (an idea that never crossed the planners minds in nearby Dunstable).

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

Leaving the White Horse and Uffington Castle we drove to our B&B, Mayfield at West Grafton, a fifteen minute taxi ride from the main object of our day. I don't usually write much, or indeed anything, about the various B&Bs we stay in, but the Mayfield was a little bit different. Every village in North Wiltshire has a selection of thatched houses of the sort that once adorned chocolate boxes, and Mayfield is a fine example. The rambling old house – different parts look to have been built at different times - stands in extensive and beautifully maintained grounds. Angela and Chris Orssich are well-suited to the business, chatting easily with their guests and making everyone feel welcome – would that were true of everyone running a B&B. For the quality of the breakfast, skip to the very last paragraph.


Lynne outside Mayfield, West Grafton
The Harrow at Little Bedwyn may once have been a country pub, and the tiny village is certainly buried deep in the north Wiltshire countryside, but it became a serious restaurant in 1988 when it was bought by Roger and Sue Jones. A Michelin star followed in 2007 and now the world beats a path to its door. Two of the four couples staying at Mayfield had come mainly (or entirely) to make the pilgrimage to Little Bedwyn, and that is not unusual. 'That place has brought a lot of trade to the area,' our taxi driver told us as he piloted us through the narrow lanes.


Mayfield, West Grafton
The service was as slick and professional as you would expect at this level and although it was easy to see how the layout had once been that of a country pub, it has now evolved so far there is no longer bar space for a pre-dinner drink, which is offered at the table. The sound of ice in a cocktail shaker heralded a good dry martini (though I am still looking to match the perfection of the Hong Kong Sheraton), but Lynne's G&T was drowned; Tanqueray becomes indistinguishable from a supermarket’s own brand at this level of dilution.



As we pondered this shaky start we also pondered the menu. The seven course 'gastronomic menu' is too much food, I am no longer young and I can't eat the way I used to. I chose the four course tasting menu – which has five courses if you include the cheese option. Lynne picked three courses from the à la carte, and decided to share my cheese. Having taken the orders we were asked what time we had booked our return taxi so they could time the proceedings appropriately. It was a nice touch.

The award-winning wine list is huge – Dickens wrote shorter novels - but the menu suggests a wine to partner each course, mostly at a reasonable £6-£9 for a 125ml glass. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, we went with their suggestions.

The amuse-bouche, self-deprecatingly described as 'Langoustine Soup', had so much rich Langoustine flavour, so intensely concentrated, that it brought a look of wonder to Lynne’s face. It was only four sips, but each caressed the palate and lingered lushly. Faced with a whole bowl it would have been overwhelming, but as an amuse-bouche in a tiny quantity it was perfect.

Lynne started with seared scallops, chorizo and pea purée with tiny peas. In Lynne's slightly idiosyncratic view a fresh scallop cooked with masterful restraint is perfect on its own and nothing can be gained by the addition of other flavours, so she ate this as two very small separate dishes and pronounced both excellent. I tasted them together and thought the accompaniment brought an extra dimension to the scallop. Each to his own.

My first course was described as ‘seared tuna - pickled watermelon, vine tomatoes and quails egg’ (yes, that should be quail's). The seared tuna was like the tuna that comes round the track at Yo Sushi, good enough but not memorable. The tiny egg was cool, but I cut into it and, miraculously, the yolk ran. I smeared it over the tuna and that was good. The selection of tomato halves looked like the cherry tomatoes you can buy anywhere, but there the resemblance ended. The sheer tomato-y intensity of the first was hard to believe, but there were more of them, each a different variety of tomato with its own individual flavor and all as wonderful as the first. There was also a sundried tomato. For a moment I considered sending it to the chef of our hotel in Dublin last month with the message, 'this is a sun dried tomato, my friend, not the slimy thing in your vegetarian pasta.' I thought about that but decided to eat it, instead. That leaves the cube of pickled watermelon. In a hot climate there is little pleasanter or more thirst quenching than fresh watermelon, but what does pickling add to it? And why was it on this plate? Beats me.

Both starters were accompanied by Jordan's Outlier, Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch. The nose was fabulous, herbal and grassy like Sancerre rather than the tropical fruit of New Zealand. It was not quite so outstanding on the palate, being just a little short of acidity.

Jordan Outlier Sauvignon Blanc
My ‘extra’ course was, ‘grilled turbot, curried lobster’. The turbot, a small rectangle of fish, was, I thought, a tad overcooked and, like the tuna, all right but nothing more. The curried lobster underneath was a revelation, the sauce having an intense coconut flavour which lingered and deepened until the chilli kicked in. I have not encountered such concentrated coconut since the 'finger chutney' at Palakkad, but this was much more elegant and subtle. The lobster was reduced to being a vehicle for the sauce, but then I have always thought that lobster is overrated. Apart from its good looks and size, what does it have that a pawn hasn’t?

The accompanying 'Hen and Chickens' Chardonnay from Pemberton in Western Australia was, I am sorry to say, a little nondescript.

Lynne's main course was beef, a small slab of filet cooked rare as requested and in every way wonderful, surmounted by ring of pink foie gras. This morally dodgy delight was as delightful - and morally dodgy – as ever. Below the filet was a piece of slow cooked beef cheek. Very much the ‘odd meat of the moment’, it is apparently compulsory to include it somewhere on a Michelin star menu. Both of us will be happy when the fashion changes. To me it comes from the wrong end of the animal; ox tail, while similar, has better texture and a more delicate flavour.

Accompanying the beef was the most expensive wine of the evening. At £16 a glass the 2001 Glenmore, Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon had to be good and it was, being deep, dark and with a hint of liquorice. 

After my extra courses, my lamb was more a meat course than a main. The nicely pink Welsh lamb made up in flavour for what it lacked in quantity. It was served with minted couscous (how do you get so much mintiness into a simple couscous?) and a couple of sprigs of sea asparagus - or samphire as I would normally call it.


The unfiltered South African merlot is top of the Fleur du Cap range and offered as much fruit as you could want, elegant tannin and a good weight in the mouth, it almost edged out the more the expensive cabernet.

Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Merlot


We shared the cheese course; five small slices allegedly arranged from mildest to strongest, but the goat cheese in the 'mildest' position packed a solid goaty punch. We could have quibbled about the order of the others, but why bother? One resembled a top quality brie, another had a washed rind, there was an excellent soft sheep's cheese and finally Royal Bassett Blue, surmounted by a slice of quince cheese. Remarkably, all these pungently mature, well-made cheeses are produced relatively locally. Such a line up would have been impossible only a few years ago. A nice glass of tawny port matched them perfectly.
Royal Basset Blue, made in Wiltshire
A pre-dessert called 'cherry trifle' and served in a sherry glass was a nice idea and looked good. I had watched others go by and was looking forward to it, but it was disappointingly dry, as though it had been sitting too long waiting for us.

My dessert was just described as 'chocolate' and Lynne chose the equivalent from the à la carte. It had many of the same elements, but had a fruit sorbet where mine had the tiniest blob of ice cream. I like chocolate (who doesn't?), but I know people who claim to love it and this may have suited them, but for both of us this was chocolate overkill. Some of the elements were exquisite, particularly the lozenge of tempered chocolate round a rich chocolate cream, but the white chocolate did not do much for me and the large cube of chocolate truffle was just too dense.

Lehman Botrytis Semillon was the wine selected to accompany this. With a honeyed nose and intense sweetness it may not be the subtlest of wines, but it stands up to the chocolate as few wines could.

And so our meal ended. We had seen ten different dishes, all exquisitely presented and all – the cherry trifle excepted – were sublime, or had elements that were sublime. Portions were small, but I ate four and a half courses, amuse-bouche and pre-dessert and that was certainly enough, maybe a little too much, which is just as it should be on these occasions.


We had also drunk enough, but that did not stop us crowning the evening with an espresso and a digestif. Lynne wisely selected an old favourite, a cognac from Ragnaud-Sabourin, while I went for Alchemy 15 yr old Somerset Brandy. I enjoy a good Calvados but had yet to try the British equivalent. It was £8 for 25ml and £10 for a double, so I thought 'Oh goodie, a bargain.' I should have thought  'why they were trying to get rid of it?'. Somerset brandy does not, I am sorry to say, have much apple flavour and it was rather like a bottom of the range Armagnac, which is not a bad thing, but nor is it great.
Lynne leaves the Harrow at Little Bedwyn
The timing had been perfect and we were all finished at exactly the time the taxi came to fetch us.

And now back to Mayfield B&B. Having praised them at the start I shall finish by mentioning their breakfast. As at the Harrow, the menu tells you the source of everything and the food-miles are minimal 'the bacon and sausages come from two fields away'. I had smoked salmon (the salmon could not be local, but the smokehouse is) and scrambled eggs. The eggs were light and creamy, the fish gently smoked. Angela makes her own bread (from flour grown and ground locally) and all her own jams and marmalade. As a B&B it is a touch more expensive than most (though not by much) but - and the same is true of the Harrow - you have to pay for a bit of quality.
 

Wantage and the Vale of the White Horse

After visiting Yorkshire in 2012 and 2013, this year’s wedding anniversary foray into the world of fine dining took us south to Wiltshire.

On the way we paused for lunch in Wantage. Now in Oxfordshire (it was Berkshire until 1974) Wantage sits at the base of the Berkshire Downs in the slightly pretentiously named Vale of the White Horse.

The centre is off the main road and finding it is a challenge, our first attempt ended in Waitrose car park our second in a retail park where Argos, New Look, Sainsbury's and the rest of the usual suspects hang out.

Opposite the car park a pedestrian sign pointed left, informing us the town centre was 560 yards away. We had come that way and encountered no centre, but we could see a church tower in the opposite direction, so we turned right and two hundred yards later, there was ‘downtown’ Wantage.
 
Wantage town centre is actually 200 yards to the right

Cocooned in a blanket of the last decade’s bland 'could be anywhere' architecture, the old town is not a hidden gem, but at least it’s still there. There is even a market square – with a market - though they were packing up as we arrived. No market looks its best when half the stalls are empty and the other half are being disassembled. The square is dominated by a statue of Alfred the Great who was born here in the Royal Palace in 849, though the site of the palace has long been lost. Although we were unaware of his local connection, we both recognised the statue as being King Alfred before we saw the plaque. As nobody could possibly know what he looked like, I thought this odd. Lester Piggott was born here, too - the Berkshire Downs are prime race horse territory - and everybody knows what he looks like, even if he does not have a statue (yet).
 
King Alfred, Market Square, Wantage


We shared a huge ham sandwich, and enjoyed a half of Arkell's excellent 3B in The Bear on the market square, which claims to have been serving travellers and locals for 500 years (though I am happy to report the facilities have been updated).
 
The Bear, Market Square, Wantage

The church of St Peter and St Paul sits in a quiet, almost delightful, corner. King Alfred was baptised in an earlier church on this site, but the oldest part of the current building is 13th century. It is squat and solid looking as though intent on surviving whatever seven centuries of weather could throw at it, although on this balmy summer's day it looked seriously unthreatened. We could have looked inside but for our reluctance to gatecrash a wedding.
 
St Peter and St Paul, Wantage

The old centre is small but pleasing enough - it obviously pleased John Betjeman, who lived here from 1972 to 1984. What he would have made of the new retail development I can only imagine: 'Come friendly bombs and drop on Wantage'?
 
Wantage, part of the old centre

From the retail park the A338 took us through areas of nineteenth century and 1990s housing. There is nothing wrong with any of the town’s many districts, but they appear to have been dropped down with no reference to each other or any attempt to think about the whole. Wantage is a town of many parts, and the whole is less than the sum of those parts. This, I should point out, is a judgement on the architecture, not the community of Wantage about which I know nothing bad.

Leaving behind the King Alfred’s Arms, the King Alfred Academy and the King Alfred Dog Grooming Parlour (I made one of those up) we headed down the Vale of the White Horse to sites which were old when King Alfred was new.

A B-road skirts the north edge of the downs winding past camp sites and tea rooms, while to our right the plain stretched all the way to the River Thames and beyond.

A tiny road into the hills took us up to the National Trust car park that gives access to the downs. With the temperature nudging 30 we walked the half mile to the top of White Horse Hill across gently rising chalk grasslands, alive with fluttering butterflies. I wish I could identify more butterflies with confidence, but perhaps we saw Duke of Burgundy butterflies and Brown Argus, among others. The white horse (sometimes called the Uffington White Horse), for which the area is named, lies just below the top of the hill.
 
The head of the Uffington White Horse

The stylised horse was linked with King Alfred in the middle ages, but is actually much older. Formed from trenches packed with crushed chalk it has been securely dated to the late Bronze Age, which ended in these parts around 700BC. The same stylised horse - assuming it is a horse - appears on pre-Roman Celtic coinage, though whether that image is of this white horse, or they are both copies of some other prototype is unknown. It is by far the oldest of the assorted white horses on the chalk hills of southern England.
 
The Uffington White Horse - aerial view
(Thank you Wikipedia) 

The horse is 110m long, so from close up it is impossible to make sense of it. In fact there is nowhere from where it can be seen as a whole and the best view, like the photograph I have stolen from Wikipedia, is from the air. We detoured to the National Trust's suggested viewpoint, and this is all we could see; wherever you go the head is hidden by a fold in the land. The villages of Great Coxwell, Longcot and Fernham reputedly have a better views, but from a distance of 5km or more.
 
The White Horse - the best view from the ground

A hundred metres away, beside the highest point of the hill....


Lynne at the highest point of White Horse Hill

... is Uffington Castle, an earthwork consisting of ramparts either side of a roughly circular ditch enclosing 32,000m² of grassland. Built in the 7th or 8th century BC, it was occupied throughout the Iron Age. There are two entrances, one facing the White Horse, and it is conjectured that the inhabitants of the castle made and maintained the Horse - it would grow over in a year or two left to its own devices (signs encouraging volunteers for this year's 'scouring' were posted at various strategic points). This makes sense up to point, but I cannot quite understand how the inhabitants of the castle knew what they were doing, when there was nowhere they could stand to view their work in its entirety. I find this perplexing.
 
Uffington Castle - just a ditch and two ramparts

Below the hill is a grassy tump with an artificially flattened summit. Nobody knows why or when it was flattened but medieval minds looking for an explanation decided this must be where St George slew the Dragon. This story may be true if (a) St George existed (b) dragons existed (c) St George slew a dragon and (d) he performed that act in Oxfordshire.
 
Dragon Hill below the Uffington White Horse

Of these, (a) is a runner. St George was born in 280 in Lydda, outside modern Tel Aviv, and was martyred in 303 at Nicodemia near Istanbul. Despite his being patron saint of such diverse places as England, Ukraine, Portugal and Lithuania there is no evidence he travelled beyond the Palestine/Asia Minor area. Make what you wish of (b), (c) and (d) but I have seen the place where St George actually killed the Dragon; it is on a river bank outside the Corsican village of Quenza. And that is a fact. Or not.

The dry valley next to the tump is known as The Manger - where else would a chalk horse find his fodder. The unusual markings along the sides and base of the valley were made by retreating glaciers at the end of the ice age. I am not aware of any more fanciful explanation for these.
 
The Manger below the Uffington White Horse

Having walked a couple of miles up and down the hillside in distinctly unEnglish temperatures we were tired and sweaty, and as time was getting on we decided to make the forty minute drive to our B&B rather than take the 2.5km walk to Wayland's Smithy. But we returned the following morning…

27/07/14

On a cooler morning when the day’s maximum was not forecast to exceed the mid-twenties, we set off from the same car park along the Ridgeway. Although it is a modern long distance footpath running 87 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns to Overton Hill near Avebury the Ridgeway is based on a 5000 year old trail.
 
Setting off towards Wayland's Smithy

We started on the grassland, but soon found ourselves following chalky lanes between wheat fields, some already harvested and the others looking ripe and ready. Along the narrow path we seemed in constant danger of being run over by one of the countless mountain bikers taking advantage of a sunny Sunday morning, but they all thanked us pleasantly when we moved aside to let them pass.
 
Along chalky lanes to Wayland's Smithy

Wayland's Smithy is a Neolithic long barrow. If King Alfred is ancient to us, Uffington Castle and the White Horse were ancient to him, and Wayland's Smithy was ancient when the first spadeful of earth was dug from the ditch at Uffington.


Wayland's Smithy
The ‘long barrow’ lives up to its name being 56m long by 13m wide. It was constructed in two phases, an original timbered-chamber oval barrow, built around 3500BC, was converted into a stone-chambered long barrow about a hundred years later.
 
Wayland's Smithy

Wayland (or Wolund) was the Germanic smith-god and his name is has been associated with many prehistoric sites. According to myth, if a horse throws a shoe and is left overnight at the Smithy, with a silver coin on the cap stone, in the morning the horse will be shod and the coin will be gone. Did no one notice this is exactly the same arrangement you would have with an earthly smith - except they don’t work overnight and unseen?
 
Lynne at Wayland's Smithy

We walked the two and a half kilometers back to the car park and set off towards our daughter's home, which, coincidently, is within sight of Ivinghoe Beacon at the far end of the Ridgeway.