The History Tree

Up at 6, down for the papers at 7. Decided to go for another walk today seeing as the day is supposed to be bright and warm.

Set off for the Avon Valley Path, this time heading north. The day was hazy but the rain was miles away. First stop was the cosy church of St Mary’s, Hale – unfortunately and strangely locked – which appears to be part of the Hale House estate. It had an odd art deco type front which I’d have liked to have explored a little more. According to the Churches Preservation Trust website, it was originally built by Breamore Priory in the 14th Century. In 1717 Sir Thomas Archer built the transepts and refaced the church giving it the look it now has (so NOT art deco then). It contains things of NATIONAL IMPORTANCE apparently and, so the site says “is open for visitors at all times”! Oh yeah, that’s right.

Hale House itself is Elizabethan and has had many owners. This includes the Archer family in the 1700s. Originally, the land was granted to someone called Adam de la Ford by Breamore Priory in 1328. You only catch teasing glimpses from the path as it follows the driveway out. It looks impressive and is in private hands.

Found a lovely little cemetery enclosed by a holly hedge, just outside Hatchet Green, where I stopped for a banana break among the dead Coopers and Baileys. I also shared it with the birds and the breeze in the air. Bliss indeed! The Hale Parish Council has some interesting cemetery rules. For instance “Any memorial not kept in proper repair by the owners thereof, will become forfeited and may be removed by the council”. The owner, I assume, is NOT the buried one! And “Coffins of wood or wicker will only be allowed” so no environmentally friendly cardboard boxes then. A couple of favourites though: “Double depth graves can be purchased” and “Kerbstones [instead of gravestones] will not be permitted.”

I returned to the path, intending to turn right, just before the end of the map at North Charford but I missed the turning and ended up standing on a muddy hill confronted by a herd of cows and looking down on a cluster of buildings with a Norman tower peeking out from behind them. Having no idea where this was as I’d fallen off the edge of my map, I decided to walk into town to get my bearings.

Downton Moot

I arrived in downtown Downton and stood before the previously unheard of Downton Moot. This was originally a Norman earthwork castle built by the Bishop of Winchester, brother of King Stephen in the 12th century. Now it’s a lovely grassy, circular depression in the ground, freshly mowed and very inviting. I would have liked to have rested here for a bit but time was pressing and I had no idea how to get back on track. Of course I popped over to St Laurence’s, as I was there, but it was locked up as tight as an Irish church so I headed out of town in vaguely the direction I thought was right.

The road out of Downton is narrow and irksome, with cars racing round the blind corners and narrowly missing silly people who walk and I eagerly searched for a footpath going off to the right. Eventually a tree tunnel presented itself and I gladly took off up it. I landed in some unknown village and just kept finding more paths going the (roughly) right way. Finally I came to a stile.

Frustrated I sat atop it, weighing up my options. I’d been walking for miles, basically lost. I figured Woodgreen was somewhere off to my right but the paths I was following seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Then I looked into the field opposite and saw a familiar herd of cows watching me with typical bovine nonchalance. Just beyond them was a cluster of buildings with a Norman tower…wait one God damn minute! I was back on the muddy hill overlooking Downton about 15 feet behind where I’d walked into town. I’d managed to circle the town – taking the longest route – and now happily jumped off the stile and set off back along the Avon Path towards Woodgreen.

By the way, my opinion on the direction of Woodgreen was out by about 90°!

Footpath back to Woodgreen

Retracing my steps I did find the path I’d meant to take but ignored it as time was passing. Instead of taking the Avon Path ALL the way back, I turned off at Hatchet Green, passed the oddly named ‘Old Dame’s School, House’ (which appears to be a private house) and followed a lovely (though muddy) bridle path up to Hale and through Strickland’s plantation. I made it back to the cottage by 1:15 so, in plenty of time…well, with 45 minutes to spare, anyway.

Mirinda took one look at my mud-encased legs and insisted I take a shower before attempting to talk to her. Cleaned and relaxed, we sat outside in the sun for a bit then she read me what she’d written today.

Bob and Claire had driven into Lyndhurst to visit the museum and returned at about 3:30. At 4pm, Mirinda declared we were off to Exbury Gardens. Claire declared she was not so the three of us pootled off, leaving her to put her feet up.

Exbury Gardens is the ‘home of the Rothschild collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias’. In a word it’s pretty breathtaking. And what a perfect time to visit. All flourishing and alive with scent, bees and wheelchairs.

It’s interesting to learn a bit of the Rothschild history so here goes: Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) married Gutle Schnapper (what a great name, though it does sound like something you’d use to fasten a girdle) in 1770 (just as Captain Cook discovered us) and they had five sons. These sons settled in Frankfurt, Vienna, London, Naples and Paris where their financial prowess saw them quickly become established and their houses grew.

Exbury was started in 1919 by Lionel, great grandson of Nathan, the son who started the London house. Lionel has been described as a ‘banker by hobby and a gardener by profession’. Although Exbury was (and still is) the work of many people (obviously), Lionel was mad for hybrids and he created many new rhododendrons and azaleas.

Big rhodis

The garden is massive – 250 acres of some of the biggest flowering tress and bushes I’ve ever seen. It is way too big for one visit though there is a motorised bus for the lazy visitor and Bob was keen on using a wheelchair if Mirinda agreed to push it. This suggestion was laughed off so we strolled aimlessly for a bit until we found the history tree (or ‘the stump’ as Mirinda so nicely put it) which, being occupied, we passed by with nary a glance on our way to the dog graves.

These eight little memorials each mark the passing of eight different and beloved dogs. All very cute. Like “Fudge: As dear and as sweet as his name”. Ahhh.

We kept walking until we reached the Arromanche Plaque by the edge of the Solent. Removing yet another degree of separation, this plaque commemorates the D-Day landings and the fact that Exbury House was requisitioned by the admiralty in 1942. It was involved in the ‘victualling, arming and training of the landing crews and for much of the planning’. The plaque itself was originally at Arromanche but was replaced by a new one in 2002 so Exbury asked to have the old one. Not sure why they needed a new one at Arromanche, unless it had to be in French. I don’t remember seeing it.

Time was rapidly approaching the 5:30 shut down mark, so we took the river walk back, stopping at the history tree. This is a slice of a 300 year old tree, felled in the Second Great Storm of 1990. World events have been marked at the various rings to indicate the size of the tree at these times though the Great Drought of 1976 has been left off. Nice to see my birthday was included. They even know who planted it but I was too stupid to write it down, thinking incorrectly, that it just might be mentioned in the guide book or on their website…no such luck. I guess we’ll have to go back…

We then managed to get back to the exit by closing time and left the car-park to start the long journey back.

On reaching Woodgreen it was deemed appropriate to down a few pints of Horse and Groom at the Horse and Groom so we visited with Jack in the mellow surroundings for a spell before continuing on to the cottage.

I made my baked pork chops but without the fennel which, for some reason, is too exotic for Fordingbridge. We then sat down and watched an incredibly exciting Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan which ended 3-3 and was decided on penalties. I almost felt sorry for AC Milan…though, of course, we would have beaten them in normal time…needless to say, Mirinda did not find it exciting.

Oh, by the way, the History Tree didn’t really include my birthday…

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