The eve of my birthday took us to Hampshire and the South Downs for a seven mile walk from Beacon Hill to Old Winchester Hill (which you can just see on the horizon).
After Dartmoor and the Cornish coast, the southern English downs provide some of my favourite walks. They roll and undulate like cresting sea creatures, lifting you up to their silent summits before dropping away again, leaving you agog at the views. To be up on the downs is to be closer to the gods, as I think the ancients knew. Like so many before me, it's where I go to yearn.
Well-trodden paths lead on to old places.
Poisonous-looking plants hang in hedgerows. Secretive yellowhammers call for 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'.
You never want to tarry long because there's always something interesting round the corner.
Eventually we arrived at the foot of Old Winchester Hill. It's a nature reserve, topped with Bronze Age barrows and a much later Iron Age Hillfort. An easy climb took us to the top.
The views are stunning, not that these photos really do them justice. It could be the top of the world for all I know.
We sat in the lea of a barrow for tea and flapjack, but our rest was cut short by ticks, horrid onomatopoeias.
Old Winchester Hill is not only famous for its archaeology, butterflies and wildflowers but for the yew wood that hugs its sides. It's a restful and slightly eerie place. Nothing grows over those poisonous roots.
The last time I was there I slept in this wood. It was April 1996, the height of the road-protests and not long after my eviction from Newbury. Someone called a gathering, a magical gathering at Old Winchester Hill, and word spread quickly. What happened has gone down in legend.
According to our protesters' magical-realist mythology, a great sleeping dragon stretched out across the downs, from Saint Catherine's Hill at Winchester to Old Winchester Hill, the spirit of the land. The great scar of the M3 motorway cutting through Twyford Down had not only ravaged a site of great beauty and scientific interest: it had also severed the dragon's head. Like characters from a forgotten Anglo-Saxon epic, we endeavoured to put things right. A friend explains:
When you cut the tail off a lizard it grows another one. So having cut the head off the body and the tail of the dragon, it was then able to grow another one. We went to the original head of the dragon at St Catherine's Hill, and camped there for a few nights and had a massive party on the last night. We had a big fire and there was full-on singing and drumming and fire-swirling and everything. The next morning we pilgrimaged fourteen miles along the body of the dragon, over the broken neck, carrying some of the coals from the fire that we'd lit before. We lit another fire at a place called Beacon Hill, and then down to Winchester Hill, which was in effect the tail of the dragon, which was renamed as the head of the dragon. And it was incredible when we got there, cos hundreds of people turned up, many more people than had done the walk. It was so obvious that this was the new head, this was where the energy was.
I was one of the people there to greet the pilgrims. I remember fire and face-painting, and a wickerwork dragon's head with great big eyes that we processed to the end of the hill with bagpipes and drums. There was a play, and at its climax, a lunar eclipse where everything went blood red. And afterwards I fell asleep to the sound of the wind sussurating through those ancient yews.
Were we healing the land or ourselves? Was there really a dragon? I don't know. I'm not sure it matters. But Old Winchester Hill remains the kind of place where legends are made. Going there changes you.
But I do remember this. The Dongas Tribe, the original road-protesters at Twyford Down, made a wickerwork dragon sculpture that they placed at Old Winchester Hill. In one of those curious pieces of synchronicity, when we got there to do our dragon-healing ritual we found that while it was otherwise intact, the head was nowhere to be found...