A gentle day

…quiet things, mostly […] I put on my high boots and set off across the downs. The sun came out as I walked the sodden hills

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Right from the start of my walk today there were high views to the south, gleams of light on the metal sea. Container ships were visible in the far distance. They would be having a rough time of it out there, if it was anything like here; the wind was extremely stiff, and I was glad of the shelter initially provided by a grown-out hedge.

Under a tunnel of trees there were rippling wavelets on the puddles, and an unearthly roaring, like trees in a full-on gale. It made me feel quite unmoored, and skittish. In front of me on the path a cloud of yellowhammers blew into a hazel, and as I passed they blew out again, tumbling frantically in the air, heading into the wind in their efforts to reach the safety of a patch of oak trees. It was gusting 38mph.

There was no trace of the snow after yesterday’s rain, and for the most part the track was solid enough underfoot. I set off at a good pace, unimpeded by slushy puddles or mud; not as fast, though, as the two gents who powered past me and off into the distance, laughing, exhilarated by the insanity of the wind, on their run from Eastbourne to Winchester.

A line of battle-scarred beaches ran in front of a close-formation pine plantation. They were so extraordinarily disfigured by past skirmishes with disease that I had to look closely at the bark and what remained of the leaves on the ground to identify the species. Some had succumbed; there were several dead upright trunks, sodden and moss-covered, decaying where they stood.

The wind tore rips in the clouds to let in an occasional shaft of sunlight, which reacquainted me with my shadow. I felt like cheering.

Mostly it was all about the impact of the view after my previous day on the long winding spine of the Downs when all panoramas had been muffled by the low snow clouds. Now some views were framed

others were expansive, characteristically rolling.

Lines of bare trees which on Tuesday would have been the main focus in the otherwise white world today settled back into their context as the dividing line along scoops of green and brown fields, rough grazing and ploughed land.

The freezing temperatures of the last few days and nights don’t seem to have done anything to dishearten the hawthorn, and the gradually diminishing wind was drying the last droplets of water off the tenderest of new leaves.

The early dog’s mercury, which had been a feature of the old railway line on the Wey and Arun Canal, was here accompanied by bright moss, patches ripped out by birds hunting for insects and perhaps for material with which to line their nests.

Long Down, Small Down, Wether Down and Salt Down formed a tight-knit complex of steeply-sided curving coombes on either side of the ridge on which the South Downs Way ran.

A group of primary school children was on a farm visit. In the yard stood the tractor with the trailer lined with bales of straw for them to sit on later for their ride. The children were listening in fascination to the farmer give an animated orientation talk on the circularity of manure. Arms wheeling illustratively, he explained that ‘we put the manure on the fields, the grass grows, the cows eat it, and then the cows poo it out!’ The children paid me not the slightest attention as I passed by.

The track now grew narrower and ran between fields on either side, later in the season to be planted by the local farmers’ group with a wildflower mix to support the farmland birds such as grey partridge, skylarks and yellowhammer. The mud held the impressions left by my running friends, moving at speed ahead of me. I was making my way rather more carefully now through the slippery mud and grassy puddles.

A steep white path, cut into the chalk and scored by water, led me down off the Downs and into the valley where, absurdly only a kilometre away, lay the village of East Meon to where I would bus back at the end of the day for my night’s accommodation. As I negotiated the descent, I thought of the calcium carbonate which dissolves from the chalk into the water round here, making it very hard. If I picked up one of the chalk fragments and could see it under an electron microscope, I would see the tiny calcified armour plates of the phytoplankton coccolithophores. The seed-like shape of these microscopic organisms and their hard shell, formed of the coccolith plates, is what gives chalk its soft, porous quality. To the sides of the path, a mass of old man’s beard, the lime-loving wild clematis, hung in thick ropes.

As I reached the road the that curved right to East Meon, a triangular sign warned of toads crossing. Much later in the day I was to see a single one, squashed almost flat.

Birds were out in force today after their two days of relative immobility enforced by the weather. Two squabbling chaffinches, a dunnock singing painfully sweetly from an elder tree, wrens clicking their high single notes at each other, staking their claims to their particular thorn brake.

I stopped off at Whitewool Farm fishing lodge café for a (undeserved) thick, creamy mocha, which I drank sitting on tartan cushions by a woodburning stove.

Then there was a stiff climb again out of the valley on an open track lined with bare thorn bushes. I lost count of the number of last year‘s nests revealed to have been hidden there in secret, held by their spikey branches. Some were tiny — wrens’? — beginning to fall apart. The larger nests were lined inside and out with thick, still-living moss.

The takeaway coffee cups, plastic water, bottles, and ginger beer cans stuffed into the branches were a far less welcome sight.

Two and a half millennia ago the Old Winchester nature reserve and Iron Age hillfort was home to a thriving village, and one and a half thousand years before that, Bronze Age people had constructed barrows here. Today, at this time of year, it is home only for the rabbits and the ants, and for grazing sheep. In spring and summer the unimproved chalk downland soil of this SSSI will support a huge number of wildflowers and butterflies, and turtle doves. From the top of the hill fort I had a view over the Solent, a thin grey thread from this distance, all the way to the Isle of Wight.

The Meon Valley was carved by the chalk stream that rises by East Meon. I crossed a tiny, limpid tributary

and walked alongside it for a while on a rooty path

until it fed into the main river at Exton. Later in the year the river will be lush and green above and below the water; for now it was just rather bare.

The Meon led me through Exton, an extraordinarily pretty village built of flint

and that was the last settlement I encountered until the end of the day. I climbed out of the village over stiles caked in mud

and walked out across brown fields.

The top of a testingly steep hillclimb

was perfect for siting a beacon for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012. Its flame would be seen back across all the miles I had so far come today.

I parted ways from the South Downs route at a bend in the road, glad there were two walkers coming towards me, to whom I felt a sense of connection even though we never met. In my mind I wished them well with the rest of their walking endeavours.

The final section of today’s route was a swift walk along a long stretch of road. At the end was New Cheriton, and the long-dreamed-of source of the beautiful River Itchen, one of the prime motives for this walk. Richard, digging his garden to warm himself up in a break from home working, told me that the source had just been cleared by the National Trust. If I had come a month or two ago, he said, I would barely have been able to see it.

As it was, the source of the Itchen did not disappoint. On the contrary, it filled me with a tremendous sense of excitement and expectation for the next two, long days as I follow it from here where it rises from its aquifer, all the way down its 50km length to the sea.

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