It is after ten and it has been another long day after a night of little sleep. I couldn’t settle for some reason, tossing and turning and listening to the bangs and rumbles in the street as the wind whipped anything that was loose into motion. I could have done with the sleep to as there was to be a long drive ahead this morning. For the second time in as many weeks my son and I were heading into London and once again there would be no museums, just an appointment with an orthotics company. This time, however, we did manage to see some wonderful bits of British history as we drove. Of course, with both hands on the wheel and a fixed appointment time, I couldn’t take pictures, though many of these places I know well and have visited before.
It is quite amazing really… over the distance we covered, we saw remnants and majesty from so many periods of time. Our journey ran alongside the Ridgeway to begin with, a prehistoric high way, stil in use today. The first landmark to greet us was Cymbeline’s Castle, a hill that is a very special place for me and Stuart France, and central to the story of The Initiate. That one small patch of landscape alone holds traces of Man’s presence from the Iron Age, through the Roman and medieval, right up to the present day.
A few minutes later and we passed the huge symbol cut into the chalk of the hillside known as Whiteleaf Cross… a deeply trenched artwork of uncertain age that looks like a triangle surmounted by a cross. These figures are strange and mysterious; needing to be ‘scoured’ every few years to preserve the whiteness of the chalk, the figures change over time… sometimes deliberately being altered by the prevailing faith of the region. Here too are burial mounds and aeons of history and mystery. And it was probably here that Stuart and I had realised for the first time that something really odd was going on with the red kites… And there were kites soaring there again today, in spite of the gales and rain.
A couple of miles beyond Whiteleaf we passed ‘Hawk Hill’… which plays such a huge part in the adventures recounted in the books. On its summit the Dashwood Mausoleum poses its questions with every glance. Behind it the enigmatic Golden Ball atop St Lawrence’s church, where Dashwood and his cronies are said to have held card parties. Having climbed that tower and seen the steps, no-one in their right minds would attempt that ascent… and especially not after wine… Beneath the hill are stranger things still, hidden in the chalk-cut maze of caverns known as the Hellfire Caves.
We pass through High Wycombe, past the site of the old castle, and on towards another, still a royal residence after a thousand years. Windsor Castle dominates the skyline, no matter from which direction you approach. One of these days I will get that shot from the end of the Long Walk. Not today, however, as time was ticking on.
Instead we stopped at Runnymede for a late breakfast. Here alone the history of the Isles can be traced in many directions. On the hillside opposite where we parked is the Memorial to John F. Kennedy and the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial. Close by is the river crossing of the old Roman Road. Near the ruins of the Benedictine Priory, a victim of King Henry VIII’s religious reform, is the place where he is said to have met the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. And there, on an island on the Thames, is the place where what was arguably the first ever charter of human rights was signed in 1215 by King John… Magna Carta. The Ankerwycke Yew looks on serenely… these are recent events in its history, after all. The tree is thought to be up to two and a half thousand years old.
The last leg of the journey passed through those small villages that spread and joined long ago to form Greater London, passing the houseboats on the Thames and actor David Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, built in 1756, before glimpsing the magnificent Tudor edifice that is Hampton Court Palace, built in 1529 for Cardinal Wolsey and seized by Henry VIII for himself when his cardinal fell from favour. Through all this the Thames rolls on unperturbed except by its own eddying currents, tracing the flow of history and carrying its memories to the sea.