‘ In the middle of the journey of our life,
I found myself astray in a dark wood,
Where the straight road had been lost sight of ‘
Dante Alghieri – Canto 1 of the Divine Comedy.
Well D-Day finally arrived after 9 months of wistful musing, bouts of frustration (as planned departure dates were postponed), renewed optimism (as new plans germinated) and a final month of frenetic activity including kit purchasing, accommodation booking and extensive training. Well actually forget the bit about extensive training as there wasn’t any apart from a knackering 40 mile walk from Winterbourne Stoke to Winchester. In all honesty, my training comprised nothing more energetic than a gentle daily stroll with our dogs, Puzzle and Islay! So I am crossing my fingers that my creaking 57 year old body is up to the rigours of the journey ahead!
This morning I woke at 5am and immediately began thinking about a strange incident which occurred a couple of months ago, the significance of which, at the time, escaped me. It concerned a bird which alighted in the church yard at St Peter’s and a strange inscription on one of it’s legs. More of that in a subsequent blog!
After an interview about my walk with Jonathan Fido of BBC Radio Wiltshire, we enjoyed a rousing service at St Peter’s, conducted by the Reverend Jonathan Plows, who has been a great help supporting and publicising my charity walk to Rome.
There were over 30 people at the service to see me off. The service included a blessing of the keys that I am taking with me to St Peter’s, an impromptu appearance by ‘Puzzle‘ our 6 month working cocker spaniel who proceeded to run riot towards the end of the service, and a stirring final hymn of ‘ He Who Would Valiant Be’ ( by John Bunyan which includes the immortal line “There’s no discouragement, Shall make him once relent, His first avowed intent, To be a Pilgrim”) which was sung with great gusto in the churchyard
After a final mug of coffee at The Old Rectory, and a ceremonial first stamp in my Pilgrim Passport, we bade fond farewell to family, friends ‘Puzzle‘ and ‘Islay‘ and embarked on our merry way towards Pitton.
Olivia returned to The Old Rectory at the end of the day’s walk, somewhat battered and bruised. 30 minutes into the walk she tripped over a boot lace, went flying and ended up in a crumpled heap on the track above Asserton Farm with a bloodied knee. Tight ill fitting boots added insult to injury, and by the time we reached Pitton in the late afternoon, Olivia was hobbling in pain nursing a king sized blister on her foot.
Our route initially took us south via the Druid’s Lodge Estate, owned by the Guinness family of brewing fame. It is currently a large 2,500 acre farming estate and home to the Druid’s Lodge polo club. But a little over a 100 years ago, Druid’s Lodge was the location for a notorious racing stables known as the “Druids’ Lodge Confederacy” or the “Hermits of Salisbury Plain.”
Owned by an eclectic group of gamblers and trainers, they became the scourge of the nation’s bookmakers. The group of five was headed by Alan Percy Cunliffe, an Old Etonian whose brother was Governor of the Bank of England, and also included Irishmen Wilfred Bagwell Purefoy an aristocratic breeder and music hall investor, Edward A. Wigan, Frank Forester and Holmer Peard, a noted vet. Their betting coups became the talk of the racing fraternity, shrouded in mystery and speculation. The remoteness of the stables enabled them to train their horses in complete secrecy; any inquisitive visitors would have been noticed and given short shrift. Stable lads were locked up at night and often didn’t know the identity of the horses they were riding nor any idea of the weights they carried. They bought many horses in Ireland and developed them with Jack Fallon, also an Irishman, as trainer and later in 1906 by Tom Lewis.
They pulled off some spectacular betting coups, making them the terror of the bookmakers. Buying horses for small sums at the sales or horses that had shown little form, they built up their capabilities on the Druids’ Lodge gallops entering them in handicap races at weights that made good betting propositions. It was subsequently found that the Confederacy had cleaned up a sum of £100,000 in all, an amount which in today’s money that would be in excess of £9.5 million.
Hackler’s Pride was their most successful horse in terms of winning them the money, but in the 1913 Derby, (known as “The Suffragette Derby” because leading suffragette Emily Davison was killed when she tried to grab the reins of the King’s horse Anmer) Cunliffe’s horse Aboyeur was declared the winner when Craganour was disqualified.
The 1914-18 war put an end to the Confederacy, the bookmakers breathing a sigh of relief that their nightmare was over.
After crossing the Druid’s Lodge Estate we descended into the Woodford Valley via the picture postcard villages of Upper and Middle Woodford and then via a footpath past Little Durnford Manor.
This part of Wiltshire, just 5 miles outside Salisbury, is positively teeming with opulent residences including Lake House, an Elizabethan mansion, currently owned by the musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler,. This was where in the early 1990s. Sting wrote and recorded his albums Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling. Fields of Gold was apparently inspired by his love of the surrounding fields and the wildflower meadow beside the house.
Sadly we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have the time to drop in and see Sting and Trudie. We did, however, pass through Stratford sub Castle, a small village nestled below the site of the ancient hillfort of Sarum and its rather magnificent church of St Lawrence, which seemed disproportionately large in relation to the small village.
And therein lies a tale connected to one of the most illustrious families in British Parliamentary history, one of the most corrupt and infamous rotten boroughs in the country and possibly the world’s largest diamond! As we walked past the church we came to Mawarden Court, the childhood home of William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham and English Prime Minister from 1766-1768.
William Pitt’s grandfather was a chap called Thomas Pitt, who has gone down in history with the soubriquet ‘Diamond’ Pitt. It was he who financed the lavish expansion of the Church of St Lawrence in 1713 with the proceeds of the sale of the world’s largest diamond! While working for the East India Company as the Governor of Madras, in 1701 he purchased a 410 carat diamond from an English sea captain, who had stolen it from the servant of a local ruler.
Pitt bought the diamond for 48,000 pagodas or £20,400, and sent it back to England in 1702 concealed inside his eldest son, Robert’s shoe. For two years from 1704–1706, the famous London jeweller, Harris, worked away cutting a 141 carat (28.2 g) cushion brilliant from the rough stone. Several secondary stones were produced from the cut that were sold to Peter the Great of Russia. After many attempts to sell it to various European royals, including Louis XIV of France, Pitt and his sons went with the diamond to Calais in 1717. With John Law acting as agent, it was sold that year to the French regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, for £135,000, becoming one of the crown jewels of France. Today, “Le Régent”, as it came to be known, remains in the French Royal Treasury at the Louvre, where it has been on display since 1887. It is arguably the most beautiful and purest diamond in the world.
For the Pitt family, their interest in Mawarden (which was once the Vicarage) lay in Old Sarum. As a defunct medieval borough, it retained the right to send two members to Parliament, although, by the 17th century, nobody was actually living there. Votes were cast by the absentee tenants of burgage plots, appointed by the lord of the manor. For this reason, it was the most notorious rotten borough in the kingdom.
We reached Salisbury at around 3pm and made a bee line for the Cathedral to acquire my first bona fide stamp in my Pilgrim Passport. Or so I thought! Sadly the Cathedral was closed to visitors (including pilgrims) we were informed in no uncertain terms by a chap who claimed to be the verger. This was something of a disappointment but there was little we could about it. It looks like I’ll have to wait a bit longer for that first bona fide pilgrim stamp!
We followed the Clarendon Way towards Winchester passing by the ruins of the Clarendon Palace, owned by the King of England in the early middle ages when it was the site of the largest deer park in the country. There are now just a few scattered stones as well as a rather incongruous flock of llamas which are used to keep the vegetation under control.
Clarendon Palace was the scene of two important events during the reign of King Henry II. The first event was the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 which attempted to restrict the privileges of the English clergy, a move that was fiercely resisted by Archbishop Thomas Becket and ultimately led to his murder in 1170 after Henry’s intemperate outburst ,“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” , was answered by four knights who rode to Canterbury and hacked Becket to death in Canterbury Cathedral as he presided over Vespers on the 29th December 1170. The other event connected to Clarendon Palace was the Assize of Clarendon in 1166 which was the first attempt by a Norman king to formulate criminal law and procedure.
Our destination for the day was the small village of Pitton which we reached at 5pm. On arrival we were surprised to find that a massive party was taking place in the field behind the village hall. We passed a bemused looking youth with what appeared to be a large python casually draped around his shoulders ambling towards the picnic area. Had word of my pilgrimage spread to Pitton? Had an impromptu welcome party been prepared for us? Sadly not – inquiries suggested that it was the Pitton Carnival Picnic, replete with jazz band , cocktail bar and bouncy castle.
Tempting though it was to gate crash the Carnival Picnic for a well earned pint, we had made the elementary schoolboy error of not bringing any cash with us! Needless to say, the bar and the ice cream van were ‘cash only’. So we stoically walked back past the merry village revellers to reach our final destination – the White Hill Farm Caravan Site. Ah well, I am sure there will be other opportunities to savour local hospitality over the next 7 weeks and foster “l’entente cordiale”. But for this evening I am forsaking the delights of the Pitton Carnival Picnic in favour of a less sybaritic night under canvas and a hearty MRE ( meal ready to eat) consisting of a chicken burrito and sticky toffee pudding – (a far cry from the stodgy compo rations I dimly remember from floundering around Salisbury Plain in freezing weather on CCF exercises in the late 70s!)
As Napoleon once famously said – “c’est la soupe qui fait la soldat”. – which roughly translates as “An army (or in my case a pilgrim soldier) marches on its stomach!