After visiting my friend Jill in Brockenhurst I had to go to Somerset. I usually travel by the A 36 which is a pleasant route squeezed between the Wylie valley and Salisbury Plain. However, this time I decided to go north-west to Salisbury up one of the side roads. (A3078 and A3080.) I immediately drove into more forest followed by the heathland with a scattering of ponies.

However, the real treasure on the trip was the village of Hale. The village lies a few miles south of Salisbury on the river Avon, which seems to be coming from everywhere. I assume there are meandering alternative courses to this river, and very charming it is.

Alongside the stream there used to be a large tannery, which has now been converted into a block of flats and a whole estate of houses.

There is a large preponderance of thatched cottages in the village, one of which was being re-thatched as I passed.

There are charming old world cottages, friendly hostelries, and a quaint school building with an interesting bell tower. It is a village to wander around leisurely, dream by the river, and maybe stop awhile for an unhurried meal.

And just to the north is the ancient city of Salisbury, with its cathedral looking for all the world as if it sits amongst the fields.

The A 36 along the Wylie valley is a pleasant road, but this is better.


I am particularly fond of this part of England. It is rural England at its most beautiful and romantic. One of my favourite roads is the A272 from Winchester to Uckfield. It is inspiring in spring, it is picturesque in summer, and it is magnificent in autumn. But on this journey I merely cross the road at what is known as The West Meon Hut.

The name is thought to go back to the days when a building here was used as a shelter for drovers. There are indeed other places with similar names, such as the Leckford Hut. All part of a more ancient history when this part of the world was even more rural than it is today.

At last I come to Wickham. I stop here as there is a certain resonance for me in this place. At the age of ten my mother did something awful. She sent me off to boarding school, and the school she chose was supposedly the best in the country, Winchester College. It was a truly horrifying experience for a small child: to have one’s bed soaked with a bucket of water so I had to sleep huddled in my raincoat, to be dangled on a rope outside a window, to be scared to ever use the lavatories. It was a relief when my parents separated a year later and I entered the state school system.

We old boys are called Wykehamists, for the simple reason that the school was founded in the fourteenth century by the bishop of Winchester, who was born in Wykeham (as it was spelt back in the time of Chaucer), and was therefore known as William of Wykeham. I thought I ought to stop awhile a have a look around.

It’s a large village, and most of it looked a bit boring to me. The centre is more interesting, but what I found more interesting still was a website with a whole mass of pictures taken over a period of nearly ninety years covering almost the whole of the nineteenth century.’s%20photos/

There is also a music festival in the village during the first weekend in august. Good grief, they even have Sandie Shaw performing. Streuth! That’s going back a bit. Does she still do her act without shoes?

Ladies War Effort

Just up the road is a vineyard. It is supposedly set on the site of a Roman vineyard, so the tradition of wine making goes way back.

About twenty-five years ago I was approached by Ivor Samuels, who was trying to drum up support for a vineyard venture in the Duras region of France. That’s next door to the Bordeaux region. The idea was for a group of us to put up money for the purchase of a run down vineyard, and in return we became members entitled to buy 30 cases of the wine produced at a reduced price. The project was called Wineshare.

The idea appealed to me, and I joined up. I didn’t make it to the inaugural celebrations as there was a bit of a scene at the bottom of the stairs. The event was held in the RAC club building in Pall Mall, a poncey establishment. I turned up as the usual John Clare, and was stopped at the bottom of the stairs by some officious geezer in a silly uniform. Apparently I had committed the cardinal sin of appearing through those hallowed portals without a tie. I laughed. You’re joking. I haven’t worn a tie since I left school.

I decided to use my belt as a tie, and a bit of a scene ensued, and I went home. Ivor, rather kindly came over a few days later to Ealing, where I was then living, and brought a couple of bottles of wine from a neighbouring vineyard so I could gauge the type of wine they would be producing, and I duly joined up. Wineshare was formed. Four years later we started drinking the wine. And rather good it was too.

25 years later Michel, the vintner at the vineyard, is retiring, which is alarming, as he has over the years consistently produced first rate wines which have garnered gold and silver medals galore. The red is a classic, the whites are superb, and the rosés have a quality which makes them wonderful quaffable summer wines when young, but they also manage to mature into something more akin to a lighter red wine as they age. I only hope Michel’s successor can keep up the standard.

Back to the plot. About three years ago the owners of the vineyard at Wickham bought out Wineshare and thus became part of the group, and I thought it was time I popped in to taste their wines.

I trudged through the vineyard, which, despite the rain, was well drained and not too wet. I noticed they have stoves in the vineyard to keep the air warm when there is a fierce frost.  I peeped into the small chais, and then repaired to the shop to taste the wines.

I have to admit I have not yet acquired a taste for English wines. I did buy a couple of bottles of one of the whites to try out with my evening meal, but that’s another story.


Continuing my trip through Hampshire, I passed close to the famous village of Selborne. Back in the eighteenth century the vicar of Selborne was a keen observer of the local flora and fauna, and kept copious notes on his observations, which were eventually published as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in 1789. I was surprised to learn that this small book has become the fourth most published book in the English language, and apparently it has never been out of print, running to nearly 300 editions.

These days you can get the book for free as it is published as part of the classic collection for Kindle by Amazon.

The old vicarage is now owned by a charity and can be visited by the public. The gardens are open as well, and on certain days there are some interesting events which take place on the premises. Last weekend I had intended to go back and visit the Rare Plants Festival, which takes place every year on the third weekend of June. Unfortunately the weather has been so appalling that I decided not to bother. On the saturday we had bursts of sunshine interspersed with torrential downpours of rain, and it was seriously cold. On the sunday there were still intermittent showers, but also a fierce cold wind, and we were all trotting about wrapped up in pullovers, coats and scarfs, and waving umbrellas. What a dreadful summer.

The house also contains a small museum devoted to Captain Lawrence Oates. Let me quote from an article on the house website:

“Captain Lawrence Oates is best remembered as the man who walked willingly to his death on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912 in the hope that his comrades might have a better chance of surviving. Oates famous last words, “I am just going outside and may be some time” were uttered before he stepped out into a blizzard never to be seen again. His body has never been found.  2012 will mark the centenary of his tragic death.”

The stuff of legend. His action has become a parable for the once famous British spirit. Presumably next year there will be celebrations to mark the centenary. It would be petty of me to finish by saying that I hope the weather for that event will be kinder. Perhaps instead I had better hide my head in shame that I complain so much when the summer temperatures dont make it above the mid teens. I feel suitably ashamed. But isn’t that what these legends are all about. Captain Oates, I salute you!


Devil’s Punchbowl

Just to the south of the A31 is the A3, the old Portsmouth Road. Approaching Hindhead, which is the highest village in Surrey, the road winds around the top of a large depression called the Devil’s Punchbowl.

There are several silly legends about this picturesque hole in the ground. The name dates back at least to the eighteenth century. One story has it that the Devil became so irritated by all the churches being built in Sussex that he decided to dig a channel from the sea through the South Downs so as to flood the area. As he began digging, he threw up great mounds of earth which became local landmarks: Mount Caburn, Rackham Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, and so on. Apparently he got as far as Poynings (a place called Devil’s Dyke, naturally) when he was disturbed by a cock crowing. Apparently St Dunstan was praying for all the cocks to start crowing early that day. As a result of this the Devil thought dawn was coming, and he jumped into Surrey, and made a great hole where he landed. That hole is supposedly the Devil’s Punchbowl.

Quite why Surrey was a safe haven I dont know, presumably there were not many churches there. Perhaps the Devil even lived in Surrey in those days. Obviously this is a tale that originated in Sussex, and the blame is put on Surrey for everything that goes wrong. I dont know who makes up this rubbish, but it is at least entertaining.

Another legend has it that in his spare time, the Devil hurled lumps of earth at the god Thor to annoy him. The hollow he scooped the earth out of became the Punch Bowl. The local village of Thursley means Thor’s place.

Even better is the story that two giants clashed in the area, and one, scooping up earth to throw at the other, created this great hole, and then missed the other giant, instead creating the Isle of Wight where the earth landed. (I’d like to see someone fit the Isle of Wight back into the Devil’s Punchbowl.) Anyway, it’s all good fun.



As I am back in the UK I am going to continue with my occasional series of Clare’s Counties.

Last week I travelled down to The New Forest to see a friend I’ve known since my schooldays. Having cleared the western straggle of London I hit the A31. This is quite an interesting road.

Between Guildford and Farnham it runs along the crest of a ridge for several miles with wide-reaching views on both sides. It’s called The Hogs Back.

The other side of Farnham the road runs down to Alton, over the border in Hampshire. It’s just another small country town, but it does have a special interest for me. To show why, I have to go back to when I was about nine years old.

My cousin and I were keen fans of ancient record players. We amassed quite a collection, and I’m only sorry that it seems to have been lost over the years. We had a nice wind-up gramophone which was shaped like an attaché case. Another was quite large, and had an enormous detachable horn. Another was so old that it took records shaped like jam jars. They came in highly coloured containers. Unscrew the top, slide out the jar, and slip it over something shaped like a shortened rolling pin so it revolved vertically. In short, this machine played cylindrical records instead of disc-shaped records. This machine was called a graphaphone.


I’ve managed to find a picture of one. As you can see, it’s pretty old. They were first invented in 1881, and were originally worked by a foot pedal. Later versions were powered by a handle.

With these machines came masses of ancient records. We had a whole heap of Victor Silvester, the Savoy Quartet, loads of Harry Lauder, and the prize item, a one-sided shellac recording dating from 1908, made by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Treloar, which was a plea for donations to help him start up a hospital and school for crippled children in Alton. The museum at Alton has a copy, and I have a copy. I dont think there are any others in existence.

Just off the A31 is the village of Selborne, made famous by the eighteenth century vicar who wrote his Natural History of Selborne, which was first published in 1789. It is believed to be the fourth most published book in the language after Shakespeare, the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary.

But I’m going to leave Selborne to next week’s episode as there is The Rare Plants Festival being held there next weekend (18/19 June). If the weather can get itself together I shall be there. Maybe we’ll meet. You cant miss me with that tangled hair-style of mine, and I wouldn’t say no to an offer of a cream bun.


Back in the UK

I am back in the UK for a short stay. I’ve been here a week and initially the culture shock was severe. I was frozen, and went about wearing a pullover and a coat. The weather briefly improved, but my garden is now soaking and I am going to have to put the heating on this evening. I cant face UK weather any more.

I have a place on the edge of London which backs onto a four acre pond, so it is very secluded, and is pure joy in the summer. (If we get any summer. Summer seems to come in spring these days.) It can be a bit damp and dismal in the winter. But the wild life is great. There are hedgehogs, very rich bird life, and of course foxes, and a small muntjack deer.

Unfortunately the neighbour wants to put up a fence. Maybe I can cut a hole in it to allow the deer and the foxes to get through, otherwise I shall miss them.

I am seriously thinking of selling this place. So if you are interested, there is a two bed bungalow on the western outskirts of London, very secluded, up for sale. You cant see another house, but the property is 500 yards from the nearest road, so it is access on foot after that. If you’re interested, email me.

Next week I shall start travelling around to see what’s happening here. The main news seems to be that London at least is thriving, but we shall see. I will try and gauge the property market, but most of the news is that rentals are good and sale prices in the South-East have stabilised, and they are rising in London.