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.
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.