I have written a before about Downton on the River Avon in Wiltshire, and the New Forest which is nearby. Here is a link to a map showing it outlined in red, and you can see that it crosses the three English counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire, very close to the Isle of Wight.
I stayed with kind and hospitable relatives in the village of Downton. It used to have a tan yard and still boasts the remains of a Saxon Moot (Mote, or meeting place) with a rarely surviving amphitheatre. If you read the rather amazing novel ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind you will get a graphic account of the scent that must have pervaded the town where they tanned the leather in those days. It also has an impressive range of trees; mainly beech, yew and elm.
Four Matildas and three Henrys – a little history
Situated on the edge of the New Forest (or Nova Foresta) it was William I, the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and husband of Queen Mathilda (1032-1083 of Flanders) who created this 30 square miles of private hunting ground for their use in 1079.
‘William I was described as a tough, brave, inspirational and religious man. This invasion by the Normans changed much of the Anglo-Saxon way of life that was being established here. French became the language of the upper classes, cow meat became known as beef and swine became known as gammon; murder became a crime and slavery was abolished.’ from William the Conqueror and the New Forest
‘Empress Matilda’ was named Adelaide at birth in 1102. Daughter of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland, she was only aged 11 years when she was married to Henry of Germany, 20 years her senior. That was when she became Matilda. Her husband Henry was crowned Holy Roman Emperor which is why she became Empress Matilda. Made the first Queen of England by her dad but never officially known as that, she was nevertheless in charge of Normandy in Northern France and had claims to land and fortifications, namely Downton Castle.
Mother to Henry II of England by her second marriage to Henry of Anjou (at 15 years old he was 10 years her junior), she maintained her links with the church and the matter of pilgrimage by bringing the Hand of St James (titular head of the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain) back to England (now in Reading museum) and turned out to be great at supporting monasteries (eg Bordesley Cisercian Abbey, Worcestershire)
In the mid 12th century she was engaged in the civil war with Stephen her cousin, in and out of Oxford, incidentally married to another Matilda (of Boulogne), who then won Downton from her.
One of Empress Matilda’s good friends was Lanfranc, prior of her favourite religious house, the Abbey Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. He was her children’s tutor, and when she died (aged 65 years) she was originally buried there (later her bones were transferred to Rouen Cathedral where they remain).
Walk 1 featuring Eyeworth Pond
We began our first day’s walk at Telegraph Hill, the highest point of the New Forest and once the site of a beacon which was used ‘as a form of communication, in chains up and down the country to act as alarm systems in case the country was invaded. They were placed on elevated positions to make them easily visible for miles around.’ It was said ‘that in 1588 it took 12 hours for the news that the Spanish Armada had been sighted to travel from the south coast of England all the way to York.’ National Trust page.
There was ice in the puddles and streams, and wet squidge underfoot in places. Thankfully we were wrapped up warmly against the cold wind.
Sixty million years ago, I was told, this forest was a tropical sea and it sits today on a bed of chalk with flint, reminiscent of my native Kentish Downs and therefore hosting similar flora and fauna.
It was fascinating hearing anecdotes from my hosts for whom the forest was the site of family parties when the children were growing up. Like all good adventure tales there was the game of Cargoes where teams have camps on either side of the burn and are charged with routing the other’s territory.
We sloshed our way across the landscape, past the Eyeworth pond to The Royal Oak in Fritham for a half of bitter and delicious lunch.
Around the table stories were recounted, notably of the traditional Mummers Play (a medieval theatrical) which comes to this hostelry, ‘in which a champion is killed in a fight and is then brought to life by a doctor’. A scene was painted for me, of the play being performed with a glass of ale in one hand, and I could imagine it clearly in this traditional setting.
As a young teenager, I participated in a Mummers Play – back section of the dragon wearing swimming flippers and processing through the town. It was to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of our primary school, and resulted in terribly sore bits at the fronts of my ankles where I still have scars!
Walk 2, in which we came across Shetland ponies
On day two we visited the wonderfully named Godshill Pit, this time in Hampshire. It was misty and raining with, once again, ice in puddles and between blades of grass. Copper water bubbled over orange flints beside bronze bracken as we leapt soggy brooks and landed on springy peat turf. Aside from this, it really was very deeply squishy under foot!
Down country roads we walked, pitted with puddles; past ancient cottages with mud walls, pigs in oval-roofed huts, alpaca in fields, a delightful Shetland pony (why are they always so delightful?), and many elegant horses attended by adoring women in wellies.
We drove back through Braemore (say Bremmer) with its quaint bridge over several waterways, its dairy, railway station, working blacksmith and post-office. It is an extremely pretty village built of local stone and I was starting to get used to the crowds of donkeys perched by the roadside, tearing off brambles and bracken from the banks. The pub was closed today so hot soup was most welcome on our return.
Thanks go to Angela for preparing special vegetarian food for me; to Mike for cleaning my walking shoes – twice; to both for showing me this wonderful part of the world and telling me stories about it.
Marjorie Morgan McCallum Chibnall OBE FBA was an English historian, medievalist and Latin translator. She wrote the first fully comprehensive biography of Matilda to be published in English in 1961.
Very interesting paper about Empress Matilda (A Study of Succession, Gender and Power in the 12th Century)
The seal above and some information was taken from the Reading Museum site