The Wayfarer’s Walk runs high across the downland a mile to the south of the Castle. It is an ancient way or “drove” which, in totality, is about 70 to 80 miles long. The track or walk by us is referred to in the Anglo-Saxon charters of 749AD but probably predated that by centuries.
Striding along the Wayfarers, you are walking in the steps of others who have walked for centuries along this same track, whether in company or on their own. Pilgrims have walked through this landscape on their way to Winchester alongside drovers heading to market, urging their livestock forwards before it became dark. Thus these paths carry memories as they wind though the chalk downland and, as long as we keep walking the paths, they will not disappear nor become overgrown.
Today, needless to say, most of us do not walk nearly enough. It is not merely good for our physical wellbeing but also our mental health. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote “I can only meditate when I am walking, when I stop I cease to think, my mind only works with my legs.”
As I start to climb the track, there are open fields of flints and stones as much as soil and a brown hare flattens itself into an invisible shape in the stubble ready to jink and run. Scatters of sheep graze in the fields falling away from the heights while brightly plumaged pheasants boldly cross the track just in front. There is a point where I have to make a choice whether to look left towards the woods, or right down through a grove towards the foot of Beacon Hill. Robert Frost wrote:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
I decide to take the track leading past oak and mixed woodland to the groves of beech trees. Walking through the rutted tracks, the woods have their own peace. Perhaps it is the sense of continuity as we pass underneath or perhaps it is the oxygen and water they give us: they create their own atmosphere. Walk in the woods for your health – clean, cool air and fewer pollutants. The trees have their own communities: their root structures are twice as large as the canopies that we see and they too have their own communities.
Fungi filaments tap into the roots, absorbing nutrients. They transmit information through chemical compounds and electrical impulses preparing, as far as they are able, for times of stress. Perhaps counter intuitively, trees growing together with less light work better for the long term. They grow more slowly and live longer producing thicker, more impenetrable bark. Furthermore ,older trees grow faster than young trees – they are more productive. Hope for us all!
Walking through a glade of beeches planted about 1730, the fungi disappear and there is just a thick carpet of leaves underfoot. These trees cast off all their leaves in order to survive the winter winds: by reducing their surface area the trees are more able to absorb the winter gusts and by standing together they are better able to bend and rebound.The life span of a tree is so much longer than ours – a different perspective and still coping with challenges.
I used to ride up here with my friend Camilla and others will walk it long after all of us have gone. So I chose the track travelled by friends and that makes all the difference.