14 September 2017
This morning began with a trip to the dentist. Nice as everyone is there, it really isn’t my favourite place in the world so I thought I’d cheer myself up with a little detour on the way home. Usually I turn left when I leave the dentist and head west towards the river. This time I turned right and then immediately right again onto Upper New Road, not entirely sure where it would lead me but happy just to walk and find out. How lost could I get?
If it hadn’t been for the steepness of the hill it might have been a pleasant walk. The road was leafy, with nice houses and well kept gardens. When I came to September Close I almost turned off, partly to break up the climb and partly because of the name. At the last moment I spotted the dead end sign on the street name though so I kept on climbing. At the top I found myself on West End Road, not far from the junction with Church Hill. If I followed it I’d end up back in my village eventually but I was curious about the road ahead, Beacon Road. There is an armarda beacon in the woods at Hatch Grange but I’d passed that long ago on my way to the dentist. Was there another around here somewhere? The only way to find out was to keep walking.
This is a road where the houses all have names rather than numbers and I walked along reading them and wondering how the poor postman coped. I hadn’t gone very far when I came to a curious green corrugated iron house with an arched door. A closer look told me it was actually a church, the West End Free Church. Above the door was a sign, Barbe Baker Hall. Of course I knew all about Richard St Barbe Baker, the forester, environmental activist and founder of Men of the Trees who was born in West End. What I didn’t know was that I was walking along the road where he was born in 1889. The odd little corrugated iron church was built by his father, evangelist John St Barbe Baker. He also set up Baker’s West End Nursery growing trees on an old gravel and sand quarry on his land. Young Richard helped his father at the nursery and it was here his love of trees began.
Unaware of these things, I kept walking up Beacon Road wondering if I was about to suddenly come upon a beacon of some kind. At the top the road curved round to the left and I found myself on Telegraph Road. Suddenly it all made sense. The beacon must be the armarda beacon in Telegraph Woods. Although I knew it was there somewhere and it was a scheduled ancient monument, I’d never seen it. Maybe today was the day to try to find it?
Walking into the woods with the sun shining through tall pine trees, I knew finding the beacon was going to be a difficult task. The wood covers more than fifty acres and, for the most part, the trees are dense, so it’s easy to lose your sense of direction. Often these ancient sites are difficult to discern even when you’re looking at them too. My first stop was the information board I remembered from earlier visits. I took a photograph of the basic map on it with my phone and then stood for a while trying to get my bearings and work out where the beacon was supposed to be.
The trouble is these ancient beacons were basically just big fires, lit to give warning or send signals. They were always on high ground. Some would have been nothing more than mounds of earth with a fire on top, others used barrels of pitch and some used fire baskets mounted on poles, like the modern ones in Hatch Grange and on the shore at Netley. Because of their nature, few survive and those that do may not look like anything much to the untrained eye.
This beacon dates from 1595. The information board told me I was looking for a perfectly circular raised bank surrounded by a shallow circular ditch. From previous reading I knew it was between one and two feet high and around twenty feet across. Let’s face it, amongst all those trees and bracken on land that rises and falls like the tide, I was going to have my work cut out finding it, or recognising it if I did. Still, I wandered off in what I thought was the right direction.
It seemed to me the area where the beacon was supposed to be was more densely covered with trees and undergrowth than any other part of the wood. It was almost as if someone was purposely trying to hide the beacon. After a great deal of tramping about, staring intently at anything remotely mound like, all I actually found were some fungi. As I actully quite like fungi I wasn’t too unhappy.
After a while it occurred to me, unless I had an archaeologist with me to point it out, I was never going to find it, so I headed back to the main path. After days of grey skies and sudden, torrential showers, it was nice to be walking in dappled sunshine with blue sky visible through the pine needles.
Before too long I’d left the pines behind and everything suddenly became greener. Now the sun was shining through a canopy of sweet chestnut leaves and I smiled remembering how the prickly seed pods had rained down on CJ and I when we walked here last autumn.
Off to the south side of the path are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. Like the beacon, it’s almost impossible to spot with any certainty unless you know what you’re looking for. Several times now I’ve walked around this area trying to work out if what I’m looking at is the mound of the hill fort or just a mound of uneven ground. There seems to be no way to really tell for certain.
The ground to the south of the trail rises fairly steeply, in places the bank is taller than me. At the top are flattened areas from which you can look down the even steeper dip, through the pines to the valley below. This, as far as I can tell, is roughly where the hill fort was. Today I scrambled up the bank trying to imagine the round houses with their wattle and daub walls and conical thatched roofs.
The idea of building walls and ditches on a hill and living inside them was born of a violent society of small settlements of tribes and clans led by warrior kings. The danger of attack from a rival tribe was ever present and living on a hill with look outs and warriors was one way to stay relatively safe. Back then there would have been less trees and better views of the surrounding countryside.
It was hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in a round house in such a small community, with danger lurking at every turn. Then again, the simple life they led sounds appealing in this modern world. They kept geese, goats, pigs cows and sheep, they made pots and fine metalwork and wrote poetry. They may have had to worry about attacks from other tribes but, in most respects, they were far more masters of their own destiny than we are today.
Of course it would have been a very different place back then. Today the woodland is managed. Pines are grown and harvested. There are trails and gates and, behind the woods, houses, roads and a new golf course. Standing on the mound looking around at the sunlight on the earth and the trunks of the trees, I did my best to imagine a world where the roads and cars and houses didn’t exist and everything came from the land. It was a pleasant day dream while it lasted. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite so pleasant to live that way though.
After a long while I clambered back down the bank and carried on along the trail. There was no real way of knowing if this bank really was the site of the hill fort or not but I kept looking up at it all the same and thinking about the people who once called these woods home.
With all the recent rain I’d half expected the trail to be muddy but, so far anyway, it had been dry. As the bank beside me slowly levelled out there were the usual boggy areas in dips just off the trail but the path runs along a ridge of high ground and the earth beneath my feet was firm.
When the canopy of green sweet chestnut trees turned to tall pines I knew I was almost at the end of the trail. The first mud I came to was at the gate but I had no plans to go through today. So far my detour on the way home from the dentist had been taking me further and further from home. Now it was time to turn back.
If there was a plan at all it was to walk back the way I’d come. When I came to the top of the trail leading down into the valley though, the lack of mud so far gave me the confidence to go down and turn my woodland walk into a circular one.
It’s a steepish descent and, in places the trail is narrow. The ground was less firm but nothing that could have been labelled muddy. So far so good. Then, somewhere near the top of the steps set into the steepest part of the slope, something triggered a memory of another walk here, just over a year ago. That day something spooked me and the woods had suddenly seemed a rather scary place to be.
Remembering, I noticed how very quiet it was, just like before, and I began to get the feeling I was being watched. Whether this was just the shadow of the memory or something else I couldn’t tell. Either way, it suddenly occurred to me that no one knew where I was and I began to pick up my pace, eager to get back to the main path.
Clutching my phone very tightly, I hurried on until I reached the narrow trail leading back towards the top of the valley. Now there were broad leafed trees to my right and pines to my left. My heart was pounding and it just from the climb. Something about the pines, like an army of silent soldiers with their long straight trunks, felt sinister.
Whether I was being spooked by the memory of being spooked or by something about these woods I couldn’t tell but I scrambled up the steep trail as fast as I could. It was a relief to get to the top. The flattened bank of the hill fort felt safe, just as it must have done to the people who lived there in the Iron Age. To them the valley must have felt filled with danger too.
Perhaps these ancient places carry an echo of ancient memories, or maybe all the thinking about the people who lived in the hill fort had set off my overactive imagination? Either way, it felt like time to leave. Usually, coming to the end of a walk in the woods and returning to the real world brings with it a sense of sadness. Now, for the second time in these same woods, I felt relived to see the gate ahead.
Back out on the road I finally turned for home. For once the streets and cars felt comforting rather than a disappointing intrustion. As I walked, I wondered about the strange unease that has descended on me twice now in the same spot. I’ve walked alone in many remote places and I’m not easily scared. Our unconscious mind often picks up nuances our conscious mind misses so perhaps these feelings are a warning I should heed. Will I walk in Telegraph Woods again? Of course I will. Will I walk there alone? Maybe not.
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