Beware Chalk Pit!

9 August 2019

Feeling almost unreasonably excited, or at least I was, we walked across the expanse of rough grass towards the peculiar little monument. It had the look of a tiny white church with a triangular spire sitting on a steep sided grassy mound. If I hadn’t known better I could have thought the mound beneath the monument was one of the ancient burial mounds I’d read about on the big map earlier. In fact is is a burial mound of a very different kind.

Rather than a man buried beneath the mound, there is a horse with the strange name of Beware Chalk Pit. The story, like the name, is a curious one. The horse in question belonged to Sir Paulet St John, the eldest son of Ellis St John of Farley Chamberlayne, born in 1704. He was educated at Oxford and, in 1727, appointed High Sheriff of Hampshire. On a September day in 1733, Sir Paulet was riding in a fox hunt, presumably on the chalky downs in the area. They galloped after the fox, unaware they were heading right for a twenty five foot deep chalk pit. Sir Paulet didn’t see the pit but, at the last moment, the horse did. Somehow, he leapt into the pit unharmed, without even unseating his rider.

What the horse was called at the time isn’t clear but he was quickly renamed Beware Chalk Pit after the miraculous escape. Just over a year later, in October 1734, the brave horse with Sir Paulet on his back, won the Hunters Plate on Worthy Downs. Sir Paulet went on to sit in the House of Commons between 1734 and 1754 and become Mayor of Winchester in 1772. He died in 1780.

We took the well worn trail up the side of the mound towards the monument. There was a black plaque above what looked like a blocked off arched doorway, but it was too high for me to read. It was a steep climb but, when we reached the top, we realised all four faces of the monument were the same save for the plaque on this, the north face and an unblocked doorway on the east face.

It was very windy up on the monument but, going through the little arched doorway, we found shelter. The tiny room with its conical ceiling and wooden seats on the three enclosed sides just about fit the three of us but it felt quite cramped. On the wall was another black plaque, presumably the twin of the one on the wall outside. It read

“Underneath lies buried a horse, the property of Paulet St. John Esq, that in the month of September 1733 leaped into a chalk pit twenty-five feet deep a foxhunting with his master on his back and in October 1734 he won the Hunters Plate on Worthy Downs and was rode by his owner and was entered in the name of Beware Chalk Pit”.

With its white walls and terracotta tiled roof the monument had an almost Spanish feel to it. The real beauty though was in the views. Despite the wind I walked all around the outside looking across the Hampshire countryside trying to get my bearings and taking photos. Below us a patchwork quilt of fields and woods in shades of green and gold stretched into the distance. We thought we could see the slight hump of St Catherine’s Hill in the hazy distance but we couldn’t be sure.

Eventually, when the wind became too tiresome, i gingerly climbed back down, with a stop to look at a clump of old mans beard and another to take a photograph of CJ and Commando standing in the doorway on the way.

There were dark clouds rolling in so we knew we really should be heading back but none of us really wanted to leave. In the ring of grass below we spied a trig point and, beyond it a rustic looking bench. Before we headed back to the trail and the woods we went for a closer look.

Trig points like these were once used to take the measurements needed to create accurate maps. These days they are slowly disappearing as aerial photography, GPS and digital mapping using lasers have superseded them. Without them though, we would never have had the wonderful Ordnance Survey maps we use to help us find our way.

The bench was rather lovely, just my kind of thing. It also looked like a marvellous place to sit looking out over the fields. Today though, with the threat of rain on the way, there was no time for sitting. With one last look back at the monument, and the ominous clouds behind it, we walked back down the trail towards the woods.

We could have taken the more direct route across the meadow but the woods were so magical we all agreed the longer walk was worth it, even if we did get caught in the rain. Back in the trees again we could relax a little. If the rain did start to fall we had shelter of sorts, although, after my recent wet walk, I knew we’d still get wet.

It was a good choice, although the walk was slower than it might have been because there was so much to see. Clumps of bright willow herb lined the trail and there were so many interesting looking trees I didn’t know where to look next.

One tree had a horseshoe shaped hollow that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a hole right the way through the centre of the trunk. Despite this, it was somehow still alive. We walked slowly onwards, admiring the shapes of the stands of trees with their moss covered roots like gnarled fingers clutching at the earth. Then a dog came barrelling along the trail and, of course, made a bee line for CJ. We had to wait a while for them to make friends and for the owner to prize them apart. One of these days he’s going to come home with a dog, or a cat, or maybe a horse, I’m sure of it.

Then we found a tree with a bowl shaped hollow filled with leaf mulch. I imagined it filled with water being used by the birds as a bath or maybe a seedling growing in it and becoming a whole new tree.

Then, with one last look at a cobweb speckled with raindrops, we were back where we started. We had beaten the rain, more or less, and our Farley Mount adventure was over. The next time I come here I will be twenty odd miles into a marathon walk. Hopefully I won’t be too tired to appreciate the beauty of this place.

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