From violent village sports to missing bird species - the story of the Ridgeway as it runs from Berkshire to Wiltshire
The Middle Ridgeway and its Environment by Eric Jones and Patrick Dillon (Wessex Books, 2016)
To mark the publication of this book, landscape paintings of the area by Anna Dillon (Patrick Dillon's daughter) - some of which illustrate this book - are being exhibited in the Chandler Room of the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough High Street for the rest of September.
This book gives a lively view of the middle section of the great Ridgeway - "the oldest public highway in Britain". It is the part that runs from Streatley in Berkshire westwards to Avebury in Wiltshire. The book makes the most of the area's historical and ecological records and some of its literary associations.
The authors have written an enthusiastic study of this ancient pathway - observing its landscapes, investigating its natural and cultural history and the development of its agriculture.
Along the way they have unearthed some fascinating stories and insights. It as well to remember, as we worry over planning issues, that in the good old days of 1930 there was a Berkshire Regional Joint Town Planning Committee - even in those days they wrapped themselves up in words.
A report written for the committee judged: "The downland area of Berkshire is a tract of country as unique and full of interest as the most absorbing parts of Wiltshire." One up to the Wiltshire end of the Middle Ridgeway.
The book charts the changes in the fairs that dotted rural towns and villages. Stanford-in-the-Vale's 'Veast' had as its 'dramatic centrepiece' a single-stick match - a bloody form of contest that perhaps has much less violent echoes today in the clashing of sticks wielded by Morris dancers.
Another contest enjoyed at fairs - at least by the onlookers - was 'shin-kicking'. This 'game' was 'even rougher than single-stick': "Shin-kicking meant putting one's hands on the opponent's shoulders and kicking away with one's work boots, while he replied in kind." Both these fairground sports - along with various forms of animal baiting - were ended by the Victorian era's guardians of all things regarding health, safety and ethics.
When you see a pair of hares performing their rituals in the fields or on the downs, you can, with the help of this book, think back to the incredible popularity of the coursing hares with dogs and shooting hares that nearly led to their extinction in the area.
In 1904 on the part of the Marlborough Downs' Meux Estate that lay north of the A4 a game bag was recorded that included 525 hares.
Coursing became something of a rural industry drawing enthusiasts and ne'er-do-wells from far and wide. In the Vale of the White Horse one landowner was so cross when the coursing fraternity decide to move away from his land, that he ordered the hare population to be killed off: "...a most dreadful warfare was lately waged in Ashdown Park, where in the course of a few days Lord Craven killed no less than sixteen hundred hares."
The quarrel did not last and coursing returned to the area and, as the authors write, "...hares began to be preserved again at Ashdown - preservation meaning kept alive to be courses."
The landscape paintings that illustrate this book by Anna Dillon are a refreshing reminder that the landscapes survive - remarkably intact - to be painted in a modernist and very appealing style.
They give a fresh and vibrant view of the downs through which the Middle Ridgeway pass and remind us vividly of some of the landscape's major landmarks.
Many of Ms Dillon's paintings have distinct echoes or traces of geological maps and their colourful strata - giving us a suggestion of what lies beneath and helps form the landscape we see.
The book itself is full of strange facts and vanished times: the 'currier' was the man who added colour to finished leather - now he is relegated to a convenient word for crossword compilers. Lambourn once had a racecourse - it closed in 1803. But the Lambourn Downs' dominance as a training centre for racehorses was slow to develop. At one time horses had to be walked to the GWR station at Uffington - "until a branch line from Newbury reached up the valley of the River Lambourn in 1898."
The authors have a revealing chapter on the area's bird life - referencing among their sources 'a small book' published in 1869 and titled simply Birds of Marlborough. It was by Everard im Thurn published when he was still a 'schoolboy' at Marlborough College: "...a remarkable compilation of local sightings and bird lore for one so young."
Birds, it seems, have long been subject to the changes in farming that in some parts of the country still afflict wildlife today. In 1866 a rough-legged buzzard was trapped at West Overton. Possible sightings of a golden eagle or two and the loss of the wryneck and the dwindling sightings of lone dotterel as they pass through the area, are mentioned.
The only problem with the book is that it concentrates rather on the Vale of the White Horse and does find as much of interest along the Wiltshire length of the Middle Ridgeway.
Discussing the area's bird life, the authors mention the decline in tree sparrows on the downs. But they do not mention the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area and its post government grant successor 'The Marlborough Downs: A space for nature'.
Thirty-five farms working together over 25,000 acres of the Marlborough Downs along the Ridgeway have made and still are making a huge difference to the ecology - and, incidentally, they have been working hard and successfully to bring many more tree sparrows to the Downs.
However, do not let anyone put you off this book. It is a mine of fascinating information and accessible history - with brilliant illustrations in the form of Anna Dillon's paintings.
[The paintings used in this review remain the copyright of the artist.]