First of all I hope that you are all well, and those that you love. We must all be having differing experiences of the lockdowns in our various countries. Some may not have them at all. Others may be under much tighter restrictions than we have here in the UK. I have a friend in Milan who must be into his seventh week or more (don’t you find that getting a grip on time is such a problem?) and they really can hardly go out.
In the UK we are seeing the end in sight – we hope – and perhaps are learning how to adjust our behaviours, and understand better what our instructions mean we can and can’t do. There has been a strong emphasis on taking daily exercise. Here in Winchester we are fortunate that it is a very small city (a population of just 45,000), and we are surrounded by beautiful countryside. For many it will be within not more than a 5-10 minute walk, and we have no major developments of apartment blocks. Most people have (now very clean) air and space.
Nearby we have Micheldever Woods (with its smaller cousin Itchen Wood next to it) which is famous for its bluebells at this time of year. We are discouraged from driving to exercise spots, and I wanted to see the bluebells even in these strange times. So, on St George’s Day, 23 April, I set off late in the afternoon to walk through the beautiful Itchen Valley, past the villages of Easton, Avington (pop. 72), and Itchen Abbas, and up onto Itchen Down to approach Itchen Wood from the south. It was a stunning day. Very warm sunshine, the ground hard and dusty in places (it is only April!). The pretty villages had well-tended gardens. Hand-drawn and painted rainbow pictures, our symbol of hope in our National Health Service (which has done a magnificent job), were in many windows.
There were few people about, but a lot of cyclists taking advantage of the quiet roads and the beautiful countryside to take their exercise. A brand new telegraph pole gave out a strong smell of creosote, a smell that always takes me back to my childhood; the smell of recently maintained fences each summer. I stopped in the beautiful, bucolic Avington Park with its large lake, and the elegant house that was once the home to the Shelley family.
Sometimes I heard families talking in hushed tones behind hedges in their green gardens. An occasional ladder propped against a wall for some essential maintenance task that perhaps could wait until tomorrow, or even the day after that. The birds seemed especially happy singing and chirping to each other, constantly crossing my path. The only other noise was the sound of farm machinery at various places; reassuring that some economic activity is still taking place.
After about 3-4 hours of walking, passing hares out for their evening socials, I reached Itchen Wood, which is mainly a beech wood, managed by the Forestry Commission to encourage healthy timber and excellent conditions for the bluebells. I decided just to stay there for a while. I have always preferred this smaller wood to it’s larger neighbour Micheldever Wood. In normal times the car parks there would have been full, and cars are parked along the roadside, with many families walking out to enjoy this marvellous blue and green sight. Most miss the smaller Itchen, even at busy times, where it is possible to find peace.
On this occasion I was essentially alone. I did spy one or two other walkers or runners, like ghostly figures some way off in the dappled evening light. Birds sang and I just rested, enjoying the purple-blue carpet all around me, inhaling the subtle perfume of these amazing flowers. I stumbled across some white flowers and had to get closer. Were these some sort of ‘albino’ bluebell? Later research tells me that they indeed were, being quite rare, only one in 10,000 bulbs being albino.
Eventually I made my way back home via a slightly different route. Looking back the sun was slowly setting and I took more photos, capturing an image of an angel, hopefully looking after us all. My dinner was a can of cold beans (the walk was planned in haste and I grabbed what I had at hand!) as I sat on the edge of Itchen Down overlooking this really beautiful valley with, perhaps, the finest chalk stream (it is a significant river, but we call it a stream) in the world. The trout certainly think so.
As dusk fell I revelled in the fading light and then the darkness. I enjoy walking at night. I dipped back down to the now silent road that runs through from Winchester to Alresford, and joined a path that has many boardwalks to take me across a wide reedy marsh that contains many pools and tributaries of the river until they all join as one before Easton, the closest village to Winchester. In the dusk light I could see many bats flying fast and sure to wherever they were going. Most other birds were now silent. Yes, there was an occasional owl call. Venus was bright in the western sky and was there to accompany me all the way home, slowly descending on its downward arc.
As I crossed onto the small minor road that runs to the south side of the river, there was some excitement amongst the sheep near Avington house. What it was I do not know. With just a mile or so to go I pressed on in the dark, past pretty brick cottages with bright orange-yellow lights, shining out through leaded windows, never seeing the families within. I really was the only person abroad. It was thrilling. Occasionally I was illuminated by house security lights that would pop on, casting my giant shadow across the road, or sometimes on to a house wall opposite making me look 12 feet tall.
Finally I came to the barrier of the M3 motorway, took the underpass and was greeted by an illuminated sign to drivers telling them to keep journeys only to essential ones, a reminder that our life has changed so much so fast. I had crossed from country to town by taking that tunnel. Stopping at the petrol station I bought some beer to have once at home. A policeman was there to buy a snack. We spoke. I asked how things were going and if he and his colleagues were well. He told me it was all fine and the the people of Hampshire were doing what they were told with very few problems. ‘Normal’ crime was way down. There were two police cars. The other was driven by his colleague. Patrolling is now done by social distancing and that means two cars per patrol to keep each officer separate from the other.
The few hundred yards home passed quickly as I walked up what used to be Winnall Down, now a housing estate. The windows of the fire station were covered in children’s rainbow pictures of thanks to all the workers in the NHS who have risked their lives for us.
I never meant to write so much. It was just meant to be a quick introduction to the photo album which catalogues this short journey. Many of you enjoyed the pictures I posted of my long walk on the Ridgeway last autumn, so I thought that you might like this. Perhaps a little escapism. Excuse the selfies, this album is also for my children. That is my ‘apocalypse beard’. It will go when all this is over. The pictures were taken only with my Samsung smartphone and my technique is pretty much point and shoot. Sometimes you get lucky. I may make up a few more albums to share from my long walks if you wish, so please send me your comments.
The photos can be found here in this Google album. Keep safe and well.
And here is a bit of a map of the route from my Strava.
Finally, a short tour of the grounds of Avington park which shows some of the route. It is a beautiful part of the world.