Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Beacon Hill

The problem with mud is that it's muddy. The problem with my son, the irrepressible Simon, is that he is pretty much incapable of climbing a muddy slope without, at some stage, falling flat on his arse.

Not that he could be blamed on this occasion. The last stretch of footpath before we reach the peak of this Hampshire hill is rather steep and very slippery. The odds on either of us reaching the peak without sliding into an ungainly sprawl are slim indeed.

Nevertheless, we manage it. Destiny, it seems, doesn't want us to disgrace ourselves on this slope. It wants us to wait a couple of hours before we slide to muddy embarrassment below the Uffington White Horse, so Beacon Hill will today not have the last laugh.

We have the hillfort to ourselves. Across the ditch and the rampart, thrown up by the Atrebates tribe two and a half thousand years ago, we stand on the expanse of turf that was once a Celtic town. The wattle and daub huts are long gone, the smoke and fires of Iron Age living now but a picture in our minds. A trig point stands in concrete solitude, a raven hovers above and greets us with its mocking cackle.

So much moisture in the air... dampness stilts the view, cutting it down to a couple of miles in every direction. To the north, peering at us defiantly from beyond a stretch of conifers, we see the neoGothic tower of Highclere Castle, home to the Earls of Caernarvon. Currently enjoying fame on TV as 'Downton Abbey', and indeed it looks more like a medieval cathedral than a stately home. Glance to the right, and across the valley we see the unfinished ramparts of Ladle Hill, a hillfort abandoned during construction, presumably because the tribe realised that Beacon Hill was better situated for defying the approaching Romans. They were wrong.

Beyond Ladle Hill, staunch in the haze, we can see the escarpment of Watership Down. To the north, on the outskirts of Newbury, the weather hides Donnington Castle from us. We're not bothered, we have already visited it. A lonely, medieval ruin, its exterior marked by cannon and musket fire, it managed to hold off its Roundhead besiegers for twenty months back in 1644, despite being gradually wrecked during that time. Curiously, it is the only English Heritage property in Berkshire.

We stroll along the rampart. A buzzard glides across our view. In a fallow field below, pheasants huddle and a young stag pauses hesitantly before venturing forward to sample fresh new shoots.

I notice a small enclosure in a corner of the hillfort, an area demarcated by iron railings. 'Look,' I tell my son as I point in triumph, 'There it is. A little bit of Egyptian legend, on a hill in Hampshire!'

We approach the enclosure so that I can photograph the moment. Within, a stone ledger marks the resting place of the 5th Earl of Caernarvon, dead of a fever in a Cairo hotel room in 1923, only days after his triumph - the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. He was, in popular story, the first victim of Tut's 'curse', and he lies in this elevated spot overlooking his beloved Highclere. As the wind whips our hair and the drizzle settles on our clothes with magnetic attraction, he rests alone but for us.

Is it just the chill in the air that makes me shudder? Simon and I continue our perambulation, eventually making the treacherous descent to our waiting car, ready for a journey north to an ancient White Horse. Another windy hill, another Celtic fortress. By the time we arrive home the dark will have descended, the neighbourhood children will be knocking on doors asking 'Trick Or Treat!' and we will have the memories of our day spent at the places where the Celts roamed, the people who began the Samhain tradition back when Christ was a gleam in God's eye. Where better to spend the pagan New Year but among pagan ruins?

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