Summer Holidays at Stonehenge
by Joan Letchford, daughter of George William Smith, Chosen Chief of the Ancient Druid Order 1946-54
These are the memories of our mother Joan born 7 March 1923, died 2 November 2011. In her last months, she was delighted to find her memories were of interest outside the small circle of family and that they would live on. She always talked of Amesbury as an idyllic place and visited frequently, her last time being August 2011. Her ashes are being scattered among some favourite places. The family connections continue as one of her daughters lives in Amesbury, while one of her granddaughters is a Doctor of Archaeology. We hope you enjoy these memories of the people and area of Amesbury as well as of Stonehenge and its ceremonies as seen by the daughter of earlier Druids. Hazel Ledgard & Valerie Richards.
All through my childhood and adolescence the family holiday was spent at Amesbury. Father was a Druid. This was the culmination of his lifelong search for some sort of religious belief. All others, including all the Christian sects, he rejected as not satisfying his inner craving for a spiritual meaning behind the human condition. Stonehenge was his Mecca.
I cannot remember when I first went to Amesbury. I have a photograph of my mother and the three of us children in which I appear to be three or four.
Amesbury then was a small village with no private cars and few shops, but a good bus station and a railway station too. I was born in the inner suburbs of London and grew up thinking that asphalt and paving extended down to the middle of the earth. We had a tiny garden whose soil I imagined had been transported from somewhere else. And there was Clapham Common to walk in. But this was all formal and regimented and tidied up. Amesbury was “the country” where cows and sheep cropped round the buttercups, roads were lanes lined with banks of wild flowers. There were hayfields and winding rivers, woods and wild places.
Because the summer solstice fell in June, that is when we went. At first Father only had ten days holiday from his work, but later it was two weeks. We would stay at the house of Mrs. Burton, who ran a B&B in the High Street. Mr. Burton, known as Jammy since he had such a passion for his wife’s rhubarb jam, grew every sort of vegetable you could think of in his long garden. They had a girl working for them, a young girl of fourteen years, who stayed all her working life until she married. The Burtons had no children of their own and when they retired bought a bungalow which they willed to Annie, and where she brought up her own family. Everyone ate round the big scrubbed table in the kitchen and all the cooking was done in the scullery. From here a door led to the garden: a lawn bordered on both sides by a path and long straight flower beds. At the end of this there was a garden seat shaded by trees and roses. Each side little wattle gates led into the vegetable garden. We children were only allowed beyond these gates at Mr. Burton’s invitation. We had never seen such things growing in such profusion before. I imagine we thought they grew in greengrocers’ shops !
Mother and Father had a large bedroom with a real feather bed. I got in it once. It was so soft I found it impossible to lie down. Milly and I had a small attic room at the top of the house with a little dormer window overlooking the street. Each evening our parents would go out after tucking us up in our big bed, but once they had left the room, we shot out of bed and climbed up on the dormer window ledge to see them go. Mother would have had a fit if she had looked up and seen us leaning out of that high window. We didn’t mind them going out. We had our newly chosen library books to read.
Our own time came after tea and before bed, when we would be taken to the Recreation Ground and be pushed on the swings. “Higher Daddy!” we screamed. “Hold on tight!” called Mother, anxiously. I only remember falling off once. There were two seesaws as well. Milly was a bit heavier than I was and would deliberately stay down, leaving me in the air until I appealed to Mother who always came to my aid
Every year a fair was held on the Rec. There was a knobbly knees competition where the men rolled up their trouser legs for inspection. Another one to see how long anyone could hold a squealing piglet while singing a song. And elsewhere a greasy pole was set up between two racks. Two young men would sit astride this pole facing one another each trying to knock the other off with a sack of hay. It was all sweet simple fun and prizes, if there were any, were small. There was also a fancy dress competition, where the contestants marched through the village behind the band and finally arrived at the Rec. where judging took place. Once I won third prize as Alice in Wonderland – I think it was a shilling. I was sorry Milly did not get a prize for I thought she looked really good in her gypsy costume.
Another time we paired up as the Erasmic Twins. Erasmic toilet soap came in two colours – white and violet. The adverts at the time depicted two girls called Blanche and Violet. Mother made us dresses with stiff ballet skirts out of crepe paper – Milly was Violet and I was Blanche. We didn’t win anything but Mother thought we looked lovely and said so. Both of us had long hair –something completely out of fashion at that time – and we wore it loose and newly washed and combed. Villagers who came to know us well called us “the girls with the long hair”. It was only on high days and holidays that our tresses flowed in their true glory. At school we had to be more circumspect. Milly, whose hair was straight, wore plaits. Since mine was curly, I had bunches. Mother believed that plaiting it would take the curl out! Dad loved our long hair. On Saturday evenings he liked to brush it while we sat at his feet – an operation which could be quite painful. But we suffered it because we knew our reward would be a bag of toffees he brought home from the shop especially for us.
We stayed with the Burtons for several years until they retired and went to live in a bungalow round the corner. After that we stayed in various places – always someone’s house with whom we shared breakfast and dinner. When I was eleven, my sister thirteen and my brother eighteen, our father lost his job as a branch manager of a chain of grocery shops. It was in the depression of the 30’s. Times became very hard for us then. Although he found another job within six months or so, we meantime ran up debts. There was the rent to pay and insurances to keep up. Mother and Father sat down each week and worked out the menus for the week. There were a lot of stews bumped up with lentils or pearl barley. Food was essential but the landlord would have to wait. We would be sent to answer the front door and say “Mother isn’t in”. The insurance man was my pet hate. He was always sharply dressed in a dark suit and bowler hat. One day he tried to frighten my mother, suggesting how badly she would feel if her children had to be buried in pauper’s graves. I felt her shiver as I stood beside her. I have harboured an intense loathing of insurance men ever since. Times were hard.
Nevertheless, there were some priorities that would not be denied, and the annual trip to Amesbury came very near the top. We obviously couldn’t afford to put up somewhere or eat out. So it was decided that we would camp. Since we children had long been in the Woodcraft Folk, we did have a bit of the necessary gear. There were two two-man tents and groundsheets, billy-cans and enamel mugs and plates – enough to get us going. The parents got hold of a larger tent and various other articles by beg or borrow means. Sleeping bags could be made from old army blankets and blanket pins. So far so good. There would only be one coach fare to pay. Mother would travel on the Royal Blue from Victoria coach station together with the dog and luggage. The rest of us would cycle. Father and Leo regularly cycled to work, so they already had their mounts. Milly and I had learned to ride on an old ex-postman’s bike which we shared, but we needed one each, so Dad did some sort of deal on two roadsters from a shop near his work. For several weekends before the holiday was due, we would be taken out for practise runs, and taught how to pace ourselves, make the best of hills and winds and how to behave with care and courtesy on the road. We were to be cyclists and not just bike riders even though our machines had no gear change and were heavy.
We set off for real very early in the morning with sandwiches packed for lunch and eighty miles to go. Although much of the first part of our journey was through built-up areas, there was much less traffic then, so we had no problems. At Camberley Flats we stopped near a house and asked for some water. People were usually kind and willing to help. After a rest, we set off again and stopped for our lunch at Hartley Wintney in Hampshire, then a small town with a coaching inn. We ate our sandwiches on the green. After this it was a matter of pushing on and on, trying not to think of aching legs and stiff necks and heaving chests, but focussing on the joy of arrival in our little heaven-on-earth, the only place to be in all the world – Amesbury. The last stretch was all downhill and free-wheeling. And there was Mum to meet us with smiles and tears.
Our first campsite was at The Mound, a long low semi-detached wooden bungalow owned by Garnett Whiting and his wife. He was a postman who delivered his letters on a huge red-painted bicycle which had seen many years of work. Mrs. Whiting, whose Christian name we never knew, ran a bed-and-breakfast business. There was a large sign in the front garden overlooking the Stonehenge Road. Shaped like an upright drum, and illuminated from within, it read: Accommodation, Luncheons, Teas. AA. A regular customer was the AA man in his grey and yellow uniform and leather knee boots. He rode a motor-cycle with sidecar and was usually stationed up near Stonehenge, where there still remains a small shelter hut. I remember his round weather-beaten face and broad smile, a required feature of his job as a public servant. But I believe in his case it was genuine and spontaneous, since there were few visitors going “up the Stones” in those days. The wooden slats of the bungalow were regularly creosoted, so that the smell remains among my memories. The kitchen/living-room had a big cooking range with two ovens, and there seemed always to be something simmering away there, sending out delicious aromas. The outer kitchen area was called the scullery, a common feature of homes before the war. Here there was a sink and all the paraphernalia required for preparation of food. Beyond the living-room was a dining-room for guests with three or four tables. At the very end of the bungalow, where it joined the next one, was an outside loo, reached from the garden. It held an earth closet, which, despite its primitive nature, smelled only of fresh creosote and carbolic.
On the left side of the drive, a small tree-sheltered lawn with wooden seats, nestled into the side of the mound itself. No-one seemed to know why this mound was built just here, but it was generally presumed to be a burial mound. On this assumption Garnett had dug away a small area hoping to find something valuable. Once we children were allowed to scrape away at the strata, and found the odd dark line which produced a small bone or two, probably animal, which had been burned in a small fire. Garnett professed to finding a clay pot by sinking his fork into it. He sent the pieces to the museum at Devizes, but I never heard what became of it. In any event, no proper excavations were ever carried out. The mound is now thought to be part of an entrance gate to the iron-age fort known as Vespasian’s Camp. Maybe the bones we found were the remains of the builders’ dinner !
Behind the bungalow there stretched a lawn with flower beds and vegetable plots surrounded by trellises of climbing roses. And beyond that a large chicken run with sheds. This was the source of all the breakfast eggs found sizzling in the pan every morning. We would stand watching those chickens for ages. We never saw live ones in London. They scratched up every inch of their enclosure, only avoiding the stinging nettles, making dusty holes in their search for insects and then sit in them to keep out rivals. They chirruped, they squawked, they sometimes screeched and feathers flew. There was always something going on. To the left of the chicken run the ground sloped gently up to the ridge which tailed back off the mound. On the top of this ridge stood a substantial shed, which was normally used as a store for chicken feed, sand, gravel, fencing stakes, wire and any other useful articles needed for a country garden.
This shed was to be our holiday home for several years to come. Each year Mr. Whiting would clear it out somewhat to make some room for our living space. There was a long wide shelf along one side which we used as a cooking table. Here would be our primus stoves, utensils, provisions, pots and plates. In the middle of the room was a trestle table and two firm benches. This shed was constructed of a substantial wooden framework of beams and crossbeams, clad on the outside with corrugated iron sheets from which four small square windows and one doorway were cut. This arrangement allowed the use of many narrow shelves within, and made the whole completely weather-proof. What more could one want? We were used to camping, which was a great deal more primitive than it is now. But this was almost luxury compared to sitting on a groundsheet on the grass, where if it was wet you had to eat really five in all. We all had rubber based groundsheets, and sleeping-bags which cramped up in a tent that it was impossible to stand up in!
In that first year we set our tents up in a small triangular field the other side of the mound ridge – one for Mum and Dad, one for Leo, and one for Milly and me. Well, there was one more. I took my really old favourite teddy-bear, known as Teddi (and that’s another tale!) for whom I had made a little tent complete with string guy-lines and nail pegs. This I pitched next to our tent. We each had a rubber-based ground-sheet and sleeping bags which we fashioned from two army blankets and big, strong blanket-pins in the proper Woodcraft fashion. All copied in miniature for Teddi, of course.
Leo had dug out steps in the slope down from the hut to the camping area with his trenching tool, so everything was really quite comfortable.
Most mornings Mum and Dad would set off to do the day’s shopping. Dad took on all the cooking preparation and cooking of meals, so that Mum should have a proper holiday too. On the shopping trip she was merely an adviser. Dad, by this time, was acquainted with most of the shopkeepers of Amesbury, and built up a friendship with Mr. Tamblin, who owned a butcher and grocery shop and was a big noise in the village. Dad was a grocery man himself (though only as a manager), so they had much to talk about – and, I suspect, argue about too. At one time, when near retirement, Mr. Tamblin suggested Dad should buy into the business and become a partner. Much as he was tempted though, Dad, who had never dealt personally with a bank, could not face the prospect of borrowing such a sum. So we didn’t all go to live in Amesbury, and Mother never got her dream of a little tea-room in the Stonehenge Road.
The rest of us would perhaps go down to the Rec, or the river, or just hang about chatting with Mrs. Whiting or watch the chickens. For people who lived their lives in a grubby, crowded city, just being in Amesbury was heaven enough.
When the shoppers returned we had a light lunch and Dad would prepare the evening meal. He had a very simple repertoire. It was either a big meat stew with vegetables or a spotted dick with plenty of dried fruit boiled up in a cloth and served with dollops of jam; never both on the same day. Both dishes were cooked in a large oval dixie with a domed lid. We dug a shallow trench behind the shed and in this was laid a wood fire – no trouble for Woodcrafters. Part was covered over with a piece of tin and the dixie settled on the fire. It was thus easy to control the heat as necessary. The pot put on to simmer away, we would all go on the outing of the day – to the river, over the Cow’s Neck, Stonehenge, West Amesbury, Ratfink Barrow, Woodhenge, whatever. The trip to the village of Durnford, however, where Mother was promised her “Ushers Stout”, took all day and for that we packed some sandwiches and sorted out our “paddlers” from the big box wherein they slumbered all the rest of the year. The paddlers were old canvas shoes too decrepit to wear in public any more. In their glory years they would be re-whitened every time they were worn, but in time they became too soiled with grass stains and contact with cow’s mess to be disguised by whitening any more. Then they went into the box.
The paddlers were an essential item for the Durnford walk, because up over the Downs (which we called the Cow’s Neck for some reason I cannot now recall) a diversion took us down to the valley where the River Avon wandered its various ways, and here we would sit on the steep bank and enjoy the drooping willows and tall alders and the reeds and rushes and water mint and the drifting water crowfoot which waved to and fro like long green hair in the riverflow. Off would come our shoes and on would go the stiff, laceless paddlers. Down to the edge of the stream into the pale, chalky mud churned up by watering cattle. As the cold, cold water seeped into the paddlers and crept around our toes we shrieked with pain and delight. Deeper into the stream we found the bottom less squashy but littered hazardously with flints and stones. But we hauled up our skirts and stepped out bravely, gazing down into the clear pale water, hoping to see some fishy wild life. Watching also for a sight of the fresh-water crayfish that we knew lived in this quiet stream. That is what the paddlers were for.
Leo would soon tire of this and went off to his “secret place” along the bank; a place which Milly and I were only allowed to visit at his invitation. Here, we knew, were water-voles and yellow irises and wild rose bushes. And other things we knew not of, things known only to Leo.
Later, I learned to lie in that cold water at its deepest point among the silky weeds, and for one thrilling moment to lose contact with the bottom. This was my first taste of what it might be like to swim, and I was ecstatic.
After the paddling and exploring, we would all settle on the bank, draw off the water-heavy, gritty paddlers, and replace them with the spanking new brown leather sandals bought especially for the holidays. The cattle made long sloping paths from the upper pasture down to the water, so that we could sit on the grass edge and rest our feet on the path below. It was really quite comfortable. Out came the sandwiches and maybe an apple, and we munched away in silence, for which the wildlife must have been grateful.
You have to picture us doing this trip many times and over many years so that it became as familiar to us as Clapham Common. But oh so different! It was as though we could step off the planet into another world for just those two weeks in the year. Over all those years we hardly varied our itinerary. We did not seek new horizons, but were forever captivated by the familiar, watching for small changes, renewing old loves, luxuriating in the sensual pleasures of sweet, clean nature. Of course, we had no transport, so had to walk everywhere, but perhaps this limitation worked to our advantage. Apart from the exercise it afforded (and some walks seemed very long to a small girl), it induced a curiosity and love of detail which can only blossom with familiarity.
When I was a very little girl I had no grand notion of nature. It was enough to be with my family and enjoy the freedom the countryside offered. It was good to be altogether too. Dad worked long shop hours and during the week we two girls had to be in bed by the time he came home. That included Saturday. Sunday afternoons were spent on the meeting ground on Clapham Common, where crowds gathered to listen to (or heckle) speakers with political, philosophical or religious messages to proclaim. Dad was both a listener and a heckler. He loved an argument. It brightened up his otherwise pretty dull working life.
By the time I got to thinking about it, I did have some reservations about our country holidays. Why couldn’t I go to the seaside like everyone else? The golden sand, blue sky, striped deckchairs and yellow starfish illustrated in my comics looked so inviting. But rebellion was not an option in those days. Mother and Father knew best. And we loved Amesbury and looked forward to our visits all year long. A few years later and we were hooked. We even came to feel sorry for those poor kids who were hauled off to the seaside every year.
The main reason we were there at all of course, was Stonehenge. The solstice ceremony was held on the 21st June, whatever day of the week that was. Father belonged to an order of Druids led by a man called Dr. Watson Macgregor Reid. He was a huge man, tall and broad, with long white hair and beard and red face with glittering blue eyes. Or so I remember him. He impressed me. I don’t remember ever speaking to him or him to me, and I never saw him without the long white flowing robes and headdress. But I do remember once sitting on the grass in a disc-barrow, fingering the dainty quaking-grass for something to do and hearing the booming, sing-song voice of this impressive man intoning his message to a crowd of spellbound listeners.
It was years later that I myself actually took part in a ceremony in Stonehenge. I had become an ovate – an apprentice of the order in a ceremony held in our home when I was sixteen. I did it to please my father really, I suppose, but I did have a rather hazy idea about the teaching. I had no quarrel with it, but the ceremonial was bound about with ritual phrases that made it difficult to understand. However, I had a feeling for the theatrical and it had an abundance of that. It was still dark when I was roused from my bed. At that moment I wondered why I had ever agreed to do this thing. It was cold and damp with mist and dew. We set out on the two-mile walk to the stones and it was quiet enough to hear our own breath. As we came near enough to see the faint greyish outline of the Hele Stone, we realised that the sky was slowly lightening. The pre-dawn is a brief but almost mystical moment. Time seems to hesitate before the wonderful magic moment of renewal. In the silence you hold back your breath. Then through the quiet air comes the distant small trill of a skylark and the wisp of a breeze that teases your hair. By the time we had put on our robes and taken our place in the centre of the stones, the dawn had begun to spread on the horizon, pale and promising. We said our pieces, welcoming the light and renewal of life, speaking the words to each of the four quarters of the zodiac, then turned to the east and saw the great golden light rise resplendent and powerful, casting its rays towards us and licking the stones in a pale orange glow. It is a thing that happens every day without fail, and we tend not to notice it at all, but to see it happen like this in a place built to honour it is to understand its true significance, and to know what that revelation meant to our ancestors.
At that time there were few visitors. There was no car park. Who had a car? The bus chugged past once or twice a day on its way to the villages beyond, but the nearest habitation was two miles away at Amesbury. There were maybe a dozen people there in the Stones that morning, including the local photographer and the A.A. man. Of our party there were about the same number – my parents, a small group who had come especially from London overnight by hired bus, and Old John Soul, who was an Amesbury character well-known to everyone. He was an amateur historian and eccentric who, with his brother, owned a baker’s shop in Salisbury Street. A small grizzled man who always wore a beret and carried a shepherd’s crook, he knew everything that went on and had ever gone on in Amesbury. He lived with his wife in a bungalow in the London road near the railway station. Mrs. Soul, the daughter of a soldier, was a bit prim and, I guessed, did not always approve of John’s unconventional notions, especially where the Druids were concerned. They had a daughter called Pat who had a cleft lip. She was very good to us girls and would take us around the village sights while the adults had their boring conversations.
So Stonehenge enjoyed peace and quiet at this time and for some years after. There was a tiny hut and turnstile near the Hele Stone. There was a fee but Druids were allowed in free for the ceremony (indeed, such was the bond between our family and the Keepers, we never had to pay at all!) Everyone was free to wander through the stones as long as they wished. A couple of keepers were employed by the Ministry of Works, which owned the site. Their duties were to man the turnstile, guide visitors, keep the monument area clean and tidy and suitably admonish any small children who tried to climb on the stones. Adults were expected to behave reverently, and they did. The job must have been very pleasant although poorly paid. Father came to know all the keepers as they came and went. One of them, whose name was Paddy Gorry, loved his job so much, he cycled miles each day almost to the end of his life. Paddy was a favourite. He was an Irish catholic, but evinced only patience and understanding for all the odd shenanigans indulged in by these Druid heathens. He had a round shining face, lit up by twinkling blue eyes. Years of Stonehenge duty had weather-burned his face red-brown, and when he lifted his uniform cap he revealed a contrasting white forehead. He was always so pleased to see us and greeted us like long-lost friends. You don’t forget a man like Paddy Gorry.
We walked back to the Mound in silence. It was still quite chilly in the young sunlight, and skylarks were climbing into the pale blue thrilling their own exultation. It was as though this was the first day of the world and we were seeing everything for the first time. No one wanted to speak in case that broke the spell. I felt at one with all the world, with all nature and all time. Such moments are rare. And were gone, of course, by the time we reached the Mound. Mrs. Whiting had prepared a splendid breakfast for us all, with Wiltshire bacon and eggs from her own chickens. Breakfasts like those were rare for us and seemed more like a feast. As we ate and laughed, John Soul sang old country songs with verve and jollity, and a surprisingly good voice. But at last fatigue caught up with us, and we were only too pleased to slip back into our sleeping bags for an hour or so.
We would all take this walk up to Stonehenge several times during the holiday. When I was small it seemed a very long way, and all on a tarmac road, which seemed to me to be a negation of why we had come to the country in the first place. Even so, it was quite different from the approach by the present day A303. It was a quiet country road bordered by grass banks full of wild flowers topped by straggly hedges wild roses. Our group, which varied in number from year to year, was able to string out across the road, moving in to the side only when we heard the approach of a vehicle; an army truck perhaps, or the bread van, or the AA man. To amuse myself on this boring journey, I would strip all the seeds off a head of grass and re-sow them in a barer patch, or make a poppy-doll from a stray red poppy bound around with grass stems as Pat Soul had taught us to do. Once we got into the circle, there was more fun to be had playing hide and seek among the a stones or running round in different directions until we came together with a bump and a yell of surprise. As I got older and learned about the building and orientation of the monument, I began to feel the mystery of the place, and its very special atmosphere. And in the end felt truly a part of it. It became mine, and I was strangely jealous of anyone else even mentioning its
Name and that remains even to this day.
Although the Summer Solstice ceremony at Stonehenge was the main event of our holiday, there were plenty of other joys to be had and places to go. In fact I was often quite relieved when the business was over. Father could get quite tense and anxious beforehand.
Sometimes, having reached the gate at the top of the Cow’s Neck, we would carry straight on rather than descend to the river. The track took us along the field edge until it reached a copse where it widened into a track and descended to a minor road. This track, rutted and bare and bordered by tall nettles, was the haunt of rabbits in the days when they were a much more accepted part of the countryside than they are today. We would approach the track stealthily and, once inside its shade, clap our hands and shout, thus disturbing dozens of the little brown creatures into scampering hither and thither into shelter. It might sound unkind, but it was a sight we only experienced once a year.
The minor road descended through high banks covered in trees. Up there somewhere was Ogbury Ring, an Iron Age fort. Once we climbed up to its bare top and pitched a small tent for a day’s relaxation and picnic, which included a tin of baked beans heated up on a primus stove. The road led us to the village of Great Durnford, which, despite its name, was quite small. It had a lovely little Norman church with some very old (and terribly uncomfortable) oak pews. The timber was blackened with age and worn to a hard shine by the touch of many thousands of hands and bottoms. It was so quiet in there that I could feel the shades of many generations who had come to be christened or to be married or to be buried.
Once, the walls of this little church had been bright with paint. There can still be seen, very faintly now, traces of curling flowers. And, on one wall, the giant figure of St. Christopher carrying the Christ- child over a stream. At least, it was still visible when I was young. Over the years, however, it has faded so much that now all that can be made out if you look hard, is the line of the saint’s long staff and the rounded curve of his calf and heel.
We always lingered long in the church with its quiet, ancient feel and long dead names in the floor and on the walls, but there was more to Great Durnford than its church. The cottages along the single road were thatched and whitewashed; not prettied up and double-glazed and clean as a whistle as they are now. They were farm workers cottages, basic and poorly maintained. And yet, despite the obvious poverty, there would be the glimpse of a bright coloured curtain and the careful planting of a row of tall hollyhocks against a damp-stained wall and a patch of yellow marigolds beside the road. There were children too, who seemed to be all flaxen-haired and rosy-cheeked. It was a village of families and animals and the squire in a posh house away in the trees. The road was mired with horse and cattle dung and I never once saw a car.
On our left a flint wall bordered the fields. In the early days it was topped by a thatch, but as the years took toll of this, it was replaced by stone or tiles. There were many such walls to be seen in the area, patched with cement in various stages of wear.
A little further along the road we came to the pub. It wasn’t called the Black Horse for nothing. There was a real black horse in a stable across the yard. He was a big feller, a proper work-horse, although I never saw him out of that stable. Perhaps he was retired. We never asked. When I was small I was a little afraid of him. He could shake his hoary head and snort when you least expected it. But we always greeted him as soon as we arrived.
The Black Horse sold Usher’s Ales, a well-known West Country brewery. Usher’s also brewed stout, which was Mother’s tipple on holiday. Father would always say before we set out for Durnford, “Mother, do you want your Usher’s?”. To which she replied, “Ooh yes!”. It was a ritual, but it was a highlight for her. I never knew her to go to a pub at home, until the war came, when things were different. When Granny came to see her she usually brought a bottle of stout with her, but that was only for medicinal purposes!
We children sat outside on a wooden bench beneath a moss- peppered lean-to. There were no flower-beds or hanging baskets, only a few nettles and straggly wild flowers. The yard was cobbled here and there, and worn by the wheels of carts and hoofs of animals. There was a strong earthy, horse dung smell which I relished for the simple reason that it belonged to the country and not to the city. Chickens roamed the yard, pecking and clucking quietly, lifting each foot delicately and scratching in the dirt. We sat and watched and waited for the parents to emerge from the place we were not allowed to enter.
Altogether again, we carried on to the end of the village, and turned off the road onto a path that led over the water meadows to an old water-mill by the river. It had indeed an old history, but had been converted into a pretty dwelling with gardens bordering the water. The right-of-way led close by and over bridges and hatches until it came to the main river and a wooden bridge from where we dropped pooh-sticks. Here also, we saw our first water-rat. It was a place to linger in, overhung with willows and alders and scrubby undergrowth. The river was dressed with the long waving streams of green water- crowfoot, sheltering the shy brown trout and providing a playground for inquisitive ducklings.
The grassy path led on, gently climbing past field and woodland until it joined the road which would take us back to Amesbury. This was the worst part of the day.. It seemed longer each time we did it. There was nothing for it but to slog on trying to think of something else, or invent songs in one’s head to accompany the rhythm of walking. By the time we got back we were really ready for that stew or whatever was brewing for dinner.
Some excursions were repeated, especially the downs walks. In June the grass was high and full of wild flowers. When I was small it was higher than me in some places. On our last day Milly and I would pick a huge bunch of wild flowers to take home where they were put in a large pail of water outside the backdoor, and there mostly they remained to remind us of the lovely days we had spent in the country. There would be big white daisies, buttercups, field scabious, knapweed, vetches of all kinds, meadow sage and some we never knew the names of. From the road banks we found campion, clover, snapdragon, ragged robin, periwinkle and columbine. After we had gone the long grass would be cut to make sweet hay, and later it would be gathered into stooks ready for stacking. In fields where cattle grazed the grass was short except for clumps of buttercups which the cattle would not eat. There were no other flowers there to pick, but the scattered cow-dung patches would enrich the earth so that next year the hay would be as sweet as ever.
Sometimes we walked out to the long barrow past Ratfyn Farm. Now covered with large trees, it is not discernable until you come on it and then it is dark and mysterious and silent. It is so ancient that, unlike some of the round barrows, it evokes no human recognition, no fellowship. It is remote, as distant as the stars. But it is a fine playground for children, steep-sided like a castle. We would stand on the top and wait for the Bulford train to pass through the fields in the distance. And when it came, whistling its thin tune, we would leap and dance and wave our arms until the bones cracked.
Halfway along the long road to Stonehenge, within sight of the monument, a stretch of seven barrows lay at right angles to the road. We called them, naturally enough, Seven Barrows, but their official name was New King Barrows. This was a favourite place of ours and one we never failed to visit at least once each holiday. These were large, high barrows, covered, at least in those days by beech trees. Nothing much grows under beech trees, so the ground was always covered in crackly brown beechmast. I used to scramble up to the top of my favourite mound, sit down on a tree root and look over the fields to the lonely grey circle. There was no sound other than the twitter of birds and the soft sigh of a little wind among the beeches.. The long, supple branches of the trees spread their leaves like blessing hands in the bright dappled sunlight. Each time I was moved beyond description. Below the mounds the ground was covered by hazels and hawthorns which gave way to narrow secret paths where there was enough filtered light to permit the spread of wild strawberries. A wide, rough track lay alongside the line of barrows and on the edge of this some half dozen or so beech trees had been planted; when, we could only guess, but they were very old , gnarled and twisted. They were excellent for climbing in, and had been used down the ages for the carving of initials and dates. We added our own on one old favourite. I don’t think it minded this at all, as it stood stoically through the ages silently reminding us of the passing of time. There was plenty for young children to do at Seven Barrows. We would scramble up and down each one in turn, crunching in the beechmast, play hide and seek among the bushes eating strawberries as we went, climb the old oaks or collect pretty flints to make pictures in the scanty grass.
The village was small – just two main streets lined with a few shops and some small cottages, a big house in the centre hidden by big old trees, a couple of hotels and four pubs. On the way out towards Stonehenge an old stone bridge crossed the meandering river. It was named Queensberry bridge, after the one-time owner of the mansion away across the water meadows – the Marquis of Queensberry. Its thick walls were too high for little people to see over, so we raced ahead to get the best of the few protection stones to clamber up and lean over, watched by ever-protective parents. We looked down on the long swaying water crowfoot plants catching sight, if we were lucky, of a fat brown trout showing dark against the pale chalk mud of the bed. Close to the banks there might be coots and moorhens and noisy mallards, and further down river the pale green willows leaning down to their reflections in the water. Beside the bridge there was a track leading down from the road, so that horses could be watered. We always ran down here to the shallow edge to see the mass of tiny minnows which gathered there. But our boisterous approach sent them skimming away in a rippling silver stream.
The shops in the village were all personally owned, each with its proprietor’s name painted above. Attractive as they were to our parents, they were of no great interest to us. Except, of course, Mr. Whit’s sweet shop. It was not that we bought sweets there, for we had no pocket money, but now and then Dad would splash out and buy ice creams for us. And these were not the penny snowfruits we had at home, but real cream ices in little cardboard tubs with lids that could be folded up to scoop out the delicious contents. Our parents know many of the shopkeepers and would sometimes stop and chat to them. “Hello, Mr. Smith. Have you been up to the stones today?” We would rather have been running through fields or paddling in rivers of course, but the ice cream certainly kept us quiet for a while.
A short distance along the road there was a saddler’s shop. It was an ancient thatched cottage conversion, hung about with all kinds of leather saddles, straps and horse harness, gleaming with polished brass buckles and studs. Inside could sometimes be glimpsed the shadowy figure of a man in a long apron and bare brown arms seated on a stool bent over some intricate hand operation, or standing over a juddering stitching machine. We passed by on the other side of the road on our way out of the village and were always assailed by the sweet-sour smell of new leather, cleaning fluids and brass polish.
On the road through the village to Salisbury we passed the tall red brick walls of Pickford’s Removals and Depository. In our camping years it was here that our trunk containing the tents and camping gear was delivered. Just beyond that was Mr. Billett’s Café. He had flourished for many years at Stonehenge Café, a stone’s throw from the circle itself. But when the Ministry of Works decided to remove all buildings within sight of Stonehenge (except, of course, the distant sprawl of the army camps at Tidworth and Bulford administered by the far more powerful War Ministry), he had to move to the village. We had often stopped for a cup of tea and a chat, so now we felt we were obliged to continue to our patronage now and then. Father would lead us through the tall wrought-iron gates of his new establishment and up the shrubby path to the open door where we would be greeted by the man himself – a rather dapper man in a white apron.
“Ah, Mr. Smith !” He advanced, smiling and rubbing his hands together. “Would you like your tomato sandwiches today?” Tomato sandwiches were as far as we went at eating out, and indeed served up as if they were – very thin-cut white bread with the minimum of thin-cut tomatoes pressed in between. I liked them well enough but was only allowed one neat triangle. We had a pot of tea with dainty china cups decorated with tiny pink rosebuds. The teapot provided exactly one cup each, and there was a small glass bowl of sugar cubes and silver sugar tongs. We thought it appropriate to take just one cube each.
Daintiness looked like luxury. Mr Billet knew his business and he thrived.
A track led steeply up to Porton Downs above the Salisbury road. At the top we reached a crossroads, and here, for many years, rested two huge hay-carts, their great wheels and bulging rails carved and painted in bright primary colours. They may have been used sometimes but now they stood empty and deserted, their long shafts sunk deeper and deeper into the long grasses, living on their memories until rain and frost and burning June sun slowly rotted them away. They were still eminently climbable and that, in our view, was the only viable reason for such a steep, boring climb.
Our parents, naturally, had other views, and took us on further and further until we came to a wood, known then as Porton Trees. This was better. There was hide-and-seek to play and bits and pieces to collect.
These holidays were extremely simple. There was no great excitement, except the primary one of being there at all. But we all loved it. It was the highlight of our year, even better than Christmas! Being locked all year in the sterile atmosphere of London, where the wild-life consisted mostly of sparrows and plane trees, we longed for the great release of magical Amesbury, and started to count the days as soon as we reached home.
The Forgotten Druid: George William Smith, Chosen Chief 1946-54
Every movement has its darker moments, and one of the less glorious episodes in the life of the Universal Bond (The Ancient Druid Order), linear ancestor to OBOD, was the removal of George W Smith's name from the list of Chosen Chiefs.
George became a disciple of the mighty Macgregor Reid just after the First World War. He was for many years a close friend of Reid's son Robert, but they felt out after the father's death in 1946 because Reid senior had appointed George as his successor. George and Robert held rival solstice services at Stonehenge for several years, but George died in 1954, and his name was systematically erased from the records. You can read the rest in my biography of George Watson Macgregor Reid, on this website here.
The above story belongs to much happier days. It was written by Joan Letchford, George's daughter, who contacted me out of the blue a couple of years ago when I had given up all hope of finding out anything more about him. It is a wonderfully evocative account of childhood trips to Stonehenge and rural Wiltshire from inner-city Clapham in the 1930s. When money was tight they travelled by bicycle and stayed in a shed, but Joan has only happy memories. It is a beautifully written child's-eye view of what it meant to be a druid before the war and I defy you not to be moved by it. Dr Adam Stout, 2011.