Normally I take notes throughout the day, whenever I need a break. This time the notes came after the fact, at first because, well, train rides are unexciting to write about, and later because I didn’t even think to take a break.
Today I made my token pilgrimage out of London. Last year I went to Derby because Hardwick Hall was a good example of the period. This time my goal is more precise: I expect some portion of the novel to take place in the Vale of the White Horse, and so that is where I go.
I get there courtesy of silme and her husband, who are apparently glad to use me as their excuse to go sightseeing. They pick me up at the Swindon train station and chauffeur me up to rural Oxfordshire. I have four targets, all within walking distance of each other, provided the idea of walking a few miles doesn’t bother you. They are, in the order I visited them: Dragon Hill, the White Horse, Uffington Castle, and Weyland’s Smithy.
The hill gets its name from the legend that St. George slew his dragon there; nothing will grow on its crest becaue the dragon’s blood poisoned the ground. And indeed, you can see the curled form of a (small) fallen dragon in the patch of bare chalk, if you look at it right. From there you get a passable view of the White Horse — very nearly the best view you can get without being in the air.
The Horse itself is an elongated, abstract figure cut into the chalk hillside above Dragon Hill. As per my promise to kniedzw, I recite a few stanzas from G. K. Chesteron’s Ballad of the White Horse, while sitting in the grass just above its back:
And Alfred answered, drinking,
And gravely, without blame,
“Nor bear I boast of scald or king,
The thing I bear is a lesser thing,
But comes in a better name.
“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.
“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
Like a little word come I,
For I go gathering Christian men,
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.
“And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire:
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.'”
In front of me the land drops away quite sharply into a formation called the Manger, before flattening into the valley below. The Horse is a little scruffy today, with weeds growing in the chalk, and I make a mental note to find out when the yearly scouring takes place.
The Horse does not stand on the highest part of the slope; instead it’s placed on a long, straight grade, where it both fits and better displays into the valley. The hilltop is claimed by Uffington Castle — not a castle at all, but an Iron Age hillfort, much like my old friend Castell Henllys. From atop the defensive embankment (which, along with the accompanying ditch, is the only remaining sign of the occupation here), one has a commanding view of the entire region — not to mention a prime chance to experience the rather strong wind.
The signs tell us that Weyland’s Smithy lies 1.4 miles away, down dusty roads of chalk and flint where most motor traffic is not permitted. (I suspect that’s why Google Maps would not let me plot a route through it.) Someone at the Horse tells us there’s a rave at the Smithy; I’m guessing it to be the source of the snatches of music we’ve been hearing. It must have been the previous night, though, because the music has stopped, and we pass tired young people, two of whom are sitting on something that I think are their speakers. The Smithy is quiet when we get there, with only a few people meditating or chatting quietly at the far end.
The Smithy itself is a long, triangular barrow, with four large upright stones at the wide end, framing a tiny cruciform chamber I must crouch to enter. This, according to folklore, is where Weyland Smith did his work. Chalk spirals and pentagrams decorate the walls, remnants of someone’s Beltaine celebration, and a small bundle of flowers lies in the far recess. The surroundings are cool, shaded by tall beeches; the long body of the mound, edged in places with smaller stones, lies in bright sunlight, and sweet cicely and elder honey the air. It doesn’t take much work at all to imagine the barrow as a faerie mound.
The area is quiet, as it would have been in the seventeenth century. This book may prove my assertion that the series is urban fantasy: any fae from London who end up out here are going to find it strange indeed.
Some, like me, may not even be able to identify the things around them without help. I have the good fortune to be accompanied by people who can point out chaffinches and kestrals, sweet cicely and nettles, beech and elder and white and black hawthorne. The region would have been more forested, of course — and no neon-yellow fields of rapeseed. After the third round of “by the way, you can eat that; it’s good if you . . .” I decide I may need to make silme‘s husband my official consultant on what seventeenth-century rural fae would eat.
The hours have flown by. My lunch was the ice cream I ate before we headed for the Smithy. Time to return to Swindon, to Paddington, to the City, where I eat my dinner on the steps of the cathedral. A lovely day, in all.
In other news, insomnia last night gifted me with an idea: I know how I’m going to kill off a character in this book.
I feel quite bad about it.
I suspect this is a good thing.