Friday, 24 July 2009

Field of Dreams

To the south of Ashdown Park is a walk that takes you straight back into history. It begins, prosaically enough, in a layby near the water pumping station where you go through a gate into what I call the Field of Dreams. It's a bit like the Secret Garden; on one side you're standing by the road to Lambourn. On the other you're in Deep History.

On your right the remains of the medieval Park Pale of the Ashdown deer park sweep down the hillside, still imposing after hundreds of years. The park pale was erected in the Middle Ages when Ashdown was a hunting chase belonging to Glastonbury Abbey. It consists of a bank and ditch and in places it is still five feet wide and several feet high. Originally there would have been a paling fence on the top too high for a deer to leap.

As you cross the field, the remains of what look like a small camp come into view on your left. Some antiquarian books record this as a Roman fort although I have never been able to discover any details about it or find it on any maps. It's true that there were a number of Roman villas scattered across this part of the Downs, one of which was built into the centre of the Iron Age hillfort at Alfred's Castle. The current road along the Downs beneath the Ridgeway, the Portway, was a Roman Road to the major settlement at Wanborough. So it's possible there might have been a small fort nearby. As is the case with Alfred's Castle, you can see what look like banks and gateways, ditches, entrances and possibly the outline of internal walls.

A little further away across the field is an enormous barrow with a sarsen stone on the top and a ring of what I at first thought were sarsens around the base. On closer inspection they turned out to be tree stumps that looked almost petrified and I wondered if this had once been a site like Waylands Smithy that the Victorians had prettified by adding a ring of trees to complement the rugged beauty of the stones.

As you walk on across the wheat field you have a magnificent view of the park pale ascending the escarpment of Ashdown Upper Wood, a mysterious and ancient woodland with trees up to eight hundred years old and abundant wildlife. The path leads directly to a line of three Bronze Age barrows on the top of the hill. This was a Bronze Age tribal boundary and there are actually four barrows but one of them was sunken and now it is a pool in the winter. As you stand on the top of the hill looking at the sun on the gold dome of Ashdown House you can feel the years roll back. This is a place to come to dream.