The Footsteps of a Forefather

(This first appeared in the February 2009 edition of Urchfont News and Views.

Then reprinted in the 2009 edition of The Over The Hill Club Magazine)

 

It’s just before 7AM on Boxing Day 2008, I’m parked on the edge of The Green in Urchfont (a village on the north of Salisbury Plain), waiting for the lift. Dad pulls up and I switch cars.

 

“Which house was it?” I ask. Though I once knew the cottages well they were sold from the family in the early nineteen eighties. I’m struggling to remember which pair my Great Grandfather bought in nineteen twenty and then which house they occupied. Dad points it out and I make the mental note for this to be my exact finishing place.

 

It takes about forty five minutes for the drive to Whiteparish, darkness slowly turning to pale light with a cloudless sky full of promise for my day. However, I’m filled with a sense of foreboding for the challenge ahead as we quickly cover ground in the car. I’d driven down a few weeks before so am able to direct Dad to pull up outside the shop and Post Office. We step out into the cold. I don’t know how Dad feels but it feels a little weird for me. This is the spot that for years has been in the folklore of our family.

 

Setting Off

 

“Fancy walking the first bit with me?”

“Yes, alright.”

Both wrapped up against the chill of the dawn air we set off at 7:45AM, from the very same spot that Peter Smith, my Grandfather and Dad’s father, did this very same day seventy years ago - Boxing Day, 1938. Having not got leave from the Navy until the morning he’d set out, in his Standard Nine car, from Gosport and at Warren Farm, some three miles to our east, he’d come off the road as he met a formidable snow storm that had swept down from the north overnight. He called at the farm but even with the help of the farmer the car remained steadfast in the ditch. He recovered a pair of Navy issue boots and a small attaché case and the farmer and his wife gave him a lift to Whiteparish in their gig. From here nothing was moving and, with the attaché case tied about his neck, he set off on a thirty three mile epic walk to get to the church on time; for at 11AM the following morning he was due to marry my Grandmother.

 

I’m unable to follow the route precisely, though I have it pencilled on my map in Gramp’s own hand, as he followed snow covered roads whereas for reasons of safety, comfort and enjoyment I intend to deviate up paths and bridleways. The first being northwest from Whiteparish up a rising track, carved out from years of use. At the highpoint Dad and I say goodbye, with a polite handshake and then a more demonstrative hug. I relieve him of his scarf as there is a bitter chill in the air and my neck tube will not cover my face. The walk had been touch and go and only yesterday, after recovering from a cold, I finally made up my mind.

 

Dawn

 

Soon the muddy incline becomes a gentle grassy track through moor like grass, and the drop down towards the minor road that leads to West Grimstead. To my right, the east, the deep glow of the sunrise reminds me of the early hour. At the road I have to re-strap my left knee, after adding Deep Heat and taking an Ibruprofen. I don a fluorescent bib and head towards West Grimstead and cross the near silent A36 before regaining Gramp’s route through Whaddon and Alderbury. By now the spectacular blue sky is in full winter glow. The occasional garage door opens, a front door squeaks on its hinges and a car starts as the country yawns and stretches its way into Boxing Day.

 

I meet the A36 just southeast of Salisbury and follow the pavement, past Petersfinger, into the city. Now about 11AM the traffic is in full flow heading to the outlets of Argos, Land of Leather, Currys and Next that adorn the edge of the road. When Gramp passed this way it’d have been a deserted snow covered road with these shops likely being farmland. I once asked him what he’d noticed as the biggest change in his lifetime. I expected him to say traffic, or attitudes to marriage or one of a whole host of changes. But he simply replied “the availability of finance”; likely a common denominator to most changes we see today.

 

Ahead the spire of Salisbury Cathedral stands proud above the trees and commercialism; likely a beacon for Gramp all those years ago. He didn’t know what was ahead, both with the looming war and the more immediate issue of whether a bus could be caught from the centre of Salisbury. At the bus depot he was told “nothing’s moving, you know – no chance at all. You’ll have to walk”. Approaching the city centre, I try to remain on his route the best I can but from Salisbury I have to deviate from his footsteps as he walked up what is now the busy A360. A little lost, the layout is hard to follow from the Internet street map I downloaded. I navigate my way through using my compass, passing the soon to be closed Woolworths, while wondering whether it was in the same place seventy years ago, then pausing at a public loo to plaster my feet. I continue following the river until I briefly meet the A345 before taking a left to Stratford Sub Castle.

 

The Road to Salisbury

 

Unlike Gramp I know I’m aiming to do the walk. He’d always have had some hope that a lift would materialise. I get texts of well wishes from family and friends; he’d have been out of contact - his family, and my Grandmother, not knowing where he might be. I pass a Braemar Lodge nursing home and hope I’ve not headed too far north!

 

The winter sun strikes the minor roads, the odd car and group of Boxing Day walkers pass. I sit awhile on the wall of the house where my sister was born, munching a peanut and jam sandwich – a large van in the once front garden protects me from any glances of the occupants.

 

I continue on one of the more tedious parts of the walk – a lengthy stretch of road. I press on as for reasons of safety I need to hit Salisbury Plain by dusk – there is no appeal in the thought of darkened road walking. High to my right is the ancient hill fort of Old Sarum; one of many scattering the Wiltshire hills.

 

I’m to pass through the Woodford’s, a mile or so to the right of Gramp’s route. First it’s Lower Woodford and, before heading for Upper Woodford, I pass the war memorial at Middle Woodford. A group are packing away wine; it looks like the end of a Boxing Day celebration.

“Walking far?” asks a middle aged grey haired man.

“I started at dawn from Whiteparish and am aiming for Urchfont, the other side of the plain.”

“I know where Urchfont is,” he says with surprise. His curious look has me telling the story. He calls the others over “This man is re-creating a walk his grandfather did seventy five years ago today.”

“Seventy years,” I correct then explain the story again and add that we only lost Gramp in August and that Gran is still alive. There’s looks of admiration to bask in and I’m wished well and given the location of several pubs I might wish to call at.

 

Salisbury – not how my Gramp would have known it

 

I walk on, my feet and knees hurt and I sense a slight slowing in my pace. I think of Gramp often now. His last three weeks in particular. He was an active man, still giving and preparing lectures on his life in the submarines, right up until the evening of his stroke. Tenacious and always adept his wartime stories are of the Boy’s Own variety. During the evacuation of Crete HMS Thrasher, his submarine, surfaced and Gramp, an accomplished swimmer, swam ashore with a line to rescue 80 trapped allied personnel. Another time his keen hearing got them out of a minefield as he guided the captain to steer the vessel between the mines; for which he was awarded the DSM. Though my favourite story is when they were trapped in an inlet by enemy ships, he identified a particularly noisy fishing vessel putting out to sea and was able to guide the captain. The enemy duly allowed the boat to pass with the Thrasher submerged a few feet below.

 

The Germans, Japanese, Italians and later throat cancer never got him. Being one of only two submarine ASDEC operators that started the war to survive, he even escaped a “friendly” bombing from the RAF. In later life a triple heart bypass and a failing heart were not to take him. Even a week after his stroke we thought he was going to make it. His speech had lost its slur, his eyes were alive to the nurses and he was sat up and engaging. But his ninety two year old body could not bare the strain, another minor stroke and heart attack laid him very ill. A few days before the end my cousin, Matthew, and I were visiting. One open eye flitted between the two of us and he whispered “I’m worn out.” On August 4th, a month before his ninety third birthday, he passed away with my uncle and myself at his side. Stroking his head as he took his final breath, keeping count as the seconds ticked by and the realisation he’d gone. Some say that at death the life is gone, the animated spark has died the person no more and just a shell remains. For me it was nothing like this, he was still there, I could still speak with him. As Colin, my uncle, left to tell the family I had some time alone with him. I stroked the remains of his hair and chatted away to him. He was still there as he’s still with me on this walk. Maybe a few miles to the left, or looking down or wherever but he was such a strong character that he’ll always be around me. In me I inherited his tenacity as for whatever I do in life I too never bloody well give up.

 

Peter Andrew Smith - DSM

 

A mile past Upper Woodford I’m pleased to take the path and bridleway towards Normanton Down. I rest for a welcome coffee break and a piece of my friend Rona’s birthday cake that she’d packed me off with the day before. The walk here is beautiful the pure blue sky and track winding its way across the field are stunning in the cool winter air. If Gramp had arranged this he did me proud and if looking down it was not from a cloud. On the approach to Normanton Down the path splits and I ask a family, likely walking off the turkey, for confirmation of the route to Stonehenge. The lady confirms and says “It’s a long way.” I smile, thank her and add no more. For a family it might be a long way but it’s less than two miles. On Normanton Down I admire the succession of Bronze Aged burial chambers, in the distance is the magnificent Stonehenge. Now fenced in as a visitor attraction I recall the times when we’d just pull up in the family car and run into the farmer’s field and play amongst the stones. This was in my lifetime – adding to the pace of change of the last seventy years.

 

I drop down to the A303, streaming with traffic I pick a moment to cross and follow the bridleway to the edge of Stonehenge. I chance the café for food and drink but the lengthy queue turns me back onto my walk. It’s about 3:45PM and I head north to Larkhill; a stark military town with streets of bland austere order. Absent of graffiti and litter it’s hard to find a comfortable fit with previous experience so I press on and turn left on to the minor road then north and west to bridleways. The sun and temperature are starting to drop as I’m touching the outer edges of Salisbury Plain. To my left are neat ordered fields of green, to my right the scrub of the military land where the ban on chemicals has kept the plants the same as seventy years ago.

 

Normanton Down Bronze Age Burial Chambers

 

Stonehenge from Normanton Down

 

I pass a long line of trees and, in the setting glow of the sun, a group of starlings swish and swoop in a perfect synchronised display. I make it to The Bustard Inn at 4:45PM, alas it is closed. I wish for a drink – something warm would be good. Gramp stopped here on his walk. He fancied the track across the plain but a group of imbibing soldiers said “Don’t you dare do it.” The snow was that badly built up. Glad of the company he teamed up with two of the soldiers, trying to get through to Lavington, and skirted the edge of the plain. For me the dark tracks that Gramp took are now dark roads and I elect to take the direct route across the plain.

 

As I follow the track for the final nine miles the night sky starts to open up with stars. The clear sky gave me extra useable daylight and now Venus glows bright with the fainter Jupiter in the background. With each step a new star appears, which one is Gramp’s I wonder. It was a clear night for him too and I am warmed as I think that some of the light I see now was already on its journey seventy years ago.

 

Rabbits dart across when I pass through trees. I jump as my phone goes. It’s Rona, my friend of nearly thirty years. She and her sister are willing me on. The few minutes of company are good and as we say goodbyes I mention I can see a light on the path ahead. It’s a long plod to meet it, the grass becoming crunchy with ice and the puddles forming their frozen skin. But just south of Devizes Cross the light becomes a figure – Peter Smith. Not a ghostly apparition but Gramp’s namesake (and my last two names) in the shape of my Dad, having walked in from the north. I’m pleased for his company and flask of hot coffee.

 

Sunset

 

The final walk is three hours together with a cold, biting wind blowing from the north. We are treated to a wonderful view of the heavens. The Milky Way is a streak across the sky with the Plough and Orion easily identifiable. From this high ground of Wiltshire we can make out various settlements as clumps of street and house lights interspersed with the darkness of the rural roads. We talk of Gramp, the last seventy years, the year just gone.

 

We pass a fingerboard, in the middle of nowhere, pointing out tracks to Salisbury, Devizes and Lavington. A relic of when this would be a normal route of travel for those on foot or under the power of a horse. Military signs warn us not to stray off the track as there is much unexploded ordnance scattered across the plain.

“I remember coming up here as a kid and seeing abandoned tanks used for target practise.”

“There’s still a few around,” replies Dad, “and when I was a kid there were many abandoned Spitfires used for target practise up here.”

 

The fingerboard on the plain with Venus just visible

 

At Redhorn Hill we pass Dad’s, now very icy, car then take the track to the left hoping to pick up the same track down into Urchfont that Gramp had taken. He’d hoped to walk the road between Market Lavington and Urchfont but it was impassable and he had to climb up onto the plain and descended White Road into the village. Dad and I could not quite find what we thought to be the right track so we descend pass Dogtail Plantation and head towards The Green. We are both very tired and try to assemble one good set of body parts between the two of us. We fail. To our right is the shimmer from the village pond, and beyond the darkness of the graveyard and church where for years he was Church Warden, and seventy years ago tomorrow, Gran and Gramp married and just nine days previously we’d buried Gramp’s ashes.

 

At The Green the products of the union walk to the very gate Gramp passed through at around 10:30PM to be greeted with an “Oh – you got here then” from his sister. A light is on, the occupants having no knowledge of the little family ceremony taking place at their gate.

 

For me it’s 8:45PM and I’m finished. Truly finished, my right hip, both knees and both feet ache. It’s been thirteen hours and thirty two miles, just one less than Gramp and, given the poor weather conditions he endured, surprisingly an almost identical time. Perhaps being twenty years my junior and a bride to claim helped him on his way.

 

I was at my limit at the Bustard some nine miles back but I’m glad to have done it and perhaps, in the history of the human race, just become only the second person to walk from Whiteparish to Urchfont in one day.

 

 

My route in red, Gramp’s in blue

 

 

© Steve Smith
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