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Windy Wessex Downs

A prehistoric landscape and memories of Opa

Crows caw ominously. One huge shifting mass, they spiral upward together in a swirling blackness, melding with the dark clouds of the impending storm.[1] The sky is thick with the approach of rain, but the sun forces its way through, spilling through the clouds in a wide fan of light, individual shafts illuminating the valley floor like roving, golden spotlights.

When I need to feel space about me, I come to the heights of Uffington Castle. An Iron Age hillfort in the North Wessex Downs, it sits high above flat plains and gentle hills. Its elevation lends it a 360° horizon; even on a dull day, the view over the Vale of White Horse is vast and varied. When Oxford has become too cloying, and I miss the open fells of the Lakes or the wide horizons of Iceland, it is here I come–to a landscape full of history and with views so extensive that the world starts to seem like a place of possibility again, of freedom, travel and adventure.

Today, the wind is cold. Though the view wants to be enjoyed, the piercing wind says otherwise. I hunker down out of the worst of it in the lee of the fort’s ring wall, and think about Opa.

We've never called my grandparents Grandma and Grandpa but Oma and Opa. The story goes that Opa was in denial about ageing (aren't we all) and so if we said it in German, it would somehow be easier to forget that they were grandparent age. He smoked a pipe for as long as I can remember, and as a child fully indoctrinated into the evils of tobacco, I used to hate it. My girlfriend bought me a pipe a few years ago though, and I've started to rewrite these memories in my head. Now, smoking my pipe is an act of remembering childhood Christmases spent at Oma and Opa's. The smell is familiar, and I remember more physical details about Opa, tamping down the tobacco in the bowl and going through the motions of lighting and re-lighting.

We used to disagree furiously. Politically speaking, we were diametrically opposed; and as a child, I thought of him as a bigoted old curmudgeon. But as we both got older, we relaxed into a genial relationship. When he got dementia, his already pretty severe grumpiness could take on new and inspired levels, and his obsessive anxiety about money–how much things cost, who's paying, and whether or not it's a damned waste!–got worse. But he was increasingly appreciative of those around him. Whenever I went to see him, his whole face would light up in a big smile of recognition–"it's you!"–and no matter whether he had one or two sticks, they were thrust aside so he could attempt his customary crushing handshake, his eyes twinkling as he enjoyed the nostalgia of the ritual; it's what we had always done, both of us complicit in the childish competition of it. At some point when I was a teenager, a friend of mine came over while Opa was pottering around in the garage (no doubt organising and labelling the countless pots of screws, nuts and bolts that lived there, housed in neat stacks of his old tobacco tins, always the same brand, Ogden's of Liverpool: Gold Block, "the aristocrat of tobacco"). The garage door was open so we said hello, and years later my friend still remembers Opa's vice-like handshake.

I think about his last days in bed, and though he could hardly talk or swallow, his eyes and face still lit up when I came into the room; and though he no longer had precise control of his limbs, his hands moved towards me, half-remembering the motion of shaking hands. 

Part of me wishes he was here still, even as he was at the end, a physical presence to touch and look after and visit, but I know it’s better this way. He was 92; he'd had a great life. Apart from his dementia, he'd been pretty healthy in old age. Just over a month ago, on Christmas day, he was wolfing down his roast turkey and asking for more wine. He even gave a speech about how much he'd enjoyed the day.

I round the hill fort, move along its wide earthen rim, descend over Dragon Hill and down into the valley–a small, steep-sided hollow known as the Manger. The name refers to the local legend that the white horse–an elegant chalk figure whose outline is gouged into the side of the hill above–descends to graze there at night. Stretching down from the horse into the Manger are several tongues of earth, spread out beneath like fingers on a hand, small ridges and indentations known as the "Giant's Stair". Between the fingers, on the flank of the index, I sit and again find shelter from the wind. As I'm sitting a red kite comes for a closer look. Dipping and swerving above my head, its fan tail flashes fox-red as it tilts and manoeuvres with the wind. Its head bows as it wonders what I am, sitting here in my bright blue coat. As it swoops lower I see the underside of its wings, white with black edges and tips. Its curiosity sated, it moves off to dance briefly with a crow before disappearing from view.

As I walk up the steep incline back to the hill I notice the moon high up in the sky, near full and bright. Mixed with the deep indigo of dusk, the moon lights up the chalky limbs of the horse, the flow of its shape momentarily illuminated. Glimpsed side-on while walking, out of the corner of my eye, its legs seemed to flash in the moonlight, and there it is: the half promise of a galloping gait, fluid and smooth, as if to roam freely across bare hillside and open field. Turning back to face it properly, there is no hint of movement; it lies frozen in time and place. But on the boundary between day and night, between seeing and not seeing, lies a suggestion of the grace of a living thing, and the vision of the artist who sought to capture it. So that, three thousand years later, the moon and a twilight glow hint at what once was. In a split second peripheral glance, time contracts, and stone and earth come alive.

[1] When Storm Ciara hit properly that night and the next day (09/02/20), there was widespread flooding, and trees and power cables went down the length of the country. Two people died and the people of the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire witnessed the river rising higher than ever before in the third catastrophic flood to hit the area in 8 years.

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2020

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