For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, G K Chesterton
This weekend I was at a hen party in Oxfordshire – ‘glamping’ with afternoon tea and a school sports day, which is not usually my sort of thing at all, but there was a lot of Aperol Spritz amongst the wildflowers, and delicious food and lovely company, and I surprised myself by scoring a rounder. The other great thing about the site is you could see the Uffington white horse in the distance, so on the Sunday after breakfast, my friend Anna and I decided we had to get up close and went for a walk. There were little villages with thatched roofs, and endless wheat fields, and roads lined with sloes. A kestrel peered at us from a tree.
And the white horse was wonderful. The place definitely feels like it has a strange energy. The valley, called the manger because the horse is meant to drink from it at night, was rippled by the retreat of ice-age permafrost. There’s a weirdly flat-topped hill where St George is supposed to have killed the dragon; a chalk scar marking the spot. And then the bronze-age horse itself, scrawny and utterly other, with its long pale body and primitive, beaked face, that has to be regularly scoured to stop it disappearing. There is a Chesterton ballad about King Alfred trying to fend of the Danes that begins and ends with the image of the horse –
And all the while on White Horse Hill
The horse lay long and wan,
The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
Unwrought the work of man.
Next weekend I’m lucky enough to be going on another jaunt – catching the Friday night sleeper train to Edinburgh where I’m taking part in ‘Prolong the Talk: Re-imagining Philip Larkin’ at 3.15pm on Saturday. Luke Wright will be chairing, and Helen Mort, Tim Cockburn, Sam Riviere and A F Harrold and myself have been commissioned to write poems imagining how Larkin would react to modern life. I’ve updated ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ for the Instagram era. There’s such a fantastic programme at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, so hoping to cram in lots of shows, beers and an early morning hike up Arthur’s seat before getting the train back on Sunday. See some of you there!