New Year’s Day
For us and the friends staying with us for New Year, our January 1st fresh start was up on the highest chalk in Britain* at Walbury Hill, enjoying the peace and expansive views of Berkshire illuminated by low winter sun. It’s a beautiful place for a muddy tramp and not a bad one to look for wildlife. Whilst neither the cropped fields on the slopes nor the sheep-grazed hilltop would please a rewilding aficionado, nature makes the most of the more sympathetic aspects of estate management here, mostly on habitat edges. Redwings and fieldfares burst along the hedgerows between feeding stops; finches skip through the game cover strips whilst buzzards pick over the stubble for small mammals. Red kites and ravens forage for scraps of carrion between bouts of tumbling in the breeze. The ravens particularly appear to delight in play, dropping suddenly like plumb-lines as if to measure the height of the scarp before swooping back to the ridge line with impressive power.
Over the hills lies Combe, nestled in a secluded dry valley, a settlement described by one book of walks on our shelf as ‘Berkshire’s hidden village’. It’s so idyllic that one almost feels guilty for spoiling the peace, but then I always get to thinking that Britain’s landscapes should be open and shared, especially where they’d otherwise be inaccessible to those for whom modern rural life would be impractically expensive or isolating. Combe can’t be home to many people now, and it’s hard to imagine the communities that would have lived in this tucked-away corner for so many generations of nearly unchanged rural life. We often forget that agricultural changes have been a rupture for human communities as much as they have for wildlife.
Chalk country feels particularly rich in culture. Signs of its significance to our predecessors date back thousands of years, to the Bronze Age and beyond, though these human artefacts are astoundingly recent compared to the crushed and calcified remains of millions upon millions of marine organisms that make up the rock. And whilst the veneer of human influence may be thin, it has created a unique ecology. Chalkhills in summer – herb-scented, butterfly-kissed – are a blessing. The ridge at Combe has retained little high-quality chalk grassland, to my knowledge, but an attentive summer visitor will notice its true nature still showing through in the pathside flora.
A week later, a literal blessing of chalk. In some church traditions chalk, exactly what you might use on an old-fashioned blackboard, is blessed at Epiphany to use in a ‘Chalking the Door’ ritual. One English church that does this is St George’s, the unusually Italianate parish church in Wash Common, which appropriately enough can be seen from the five-mile distant Walbury Hill vantage point as a glint of white above Newbury. The front door lintels of parishioners’ houses are marked by chalk crosses and the letters C, M and B, which stand for the traditional names for the wise men (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) as well as the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘Christ bless this house’.
Evil is now symbolically kept from the door throughout the year to come; more practically, the reference to the Magi is meant to remind the householder of the hospitality shown by the Holy Family. The half-an-island home we call England is a country unusually rich in chalk. The door-chalking ritual may be too obscure for the metaphor to be of any use, but perhaps England’s blessing of chalk, eons in the making, could serve as a constant source of perspective and a timely reminder to welcome visitors from overseas and appreciate the gifts they bring.
*Walbury Hill is the highest chalk hill in Britain. But what’s the highest chalk hill in the world? Could Berkshire be harbouring an unsuspected record holder? Probably not, but I appear to have discovered an ungoogleable question – I haven’t yet been able to determine the answer and may actually have to visit the university library to find out, or at least make use of more technical online resources. What fun!
**The feast marking the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. Fun trivia fact: the Bible story doesn’t actually number them. Three is always assumed since they are said to have carried three gifts.