Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Minchinhampton Common

Up a Holloway to Minchinhampton Common

A combination of a talk about the Common at the Subscription Rooms and a read of Robert Macfarlane’s book, “Holloway”, led to my cycling over Rodborough and Minchinhampton Commons in late May. There was a fine, soft rain, which the early afternoon light transmuted to misty gauze: perfect conditions for slipping through time on a pyschogeographical bike ride.
Macfarlane uses an etymological trick at the start of his book, with a visual epigraph of linguistic stratigraphy that reminds us of the ancient origins of many of our pathways.
                             Hol weg.
So I decided to reach Minch via the holloway that leads from Stanfields, off Walkley Hill, along Kingscourt Lane. The path is tarmacadamised, but the bank on your right as you climb is particularly steep. Sycamore, holly and ash climb high with their thick, wizened trunks resting on thick, serpentine roots. Wild garlic covered the banks of this shaded, shrouded avenue; the leafy canopy above sheltered me from the heavy rain.  You are deep, deep, down in this Holloway, as you make the steep climb up past Rodborough Tabernacle.
Climbing beyond the manse, you meet the lane that leads on to Little London, just at the lane’s highest point, as it journeys from the main road, contouring beneath Rodborough Common. It’s easy to miss this topographical point at the junction, but it raises some two -pipe questions.  If this isn’t a coincidence, then what led this holloway to this highest point?
If the cause isn’t natural – say, slips of stone and rock, brought on by gravity, or water drifting away from the high ground, making for an easier path – then what human imprint determined this line? If we follow Macfarlane’s  epigraphic stratigraphy and also our imagination, then perhaps we can conjecture something prehistoric. Tumuli and long barrows abound around Avening and Minchinhampton Common – could this be a Neolithic track to that sacred area? The holloway climbs straight up the side of Rodborough Common and then over towards Minch.
As I walked, I thought of the alleyway on the Cainscross Road, opposite the restored lake area by the Cainscross roundabout. It’s resolutely 19th/20th century as it curves between stone and brick … and yet. Could this deep-down alley have served not just handloom weavers but could it also have served medieval packhorses? Could it pre-date even that? We are near an ancient crossing point of the Frome there; we are also on a line that could lead up to the tumuli up at Randwick. How nice to imagine that this holloway and that alleyway once connected Neolithic sites at Randwick and the Minchinhampton Common area. And even if that isn’t so, such pyschogeographical musings travelling way beyond conventional evidence are good for the mind and spirit.
Minch is good for the spirit too: skylarks, rare butterflies, iron age earthworks, burial mounds, pre-Roman and Roman field systems, medieval rabbit warrens, dinosaur remains, charcoal pits (Black Ditch? Burnt Ash?)), coppicing of woodlands, anenomes, cowslips, George Whitfield, turnpike roads, a disused mine – and covering all of this like a baize tablecloth, a golf course.
It’s easy to ignore Minchinhampton Common, seemingly encircled by so many busy roads. But it’s an ancient landscape.  It’s well worth a visit, even in the rain. Bike or walk – but take a map for the naming of parts.
PS One of the speakers at the presentation about Minch pointed out that the common can only be re-imagined by placing it in the context of the surrounding landscape. It is only by observing it from the outside, as it were, that one can understand the inside: the jigsaw is bigger than the common.
So, I took a bike ride the next day along the old railway line to Nailsworth and on to Avening. The track opposite the school in Avening takes you on the outskirts of Gatcombe Park and on to Hampton Fields and Minch. The map indicates a variety of Neolithic remains and getting up on top gives you that ancient feeling of self merging with landscape and time.

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