Writing Portfolio

26.9.17

How Henry Blofeld almost played for England

Earlier this month, legendary cricket commentator Henry ‘Blowers’ Blofeld – he of the plummy upper-class voice and penchant for counting pigeons and buses – retired from Test Match Special at the age of 77. After the Test match on which he had been commentating ended a short while later, he did a lap of honour of the ground and was given a standing ovation by the spectators. In an age in which a pre-requisite of sports commentary would appear to be having excelled at the highest level of the sport in question, it’s unlikely that we’ll see his like again. It is also highly unlikely that we will ever witness a septuagenarian dressed in a mint-green blazer and scarlet trousers doing a lap of honour in front of an adoring crowd ever again, even at Lord’s.

His father, as is reasonably well-known, provided the name of one of the great villains of twentieth-century fiction; Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was at Eton with Blofeld senior and that is believed to be where he got Ernst Blofeld’s surname from.

But did you know that Henry Blofeld almost played Test cricket for England? 

The records show that he was a promising schoolboy cricketer (he even hit a century at Lord’s, for the Public Schools against the Combined Services) but due to a road traffic accident in his teens – he was hit by a bus while riding his bike – a career as a cricketer was a non-starter. Nevertheless, he did play in 17 first-class matches, most of them for Cambridge University (in typically self-deprecating fashion, he has described himself as “an opening batsman of sorts … the worst Blue awarded since the war”) as well as turning out for his native Norfolk in Minor Counties cricket in the late Fifties and early-to-mid Sixties.

Career-wise, he spent a few years in a merchant bank before going into sports journalism, and by 1963 he was reporting on cricket for The Guardian. It was in this capacity that he went to India to cover England’s 1963-64 tour.

That was one of those sub-continental tours where several of the visiting side were laid low due to either gastric problems or injury in the warm-up games, to the point that by 20th January 1964, the eve of the of the second Test at Bombay, the England squad had just ten fit players (including, somewhat unhelpfully, both wicket-keepers). Wisden would later describe the situation as a “hospital background”. With no chance of anyone flying out from back home at such short notice to make up the numbers – the mid-Sixties were modern but not that modern – the man from The Guardian was told by the England manager David Clark that the pair of them were the only available options, and as Blowers was the younger man by two decades he would most likely get the call-up.

“I replied I would certainly play if needed,” Blowers later recalled, “but if I scored 50 or upwards in either innings I was damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test ... I suspect that David’s reply was unprintable.” He was told to get a good night’s sleep, just in case, but as the enormity of his situation sunk in he barely slept.

The following morning, it turned out that his batting services would not be needed; England, in this case, did not expect. But only just. One of the sick, vice-captain Mickey Stewart (Alec Stewart’s dad) discharged himself from hospital and declared himself to be fit to play even though he clearly wasn’t. Thus did “the oddest England side ever to have played an official Test (according to the reporter from the Daily Telegraph) take to the field, with just ten fit players and a tail-end that started with the number six batsman (Middlesex’s J.S.E. Price, who usually batted at eleven, would end up going in at number eight). India won the toss and elected to bat first, and by tea on the first day Stewart was back in hospital and would play no further part in the match; Kripal Singh, the hosts’ twelfth man, was called upon to field for the visitors. They were expected to lose, but curiously India failed to push home their obvious advantage and the match ended in a draw.

For the third Test, help from home arrived in the form of Colin Cowdrey, who had not been selected in the first place because he’d still been recovering from having his arm broken while batting against the West Indies at Lord’s the previous summer. He would score centuries in the third and fourth Tests. The five-Test series ended in a draw, with neither side winning any of them.

Blowers, meanwhile, continued to work in print journalism until 1972, when he joined the TMS team.

22.9.17

The wonderful story of the Minack Theatre

Down in the far south-west of Cornwall, beyond Penzance which is as far as the Great Western Railway goes, there’s a small coastal village called Porthcurno which can be reached from the A30 via St Buryan (a village named after a sixth-century saint who has a walk-on part in the King Arthur legends). Porthcurno – the name means ‘Port Cornwall’ – is famous for having been the place where underwater telegraph cables used to enter the sea; the first of those was laid in 1870 to provide communication between Britain and India, and Porthcurno’s importance as a major submarine cable station lasted until well into the twentieth century (that, by the way, is just part of a running theme about Cornwall being a centre of global communications, which also takes in the Falmouth Packets of the eighteenth century and the satellite station at Goonhilly).



Today, Porthcurno is a seaside village with a truly stunning beach surrounded by granite cliffs – it’s part of the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (which itself composes of just over a quarter of the county). That alone would make the place worthy of note, but what concerns me today is what’s on top of the cliffs immediately to the west of the beach.


Accessible from Porthcurno via either the winding coastal footpath or a steep, narrow road stands an open-air theatre that is truly unique – for it has been carved into the clifftop, and the stage has as its backdrop the view out to sea. If you were to peruse a list of the world’s most stunning theatres, you would in all probability encounter this one, the Minack Theatre. And the story of how it came to be is as impressive as the place itself.



That it exists at all is due to the determination and vision of one woman – Rowena Cade, who was originally from Derbyshire but who moved down to Cornwall after the First World War. She bought the Minack headland above Porthcurno and there she built herself a home, Minack House. A Shakespeare enthusiast, she got involved with the local amateur dramatics group, and when in 1929 they were looking for a suitable venue to stage an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she gladly offered them the use of a grassy meadow on her land. This was a great success, and a couple of years later they decided to do The Tempest.

But where could they stage that? Rowena Cade reckoned she had the answer – those cliffs below her house would be ideal, and what better backdrop could there be to a performance of The Tempest than the sea? She needed to make a few changes, though, and over the winter of 1931-32 she and her gardener, Billy Rawlings, worked hard to move granite boulders and carve out a stage and terraces for seating, hauling materials from either the house above or the beach below; that last one was essential as she needed sand to make concrete for the seats (it being more or less impossible to make seats out of the granite that was already there).

The Tempest was duly performed in the summer of 1932. The performers got changed in Miss Cade’s house, while cars parked atop the cliffs provided the lighting. Some of the audience had to take deck-chairs down with them, for there were only a few rows of terracing. It was a resounding success, even getting a positive write-up in the national media (The Times, no less). That spurred Miss Cade on, and over the next few years she and Billy Rawlings worked hard to improve the theatre. More sand was brought up from the beach to provide concrete for the seats, pillars, steps and walkways – which were decorated with Celtic carvings, done by Miss Cade herself with the aid of a broken screwdriver. The stage was gradually built up too – over time there was added a throne for Antony & Cleopatra, and a balcony for Romeo & Juliet.

The Second World War put a stop to theatrical proceedings – Cornwall’s beaches were potential landing-grounds should an invasion have happened, and the telegraph station down at Porthcurno, a major communications centre, was considered to be at risk from attack. Tunnels were dug underneath it, and up at Minack a pill-box was hastily constructed. That, though, did not stop the Minack Theatre from being used as a filming location for the 1944 movie Love Story. The theatre needed a lot of work after the war finished, and it wasn’t until 1951 that it reopened with Tristan of Cornwall (the pill-box had by this point become the box office).

From then, it went from strength to strength. Performances were staged every summer, regardless of the weather, a tradition that continues to this day (weather conditions have to be truly appalling for a show to be cancelled, and anyone planning on taking in a show at Minack should bear in mind that umbrellas are banned, however heavy the rain). Rowena Cade continued to work on the place during the winter, using whatever materials came her way; more seating tiers were added, along with an access road, a car park and some proper steps on the footpath connecting the theatre with the beach. There’s a lovely story about how she even indulged in a spot of wrecking when a Spanish ship carrying timber foundered on the rocks below. She made her way down the cliffs and helped herself, carrying a dozen or so 15-ft beams up to her garden single-handedly, one at a time. When the police came to inspect the wreck, they realised that some of the cargo was missing and started asking around; Miss Cade told them what she’d done, but the cops took one look at this somewhat frail-looking woman and decided that she was obviously having them on. Thus cleared of suspicion, she used the wood to build a dressing-room.




She was still doing heavy lifting and mixing concrete into her eighties – she had the theatre registered as a charitable trust in 1976 and died in 1983, aged 89. Her legacy lives on. Today, plays at the Minack Theatre attract some 80,000 people every year, with a further 150,000 just going to look around the place – which, needless to say, is most definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in the area (and, if you can time it so you can catch a local storyteller retelling the story of how the theatre was built, so much the better). It’s truly unique, and it still very much reflects the vision of its most remarkable founder.


9.9.17

Historical English crime: Smuggling on Romney Marsh (part 2)

The smuggling of wool out of England declined in the early eighteenth century, as European weavers found cheaper sources of wool elsewhere and other clothing materials, such as cotton, started to appear in Europe. That did not mean that smuggling was at an end, though – in fact, smuggling as it is popularly perceived today was just getting started, for by that time there was more money to be made smuggling goods into Britain (and it was indeed Britain by this point, the UK having been created as a result of the Act of Union in 1707). Products like alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea all had high import duties imposed on them, which led to much smuggling of such goods. Tea in particular was an expensive drink, yet in the early eighteenth century the English were well on their way to becoming a nation of tea-drinkers.

The smuggler, therefore, came to be seen as a public benefactor who could supply tea – or brandy, or tobacco – at a reasonable price. Not everyone thought well of smuggling, though. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often preached against it, although for the most part his words fell on deaf ears; more than a generation after him, attitudes towards smugglers were better summed up by the essayist Charles Lamb, who described the smuggler as an “honest thief” who robbed “nothing but the revenue – an abstraction I never greatly cared about”. Smugglers could also pay quite well, and many a farm labourer supplemented his meagre income by way of some nocturnal fetching and carrying (quite literally ‘moonlighting’).

Being located on the edge of Romney Marsh, the Sussex port of Rye was very much a smugglers’ town where the magistrates and the riding officers struggled and often failed to keep things under control. Two such magistrates were James Lamb and Allen Grebell, who we have previously encountered as (respectively) the intended victim and the actual victim in the ‘murder by mistake’ case. These gentlemen, who both served as Mayor of Rye in the early-to-mid eighteenth century, are on record as having acquitted those accused of smuggling due to insufficient evidence on more than one occasion, such decisions perhaps being taken more out of fear for their personal safety than any other consideration. Both knew what happened to Gabriel Tomkins, a bailiff who’d arrested one Thomas Moore for a smuggling-related offence at Rye in 1735. After being bailed, Moore went to the Mermaid Inn, nowadays a famous old pub-cum-hotel but then a notorious smuggler hang-out, where he met with several others. Unfortunately for Tomkins, he happened to be staying at the Mermaid Inn. Moore and his friends forced the bailiff out of his room, dragged him out into the street, relieved him of the bail-bonds and arrest warrants that he had on him, took him down to the harbour and put him on a ship to be taken overseas. He was only rescued from that last bit because the captain of the local revenue ship heard what had happened and ordered all of the ships in the harbour to be searched.


The smugglers were violent men, notorious for killing riding officers and anyone else who took too close an interest in their affairs – so much so that many ordinary people were only too happy to turn a blind eye to their activities, such was their fear of incurring the wrath of the smugglers. Lamb and Grebell, and others like them, would have found themselves and their families in danger had they taken a firmer approach to smuggling (Tomkins was lucky he wasn’t killed). At the time, the most notorious group of smugglers operating in the Romney Marsh area were the Hawkhurst Gang, named after the Kentish village of the same name, who during the 1730s and 1740s terrorised Kent and Sussex. They were regular customers at the Mermaid Inn – and when they drank there, they’d sit with their weapons on the tables, clearly with no fear of the authorities.

The seeds of their downfall were sown in October 1747 when they were expecting a large consignment of tea which was due to be landed in Sussex but which in the event was seized when the ship that was carrying it was intercepted at sea and taken to Poole in Dorset. The tea was taken to the custom house at Poole, and it says something for the audacity of the Hawkhurst Gang that they decided to go to Dorset, attack the customs house and steal ‘their’ tea. They duly managed to pull off this heist, but several months later one of their number was arrested in connection with the raid and imprisoned at Chichester. The rest of the gang decided that in order to protect themselves, anyone stepping forward with evidence against their incarcerated comrade should be killed.

Two men – the custom house keeper and a shoemaker – came forward as witnesses to the raid. They were on their way to have their evidence taken by a magistrate when they stopped at a pub called the White Hart in a village called Rowlands Castle (then in Sussex, now in Hampshire). Unfortunately for them, the pub landlady was an ally of the smugglers and she quickly sent a message to the Hawkhurst Gang. It wasn’t long before seven of them turned up; posing as locals, they plied the witnesses with booze until they passed out. When they came to, they found that they’d both been tied astride a horse. The smugglers whipped them and took them to a well where they threatened to throw them in. They then whipped one of them to death and attempted to hang the other; they botched that, so they threw him down the well, and then threw some big stones in after him to finish him off.

When the bodies were found, the sheer brutality of what the smugglers had done turned many against them, and one by one they were rounded up. All seven went on trial for murder at the Chichester Assizes; they were all found guilty and six of them were hanged (the seventh died in prison before he could be taken to the gallows). Of the remaining members of the Hawkhurst Gang still at large, one of them accused another of stealing some of the tea that had been taken in the raid; he beat him to death and hid his body in a pond. He was later arrested for that murder, and he too ended his life on the gallows almost two years after that fateful consignment of tea had been seized. That, more or less, was the end of the Hawkhurst Gang.

But their downfall did not deter others – indeed, it left a vacuum that other smuggling gangs were quick to fill. The situation on land was bad, for even if a smuggler was arrested it was notoriously difficult to secure a conviction, such was the intimidatory nature of the smuggling gangs. At sea, meanwhile, the revenue men were invariably outnumbered – in 1720, for example, the captain of the Rye revenue ship reported: “3 large Calais sloops loaded with brandy &c lye now off this Harbour, about 30 men in each sloop watching for my comeing out. If I have not more men or a Man of Warr ordered to cruise with me I am useless, & the rideing officers dare not appear on ye coast.” Throughout the eighteenth century, there were never enough revenue ships to deal with smugglers, with the various overseas wars in which Britain was involved meaning that for long periods of time the Royal Navy wasn’t able to help out in any great numbers.

As far as the government was concerned, smuggling was a clear public order problem, especially in Kent and Sussex where smuggling gangs were to all intents and purposes private armies; troops were posted to coastal towns but they could be withdrawn at times of war. On Romney Marsh, it was said, “the smugglers go around in such large gangs and are so daring that it is absolutely necessary to have military force”. There was an obvious solution, and that was to cut the import taxes so as to make smuggling economically unviable. Pitt the Younger understood this, and in the 1780s he cut the duty on tea and reduced the duty on French wine, but any hopes of putting a stop to smuggling by lowering import duties were dashed when Britain found herself at war with Revolutionary France in 1792 (a situation that would last, on and off, until 1815); in times of war, taxes had to go up.

Smuggling as a large-scale criminal activity therefore continued into the early nineteenth century, a time when the threat of a French invasion led to new coastal defences on and around Romney Marsh. A defensive ditch called the Royal Military Canal was dug, and a series of fortifications called Martello Towers were built (some of these can still be seen at various points along the Kent and Sussex coasts). The invasion never came, but after 1815 these defences were combined with an increased military presence in the area and the enforcement of a naval blockade at sea to serve as a significant deterrent to smuggling.

But smuggling persisted – many ex-servicemen who now found themselves unemployed took to smuggling, and bloody encounters between smugglers and government forces were now the order of the day. By this time, the biggest smuggling gang on Romney Marsh was the Aldington Gang, named for the Kentish village of the same name but also known as the Blues on account of either their blue clothing or the blue flares they used for signalling. They were active from around 1817 and were invariably heavily armed and didn’t think twice about shooting a revenue man or a blockader. In February 1821, some 250 of them went to the beach at Camber to unload a smuggled cargo. This attracted the attention of the blockaders, a party of which attacked the smugglers and pursued them inland to Brookland, where the Aldington Gang turned and fought in a skirmish that came to be known as the Battle of Brookland. Five men were killed and around twenty wounded, but in the heat of the fighting the gang’s leader, one Cephas Quested, ordered someone to shoot one of the officers of the blockade force. Unfortunately for him, the man he’d given the order to was a blockader not a smuggler, and Quested found himself under arrest; he was subsequently tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Newgate.

Subsequently, the gang was taken over by one George Ransley, the landlord of the Bourne Tap pub in Aldington. Under him, the Aldington Gang prospered for several years, landing contraband on the coast between Rye and Deal despite the blockade. Their success came to an end in July 1826 when a blockade officer was killed when he tried to stop the gang running a cargo ashore at the beach at Dover. The government moved fast, and Ransley and several others were arrested in the months that followed. Nineteen of them went on trial at the Maidstone Assizes the following year, and although all of them were found guilty of offences that carried the death penalty their sentences were commuted to transportation; Ransley ended up in Tasmania.

The Aldington Gang were the last of the big smuggler gangs. In 1831, blockade duties for Kent and Sussex became the responsibility of HM Coastguard which had been founded some nine years earlier; this force was well-armed and well-disciplined. There followed various skirmishes between the Coastguard and the smugglers, the last serious one taking place at Pevensey in 1833. By this time, events were turning against the smugglers. Police forces were being established to keep law and order on land, and attitudes such as those expressed by Charles Lamb (see above) were becoming out-dated, for by the dawn of the Victorian age the smuggler was seen not as an honest thief but as a threat to public order. Finally, in the 1840s the government showed its commitment to free trade by slashing import duties, after which smuggling became a somewhat unimportant activity.

But in a sense, it has lived on. The many tales of smuggling on and around Romney Marsh have long provided a source of literary inspiration. Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Sussex for over thirty years, wrote the poem ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ (“brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk…”) which can be found on the back wall of the Mermaid Inn. 


At around the same time, the Rye-based author Russell Thorndike created the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn – the mild-mannered vicar of the Romney Marsh parish of Dymchurch who also happens to the ruthless leader of the local smuggler gang. This remarkable character first appeared in the novel Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh in 1915. A couple of decades later, Thorndike (an actor as well as an author, and the brother of the actress Sybil Thorndike) returned to the character with six other adventures (Doctor Syn Returns, The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn, etc) which are set prior to the first novel. There was a movie in 1937, starring George Arliss, and another one in 1963 with Patrick MacGoohan.

Thorndike, by the way, wasn’t the only author to be inspired by Rye and the surrounding area. Henry James and E.F. Benson both lived there, while the town is said to have provided Enid Blyton with the setting for her Famous Five adventure Five Go to Smuggler’s Top. John Ryan, the creator of the ineffectual cartoon pirate Captain Pugwash, also lived in Rye (contrary to urban myth, the characters in Captain Pugwash did not have sexually suggestive names).

Although the Doctor Syn novels have long been out of print, Dymchurch’s most famous resident, and probably Romney Marsh’s most famous smuggler (even though he’s fictional), is still celebrated in a biannual event called the ‘Day of Syn’ which takes place at Dymchurch over the August Bank Holiday weekend in even-numbered years. There’s also a steam locomotive named after him on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.

31.8.17

Historical English crime: Smuggling on Romney Marsh (part 1)

My travels have recently taken me to Romney Marsh, a fascinating part of the world down on the south coast. Low-lying and sparsely populated, it covers around 100 square miles, mostly in Kent but stretching over into Sussex as well.

Romney Marsh – “where the roads wind like streams through pasture and the sky is always three-quarters of the landscape” (according to John Betjeman, and who am I to disagree with him?) – is a large, flat, low-lying and almost empty area with several isolated churches (indicating abandoned or ‘lost’ villages) which was long regarded as both a potential weak point in the event of an invasion from continental Europe – of which more in later posts – and a paradise for smugglers.

Smuggling began in the Middle Ages, and it began with wool, a commodity that formed the backbone of the medieval English economy; it was said that in Europe, the best quality wool came from England. English wool was therefore highly prized by weavers on the continent, and during the reign of Edward I exports of wool were therefore taxed – which is where the smugglers got started, for it was the customs system as introduced in the late thirteenth century that created smuggling. Wool was smuggled out of England via small harbours and beaches, especially on the south-eastern coast which is the closest part of England to mainland Europe. On Romney Marsh – prime sheep-grazing country to the extent that there is still a breed of sheep called the Romney – the smugglers flourished. They became known as ‘owlers’ due to the owl-like noises they used to communicate at night, which was when most of their activities took place, and so the smuggling of wool became known as ‘owling’.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, high export duties and a somewhat ineffective system of control meant that the owlers went more or less unchallenged. A century later, the smuggling of wool out of England was declared to be punishable by death – but did not deter the smugglers, who if anything acquired a more ruthless character, arming themselves to prevent arrest. The customs or revenue men, known as riding officers, were both too few and too poorly-equipped to stop them, though, and Romney Marsh and the various Cinque Ports, along with their accompanying ‘limbs’, got a reputation for lawlessness as a result. This can be seen in the events of 1669, when a man called William Carter, who had set himself up as a smuggler-catcher and managed to get a warrant from Charles II to that effect, arrested the captain of a ship for wool-smuggling and got the magistrate in Folkestone to commit him for trial. However, on arriving in Folkestone with his prisoner, Carter was pelted with stones by the women of the town, who’d been encouraged by the captain’s wife; in the face of such an onslaught, the smuggler-catcher had little option but to let his prisoner go.

Even corrupt officials got involved. This is illustrated by an event that took place in Hythe (one of the five original Cinque Ports) in 1692, when riding officers seized 16 bags of wool in a barn belonging to Julius Deeds, the Mayor of Hythe. Deeds sent his servant, Thomas Birch (who was also a parish constable), to retrieve the wool. He got arrested, and at the subsequent trial the defence tried to argue that the riding officers had acted illegally on the grounds that they had not been accompanied by a parish constable. The prosecution replied that the constable who should have been accompanying them was – you’ve guessed it – Birch himself! Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the jury accepted the defence’s argument that the wool had been due to be sent to another part of England rather than abroad, and acquitted him. Such instances were not uncommon.

By 1698, the government had resorted to forbidding anyone who lived within 15 miles of the sea in Kent or Sussex from buying wool. In addition to that, all sheep-farmers living within ten miles of the sea in said counties had to account for all of their fleeces for up to three days after shearing. Riding officers were appointed in greater numbers and could call on armed cavalry – dragoons – to help them against the smugglers. Owling persisted, but by the 1720s it was in decline.

But that did not mean an end to smuggling on Romney Marsh.

To be continued…

27.8.17

The White Horse of Cherhill

If you’re on the A4 heading east from Bath, you’ll pass through a Wiltshire village called Cherhill just before you get to the turn-off for Avebury. Just after Cherhill, take a glance at the hillside on the right, for there, carved into said hillside, is a white horse. If you’re heading west from Avebury, pull over before you get to Cherhill and take a look at the White Horse of Cherhill.



There are quite a few hill-figures in that part of southern-central England where the bedrock consists of chalk. A couple of these are of men (naked men at that, as anyone who’s ever seen the Giant at Cerne Abbas in Dorset will testify!), but the majority are of horses. One is ancient indeed – the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire, which is reckoned to have adorned the hillside there since the late Bronze Age – but most of them are of a more recent vintage. The one at Cherhill is still pretty old, though, although it ‘only’ dates back to 1780.

It is the creation of a doctor from the nearby town of Calne. Christopher Alsop was known locally as the ‘Mad Doctor’, presumably because he decided to cut the image of a horse onto the hillside. Actually, he didn’t do the cutting (the removal of the top-soil to get at the chalk beneath); his servant did that, while the Mad Doctor sat in a chair at the bottom of the hill shouting instructions through a megaphone.

Quite why the Mad Doctor did this is not entirely clear. He was a friend of George Stubbs, the famous painter who specialised in pictures of horses, so the hill-figure may have been done as a tribute to him. It’s also possible that he might have done it to show his support for the Royal family of the time, the Hanoverian dynasty whose symbol was the white horse of Hanover (that is also one of the theories regarding the older white horse at Westbury, also in Wiltshire, although some reckon that that one is much, much older, having been cut to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory over the Vikings at nearby Ethandun (modern-day Edington) even though there is no mention of that particular hill-figure prior to the mid-eighteenth century). Or it could be that the Mad Doctor was doing some advertising for a local pub, the White Horse – as the A4 was a coaching road (the Great West Road, also known as the Bath Road) in the eighteenth century, that might be plausible – but then again, maybe the White Horse pub is so named because of the white horse on the hill, rather than the other way round!

Close to the White Horse of Cherhill is a stone obelisk. It is the Lansdowne Monument, erected in 1845 by the aristocratic Lansdowne family to commemorate … themselves. Or rather, one of their ancestors, Sir William Petty (1623-87) – an economist, scientist and philosopher who was a founder-member of the Royal Society. He was a friend of Samuel Pepys, who in his diary described Petty as “one of the most rational men that I ever heard speak”.