Stamp here

I think one of the many good things about cycling is that it allows you to wander around the countryside alone without being regarded as suspicious.

I love to walk accompanied, and generally prefer it, but I love to walk anywhere anyway, so will happily walk alone too. In cities this is easy, and I have enjoyed hundreds of solitary city wanders. But these days I think it’s harder in the countryside: there’s always the lingering paranoia that people regard you with suspicion, unless you have a dog with you, which is the necessary passport. Oh for a dog (and currently, oh for a wire fox terrier, having idly researched my dog-of-choice, though I still love spaniels and Airedales).

So if a dog is a passport to the country, a bike is at least a visitor’s visa: you can’t quite always get so far, in the sense of wandering along obscure little paths, but you can at least zip along the lanes and appreciate your surroundings.


Have just returned from an idyllic cycle of some 14 miles.

Although Wiltshire boasts two of the most famous megalithic monuments of all, Avebury and Stonehenge, there is little if anything else in terms of stone – legions of long barrows, plenty of henges, but no apparent stone circles (though I have read rumours of one or two) or menhirs. But there are a few secret discoveries to be made nonetheless.

I had read some time ago of some sarsen stones in the village of Kingston Deverill, about 5 miles from my cottage. There are two theories about them: one, that they represent the remains of Egbert’s Stone, where King Alfred is said to have rallied the men of three counties before going to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Edington (near the White Horse of Westbury, the original of which may have commemorated the event); two, that this is a mistake, and they are in fact the remains of a dolmen.

The Alfred theory has rivals: a boundary stone near the place where Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset meet at Bourton; the site of King Alfred’s Tower, an 18th century folly which is part of the Stourhead estate; or Court Hill, a hill just outside Kingston Deverill. I want to write something more comprehensive about all this some time. I have read that the strongest theory is Court Hill (and the stones may actually have been brought down from there), and there are several other places of relevance to Alfred immediately in my area: a walk between them suggests itself if I ever get anyone here I can talk into it!

I’ve been desperate to see the stones for some time – you can’t see them from the road as you whizz by in a car. At last, this evening I made time for the pilgrimage.

The stones are not by any means easy to spot: they are now in a private paddock, accompanied by a Shetland pony and a gleaming white goat, which I couldn’t resist photographing next to the stones as if it were the genius loci – or an impending victim of sacrifice, perhaps. The paddock itself is hidden behind a scrubby area of cow parsley, nettles and grass.

But worth finding! I clearly wasn’t the first person ever there, but it’s also obviously not often visited. The stones – two, leaning against one another, are magnificent, and I just caught them in the evening sun before the light fled and the battery in my camera gave out. And a joyous cycle there, too, along the meanderings of the Wylye, which is surely one of the most lovable rivers to come across, always limpid and friendly, all the way to Wilton. Another walk I want to do some time is to follow it from its source, up in the hills not far from Kingston.

[Note: pictures of these and other ancient sites I’ve explored are at The Modern Antiquarian]

Kilvert’s diary

The Rev Francis Kilvert’s diary is astonishingly beautiful to read, lyrical, charming, earthy and humane. Here are a few small bits that have struck me so far for one reason or another.

1. 29/03/1870
“Turned aside into the meadow to look at the great stone of Cross Ffordd… I suppose no one will ever know now what the grey silent mysterious witness means, or why it was set there. Perhaps it could tell some strange wild tales and many generations have flowed and ebbed around it. There is something very solemn about these great solitary stones which stand about the country, monuments of some one or something, but the memory has perished and the history is forgotten.”

Not his poetic best by any means, but this passage epitomises the rare pagan sensibility that Kilvert has, given that he is an Anglican priest. Standing stones, stone circles, cromlechs and so on are all an abiding fascination for me, and I will always go well out of my way if I have a chance to find them. I think when reading these lines particularly of one in Northumberland M. and I found last year on our valedictory excursion before his departure to America. I have some very satisfying pictures of it (which, along with others, I am forever intending to submit to the two major megalith websites). In a way, as Kilvert suggests, perhaps this fascination is a very simple, almost trite one – and he certainly encapsulates the sentiment far more successfully in one paragraph than M Scott Peck does in his entire book, In Search of Stones, which I read wanting to like it, and enjoyed the premise, but the reality was constantly marred by his ego, not to mention his dim knowledge of Britain.

2. 05/04/1870
“It does seem very odd at this age of the world in the latter part of the 19th century to see monks gravely wearing such dresses and at work in them in broad day. One could not help thinking how much more sensible and really religious was the dress and occupation of the masons [ie stonemasons working nearby] and of the hearty healthy girl washing at the Chapel House, living naturally in the world and taking their share of its work, cares and pleasures, than the morbid unnatural life of these monks going back into the errors of the dark ages and shutting themselves up from the world to pray for the world.”

Kilvert writes this while visiting the work at Capel-y-Ffin, where the eminence gris ‘Father Ignatius’ attempted to revive monasticism, just a mile away from the ruins of Llanthony Priory. This passage (and the pages around it) mean a lot to more for a whole amalgam of reasons: H. and I visited Capel-y-Ffin itself on a cycling holiday only last year, and I have a picture painted by her father of the chapel in my cottage (I also went to Llanthony as a child with my parents, and have a photograph of them there I am fond of); and I happened to read this very passage to H. at random recently, just when I was reading Iain Sinclair’s novel Landor’s Tower which is partly about the same area – Sinclair quotes this very passage; also, more generally, I have perhaps a slightly unreasonable distaste for the concept of monks and nuns in general – which perhaps I’ll reflect on another time – and Kilvert’s down-to-earth response would echo precisely my own.

3. 07/04/1870
“I had the satisfaction of managing to walk from Hay to Clyro by the fields without meeting a single person, always a great triumph to me and a subject for warm self-congratulation for I have a peculiar dislike to meeting people, and a peculiar liking for a deserted road.”

I wouldn’t go quite as far as that myself, but I do appreciate what he means, and I suspect most walkers would (with the exception of the Goretexed flocks of Ramblers).

Many more things deserve comment, but I’m exhausted from travelling, working and then cycling this evening, so will stop shortly.

Cycling’s so much a part of all this for me. I bought a new bike today, much more comfortable for exploring country lanes, and it thrills me to meander down them, gratuitous sprays of cow parsley in the fecund hedges either side of the roads around Upton Scudamore. I don’t think there’s anything that has ever given me quite the same sense of freedom as cycling does. But now: rest.

Halt – who goes there?

Have just discovered John Betjeman wrote a poem about my area, immortalising the Warminster launderette. Though it has to be said it’s dreadful:

Dilton Marsh Halt

Was it worth keeping the Halt open,
We thought as we looked at the sky
Red through the spread of the cedar-tree,
With the evening train gone by?

Yes, we said, for in summer the anglers use it,
Two and sometimes three
Will bring their catches of rods and poles and perches
To Westbury, home for tea.

There isn’t a porter. The platform is made of sleepers.
The guard of the last train puts out the light
And high over lorries and cattle the Halt unwinking
Waits through the Wiltshire night.

O housewife safe in the comprehensive churning
Of the Warminster launderette!
O husband down at the depot with car in car-park!
The Halt is waiting yet.

And when all the horrible roads are finally done for,
And there’s no more petrol left in the world to burn,
Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol
Steam trains will return.

Dodgy types

OK, here’s something for *you*, typography and copyright fans (though obviously it applies analogously to things like music downloads)…

I bought a font today for $40 which I needed for work – in this instance I can invoice my client for it, but in other instances in the past I have just coughed up myself. Not often at this price, but occasionally. And perhaps only when, let’s say ‘other channels’, have failed to provide the font I need.

Now, technically the law of course protects the copyright of fonts and, unless you are licensed for more than one computer, you’re not supposed to share them across an office network even, let alone send them to pre-press bureau, clients, printers or whoever. But, of course, every damn advertising, design or publishing firm in the country sends them glibly around anyway: expediency demands it. (Though PDFs have rather reduced the need for this, it’s true.)

In all honesty I resent the charge of $40 just for one individual weight of a typeface (to have the whole family in this case was nearly $500, supposedly a generous discount from $720…). I’m not a big firm with big budgets. I’m just a Me.

The font foundries no doubt justify this – as software firms do (we’re thinking Quark here as the ultimate corporate bastard) – by saying that so many people nick their products that they *have* to charge this much. (There’s also the entirely valid point that the actual designers of these typefaces, like us designers pissing around with them to produce other things, deserve to be paid for their work.)

I admit that if people can get away with copying fonts or software or music, however cheap they are, they probably always will. But.

Surely if the foundries charged a subscription of, let’s stab at $100-$200 a year or something, for which one could have access for that year (and maybe the technology could permit the files to expire after that?) to *any* of their fonts, wouldn’t this be small enough a cost for most firms or freelancers to bear without much of a wince to the wallet, given the advantages it would offer?

And surely 100000 people paying $100 is as good as 10000 paying $1000 – not just in terms of revenue, but also because of the *good will* it would generate.

When I was younger, poorer and less mature, I gladly downloaded shareware all over the place and never even considered registering it. But now I find there are numerous really useful apps out there, often costing only about twenty quid, and I think it’s worth registering them – they’re helpful, and have shown ‘good will’ in producing something I want cheaply, so I’m willing to do the same by paying for them if I genuinely use them regularly.

I think I read recently that the type foundries have been getting together to consider what to do about all this, and in the meantime are cracking down more on the ‘thieves’ – but I earnestly hope they might have the vision to look at the situation from a different perspective.

What would your payment or subscription thresholds for things like fonts, software and music be? (Please don’t say ‘nothing’, because it really doesn’t address the economics of the issue…)