Clarendon Palace after Storm Eunice
As we enter into February 2023, I am reminded of the vagaries of the British weather and that around this time last year Wiltshire was really very stormy indeed. For this year, at least at the moment, I am hopeful that we will have a calmer end to the winter, and I am looking forward to the warmer weather and getting out more to new parts of the county's countryside. Before then, here is a reminiscence of a walk we did after the storms last year around the historic Clarendon Palace.
In February 2022 the UK did get a severe battering from storms, with the severest being named as Eunice. Eunice would prove to be one of the worst storms in England for 30 years, and the threat of Eunice was brewing even as the British Isles were being battered by the preceding storm, Dudley. For those of us living in the west of England our eyes were focussing on the fact that the UK met office had issued a rare red weather warning for the storm. This alert was for the Bristol Channel then moving to the east with parts of Southern Wiltshire being in the high risk zone. Therefore, for the whole of Wiltshire, this could mean only one thing, it was going to be bad. Eunice came in leaving havoc in its path. Power was off, and roads closed one after another rather like falling dominoes. Many trees were victims including a mighty fir, which had resided for decades in a church yard in Marlborough along with the largest tree in Trowbridge Cemetery. All in all over 600 incidents in Wiltshire were recorded on that day. It didn’t end there for although not as severe as Eunice, Storm Franklin came in a few days later causing more disruption but not on the same scale. After Franklin things calmed down and so a few days later on a cold but lovely morning we decided to don our walking boots and head out once again into the Wiltshire countryside. This time we decided to investigate a lovely circular walk around Pitton and Clarendon and pay a visit to the ruined palace, once the beloved retreat of kings, which is now the domain of llamas.
Parking in Pitton we first headed to the Clarendon Way, this takes you up out of the village. As you walk views start to appear on both sides of the path. To the left and behind, the steep cliff that cradles one side of Pitton is quite noticeable, as is the swathe of land that forms a natural expanse leading to the relatively recent Clarendon House in Clarendon Park. The house was built in the early 1700s for Edward Hyde the first Earl of Clarendon. The family were politicians and wealthy from the slave trade, a common theme to the origins of the grand houses of Wiltshire. As we walked, I considered this for a moment and wondered what the countryside would be like if vast estates didn’t exist and the Acts of Enclosure hadn’t happened. I am minded of the distress these Acts of Enclosure caused a distant cousin of mine, John Clare. He struggled with the concept of no longer being able to roam freely and wrote about it most elegantly in his sonnet "Trespass". Of course, being born well over a century after John Clare wrote his poetry, the signs of private lands and estate ownership are so familiar to me that I have not overly questioned it. I walk only the footpaths, etc. that are available to me, and I would not expect anyone to walk across my garden without permission, but I do find it a shame that land ownership has been established at the cost of large and small freedoms for so many.
Putting these thoughts aside, we soon came across the vast beech tree that marks the entry to Clarendon Forest. “Forest” is a now somewhat grandiose title for the stretch of woodland that lies between Pitton and Salisbury. Like the local Bentley and Hound Woods these areas are now islands of trees that were once all joined together with those of the New Forest and had been a choice location for prime hunting of the Saxon and later Norman kings. Indeed, the place names of Pitton and Hound Wood give away their early origins with Pitton being named after the Anglo Saxon word for hawker, indicating that the nobles housed their hunting hawks in this location and Hound Wood being the place where the wolf hounds were kept.
As we continued to walk we found ourselves skirting an area of densely planted conifer trees. The low morning sunlight lighting up the thin trunks in their straight plantation lines, so giving view to a distant glow in the wood and a sensation of being called hither into the dense thicket. Time and time again I was distracted to look into the forest towards where the sun was dancing and now in a dichotomy of thought I was glad that the notion of trespass was preventing me from heading towards the light and perhaps, as in the fairy tales, to be lost forever in this place.
Further along we came into a clearing with a few farm buildings and a mixture of farm machinery scattered about. Initially, we were slightly confused as to the route to take until we noticed a staked finger post marking the way straight across the farm track and past a building to a path leading back up towards the wooded area. This area being on higher ground started to show evidence of the impact of the recent high winds. Twigs, leaves and various woodland debris adorned the path as we walked giving the impression of garlands strewn in front of returning heroes and dignitaries or perhaps confetti at weddings. There was something joyous about walking through these scattered “offerings”, but I was mindful of the savagery of the wind that tore these living parts from the trees.
After walking through a clearing, we found ourselves entering deeper into the forest. Again the woods were mostly conifers, interspersed occasionally with the more contorted structures of deciduous trees. I now regret not learning properly how to identify trees. I had only listened to my father when he pointed out the different birds and to my mother when she told me the names of the wild flowers. All mushrooms were toadstools (possibly to ensure I didn’t pick and eat the wrong ones) and the trees were split into the more readily distinguishable oaks, beech and ash. Sadly, I did not bother to learn to recognise others, which included all of the conifers, despite my father patiently naming them for me. Perhaps it isn’t too late to be taught?
Continuing on into the forest we came to an open area of what I think, despite my sketchy identification credentials, were ash trees. This area was completely different to the conifer plantation we had just left, the openness and shapes of the trees against the clear blue sky were somewhat reminiscent of the images of the baobab trees of Madagascar. This open area was where the devastation of the Eunice was most evident. Now large branches and fallen trees were apparent everywhere and on more than one occasion our route was blocked by a fallen titan. Difficult though it was, we managed to pass all of the obstacles that the wind had thrown in our way and made it through the woods to the ruins of Clarendon Palace.
There is little to see of the Palace now, but the history of the place is immense. As it lies close to a route connecting Old Sarum with Winchester there is evidence that the area was populated even as early as Roman times. The Saxon nobility would have used the area for hunting perhaps staying in a lodge at Clarendon or the manor in Britford. Apart from place names, there is other evidence of Saxon nobility using of the area, as a gold baptismal ring belonging to Æthelwulf, father of King Alfred was found in nearby Laverstock. However, it was the Norman and Plantagenet Kings who built and extended the palace at Clarendon. It seems it was most loved by Henry II, the first Plantagenet king. He is known to have held court here, and it is here where he developed articles to reduce the powers of the clergy in England. These articles, known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, were resisted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Although it is thought that it was in France, where Henry II might have uttered the immortalised words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, there is little doubt that their early origin was in Clarendon.
The Palace was also a favourite of Henry III and his wife Eleanor of Provence. It was extended under his reign and new areas specifically for the queen were built. It is believed that Eleanor wished to remain at Clarendon after the death of Henry. However, this did not come to pass, and she spent the last of her days with the nuns at Amesbury Abbey. A banishment later echoed by Malory in his writing of Guinevere in Le Mort d’Arthur.
After Henry III, Clarendon continued to be enlarged and was still popular with the royals, but it was to be during the reign of Henry VI that the Palace was to once again be in the limelight when the king went mad there. Sadly, it seems that Henry did have madness in his genes and defeats and issues of the realm had taken their toll on his mind, culminating on arrival at Clarendon in a full blown episode of madness that left him in a comatose state for some time. He would never recover fully or be a popular king and perhaps these unhappy events were to change the popularity of Clarendon. By the time of the Tudors, the Palace was already showing signs of disrepair. A feast held for Elizabeth I appears to be the last major event held there. It remained in royal ownership until Charles I. Under the Parliamentarians the land became the property of the previously mentioned Edward Hyde. He built his own house away from the Royal Palace and so allowed this once Royal favourite to fall into ruin.
As we walked around the area, there was very little to see of the once grand palace. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the buildings when mostly all that is left is a few earthworks of the foundations. Returning to the concept of trespass, I was struck by the fact that I was indeed walking on the grounds of a royal palace something that some 500 years earlier I would not have been allowed to do. Well, not without loss of my freedom or life. Therefore, I was effectively coming full circle in my rights to roam.
Standing in the ruins on the high hill, I could see why the location was chosen by the kings the views are lovely and wide ranging. By the 13th century, as today, they would have also included the a view to Salisbury and its cathedral. Strangely unaffected by Storm Eunice we found the palace serene and it seemed fitting that it is shared with a small herd of mild natured llamas. These were very entertaining to watch. As one laid lazily on the ground, I thought of Henry VI and wondered if it was reenacting the scene of where he lay in his mentally induced catatonic state.
On leaving Clarendon Palace we retraced our steps a little before taking a right fork and heading back. We walked through wooded areas and again encountered a number of fallen trees. We imagined how wild and frightening it would have been in this location during the storm and we were glad that fate had not required us to be out on that day.
At the end of the forest, we again crossed the swathe of land that reaches down to Clarendon Park and its house. At a copse we turned left and started to descend back down to Pitton. Here there were extensive views to our left of the forest where we had walked earlier. It was on admiring this view that we spotted what we believed to have been a white tailed eagle flying past the village and over the forest. Fitting that such a bird should be flying over a village once so closely associated with hawks.
All in all this was a very enjoyable walk, full of natural and historical interest. It is approximately 5 miles long and essentially follows the Pitton circular walk found on the village website.
In a curious parallel to the notion of trespass and freedoms, I had originally intended to publish part of John Clare’s sonnet. Buoyed by the idea that copyright expires 70 years after the author has died I felt reassured that I could in fact reproduce the full poem. Then I read an article in the Guardian where I learnt, to my amazement, that there is still copyright on some of his works. This was due to the fact that they had not been published until recently, the copyright apparently presently owned by someone else. I wonder what John Clare would have made of this?
If you want to read the poem it can be found at (https://www.thereader.org.uk/featured-poem-trespass-by-john-clare/).