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Wilsford, the Normanton Downs and the Enigma of Arrival.


Woodland above Lake House



At Christmas I finally decided to read V.S. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival. I had tried to read it once before, having purchased it when I had newly arrived in Wiltshire and I guess at the time it hadn’t long been published. “This book is about Wiltshire, right?” I had asked. The person behind the bookshop counter had vaguely shrugged and nodded. Perhaps it was this vagueness that put me off, but right from the start I struggled with the book. I did not understand or know the location Naipaul was writing about. Impatient I wanted to learn more of my new home but Naipaul’s words had no meaning to me then, and so I soon cast the book aside. Placing it in amongst other books on the shelf, the lower key colours of its cover ensured that it was soon forgotten.


Now years later I find that Naipaul had written about what has become one of my favourite areas to walk, the beautiful Woodford Valley. Reading the book I find that he too had the same impression of the landscape and although perhaps a little melancholy, this semi autobiographical book also allows for an insight into the people who lived in the tiny hamlet of Wilsford cum Lake and the strange existence of Naipaul’s landlord, Stephen Tennant. Having mentioned Tennant in a previous blog about Great Durnford and Ogbury I now saw the book in a new light and read it with renewed interest. As I read I noticed parallels and differences between Naipaul’s years in Wiltshire and my own. We had both been on a journey, yet I am still trying to grasp his concept of the “Enigma of Arrival”. Could it be realising and coming to appreciate and understand the beauty and immense history of this county? The walk that I will describe, an area where Naipaul walked, certainly has all of these components. But perhaps there is also something less tangible associated with the title? Perhaps in this blog we can explore this concept, and arrive at our own conclusions at to what is the enigma of arrival.


The River Avon at Great Durnford Mill

For me the best walk starts in the village of Great Durnford where a footpath takes you past a few houses and on to the former water mill. Already the beauty and antiquity of the area are apparent, and I always have a rush of excitement crossing the River Avon here and anticipating the walk ahead. From the river the path winds up hill towards Lake, along the way to the right, the earthworks of Ogbury Hillfort can be seen. So, already you are aware that you are walking somewhere that has been of significance for many ages. On reaching the top of the hill and crossing the road a bowl barrow greets you and the scenery becomes more far reaching and then, the magnificent Elizabethan Lake House comes into view with its beautiful Chilmark stone and flint chequered west front. This house dominates the landscape and overlooks a now vanished medieval village to its west, the earthworks of which are just visible.


Lake House

Lake House was built in the sixteenth century for George Duke a clothier and remained in the Duke family until 1897. The last of the Dukes to live there being the Rev. Edward Duke. This Duke considered himself as something of an archeologist and alongside his colleague, Richard Colt Hoare, it is believed that he excavated a number of the barrows on his estate. Indeed, it is felt that the meteorite that is now housed in Salisbury Museum might have come from one of these excavations. For me this thought offers a tantalising parallel with the reverence that the Egyptians placed on meteorites in the same time period as the barrows. If only  some of these early diggers had also catalogued their findings rather more accurately, we might have learned more about the earlier people.


But what of Naipaul I hear you ask? Well, he didn’t really mention Lake House in his book. He lived in the grounds of the nearby Wilsford Manor. This manor house was built in the late 19th century in the same style of Lake House but with a later Arts and Crafts interior. It was a more modern fancy of the Tennant family who, when recently added to the peerage, bought the Wilsford Estate and then later Lake House. Perhaps surprisingly, they never moved into the older property preferring to let it out to tenants. By the time that Naipaul lived in Wilsford, Lake House had been sold and perhaps not a concern of his. However, I believe he did write about the row of houses in front of the property. His description of the inhabitants, the stoic, proud, make do and mend post war generation reminded me of the people in the Northamptonshire village I grew up in. This parallel somehow strengthening my bond to the area. Is this the Enigma of Arrival that Naipaul is alluding to? Is the arrival finding a common bond? Maybe, but the walk and the story continues.


Springbottom Farm

Continuing along the ridge above Lake House, you soon enter a small wooded area, with mixed conifer and deciduous trees. This reflects, in a small microcosm, the many wooded areas of Wiltshire and adds to the charm of the walk. However, it isn’t long before you exit this woodland and start to head down to Lake Bottom where you turn left onto the wide byway that leads up towards Springbottom Farm. The byway is so wide that Naipaul wondered if it was some form of processional route, a thought that had also occurred to me. Indeed, as you walk on past Springbottom Farm and on to Normanton Down you soon find large barrows looming around you and if you follow the footpath to its conclusion you will reach Stonehenge. So, the idea of large numbers walking on this wide route does seem quite logical, and you can fancy the ancients hiking along this way to pay their respects to the dead and worship at Stonehenge. There is a sense of privilege being able to walk this route, one which Naipaul walked daily, noticing the ancient landscape and watching the seasonal changes. Was it this routine that allowed the man the greater insight into the nature of the land, a land so different from his native Trinidad. Was this insight the enigma of arrival? I cannot be sure. My own parallel is that of now recognising lesser known aspects of the Stonehenge landscape, such as the Bush Barrow where a great chieftain was buried alongside beautiful gold artefacts. This tumulus was excavated by William Cunnington another colleague of Colt Hoare, but due to the importance of the find it fared better than some of the other excavations and the artefacts that were uncovered can now be seen in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. Is it this deeper knowledge of the landscape and its significance the true enigma of arrival? Somehow I am still not sure this is what Naipaul meant.


Some of the Normanton Down barrows including the Bush Barrow 2nd left


On this walk I do not choose to cross the A303 and visit Stonehenge, but prefer to retrace my steps and walk back towards Springbottom farm. On one occasion on the “processional path”, I met a boy who was walking from Stonehenge to Salisbury in order to raise money for the Ukraine. The war being in its infancy at that time causing outrage and solidarity with the invaded. This wonderful gesture of the boy is probably now lost in time, and different troubles are making the headlines such that somehow the continuing conflict in Ukraine is less in our minds. Perhaps the boy is still working to help others. I wonder if this desire to do good for others should really be the arrival that we are working towards? Our ability to get there regularly obscured from view. Seemingly the older we become the more distant this arrival becomes. Is this the Enigma of Arrival? I find no clues in Naipaul’s book but renewed hope in the young man I met.


The "processional path"

With so much interest on the walk, it is difficult not to want to describe every inch in detail. As you walk back the views reveal still more of this ancient landscape. At Springbottom Farm the route takes you left past the farm buildings and down towards Wilsford. Along the way there are distant views of Stonehenge. The distance seemingly making the landmark more majestic and otherworldly. But soon you reach Wilsford and the location where Naipaul lived. Indeed, the stone lined driveway to Naipaul’s cottage appears the same today as his description from some 40-50 years previous. Looking at the cottage and its idyllic surroundings, it is easy to see why Naipaul found this location an excellent one to write his novels. Perhaps this is the enigma of arrival? The arrival of Naipaul as an acclaimed author? The ability to feel pride in what you have achieved. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the main aspect of the book.


From the description in The Enigma of Arrival this must be Naipaul's cottage

For such a tiny hamlet Wilsford is rich in history, heros and eccentrics. The Manor was built for Stephen Tennant’s father the first Lord Glenconner. Stephen had two brothers and a sister. The eldest brother, a war poet, died in the Battle of the Somme leaving his other brother David to inherit the title and Stephen the property at Wilsford. Both David and Stephen were central members of the 1920’s socialite group known as “Bright Young Things” and Stephen, in particular, was renowned for his decadent lifestyle. However, by the time Naipaul had come to be his tenant, he had become a recluse and Naipaul rarely saw him. However, the book does give some insights on the man, his generosity and what Naipaul referred to as his accidia.


Memorial to Edward Tennant

If you enter the church in Wilsford, you will see a magnificent memorial to Stephen Tennant’s brother Edward. However, his own memorial, in the graveyard, is very difficult to find. It is hidden, half buried next to the church, a modest, almost sad end to one who once led such a blazing and flamboyant life. Other memorials in the church include the grave stone of Sir Oliver Lodge and his wife. Lodge, a famous physicist controversially also had an interest in telepathy and spiritualism. He too lost a son in the first world war and believed he communicated with him through a medium. His faith in an afterlife is evident on the inscription on his gravestone.


Stephen Tennant's memorial next to the church

The Inscription on Sir Oliver Lodge's Memorial

For a small village the number of gravestones and memorials to high ranking individuals is perhaps surprising. Amongst the war heroes, high commissioners and Knights of the Garter, one memorial surprised me, that of Richard Adam Sykes KCMG MC, Ambassador to the Netherlands who was assassinated by the IRA in the Hague in 1979. A very sad event remembered in the quiet Wiltshire countryside. There is so much lesser known and remarkable history in this location that it is impossible to include it all in a blog or indeed, know it and understand it fully. I wonder then if this is the Enigma of Arrival? The understanding that you cannot know everything? But then, in one sense  this would imply no arrival at all. However, the walk is not yet done perhaps there are more clues on the way.



St Michael's church Wilsford

For the return to Great Durnford you head a little way north along the road from Wilsford to Normanton then take a footpath off to the right which leads you past another manor house and onto the river and glades of silver birch. Here on a sunny spring day you can almost imagine that fairies and deities live here. The sunlight catching the newly formed leaves and ripples on the river delighting the eyes. I can imagine the peoples of long ago being equally entranced by this location. Perhaps this finally is the Enigma of Arrival, finding the same affinity for a location as those of generations before. But this is speculation and so have I really arrived?


The sunlit River Avon and newly formed leaves at Normanton

Beyond the river the footpath takes you back to the downs and more evidence of ancient man can be seen by the chalk pit and tumuli. This location is now the play area of the sheep that pasture here. Beyond the chalk pit you find yourself on a high ridge and again the views are far reaching and you can look back towards Springbottom farm and Wilsford Manor, surveying much of the location you have just walked.The last stretch of the walk takes you back to Great Durnford along the outskirts of Ham Wood. The walk complete but the loveliness of the area never fading.


Sheep playing in thee ancient chalk pit

So this is the end of the walk but perhaps I still do not understand the meaning of the Enigma of Arrival. Maybe it is different things for different people? Naipaul’s book was inspired by a painting known as The Enigma of Arrival by the Spanish artist de Chirico. It depicts two characters stood outside a town with a ship partially obscured in the background. Naipaul imagines someone walking past the figures and entering the town and living there for sometime before for some reason fearing for their life and needing to escape, only to find that the ship has sailed and their life has been lived. Well that sounds a little disconsolate and sad and maybe suggests arriving too late. No doubt Sir Oliver Lodge, with his firm belief in the afterlife would have a different take on this and perhaps Stephen Tennant had arrived too soon?  I prefer to think that the enigma of arrival is perhaps tied into the idea of belonging to a place, whether it is a place you have lived your full life or one that you have adopted as your home. I find that learning about the history and people of Wiltshire and marvelling at and enjoying the magnificent countryside maybe brings me a few steps closer to belonging and perhaps arriving.


(Footnote: many of the photos in this blog were taken in April 2022, at the time of writing (March 2024) the area of the river is still quite flooded due to the recent heavy rainfalls on already saturated ground. Therefore, I am not certain if it is possible to cross the river at this moment in time.)


Route of the walk courtesy of OS maps







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