BANKING ON IT (PART 1): BARBURY CASTLE

Visiting Barbury County Country Park, Wiltshire

Outside of the UK, the term “bank holiday” is likely to be met with a puzzled expression. Is it a day to celebrate banks? Or a day that they’re closed? Or something completely different? After all, the UK is the country that also gave the world Boxing Day, which has nothing to do with pugilistic endeavours!

The reality is the one in the middle: they are a type of public holidays where banks and most businesses are closed or have shortened hours, and they got their start with the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. The official definition at this time was that no one “was compelled to make any payment or to do any act upon a bank holiday which he would not be compelled to do or make on Christmas Day or Good Friday.”

Today, they are commonly viewed as a nationwide* three-day weekend. Occasionally one-off ones are added for special occasions, like Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011 or Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. There was some disappointment not to get one last year when another famous wedding was held. Because the non-Christmas or Easter bank holidays fall in spring and summer months, there is usually talk beforehand about barbeques, seaside escapes, and perhaps partaking in a spot of gardening, yet the desire for good weather almost always ends in disappointment.

The key word in that last sentence is “almost”.  The most recent bank holiday weekend was made of the stuff that keeps dreams alive: brilliant blue skies, warm temperature, and nary a drop of rain. It gave those who were on their summer vacation an extra boost, and those of us who were not an excuse to get out and explore.

For MrElaineous and I, it meant looking at our travel wish list and deciding where to go next. We picked a spot in Wales that we had heard about during our last visit and checked the traffic—all seemed fine so we prepared to go: water bottles filled, extra camera batteries packed, postcode doublechecked. We looked at the traffic app one more time before leaving the house … the journey time had already increased by ten minutes and warning colours were beginning to tip into red. So we pivoted, picking a local venue at random from one of our walking books. It would not be the last time that we ended up changing our plans in the course of the day.

Visiting Barbury Castle Country Park, Wiltshire

The place we had picked was Barbury Castle Country Park, located just a short drive from us along the M4. The castle of the popular imagination looks something like this: stone structure, rooftop crenellations, perhaps a moat. However, dotted across the British landscape are castles of a different sort: Iron Age hillforts. These were constructed approximately 2500 years ago and, as can be guessed from their name, are located on hills.

Another distinguishing feature is that they include earthen ramparts that would have been dug by hand and most likely topped with a wooden palisade. They were once thought to have served a defensive purpose, although my understanding is that this interpretation is going/has gone out of fashion. Why? There is little evidence for them being used as such. Instead, the narrative has shifted to one of being used as a stronghold and show of power rather than indicating a constant state of warfare. Personally, I like to think that they were a way of creating very visible navigational landmarks in the landscape; as I was to learn later in the day, waymarkers are very, very important!

Regardless of its use in the past, the Barbury Castle of today affords spectacular views of the Wiltshire countryside. The day was clear and the only limit to how far I could see was the heat haze in the distance. Surrounding farms took advantage of the dry weather to begin their harvest, and it was fascinating to watch as one tractor would cut the grain and another would bale it into stacks, which looked for all the world like giant Weetabix.

From the heights of Barbury Castle, our guidebook took us down through quiet country lanes and active farms. Throughout the walk, there was the faint sound of gunfire from the nearby Barbury Shooting School, and it turned into a useful auditory landmark as we always knew where we were in relation to it. At the halfway point we actually crossed paths with the school, wondering if we should be concerned about the number of clay pigeons that had made it past the fence.

This is also where we hit our first snag using what otherwise was a very good walking guide. The next set of directions did not appear to lead to the described waymarker, so we struck off on our own using the Ordinance Survey app I had downloaded that morning just in case. After a bit of wandering through waist high vegetation, we eventually stumbled on a trail with a gate and stile that matched the guide. Success!

However, the feeling of victory was short lived as we soon discovered we literally had a larger problem ahead of us. I grew up reading Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, and if you’re at all familiar with his prolific output, you probably know this one: A man sits in a doctor’s office with cow heads growing from various body parts; the caption: “I’m afraid you’ve got cows, Mr. Farnsworth.

Honestly, I don’t find it very funny. But it was the first thing that sprang into my mind as we walked up the path to the next stile because we found an entire herd of cows standing immediately on the other side of it. We had cows all right, and it wasn’t clear how we would clear them to safely cross to the other side.

Visiting Barbury Castle Country Park, Wiltshire

We decided to walk around, following the fence and hoping it would lead to another stile or gate. Instead it led to another fence. MrElaineous managed to climb over it, using what I still think was some type of dark magic to balance himself and not get caught by the two rows of barbed wire at the top. I started to follow, placing my feet where he did and trying to figure out how I would swing my leg over … and decided that I would rather take my chances with the cows.

So I re-traced my steps while he climbed to the top of the hill to keep an eye out. Returning to the stile, most of the cows had settled down for an afternoon siesta. I started talking to them, telling them what pretty cows they were in the hope that they wouldn’t think I was a predator. It seemed to work: the few that were nearby backed further off and I crossed the stile and climbed the hill to re-join MrElaineous.

Visiting Barbury Castle Country Park, Wiltshire
Visiting Barbury County Country Park, Wiltshire

We took a brief break at the top to enjoy the incredible views over the countryside before descending back to reality, the car, and a brief practical interlude. Rather than head home, we decided on the spur of the moment to go on to Marlborough, a picturesque market town that I always forget to take pictures of. We tackled separate errands: MrElaineous was off to one of our local zero waste shops, Packaging Not Included, to stock up on household dry goods, while I popped into The Food Gallery to get treats for another unexpected part of our day, a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury.

[ Pop by next week to see Part 2 of this blog post, or click here to sign up for the MissElaineous mailing list: you’ll get a free eBook that will take you off the beaten track AND get all new posts as soon as they’re published. ]

To confuse matters slightly, bank holidays vary by nation, with Scotland and Northern Ireland having some of their own at different times.

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MissElaineous Travel Blog: Escape, Explore, Discover, Enjoy