The Pale Horseman: The Wessex of Alfred the Great - 2019 Tour Diary & Images
27th - 30th June 2019 with Dr Ryan Lavelle
Eleven clients accompanied by Dr Ryan Lavelle and tour manager, Alan Rooney on a four day tour in Wessex during which we examined Saxon life and warfare during King Alfred’s reign and his wars against the Vikings. Our expert for this tour, Ryan Lavelle, is a reader in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and early medieval military and political history, and is the author of a range of books and articles relating to the Middle Ages. He also advised on the television drama series The Last Kingdom. Indeed Bernard Cornwell’s stories of Uthred and Alfred were to be referred to frequently during the tour. Our base was the well-appointed four-star Winchester Royal Hotel which boasts a lovely walled garden, perfect for the summer weather from which we benefitted and gave easy walking access to all the sites and restaurants that we needed to visit in the city.
A bright sunny weekend started with a sandwich lunch in the secluded hotel garden followed by an introductory lecture by Dr Ryan Lavelle during which he discussed the evidence that we would be available to us over the next four days. Moving to the city museum, Ryan utilised the splendid model of the city to point out the Anglo-Saxon structure and how they had modified the layout from that laid down by the Romans. There were also some interesting artefacts including weaponry and even an Alfredian coin.
Just across the green we found Winchester Cathedral built upon the site of two previous minsters: the old and the new, the outline of the latter laid out on the lawn to the north. Here Ryan explained the development of the city and its religious buildings. Once inside we were fortunate to be some of the first visitors to see the wonderful ‘Kings and Scribes’ exhibition which reveals many of the cathedral’s treasures, in particular its Saxon heritage which included 9th century art that originally adorned the walls of the New Minister: there was every chance that Alfred himself had admired it just as we did. Commencing our walk around Alfred’s Winchester, we navigated through the winding streets and alleys to the banks of the River Itchen where we saw the only visible remains of the Roman walls, although the Saxon and Medieval walls were very much intact. Returning to our hotel via the Hight Street, we saw how buildings rebuilt in the 20th century were still standing within their original Saxon burgage plots. With some time to freshen up, we found ourselves in the hotel bar enjoying a refreshing welcome drink before dinner in its restaurant.
The glorious weather was still with us as we boarded our coach in search of Alfred’s birthplace at Wantage which hosts a dignified statue of the great man. The town is betwixt two possible sites for the battle of Ashdown which was fought in 871. From above the little village of Ashbury we walked for about an hour along the Ridgeway trail, probably Britain’s most ancient road. En-route we found the Neolithic burial chamber of Wayland’s Smithy where Ryan recounted the tale of the Saxon god of metal working. Our walk ended at Uffington Castle atop White Horse Hill from where we had stunning views over the Vale of the White Horse. We evaluated whether this could have been the ground held by Alfred and his men. But not for too long as lunch was waiting for us in the lovely village of Ardington. Suitably refreshed we went in search of the second potential battlefield overlooking the Thames Valley at Moulsford Down. From the aptly named Kingstanding Hill Ryan presented sources that seemed to sit much better with the surrounding ground. Our touring day ended at Wallingford, a town which very much preserves its Alfredian burgh layout. This evening we dined al fresco in the lovely garden of the Chesil Rectory restaurant where we enjoyed a fabulous meal.
Another lovely day, which turned out to be the hottest of the year so far, saw us travel in our air-conditioned coach into the heart of Wessex to see where Alfred took refuge amidst the marshes of the Somerset Levels. We ascended Burrow Mump from where we gained magnificent vistas in all directions: Glastonbury, the Bristol Channel, Westonzoyland (the site of the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685) and Athelney. Atop the hill were the romantic ruins of St Michael’s Church. In Saxon times this spot probably guarded the crossing over the River Parrett and the causeway to Athelney: it certainly is a most commanding position. At Athelney itself, the high ground is clearly visible, although a solitary monument marks the site where Alfred built a monastery and fort during his nadir of 878. Sadly even access to that was barred by a few cows zealously guarding their young in front of the gateway, although we obtained a good view from the adjacent field. Taking a cunning detour we were able to avoid the unexpected traffic jams (due to the M5 being closed) and make our way to the Kind Alfred Inn for a beer and a sandwich lunch. Onto the estate of Stourhead and the hardier of us ascended over 200 steps to the top of Kind Alfred’s Tower. Although the siting of the tower is dubious as the site of Egbert’s Stone where Alfred brought together his forces from all over Wessex in 879, it presents a fabulous panorama of the three counties of Wessex.
And so to Bratton Camp, a likely site for the battle of Ethandun or Edington in 879 where Alfred brought the Vikings under Guthruum to account. Upon arrival we were delighted to spot an ice-cream van from which our generous tour manager acquired suitable refreshment for us all. Clutching our cones we walked to the recently placed battle monument and then enjoyed the tremendous views over North Wiltshire and in particular the village of Edington. With little source material available, we resorted to debate and inherent military probability in an attempt to understand the battle and where it might have been fought. After a long day we wearily made our way back to Winchester for an enjoyable pub supper.
The weather was somewhat overcast as we started out for Wareham, but it was not long before the sun made its appearance. Standing on the western walls of Wareham we discussed the short-lived truce between Alfred and Guthruum of 876 and examined the significant extant defences as we walked to the northern walls which benefitted from the quaintly named River Piddle acting as a moat. We walked around the Saxon church of St Martin providing a spiritual defence to the northern approaches to the town. Indeed the presence of a inbuilt pillbox testified to its continuing physical defensive role right up to WW2.
As we continued our walk around and through this Saxon burgh we stopped at St Mary’s church, built on the site of the Nunnery which was the objective of the Viking raid and capture of the town in 876. Overlooking the atmospheric vibrant town quay from the bridge over the River Frome, we considered the river trading role of Wareham, its maritime accessibility being both and asset and liability. Late morning saw us heading for Salisbury where we walked through the delightful cathedral close to take a light lunch at the refectory and spend a short while exploring this mediaeval city. Old Sarum was our final port of call for this tour and as we made our way through the town, our tour manager and local Salisbury resident, Alan Rooney, recounted and pointed out the sites associated with the Skripal poisoning that took place in March 2018 and of the 2500 Spitfires that were secretly built in the city during WW2. Despite the fact that this weekend Salisbury was hosting the National Armed Forces Day, we gained easy access to the ramparts of Old Sarum Castle from where Ryan pointed out how Alfred had reinforced its defences and suggested the theory that the village below, Stratford-sub-castle, had formerly been a Saxon burgh, the evidence being the existing layout of the surrounding fields. As a postscript to the tour it was pointed out that just four years after the Norman conquest, William I converted the site into a major castle and administrative centre, it being here that the Domesday Book was collated and presented to him in 1086.
And so we returned to Winchester where we bade farewell to each other. The tour will be remembered for the articulate explanations of Ryan Lavelle (and his much-loved speeches in Anglo-Saxon, the first time any of us had heard the language spoken), the wonderful weather which enhanced the series of magnificent vistas we enjoyed the bonhomie generated by all. Much had been learnt, experiences shared, old acquaintances renewed, and new ones made.
View details of this tour - The Pale Horseman