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The lay of the land around Wheely Down

January 25, 2016

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Apparently, the worst selling LP in Warner Brothers’ catalogue is Richard Thompson’s Henry the Human Fly (1972), his first solo recording after leaving Fairport Convention. A folk rock enthusiast by my late teens, I bought this around about 1978-79. While I was a little bit disappointed on listening to it, I was very intrigued by the song title, ‘Wheely Down’, because it was a place I knew from my long cycle-rides around the Hampshire countryside and hours spent poring over Ordnance Survey maps looking for ‘ley-lines’. Indeed, I’d plotted three such alignments – leys – converging on two tumuli on the highest point of Wheely Down.

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Wheely Down is the area occupied by the two tumuli (Bronze Age round barrows) north of Beacon Hill and south-west of Weeley Farm on this 1810 map.

At the time, I deduced nothing from the lyrics of the song (as far as I could hear them) that would correlate it directly with the actual place. I wondered how Wheely Down, the place, found its way into the consciousness of Richard Thompson, the songwriter. Was it somewhere he and his bandmates in Fairport Convention had passed in 1969 on their journey to Farley Chamberlayne – thirteen miles west, as the crow flies – to record Liege & Lief? Had he spotted the name on a map as they travelled west, ‘to rouse the spirit of the earth, and move the rolling sky’? Perhaps not such an unlikely prospect in the years before the construction of the M3, M25 and A3(M), and I do continue to follow the A32, along the Meon valley via Warnford, to Farnham and thence to London over the Hog’s Back.

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As I discovered last night, this is the first verse of the song (as reproduced on this site)

She womanly lay like the lay of the land
The land around Wheely Down
And every curve was a high, high hill
To hang above the town
From Holland they came to make the maps
And they had made her well
For the rivers danced all across the green
And the pinewood sweet did smell

Thompson evokes here an image, not unlike that imagined by Michael Dames in The Avebury Cycle (1977), of a giant landscape goddess – a ‘lady of the land’ – formed by hill and vale.

Yesterday a trip to see friends near Warnford took us past Wheely Down, in the fading, misty daylight before that night’s Full Moon. We pulled over at the crossroads north of Beacon Hill, to the south of the two ploughed-out barrows of the Down and the nipple-like profile of the Ordnance Survey trig point adjacent to them. I swear that by the action of the plough the outline of the one barrow visible on the horizon gets more and more indistinct with each passing year; certainly more indistinct than it was two or three years ago, when I last looked. Look at the picture below, taken from the crossroads. Just to the left of the pillar of the trig point, you may be able to make out a subtle bump on the skyline: that is the barrow.

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I wonder whether it is from these two barrows that Wheely derives its name, for it combines the Old English words, weoh (shrine, idol, or sacred precinct) and leah (grove, or woodland clearing) (Stanton 2001: 101).

The song ‘Wheely Down’ has been described here as ‘the album’s brooding centrepiece’, borne out by the sombre lines of the last verse:

All things must change within the earth
The moving and the lame.
For the worms will rot the miller’s wheel
And the rats will eat the grain.
And the armies of deliverance
Are run into the ground,
And the kestrel turns in the empty skies
On high over Wheely Down.

References

Dames, M. 1977. The Avebury Cycle. London: Thames and Hudson.

Stanton, F.M. 2001 (1971). Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Third Edition.

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