May the Forth be With You

On the forth of may this year, armed with a map, old boots and plenty of flapjack we set off on our hundred mile journey along the Cotswold escarpment. I did search for a lightsaber but upon finding a large stick - and having seen many a sturdy looking walker swinging a branch around - I decided it would certainly be enough of a substitute to help us on our quest.

We left Chipping Camden behind us after an obligatory battle for the perfect selfie against a Japanese tourist bus that had just unloaded into the Old Market Hall. Pictures secured, we followed the first of many acorn signs and found ourselves looking back at the medieval wool town carved of elegant limestone terraces; elevated and excited, standing atop the hill. A seemingly ordinary hill, this spot – once a year, off and on since 1612 - plays host to the Cotswold ‘Olympicks’ and is descended upon by young brave men with metal tipped boots to become ‘the home of the shin kicking world championships’ alongside many other quirky and traditional Cotswold sports. A mandatory attempt at kicking mum’s shins (not appreciated…) saw her march an escape towards Broadway Hill, and on to a small patch of grass with an equally intriguing history.

In the same century that saw the beginning of the Olympicks, this adjacent hill witnessed on of the more curious and tragic miscarriages of justice to have occurred in Britain. In August 1660, William Harrison left his house to collect rents, as he had done for years. On this day however Harrison did not return. An extensive search turned up only a bloodied comb of his, while one of the searchers, a man named John Perry, came to be suspected of Harrison’s murder. Perry’s ever-changing and increasingly bizarre alibies did not help his case: from being beaten up himself during the search to finally declaring that it had been his own mother and brother who had in fact robbed and killed Harrison, hiding his body into a nearby mill pond. Intrigued by this story, I did try and search for this mill pond but could not find it, and eventually gave up when my stick- ever helpful on flat grass did not like being swung around through the trees and got itself stuck between my shin and the branches. No more lightsabre for me. As it turns out, no one could find the body, yet all three were found guilty and executed in the Spring of 1661, the mother and brother buried beneath the gallows while John’s body was left hanging in the chains to rot.

Fast forward a year from this execution and out of the blue the ‘murdered’ Harrison walked back into his home, very much alive! He told the villagers an incredible if improbable tale of his missing two years: Upon leaving his house for work that fateful day, he found himself attacked, tied up and thrown into a pit before being put on a ship. This unfortunate boat was the subject of an attack by Turkish warships. Taken as prisoner and sold as a slave in Smyrna, Harrison had somehow managed to escape and make his way -on foot - across Europe to Lisbon before securing passage home. It had taken him two years. A less elaborate and perhaps more probable story of living off embezzled funds for two years, having faked his own robbery, still left three innocent people to die for a crime they had not committed. Right at our feet, on that green grass, years ago.

May the forth was a beautifully sunny day and we looked out at the strips of yellow oil seed rape set into those green grasses, almost blinding in their intensity, highlighted against the deep blue sky. The limestone walls became our constant companion; ringing fields and towns, often tumbling and only sometimes repaired, in the world’s best jigsaw game weathered by time. They led us over teletubby roly-poly hills until they framed the famous Broadway Tower. Stood tall, the view from its top captures a 62 mile radius that allows one to see all the way to the Welsh Mountains. It is a folly tower, fake in all of its magnificent grandeur and constructed as an elaborate decoration with no obvious purpose by the great 18th Century landscape designer, Capability Brown and architect James Wyatt. Yet overtime it has acted as a retreat for artists including William Morris in the 1880s, and more recently as a vantage point and nuclear bunker during the Cold War. Those stationed there would have been expected to report the effects of nuclear explosions, should one occur, and measure the radioactive fallout! Nothing could seem further from reality on this sunny day among quiet hills.

What hidden history is here!