South Downs Way - Winchester to East Meon
Waterloo to Winchester - blur of green hedges, time, azure skies of summer - four hundred years travelled in an hour. I was curious to visit the village where my father had traced his family back the furthest: a William Parvin in the 18thcentury from West Meon. Back in the 1980s, this knowledge was gleaned from physical trips to church records, libraries and aged relatives who gave misleading information. Great Uncle Leonard was happy to tell us about the ship of Persian sailors that had given us our name. But then he was a sailor himself, and this tallest of tales has influenced my taste in music, dance and food ever since - not a bad thing as my life has been richer as a consequence of this family myth. After a recent, brief search on the web, it turned out that William Parvin was in fact born in East Meon, down the road. This village bore generations of Parvins who were married at the early Norman church of All Saints, so, this was where I booked to stay.
The walk from Winchester cathedral winds past the homes of medieval grandees and by the side of water meadows. In the first field, after crossing the A3, we were assaulted by the sound of constant artillery, luckily echoing from behind the hills. We passed a sign that alerted us to the fact that we were edging the army training ground of Chilcomb Down near the sight of the decisive Civil War Battle of Cheriton.
The path was a chalk ribbon flanked by re-wilded field verges brimming with June flowers.
On the empty uplands, we looked over to a field of starry blue linseed where a hare sat still on its haunches. Suddenly, it leapt across the avenues of seedlings in a zig-zag out of view. Fields of barley and wheat waved like followers of the great sun God, Lug; white clouds changed their pale-yellow stems to pools of amber, honey and rust-gold as they glided above. The path entered the centre of a wide field verge, left to its own improvised planting. Grasses spilled in plumes, splayed fountain-like. Stray seeds from mono-cultured fields joined in variegated splendour.
We arrived at dusk. A collection of ancient houses lined the Meon, a clear stream which ran down the main street of the village. East Meon lies snug at the foot of a high hill - a benevolent guardian to its inhabitants. Ye Olde George Inn, our resting place after walking 12 miles of the South Downs Way, was welcoming and with whimsical surprise, familiar. I felt in my own skin and my sore feet happy to rest at this dreamy village, full of thatch, beams and history. Our room named ‘Cheriton’ looked out onto a lane, and at the end, the hill looked down, a darkening sleepy shadow.
William was born in East Meon in 1743 and at some point, up-sticked and left with his growing family to the rival village of West Meon - rival because, in the Civil War, East was Royalist and West was Parliamentarian. The East Meons suffered the encampment of Roundhead troops nearby and William’s Great, Great Grandfather, another William, married in All Saints Church to a Mary Richards in 1658, would have witnessed the greatest schism in modern British history. The Parvins lived long lives for the time: 87, 77, 85 - when the average life expectancy was around 40. This was a small village; a farming community that rarely travelled and perhaps had less possibility of being infected by the many dreaded agues of the day.
The pub is over 500 years old, and the possibility that William Parvin, born 1631, had seen the ancient door we had just opened, leant on the fire surround we gazed at, knocked his head on a particular beam was tempting to ponder. Time compressed; centuries, wars and empires had never happened. I was feeling a little dizzy, after a superb pub dinner at The Shoe Inn at Easton, the sun and wind from the open road and an overwhelming feeling of unfathomable attachment to a place I had never set foot in before. Sentimental perhaps, and imbued with my modern sensibilities, but real nonetheless - and joyful. This is a settled settlement where losses and struggles of my life did not feel irrelevant, yet were softened, and became part of something greater that I belonged to - this village.
After a splendid breakfast, with all the sophistication of the 21st century, we stepped out on the path once again. The landscape beyond East Meon is dramatic: steep, hidden valleys, enclosed and silent, but possessing a softness and a lolling, gentle seduction. Butser Hill was a devil to climb, but the reward was a downpour to counteract the heat of the ascent and a view over the Solent to the Isle of Wight, floating like Avalon in a distant haze.
My father always carried a melancholy for something lost that disturbed his well-being, a sentimentality coupled with erratic behaviour. I assumed it was the recent past - early family deaths and witnessing Portsmouth being blasted from the air in WW2. But perhaps his reflective spirit was also due to the loss of this - the village that he somehow knew without knowing that William abandoned, sometime in the18th century, a place that had been the home of his ancestors for generations. After William’s flight to West Meon, there was one in every generation who never settled, moving to Hambledon, Havant, Waterlooville. Each Parvin had nine or ten children and there are numerous Williams, Thomases, Georges, Henrys, Lucys, Charlottes, Johns and the odd Charles, eventually landing in Portsmouth to eschew their ‘general labourer’ status and join the Navy.
Modernity destroyed the continuity of this family and its physical relationship with the folds and sweeps of the landscape of East Meon. The fields, trees and the comfort of the low hill that presided over their loves and losses were forgotten. But what are roots or origins? What is passed down - anything? Everything? I’m still not sure what it means to me, to have been there, but I do know that it gave me an indefinable feeling of peace. This is the village where I am from.