The over-riding memory of this long winter will be that of a ceiling of grey clouds, dense and close. It has been cold, but not piercingly so; but it has been overpoweringly empty of colour. I’ll be glad to see the back of it. On a day of sudden and sharp sunlight, I went out to Salisbury Plain and the sacred landscapes around the Avebury stone circle.
Sarsen stones, Avebury
First time this year we’ve had conjoined days of sun. Glare on the roads, glare in the rutted side paths, where water sits in silty pools. As I approach Avebury, through the wide streets of Marlborough, the clouds begin to gather. I wonder if that’s that.
Everyone has had the same idea: go somewhere, go anywhere – just to get out. The car park is a scrum of chalk-whitened tyres and wild children, wild dogs. On first glimpsing the stones, it’s impossible to get any sense of orientation, of scale – you squint at the map, unsure where to go next. Following an inquisitive line, I end up in the ‘north west sector’ of the henge, or outer circle, though I only make sense of this later (the entire henge, though not perfectly circular is the largest in the world, and some 420M in diameter). Driven by an almost frantic desire to get some perspective, I rush past the immense twin stones of the cove and out of Avebury, up onto the Ridgeway.
A slow steady ascent on a deeply furrowed chalk and flint-strewn track. A field on the right hand side houses the last of the standing stones, the exposed roots of an oak cradle yellow primroses. The noise bleeds away as Avebury recedes, the stones soon out of sight behind the natural whorls and hollows of chalk. The wind, easterly, picks up, brittle and penetrating. The landscape opens up, Salisbury plain broad green and various under the now opening clouds. Densely-coated sheep and isolated beech copses punctuate the broad sweep of the land, which, despite being made of simple greens and whites, is impossibly plural in its gradations of form, of colour. Cresting the hill and finally: the Ridgeway.
The path is thought to have been in use for more than 5000 years, part of a longer trade route that ran from the Dorset coast stretching north east toward Aylesbury and its final destination on the Norfolk coast. The chalk lands, across which the path traverses, were created some 100 million years ago when large parts of the southern UK mainland were submerged under a network of inland seas. A mixture of microscopic algae and animal skeletons were layered and crushed into the sea bed, which was in turn exposed as water levels changed, and the land uplifted as part of same orogenic activity that caused the monumental uplift of the alpine region of central Europe. Thus the path’s height, riding the chalk uplands, afforded safety from potential attackers, and avoided the watery perils of the boggy lowlands. Over time, the path has been used as a trading path, a droving path, and, more enigmatically, an access point to the sacred landscape of Avebury, West Kennet and Silbury. Standing atop it now, looking south towards the round barrows of Overton Hill, and east onto Fyfield Down and the fields strewn with massive stones, stones of sarsen, similar to those used at Avebury and somehow transported the same route I’d just walked, time seemed to stretch and warp, as did the land – unable to govern what it sees, the eye fails to make a complete purchase and perspective is jumbled: sheep resemble sarsen boulders, domed beech copses look like uncovered barrows. I huddled in the lee of a newly planted beech hedge and ate. The wind carried the far-off explosions of wrens and the first of spring’s skylarks, both obeying the imperative of seasonal time, ignoring the brute chill of the air.
Rutted path full of leaf litter, muddy pools reflecting the harsh glare of the sun. I enter a beech copse, no more than 20 meters in diameter, raised on a bolus of roots. The wind is fierce, whipping through the trees, howling and keening. The interior is dark, damp – a cave, a roofless chapel, the grey trunks like buttresses. At the centre lies a smooth altar of sarsen stone, surrounded by bared beech roots splayed like arthritic fingers.
I come to the end of the path, the modern entrance to the Ridgeway, next to the shock of the A4. The clouds have all but cleared away and it’s warm in the sun. Across the road is the Sanctuary the site of a former stone circle, dismantled for grazing. In one reading of the landscape, it’s thought that travellers for Avebury would come down off the Ridgeway and wait here before entering the ‘Avenue’ the narrow causeway leading to the central drama of the henge – attendees at, what, a ceremony? A gathering? I avoided the question by turning away from the avenue and joining a narrow path that led across the swollen river Kennet and up a steep chalk hill to the long barrow of West Kennet.
I hadn’t been wholly aware of West Kennet long barrow. It was a name with a few murky associations. The same was true of Silbury Hill, now dominating the horizon to my right hand side. I slogged up the incline, the barrow darkly shadowed on a high green ridge; I could see silhouetted figures black against the afternoon haze – they danced, parted, embraced. Alongside the barrow, the impact was significant – aside from the obvious gravity of the massive sarsen stones that guarded the entrance, there was a weight in the air, the weight of focused, accumulated time, of the fact of our simple connections to the deep past: grief, the whirl of the seasons, the mysteries of connection to the earth.
The long barrow, at 100 metres, is thought to be one of the longest in Britain, and is more than 5000 years old. It’s precise function is unknown, but it’s thought to have been used as a burial chamber for a good while, as the bones of more than 50 separate skeletons have been found on the site. Other more esoteric claims have been made for such sites, that they were chambers for meditation, places for deeper communication with the earth-mother, literal womb-like entrances into the body of the earth. Everything seemed possible from where I stood in the soft yellow glow of late afternoon, the wind pouring from the east, gritty and bitter; and walking into the damp cold of the interior, into the folds of stone, did feel like an entering, a thresholding – the earth close and gravid, the interlocking slabs of stone suddenly shocking in their immediacy, their proximity. Alongside the main chamber, no more than an arms width wide, stood dank chambers, completely closed off by darkness. They didn’t hold horrors, as such, more they represented the colossal fact of our unknowing. Shining a light into them didn’t lessen the impact. It didn’t do to linger – again, not because of some spurious sense of horror, but because of something indefinable, something too close to the sacred glimpse of death-in-life. On reaching the main chamber itself, it was apparent someone had lit 3 incense candles. There was the soft scent of rosewood. I smiled, thankful that the mood had been broken. I turned and left.
Walking back down the steady chalk gradient from the barrow, it was impossible not to stare at the tumescent green hump of Silbury – squat and implacable against the cold blue horizon. As a simple landmass it draws the eye, but the knowledge that it’s man made, and the largest of its kind in Europe adds gravity and portent. The simple act of walking towards it increases the drama and the questions of why and how come crowding in. And the truth of it is, beyond the simple fact of its creation, starting in distant 2400 BC, no one really knows the hows and the whys of Silbury. It could be a burial mound, it could be a statement of intent, it could be a simulacra, a simple fact of building over time to mimic and celebrate other aspects of landscape. The hill has been probed and defiled in search of definitive answers and it refuses to give up its mystery. Shafts have been dug (and collapsed); tunnels excavated; samples retrieved. And? Nothing. It’s been so thoroughly pawed at and cored that it’s now closed to encounter, a bare monument for the eye to explore. Which is fitting, in honesty, because, from distance, Silbury is so alluring that you are drawn to its bare, green flanks from wherever you stand. It dominates the eye and so dominates the mind’s eye. You wonder at how must have looked in the years after completion – massive in context, stark white with chalk. It must have imposed as much then as it does now. As I walked away, along the alder-lined fretful wash of the Winterbourne River, I regularly stopped to turn back to it, drawn to its silence, its hunched and brooding presence.
Sarsen stone, sunfall
Avebury had quietened. I passed into the first ring by exactly the same route that I had come earlier, but now the atmosphere was indolent – people tarried with idle, wan looks on their faces. Many of the stones, warmed by the sun, were given over as seats or simple leaning posts. Shadows pooled in the ditches and declivities. I climbed a steep bank and looked across the expanse of several adjacent fields. In the scope of the wider area of the plain, it was now possible to grasp a sense of the stones and their significance – or at least their place in a a grander scheme. It may have been a trick of the mood, but there suddenly seemed to be scores of children around, running, blaring between the stones; and from that vantage point, hovering above the glare of that cagouled tumult, it was possible to forget the ‘mysteries’ or the need for these ancient sentinels, this broad collection of ancient sites, to be mysteries at all. It was enough, buoyed on the onrushing noise, to peer back across millennia to another, similar life.