In Ancient Wiltshire – Part 1

8 07 2007

7-8 July 2007

Part1 | Part2

The Wiltshire Landscape

I had planned this weekend trip unusually early on the Wednesday this week. This enabled me to benefit from the cheaper advance train fares. I bought a return ticket to Chippenham. Unfortunately, I had not decided on the exact itinerary. Only on the Friday did I finalize my plans. The plan was to alight at Swindon. At Swindon, I would get a bus to Caen Hill Locks, just after Devizes. I would pitch my tent at a campsite early on Saturday morning. Then I would walk to Avebury and back. On Sunday, the plan was to walk to Chippenham. En route I would visit the village and the abbey of Lacock.

When I alighted at Swindon, I was not allowed to leave the station because my ticket was to Chippenham, not Swindon. I ended up having an argument with the station staff. It was certainly not a good way to start the weekend. They could not give any logical explanation as to why my ticket was invalid for Swindon. I had a valid ticket to Chippenham. It was my simple choice to alight earlier by the same train and by the same reservation. I was not travelling a greater distance for free. If anything, I had paid more when I could have paid less. It was futile to argue with them who played strictly by some incomprehensible rules. Later, I did verify that the ticket to Swindon was in fact cheaper than the ticket to Chippenham. Yet this obvious fact was never considered by the staff. Finally, I was forced to pay for a single ticket fare from Chippenham to Swindon, bewildering when I had never been to Chippenham in my life. I have been using public transport so often and so regularly that I imagined I have mastered it all. Yet they are capable of springing surprises even to the most experienced and seasoned travellers.

This little incident bothered me for most of Saturday morning. I got the bus as planned. I walked to the campsite and pitched my tent as planned. I started on my walk to Avebury under a splendid sunshine, something that we have not had for many days this June and July. For an hour and a half I walked along the Kennet and Avon Canal before taking to the open downs, following a long distance path called the White Horse Trail. When I looked at this ancient landscape, the strip lynchets left behind by medieval farmers, the great and unending fields of wheat or barley, the little dots of red poppy speckling the growing brown fields, the magnificent formation of cumulus clouds… I had a chance to go back to the morning’s little incident and give it some thought. How petty an argument and how silly my anger had been! How misplaced and meaningless my pride had been! Anger stems from pride which in its turn has basis in an inflexible and inflated ego. It is an ego habituated to being adamant. Though I have travelled widely, experienced much and learnt a great deal of the country, its people and its culture, I am only just beginning to understand myself. To understand oneself is perhaps the greatest undertaking anyone can take. There is much I know. There is much more I don’t. Even with what I know, knowing is one thing but putting it into practice is something else.

North of Salisbury are the Salisbury Plains. East of Devizes is the Vale of Pewsey. Between Devizes and Avebury there are some downs but nothing of great height or steepness. Wessex Ridgeway and White Horse Trail are two long distance paths that cut through Wiltshire. The second of the two passes through many white horses carved on the chalky downs of the county. I did not see any of these horses today but I am certain that none of them can beat the Uffington Horse.

If Salisbury Cathedral is known for and by its spire, such spires seem to be common in Wiltshire. I spotted the church spires of Bishop Cannings and Bromham from about a mile. Much of this part of the county is gentle undulating downs fully tamed by man. There are no great woods. The presence of ancient man is seen clearly in barrows, tumuli and stone monuments. The presence of medieval man is in the lynchets and medieval villages barely remaining since the pass of the Black Death. The presence of modern man is in the farms, villages and fields of cultivation.

There are some pastures where livestock is kept but these are far less in comparison to the arables. Where I had to cross a field of cattle at Bowden Hill, the herd took fancy to chasing me out of the field. I had to literally sprint for my life, jump across a stile and run down the slope on the adjacent field. Fortunately, the gate leading out of the field was closed and the herd was left leerily looking at me from behind the hedges.

There are always two aspects to a landscape – one that is an intrinsic part and one that is not. Of the former, we may say that it is ever-present in all weather. It defines the landscape and makes it unique. It changes with time which should never be a surprise because very few things in this world are beyond the dominion of time. In this category are the stone monuments, the downs, the power lines, the farms and fields. Of the latter, we may say that it is a visitor to the landscape. It does not belong to it but very much becomes a part of it while it is there. In this category are the clouds, the migratory birds, the afternoon sun and perhaps even that occasional tourist.

The open landscapes in these parts of Wiltshire

The open landscapes in these parts of Wiltshire

The single most captivating aspect of the landscape this weekend came from clouds, spread broadly in magnificent formations. I am no expert in clouds but these were clearly puffy white cumulus clouds in an archetypal form so often found in children’s colourful drawings. Set against a bluish sky, they were all the more spectacular. The air was still throughout, which made their journeys all the more slower. They appeared to take delight in a countryside sojourn while throwing their shadows on fields of barley. They had no hurry. In their pause and relaxation, I derived a similar pleasure in my own walks. Clouds do not journey alone. They move in groups. Where a solitary cloud is seen, its family is not far away. Without any wind, their afternoon siesta in the sky came without any precedent of lively conversations. Some lingered in their groups keeping a familiar silence. Some wandered alone to explore the Wiltshire downs. Some climbed above to greater heights adding to shape and form. Some watched the birds in flight. Some watched the farmers cut the grass in their fields. Some waited patiently or otherwise for the wind to pick up so that they could move on.

Avebury

I managed to walk to Avebury but took a bus on the return because there was so much to see in and around this little village. While the Stonehenge is well-known the world over for good reason, Avebury has its own claim of antiquity. For miles around the countryside one can see Silbury Hill, the largest man-made hill in Europe. I could see this hill on the approach to Avebury from as far as three miles to the south. If I hadn’t been able to see it earlier it was only because my view had been blocked.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill today is undergoing major restoration in the hands of English Heritage. The greatness of this hill is that it was built in about 2500 BC. Today it stands almost like a perfect cone with a top that’s just a little flattened. The turf covered slopes are not smooth. They are stepped almost regularly but from a distance these steps are not discernable. The construction has been so solid that so many centuries later it stands intact just the way it had been conceived and built. Why then do we need a restoration? The problem is not with the early builders but with inquisitive historians and archaeologists. In 1776 someone decided to dig a vertical shaft from its top. This collapsed and created a crater at the summit. In 1849 and 1968 tunnels were dug into the hill from its southern side. These were never filled completely due to which the stability of the hill has been undermined. This may lead to an eventual collapse of the hill. Let us not think that we are doing a favour by restoring Silbury Hill. It is something we as modern people have destabilized and must take responsibility for it.

The common guess was that the hill is an enormous burial mound. No remains of any kind have been discovered. Perhaps, there is something far below the ground just as there is so much of it above. Silbury Hill is one of those special places of antiquity where common knowledge of our Bronze Age ancestors has been interned in layers of earth and time. For generations to come, Silbury Hill will keep its secret. We can choose either to erase the hill to the ground and dig deep in the hope of unravelling the mystery; or we can let ancient secrets lie, acknowledging that our ancestors were cleverer than us in some ways. They knew how to keep their little secrets private.

Inside the West Kennet Long Barrow

Inside the West Kennet Long Barrow

If no burial chambers have been discovered at Silbury Hill to the disappointment of archaeologists, not very far from this hill is the West Kennett Long Barrow. This was the second most ancient man-made feature that I noticed on the approach to Avebury. Across a field of crops swaying lightly in a breeze, across a scattering of wild flowers in the nearer foreground, the barrow appears as a mound of earth on a little hill. It rises just a little above the hill at the horizon with the clouds in the background. This is even older than the Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire. This predates Silbury Hill by about 1000 years. Many human remains have been discovered in this barrow in multiple chambers. The east entrance is marked by stones that once blocked the tomb entrance. Today we are able to go into some of these stone chambers. The innermost chamber is almost a cube, about 8 feet in each dimension. Smooth holes in the rocks may have contained offerings or an oil lamp; but these may be additions from more recent periods. Overall, it is not a pleasant place to be. The brooding presence of ancient spirits descends upon us. If their restless spirits linger, it can only be because their final resting place has been violated.

If archaeologists should pride themselves with the knowledge gained from excavating this barrow, they are made to return to proper humility at the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is neither a barrow nor a stone circle in the sense of the Stonehenge. There is nothing on this site today. Concrete marker posts coloured in either blue or red attempt to recreate that ancient design which is still an enigma. A set of concentric circles were made of stone and wooden posts. These circles were further interconnected by radiating lines of stone markers. Perhaps, the upright posts had all been connected by lintels in a fashion similar to the Stonehenge. The site it thought to have been used for ceremonies.

From the Sanctuary, I finally made my way to the centre of Avebury, passing a row of upright stones that stand as sentinels to the village. The village is surrounded by an earthen embankment. There are stones everywhere about the village centre. Some stones are tall and straight. Others are broad and diamond shaped. The stones are spaced far apart and occupy a vast area. It is a magical place. Walking through Avebury in the hours just after sunrise must indeed be special, when the mist is still kissing the dew on the grass and the dew is still touching with glitter the rough stones.

Standing stones of Avebury

Standing stones of Avebury

Like the Stonehenge, it is conceivable that the stone circles at Avebury, some small, some big, have some relationship to the cycles of the moon and the sun. Prehistoric man perhaps did not realize that the sun was the centre of the planetary system in which we live. Yet, he recognized its importance and sought to worship it. It was only with the theories of Copernicus that we first began to think of a heliocentric possibility. Looking at these stone circles we can see that early man was curious enough to look at the skies and respond to it in his primitive ways. We have been just as curious but we have gone beyond mere observations. We have questioned, postulated, experimented, analyzed and verified. This has been the way for the progress of science and civilization.

Part1 | Part2

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