|Southern Heartlands Rediscovered
When the idea of a TMA Avebury Megameet Picnic was mentioned some months ago, it was pencilled in the diary and thought no more of – after all, August seemed an age away. However, time flies like knives (and fruit flies like bananas), for suddenly, the appointed day was looming. Although not particularly megalithically inspired in the last couple of years, the thought of visiting Avebury after a three year break caused an excited fizzing inside me, a tingle of excitement which was a delight to feel once more. The coach trip down to Oxford began in an Iron Age fashion, passing the hillforts of Castell Dinas Bran and Old Oswestry. The elevated position of the coach afforded fabulous views of both and was a very good start to the weekend.
Naturally, I was staying with Jane and Moth, and it felt much like old times, heading off to Wiltshire in their company the following day. As we rocked down the A420, I caught sight of my beloved Uffington White Horse and Uffington Castle for the first time in years, which was fantastic - despite cloudy, slightly misty weather smudging the view - then reacquainted myself with Liddington Castle as we bypassed Swindon. A short while later, we zipped through Marlborough, where Moth pointed out Marlborough Mound, situated in the grounds of the famous boys' school. Some TMAer I am – can't recall how many times I've passed the school, but until then I was ignorant as to the existence of this impressive spiral structure. One to visit next time.
"West Kennet Avenue way or Silbury Hill way?" asked Jane, as we drove along the A4. "Oh, Silbury way, please," I replied, tantalised at the thought of catching a glimpse of West Kennet Longbarrow. After passing a small necropolis of round barrows, and revelling in the sight of West Kennet and Silbury, we eventually parked in Avebury's busy National Trust car park.
Back in the Circle
And then, three years on, I stepped into Wiltshire air and sky and chalk, into a landscape of unfathomable importance to our ancestors; and like old friends, it was as if no time had passed, for we merged into each other's space easily, quietly and affectionately. The hordes of people rather blunted the edge of it initially – particularly the squads of chunky Americans – for, as meeting a lover one hasn't seen for some time, there was a need to be alone in the feeling of reacquaintance. Happily, the north-eastern quarter had been chosen for the picnic site, and the Cove was blessedly free of swarming crowds.
Thus followed a pleasant, mellow afternoon, spent in the company of some very lovely people I hadn't seen in years, and some equally lovely people I met for the first time. Shan't go into too much detail here, as Jane has covered it suitably well in a 'blog at: http://www.janetomlinson.com/journal/index.php?id=152 - but I was very pleased I had made the effort to travel down from North Wales for the event. It was a return to more than one circle.
After a while the urge to stroll round the complex became very strong, so I set off in a clockwise direction, beginning at the lattice work of gnarled beech roots crowning the eastern dip in the henge. It was then the sheer magnitude of the Avebury complex hit me again, somehow through older, wiser eyes. The size of the embankment and ditch struck home, and I recalled telling one of our neighbourhood children that it had been dug out using antler picks and shovels, the spoil carried away in baskets. Standing still, I looked at the chalk beneath my feet. It was densely packed, hard and dusty. Friends have deer antlers hanging by their back door; they're not especially large, and I tried to imagine what it would feel like to begin scrabbling at the chalk face with a similarly shaped smooth-handled bone pick. Can't imagine it would have made much impact. What a feat of engineering Avebury is – henges built 5,000 years ago, yet still supporting the footfall of millions of visitors a year.
Gazing across the rooftops of houses within the circle, and watching people playing with a frisbee in the north-eastern quarter, they appeared diminutive, tiny against the vast circle and sky. What would it have been like to stand on the henge when there was no village, when presumably it was built for the populace to bear witness to whatever form of rite and ceremony, under open skies and the theatre of the circle? How could you see what was taking place? Was the henge a form of seating, or was it to provide a barrier to arcane and esoteric practices? Could you lie on it in comfort to star-gaze all night?
Strolling round the henge and through the stones, memories of previous visits filled my mind, individual stones calling up reminders of who did this, how this happened, where particular photos were taken, what conversations took place. I smiled inside, at a tapestry of life, friends, lovers, experiences and growth woven over the years amidst the stones – stones that never change, yet can change your life in subtle degrees from the moment you enter their world.
After winding up in the Red Lion, before we left Avebury and its surrounds, I begged Jane and Moth for a visit to West Kennet Longbarrow. Although Jane didn't fancy the walk in thin, pretty sandals, she became slightly less unsure when we pulled up in the A4 lay-by; the longbarrow looked deeply appealing in the August evening light. In the event, the grubbed up hedge and re-laid grassy path negated the need for Brasher-like boots, and it was merely a gentle ramble to the top of the hill. Passing over the small River Kennet, it was noticeably choked with vegetation, unlike previous occasions. Memories of Jane and seven year old Rupert splashing about in its cool waters one summer five or six years ago flooded back. The muddy pool under the small stunted oak tree had also dried up considerably. Global warming in action.
We reached the longbarrow to find a small group of people reading the information board. I took photos like a woman possessed, desperate to take something back with me to North Wales, a decent set of pictures to reflect on when away from this most magnificent of places. It was thrilling to touch the stones again after so long, wonderful to stand in the small forecourt before walking once more into the dark, imposing chambers. Again, the structure of the place struck me through new eyes; the size of the rocks, the creation of this space, the awesome nature of the whole. It occurred to me that the stones appeared very much like the bones of the earth. Once again, memories of times past drifted through my mind, especially the last visit, which was strange and dark. I didn't want that memory to stay with me, but it persistently floated back, until a sudden trilling chirr and resonant, urgent wing beat broke the dark chambers' air. More squeaks, more wing beats, a dart of movement, and a swallow swooped out of the entrance, up the face of the forecourt stones, and into the night. A few moments later a rush of air signalled its return – they were nesting inside one of the chambers!
I hid behind a large stone and watched them fly in and out, while Moth and Jane sat above the entrance to watch their unerring, acrobatic passage back and to the nest. We were the only people there, immersed in the magic of the muted night's colour and smells, the timelessness and atmosphere of the long barrow and its stones, the sounds of wind through grasses and swallows' wing beats and chirrs. The feeling of re-birth, renewal, regeneration and life filled the place, and any dark memories were chased away, to be replaced by light and airy vibes of positivity.
As we left (I had to be practically shoe-horned away), the moon revealed herself through lazy blue clouds and a pinkening sky. Large, meltingly silver, just over half full, she appeared as fat as a ripened ear of wheat. The scene was bewitching. While she hung directly above the long barrow and its muted grassiness, the swallows flew by her light - across a vast, unknowable, 6,000 year old landscape of the ancients.
Posted by treaclechops
9th August 2006ce
Edited 13th August 2006ce
treaclechops's TMA Blog
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