A place I'd only found out about recently, and after getting absolutely battered with the hail whilst walking around Avebury this felt like about all I was up to.
The place is palpably magical and sacred, without a doubt. The solitude and sanctity of the visit was rather diminished by a pheasant shoot which was going on nearby, but the 'specialness' of the place came through even that.
Probably my perceptual set, but the near-recumbent willow/s remind me of the legs of a birthing mother, further sanctifying the site. Silbury looks down, and in an area which can often get crowded this is much quieter and worth a short detour.
It may be October but myself and Dafydd were sweltering in the afternoon heat as we walked down the hill from WKLB towards Swallowhead Springs. The walk took longer than expected due to Dafydd insisting on stopping to pick flowers for his mother who no doubt was also sweltering back at the car looking after Sophie.
I had wanted to visit this site for the past few years and was very glad that I managed at last to get around to it. The cooling shade of the trees was most welcome.
As we approached the site the first thing we noticed was the amount of branches covered with ribbons, strips of cloth, feathers etc. The fallen tree which formed an arch was particularly impressive and prompted Dafydd to exclaim – 'look its magic!'
I must admit that his summery of the place was hard to disagree with. It certainly has a 'feel' about it – as well as being very pretty. There were 'offerings' all over the place – candles, berries, acorns, apples – even an egg.
At this point we noticed a chap who was quietly laying in the shade reading his book. At least it was quiet until we arrived with Dafydd asking no end of questions! The spring was bone dry although we still enjoyed hopping over the stepping stones.
I really liked this place and would highly recommend a visit to anyone already in the area visiting the more famous Avebury locations. Although the nearby WKLB was by now swarming with people we were able to leave the chap in quiet solitude enjoying his book.
Rather than come the way we did the easiest access is directly from the car lay by.
Go through the kissing gate and instead of following the path to WKLB head diagonally across the field towards the far right hand side corner – near the trees.
There is a wooden stile over the fence and you are there – it's as easy as that.
February 19th - belated Imbolc visit to Swallowhead Spring.
Today I was out at Avebury with a couple of friends and a young Cambodian man who was visting from London for the day. We did the Henge, Silbury and WKLB - refreshing to see this fabulous landscape through a visitor's eyes. Coming back from WKLB we did a detour over to Swallowhead Spring - the subject of tying ribbons on trees at 'sacred places' came up with our Cambodian companion. He said this is common practice in Cambodia and is now used as a means of protecting trees from being chopped down. The Cambodians are deeply religious in the Buddhist sense and if a tree is deemed a 'spirit tree' it will not be touched.
The willow at Swallowhead was festooned today with ribbons and flags; springs flowing and water running fast. We made our way across the sarsen stepping stones to the stile that accesses the water meadow. This was the first time I had walked across this meadow from the spring or seen the Kennet from this perspective.
Very lovely, and yes, it did feel sacred.
Yesterday I walked round Silbury Hill following the line of the River Kennet, and crossed the road to seek out the Swallowhead Springs.
Water only rises on these chalk downs in the winter at the beginning of the new year. Once it does, the water plants in the river stretch out their green tresses and swirl gently in the small currents and the quiet sounds of water flowing and moving over stones can be heard. The Kennet is sourced from a number of chalk streams, one from the Beckhampton Pond, but the common understanding is that it flows from the Swallowhead springs, "which emerges from a small wall of chalk at a corner of the meadow, this joins the stream flowing south from Avebury, past Silbury Hill and under the A4. The joined streams then turn east. Half a mile downstream from the Swallowhead springs, another spring feeds into the Kennet at times from the south end of Waden Hill."
So this small area of place is linked by small streams and perhaps the patterning of its early prehistoric beginning can partly be understood by its relationship to water.
It seems no difficult matter to point out the time of year when this great prince died, who is here [in Silbury] interr'd, viz. about the beginning of our present April. I gather it from this circumstance. The country people ahve an anniversary meeting on the top of Silbury-hill on every palm-Sunday, when they make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetch'd from the Swallow-head, or spring of the Kennet. This spring was much more remarkable than at present, gushing out of the earth, in a continued stream. They say it was spoil'd by digging for a fox who earth'd above, in some cranny thereabouts; this disturb'd the sacred nymphs, in a poetical way of speaking.
... I took notice that apium grows plentifully about the spring-head of the Kennet. Pliny writes defunctorum epulis dicatum apium. To this day the country people have a particular regard for the herbs growing there, and a high opinion of their virtue.
Hmm, Pliny could be talking about the plant being served at feasts for the dead. But my latin is non-existent, perhaps someone else can translate? I imagine Apium is a carrot-family water-celeryish sort of plant. Maybe fool's watercress or something similar? Culpeper said that Apium "opens stoppings of the liver, and spleen, cleanses the blood, provokes the menses, helps a cold stomach to digest its meat, and is good against the yellow jaundice". But that could have been a totally different plant too...
Swallowhead Springs has been proposed as a site for worship of the Celtic Goddess Brid or Bridget (Bride in Scotland and Breeshey on the Isle of Man). She presided over fire, art, beauty and is said to be the mother of the Gods. She is often associated with the return of the flow of water in the month of march and therefore the return of life in spring.
The higher land to the south-west of here is the point where the main watersheds of England meet, which is to say that water poured on the ground will flow equally into the Irish Sea, English Channel and North Sea. Could this have been known in antiquity? I don't see why not as knowing the geography of Great Britain, albeit handed down orally, would be pretty important. It makes Swallowhead springs all the more significant as one of the first points where water appears flowing off from the "roof of England". (I borrow the phrase from Ken Clifford, who stirred four of us up into taking a holiday there in 2000 to find the "roof" - there isn't an exact spot - but it is a great excuse to spend some time larking about in this wonderful part of the country).
"Swallow Head" is the name of a very copious spring which rises at a short distance to the south of Silbury, and is very frequently though erroneously called the source of the Kennet; for this mistake Stukeley is responsible, since he wrote:
"There are two heads of the river Kennet: one from a little north-west of Abury, at Monkton, runs southward to Silbury Hill: this affords little water, except in wet seasons. At Silbury Hill it joins the Swallow Head, or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name Cunnit, and it is not a little famous among them. This is a plentiful spring."
...The actual sources are indeed two.. one which rises in Clyffe Pypard field, some four miles to the north-west, and the other in the parish of Broad Hinton, some four miles to the north east of Abury: at the latter village these two streams unite, and flow in one channel to Swallow Head, the very picturesque basin whose springs are generally very abundant, and largely increase the infant river: indeed there are seasons when the two real sources have been known to be dry, and the only water in the Kennet has come from this spring.
Other seasons have occurred within my memory when this, too, has failed, and the dry bed of the Kennet has been planted with potatoes.
I should add that Canon Jones attributes the name 'Swallow Head' to the same source as the Swill in N Wilts and the Swale in Kent and Yorkshire, and quotes Fergusson for the origin of the word from the old German swal, meaning 'swell' or 'whirlpool'. If this is accepted, I can bear witness that the large round pool at Swallow Head oftentimes show considerable commotion of water from the very copious springs which bubble up to the surface.
p175 in Rev. A C Smith's 'Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs' (1884).