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Avebury & the Marlborough Downs



I recently came across a collection of essays about Wiltshire by John Chandler called The Day Returns - Excursions in Wiltshire's History (published 1998). This one is from a previous publication called 'Life in the Bus Lane'. The bus in question no longer runs on the route described.

The Source of the Kennet
It is a crisp March Monday and we are sitting on a bus in Marlborough High Street facing the college, and waiting for 9.35. It is that time in the morning which is common to all small towns, when those who have to be there have arrived and are at work; those who don’t aren’t, or if they, they can still drift along the capacious street to find a parking space.
While we are waiting I should tell you one thing that any intending bus passenger must understand. Buses (and I mean the ordinary country buses which we all used before we bought cars) – buses like this do not take you from A to B. They take you from A to Z, via B, C and D, not to mention W, X, and Y. This bus may say it is going to Swindon, if we persevere with it and have plenty of time. But Swindon is merely a by-product of the journey.
Let’s face it. If anyone is desperate to go from Marlborough to Swindon and they have a car, they will be there in 15 minutes. This bus takes over an hour. And one reason for the discrepancy becomes apparent as soon as we set off. We are going the wrong way! Swindon is due north and we are heading west. We are, in fact, embarking on a trip to the source of the Kennet, and on the way we shall call on most of the sixteen villages which grew up alongside the meagre waters of its upper reaches.
First above Marlborough is Preshute, its church hiding beyond the trees of the college. But Preshute is really part of Marlborough. The first real upper Kennet village is Manton, and here we leave the main road to make acquaintance with the river itself. It is lively here, eager to resume its old job of splashing over the millwheel, a teeming artery of winter rain surging bankful among its meadows.
In front of us are some six miles of Kennet valley and seven more villages before we reach Avebury. We cross and re-cross the river to visit them all. This is the land of the sarsens, the alien stones, the Saracens. At Piggledene and Lockeridge Dene they masquerade as drab sheep and lie asleep in flocks. From West Kennet to Avebury they march along upright like soldiers. In the villages they have been tamed and squared to serve as walls - incomparable walls of mottled silver, pink, and greenish-grey. And in Fyfield churchyard lie the men of the Free family, who tamed them and squared them, and who died prematurely from their dust.
The bus climbs from Lockeridge to West Overton, and at the crest of the hill a fine view is revealed. In the foreground Overton church, dressed in sarsen, looks down on a field of village earthworks. To our left the view is to Tan Hill, the highest place in Wiltshire; to our right the barrows on Overton Hill mark the line of the Great Ridgeway. And between them, in the far distance, we glimpse the Lansdowne monument above Cherhill. The bus winds down into Overton, slowing for an old border collie who is sauntering deafly along the road.
Now to East Kennet, where I have often admired the sarsen garden walls. But only from upstairs on the bus is their secret revealed, that behind them is hidden a swimming pool. On sultry summer afternoons, I daydream, some bronzed bodies laze by the water, and reach discreetly for their towels when the double decker trundles by. But no time now for daydreaming. The Kennet’s proudest moment is about to be revealed. We are back on the main road and approaching Silbury Hill. After a wet February the river has collected every drop it can muster from its downland springs and streams, to form a silver moat around the hill. It is a spectacle purely for the locals which the Kennet never repeats for the summer tourist trade.
At Beckhampton Roundabout we must give up this self-indulgence, and do our duty at last and go to Swindon. The northward turn up to Avebury Trusloe is surprisingly hard work for a bus. I glance across to Adam and Eve, the two solitary sarsens behind the stables. But I am thinking of breakfast. I heard a man interviewed on the radio, a manufacturer I think, about marmalade. He was talking about customer’s preferences. “Thick cut marmalade”, he said, as if had just thought of it, “Is essentially a male preserve.”
Avebury’s present appearance owes a great deal to marmalade – far more than it owes to the National Trust. It was Scottish marmalade that enabled Alexander Keiller, heir to family business to indulge a passion for archaeological excavation, first in the twenties at Windmill Hill nearby, and then during the thirties in Avebury itself. He drew on his wealth to buy much of the village and as building within the circle became vacant he demolished them, displacing the villagers to new house at Avebury Trusloe. He excavated the ditch, re-erected the fallen stones, and established a museum which still exists. He died in 1955.
Beyond Avebury we settle into a different landscape. The bus is heading north now, so the Marlborough Downs are to our right. They have formed themselves into a steep escarpment which rises green to sky. Here and there ribbons of white climb the hill, remnants in sunless holloways of last week’s snow. Against the snow the grubby chalk horse on Hackpen is a miserable creature. To our left now there is no corresponding hillside, just undulating farmland which teeters to the edge of a second escarpment unseen from here, then suddenly down to the clay. Above Silbury the Kennet loses its vigour and has not the strength to form a valley. It has become seasonal, gratefully receiving whatever normally dry tributaries can offer, and flowing only after winter rain – a true winterbourne.

John Chandler ends his passage (which I haven't reproduced in its entirety) with a quote from Richard Jefferies’ book ‘The Story of my Heart’ and the observation “Such a man would never have understood a bus timetable.”

‘It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life …. For artificial purpose time is mutually agreed on, but there is really no such thing. The shadow goes on upon the dial. The index moves round upon the clock, and what is the difference, none whatever. If the clock had been never set going, what would have been the difference? There may be time for the clock, the clock may make time for itself: there is none for me' (Richard Jefferies)
tjj Posted by tjj
26th November 2019ce

Comments (1)

That's a lovely piece, beautifully capturing that area of sarsens and the meandering river valley. The sadness of a bus journey through somewhere like that is that you can't get the bus to wait for you when you want to wander up Lockeridge Dean for an hour, so you either have to get off and maybe not see another bus that day (or week!), or stay on the bus and make do with viewing the route through glass, like Iggy Pop's Passenger.

One of my favourite songs starts with a verse about country bus travel:

"The time I think most clearly
The time I drift away
Is on the bus ride, that meanders through these valleys of green and grey
I get to think about what might have been
And what may yet come true
And I get to pass a rainy mile, thinking of you"

I have no truck with someone who doesn't understand bus timetables :)
thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
26th November 2019ce
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