The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Fieldnotes by Spiddly

Latest Posts

West Kennet (Long Barrow)

30th July 2020

Another return trip to Avebury, but this time to view something that often goes amiss. A quiet lull in the speeding traffic on the A4 allowed me to pull over in the layby, park up and make the journey on foot to the West Kennet Long Barrow. My journey uphill was promising enough, an avenue of golden barley shimmered in the sweltering sun, with the barrow suddenly appearing at the crest of the hill.

I had mixed emotions. I was pleased to finally see the site, but had not expected to it to be so busy, especially compared to my previous experience of Wayland's Smithy. Families picnicked directly in front of the entrance, claiming it for their own like a spot on the beach. Discarded beer bottles lay nearby, while unsupervised children ran amok in the chamber, whacking the stones with sticks and retrieving offerings of coins left in good faith by previous visitors, pocketing them after excitedly declaring their finds to their disinterested parents.

One of the fathers treated one of the facing stones like a climbing range, which only encouraged the children to follow suit as best as they could, as he reached the summit. This revered site looked more like a play area in a pub garden, than an ancient monument. I quietly reasoned that all things must pass, and that these people would bore easily and leave soon, allowing me the chance to explore in a more reverent fashion. All the while I wondered, how can we expect children to learn about the past, while we trample carelessly over it and without respect?

The arrival of a National Trust ranger to check the site and collect litter soon encouraged a cessation in horseplay and I was free to enter the chamber. I ignored the sound of children beating sticks against the plastic apertures in the ceiling above as best as I could, and sought to explore the entrance to the barrow. A grand affair compared to my much beloved Wayland's Smithy, allowing visitors to stand upright, rather than crouched, with four antechambers and exploration space of 13 metres before reaching the sealed wall of the tomb.

The chamber was marvellously cool compared to the scorching heat of the sun outside and I took photos to complete my study. As I took one photo of the end of the chamber, I was aware of a fleeting mist in front of the lens and just outside of my peripheral vision. My rational side registered this as atmospheric change in the chamber, or my eyes adjusting to the light coming through the ceiling aperture. But what I like to think is that something within the chamber identified me as someone intent on visiting with purpose and respect, rather than as a mere hot Summer day's distraction. Perhaps this was a way of indicating I was welcome?

Reaching the end of the chamber, I was impressed with how the light at the entrance shone and illuminated the passage. I vowed to return during a less popular season, where I might have greater opportunity to attune to the site and encounter others who might not treat it as a trifle fancy or item on the summer holiday checklist.

My experience that day was encapsulated while driving back down the West Kennet Avenue, after a meal at The Red Lion. I travelled at a respectful speed down the track, enjoying glances at the sight of the stones lining the avenue to my right, while keeping an eye on the road ahead. The driver behind couldn't accept 30mph as an acceptable speed and overtook, roaring down the road before having to break suddenly at a pinchpoint, in front of oncoming traffic.

Everyone in life is heading to their destination, but we must take the time to enjoy the journey, wonder and learn. For what is a life worth living, if we're blind to the mysteries that surround us?

Uffington Castle (Hillfort)

21st June 2019

The latest visit to Uffington, one of the closest sites to me, wasn't so much about walking the castle or paying a visit to The Smithy. This trip was all about the light show as the sun, on the day of the Summer Solstice, bowed its head and set for a couple of hours.

If anything, the setting of the sun on that day should be as significant as that of its rising. That thought was shared by a multitude of others, who gathered to witness the same thing. Young and old, families, couples and individuals such as myself, were intent on seeing what the horizon had to offer this evening.

Many sat on the ridge of the castle, as territorial as the watch who might've strolled the path during its heyday. Yet it was peaceful, respectful. I sat near the base of the castle, still high enough to enjoy the same view as those who'd staked their picnic blankets.

As the sun went down, the sound of happiness, laughter and even a cork popping from a champagne bottle ebbed and melded with the rhythm of bird song and the bleat of sheep. Its light spread across the horizon and slowly rolled under the base of the high clouds, illuminating them as if on fire.

Many stayed to watch the cool blues and purple of night creep in, while the sun continued to blaze, out of site. It struck me on the drive home that despite living in a time where division and suspicion are commonplace in a fractured country, here was a moment where none of that mattered or even existed. We'd survived the day and come together in celebration of what is positive in this world; warmth, colour and the promise of renewal.

Avebury (Circle henge)

10th December 2018

The promised journey to return to Avebury occurred as with the best of things, a spontaneous gesture. This time, to visit on the cusp of winter rather than summer, just to mix things up and see how the other season lives.

My last visit to this marvellous hub of positivity during the summer was slightly marred by a 20 strong group, who insisted on taking up the quarter behind The Red Lion to film a very theatrical worship of the stones. My own preference is for quiet reflection and interaction with fellow wanderers, with my most recent trip being conducive to this ideal.

After lunch at the Red Lion and a brief period of enjoying a game of 'pretend to be a friendly local,' while supping a pint outside the pub entrance, I set to exploring the area which time had previously denied.

My focus was on the southern area of the site, stretching outwards away from the village. It's probably here that greater insight is earned, seeing more of the trench and scale of the site. It’s quite something to behold.

My visit was rewarded with interactions with fellow travellers. The elderly woman who photobombed my attempt to photograph the southern entrance stones, told me of her son's visit to Callanish, one of those sites to make anyone’s bucket list.

"Did he see it from the air, by helicopter?" I asked. "No," she replied, but gave her son's account from ground level which was just as compelling. Her own reason for visiting was to see the West Kennet Longbarrow, with an interest in finding similar barrow sites in the area. I showed her my pictures of Wayland's Smithy near Uffington, noting it as my favourite. She asked if I was an expert, to which I replied, "No, but a keen enthusiast."

As dusk set in, the underestimatedly busy road that runs through the village gained more traffic, with the passenger of a passing white van deciding that making cow noises at me might be of amusement. The episode prompted a woman, sitting by a tree and enjoying a yoghurt, to note that by and large, 'today was quiet with not many people about.' She spoke of what the site meant to her, especially in terms of the ley lines. My recognition of the significance of these ensured our conversation, which of course was a delight from the norm of town living, where talk might gear towards the management of traffic and local affairs. Again, as with previous visits, my thoughts turned to what might yet be a retirement in such a place.

Soonafter, the reluctance to leave set in with the onset of dusk, but safe in the knowledge that any visit to this place is but an hour away. The visit was more about the experience of sharing thoughts and tales with fellow travellers, as authentic and in the style of Chaucer, welcoming to all, from both near and far. Surely something more attuned to the initial premise of Avebury, where the spirit of community and gathering still resides in this pocket of the world.

Cock Marsh (Barrow / Cairn Cemetery)

27th March 2017

A recent revelation, hidden in plain sight. I had long suspected this to be a Bronze Age round barrow, with a planned trip to the Thames side bar The Bounty providing the perfect opportunity to investigate further.

Research reveals no less than 30 such burial mounds on Cock Marsh, although a cursory look showed three distinct mounds, the eye drawn to the largest and framed by a magnificent rolling hill in the background.

The hill is best accessed from the back gate of The Bounty, where you can witness a glorious sunset. The distance from the pub to the largest mound can be deceptive, as has been learned from the inevitable running games from the pub gate to the mound and back.

Atop the mound, look south to the right of the hill to see two of the smaller mounds. My recent trip revealed a discarded pint glass which I collected and returned to the pub, an inconsideration given that the marsh also doubles as a grazing field for cattle. The mound top has a considerable earthy divot, perhaps from a combination of excavation (an 1874-1877 exploration revealed finds of flint tools, animal bones, a cremation urn and pottery), and the occasional camp fire by an unwitting visitor. Given the Bronze Age tradition of capping such barrows in chalk, one is given to think that these mounds were more practical than for show and prestige.

All the same, a great find and food for thought to those in the know.

Wayland's Smithy (Long Barrow)

14th March 2013.

For all my frequent trips to Uffington, Wayland's Smithy is an oft-missed destination. I've always viewed the area like a theme park of the ancient world. No matter how determined, you never really get to go on all the rides.

This time round, the delights of the Ridgeway and Wayland's Smithy were top on the list and the first thing I made for. The journey along Britain's oldest road was contemplative and inspiring enough, with the arrival at the Smithy a just reward for such pilgrimage.

My decision to go in the early afternoon on a weekday was well placed. With most folk at work I had the chance to soak in the Smithy's charm undisturbed. Free from the click of cameras and excitable children jumping up and down on the capstone.

The Smithy is a monument that commands respect. Four stone guardians stand watch over the entrance to the inner sanctum, flanked by a horseshoe of trees. To clamber at will over the monument doesn't seem right; one has to be invited to cross the threshold and experience the Smithy's secrets.

Once I'd perceived permission was given, I discovered a new secret as I passed the gateway into the cruciform chamber. An arrangement of wild flowers lay in the middle of the terminal chamber, no doubt an offering from another pilgrim who arrived before me.

It wasn't the only gift. On closer inspection, I noticed a number of coins inserted in the crevices of the pock-marked sarsen standing left to the entrance. The legend of Wayland sprang to mind, with visitors perhaps asking the smith to shod their wishes in place of the traditional horse. I left a similar offering of my own in a free space, before standing back to regard the Smithy one last time before heading back up the Ridgeway.

In the tranquility of the moment, it was almost as if I heard the Smithy speak. "Don't leave it so long next time," it said. And on such a similar well-placed day in the future, I won't.

Avebury (Circle henge)

7th September 2012.

Today marks a return to Avebury after a lengthy absence of 30 years or so. I've been assured that I visited as a child, but the experience must've been lost on so young a mind, unable to appreciate the cultural and historical significance of the stones.

Today is different. And what a day to attend - without a cloud in the sky and a host of visitors equally keen to experience the stones. Where such large numbers might prove to be a hinderance at tourist hotspots such as Stonehenge, here things are different. All have gathered for quiet and happy contemplation, giving space to others and a smile to those whose paths they cross. Here, you can walk among the stones and touch them, an experience not lost to those who do so.

The overall mood is one of welcome, the stones offering shade to sheep tired of the midday sun. Despite the cruelties suffered by generations intent on destroying the stones for religious propaganda or to build homes, Avebury stands proud, her toothless grin possibly as charming as her once full smile, one which the mind can only imagine.

In comparison to the energy and freedom offered by a stroll among the stones, the nearby National Trust centre is a stifling experience - with overpriced stale scones and attendants barking at visitors to show their passes, or touting membership of the organisation. For those looking for an untainted experience, the centre is best avoided in favour of researching Avebury before or after your visit - and of course, by strolling among the stones.

My next visit will be so much sooner than 30 years, perhaps even in the next few days while the weather holds. For a fleeting visit offers only a fraction of the mystery held by Avebury and I look forward to exploring it in greater detail.

Stonehenge Cursus Group (Barrow / Cairn Cemetery)

13th June 2012.

Equally as impressive as Stonehenge were the sight of barrow graves on the horizon as far as the eye could see.

I was saddened to see the lack of interest from tourists in the final resting place of tribal kings of old, but their indifference was my gain as I and occasional souls explored the Cursus.

I found it to be a peaceful respite from the chatter and commercial nature of Stonehenge. Sitting atop on a barrow, one can easily imagine what it was like before the arrival of roads, car parks and coaches. It seems there is a greater sense of energy to be found here than in the famed stones.

I've made a short film that details my time at the Cursus and Stonehenge. I hope you enjoy it.

http://vimeo.com/44015288
Likes words. A lot.

My TMA Content: