Be still my heart. The tower is from the 15th century.
From here we wandered across and down…we crossed over the Monarch’s Way without turning to take it. Once again I found myself wondering if it is cause or correlation that alternative public rights of way and footpaths near these larger routes seem to be too often lost or at best poorly marked. Our route crossed stiles that had all but rotted or fallen away, we forged anew paths across clover or around large fields of wheat, and one footpath and necessary gaps in the brambles were gone altogether. Luckily patience and good humour are our virtues. Most of the time.
Then we saw the tumuli on the skyline.
They are splendid and only visible in this way from this direction really. The Priddy Circles much less so, though they do appear to some extent due to the vegetation growing on them. These bronze age henges are so extraordinary, but difficult to really get a sense of them as there is no access, and instead you must stare at them from the precarious verge of a very busy A road. This was rather unpleasant to walk down, I must confess, but the view worth it. We walked it after a very decent very fairly priced pub luch at the Castle of Comfort, a place that approaches my ideal old country pub and sits at the crossing of the old Roman road between Charterhouse and Old Sarum and the very busy Bristol Road.
But the henges — probably built before Stonehenge, massive, unique in that they have external ditches (much more on them here). The landowner recently tried to bulldoze one, was stopped and fined. This is just one of them, what you can see from the road: There is no high place to overlook them.
But obviously the aerial view is so much better, both for a sense of scale and what is there, or was there before it was bulldozed by Roger Penny. Vandal.
I wish I were an archaeologist let loose on them, but ah well. We continued up to the tumuli we saw on the skyline, these you can walk right up to. And from them you can look to a second skyline of tumuli, these are the Nine Priddy Barrows.
As you approach them those you have just left behind you begin to disappear.
A deer bounded away as we walked alongside them, and then continued alongside fields rosy with red shank. No signs seemed to remain of the last tumuli marked on our map along this route. Since we walked the Ridgeway near Avebury I have been thinking about the meaning of these shapes and the approaches required to experience them powerfully against the sky, the lines of sight from them, what this means for how people lived and died ad lived with death itself, and how they traveled this landscape. The question, possibly not a fair one I know, of why these barrows do not sit just a little further along where the world suddenly drops away and you can see all the way to Glastonbury Tor and even to the estuary.
Perhaps something was here once, but it seems the great sacred landscape around the village of Priddy, which still has much for us to explore, was chosen for other reasons.
We walked down to Wookey Hole and then to Wells to catch that same 376 bus back to Bristol. Other sights? Fair Lady Well. An enormous and most wonderful emperor moth caterpillar suddenly on my shoelaces after we stepped off the path to let some dogwalkers get by. Fields of wheat. A giant bat. The Miners Rest, a memory of a once industrial landscape of coal and lead mining stretching to the Romans and even further back. Ancient trees. Fairy rings. Last but not least, a new blue plaque celebrating Edgar Wright at his old school in Wells. High five.
Our first day, a lovely bright summer day. We were so very lucky with the weather. Not so lucky in other ways maybe. This would have been so much better split into two, not least because we found out at the end that the trains have been on strike every Sunday and we had a last three miles to walk (16 miles…my poor partner). The loop up from Newtonmore was the best and I wish we had started there to walk further up the Glen, though Gynack Burn out of Kingussie is quite lovely.
Gynack Burn is, of course, the falling water that the Duke of Gordon planned to harness to his industrialising schemes, powering factories for flour, wool and linen. One mill still stands — now The Cross, a most lovely, delicious (and expensive) restaurant that I recommend highly. But up the burn you can see worked walls of stone that once served as dams, attempts to wrest power from the water.
Geese everywhere. Big. Mean. Angry. The collective noun is supposed to be a gaggle, in flight it is a skein a team a wedge a plump. None of these terms capture the absolute terror of geese protecting their young on a narrow canal path. Hissing bastards. Look at its tongue, my god:
We got past these but not the next. Four hissing adults square in the middle, a bunch of heedless goslings along the far edge. Maybe if we still had some of our pies left, but no. We beat a retreat. Less than a mile to go around, and we didn’t mind that the older gent and his young grandson we warned about them on our way back got past without a problem (the geese had obviously taken to the water, or they are as afraid of small boys as we are). I got this picture though, probably didn’t mean much to Mark, but it was a win for me. I love these contrasts of Victorian/Edwardian industrial architecture.
We took the train to Disley, and from there walked over to Lyme and back again. A glorious walk, highly recommended.
Lyme is, of course, the house used as the outside of Pemberley. Pemberley! The home of not just any Mr Darcy but of Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Oh my days.
I saw Pride and Prejudice for the first time in 1998. I lived in LA, alone, just off Sunset, in a tiny studio in a back second floor of an old apartment building. The front faced Los Globos (Los Globos! Cabron, que lugar but still not as bad as the bar just across sunset with its incredibly large women in incredibly little clothing who were playing pool and killed me with their eyes the one time I walked in one Sunday afternoon trying to find somewhere to watch the World Cup).
This particular night a woman was off her meds or on the wrong ones or enjoying some kind of crazy cocktail in the dirt parking area, started screaming and screaming at someone in the building. Started throwing rocks. I looked out just to see it was just her, if she was all right (I mean, as all right as she could be) and she seemed to be so I didn’t think there was much to do. But she saw me looking and then started screaming at me. Awful. I debated getting the manager but thought surely someone else had already tried. A huge rock came through the window, almost hit me, scattered glass across the bed. Still screaming but the shattering glass must have got through to her she needed to leave. Good thing, because the manager made me call the police for the insurance on the window. They took hours to arrive of course, she had plenty of time to get away, and did nothing but fill out the report.
Another escape onto the moors as lockdown eases. Still glorious. Today was an effort to do better than our last attempt at these particular moors, walking from the station Buxton. That was a grim, cold walk and no mistake, and a closed pub at the end of it. I almost cried.
This was a beautiful sunny day, we sat on a wall eating pasties and taking in a view of the now-open Crescent Hotel (I rather fancy staying there when things open again), bought ice cream as we walked through the Pavilion Gardens. My last memory of it I was tired, hungry and bedraggled. And there were mummers. I never know what I think about them. But no mummers today.
This was lovely, a bit long to get out of Buxton maybe, but then a swift climb up hill, over an old rail line, and up where you feel on top of the world. Across the hills in sun and shadow. A brief encounter with a geezer in a tweed waistcoat, awesome. The lovely blue waters of the reservoir. The ruins of Errwood hall and a brief wish we’d arrived a little later to see the hillside of rhododendrons in full bloom. Exhausted stumble into Whaley Bridge. Home.
We started in Rochdale — I like Rochdale a great deal though austerity feels like a knife here. It has cut so deep, you can see the pain of it. But this was the best walk we’ve done in a long time, up from the tram station to Healey Dell which is an extraordinarily beautiful place.
Of course to get to it, you have to pass a ruined asbestos factory left to sit here empty, enormous, poisonous.
You are warned by signs that this land is still not entirely safe, even where it seems to have returned to the wild.
But then you come to the nature reserve proper, walk along the old railway line and to the beautiful viaduct over the Spodden.
At its base sits Th’Owd Mill I’Thrutch, a fulling mill built in 1676 by the Chadwick family to process woolen cloth until the late 19th Century. Signs tell you:
Originally the cloth was soaked in a concoction of water. stale urine, soapwort, and Fullers Earth. Workers pounded it by foot; just like treading grapes. In 1863 the process became mechanised using steam power, when a boiler house and chimney were built.
There is very little left of it.
You remember once again that this period of industrialisation was not urban. It scattered along rivers like these, a network now of evocative and beautiful ruins along the river banks of the north in places like Lumsdale Valley, Cromford and New Mills. The waterfalls here are splendid things, and the boundaries in this nature preserve are confused between the natural flow of water and that channeled to service the early industrial revolution before the advent of steam. Steam changed everything, lies beneath the short and desperate lives of workers, the terrifying urbanisation of cities like Manchester.
You continue up the Spodden, then walk down a narrow stairway, ears full of water’s crashing to stand looking out upon this and the stones witness to water’s own force for moulding and shaping the world as it passes.
Even here we could not escape Covid-19, the conspiracy theories that swirl around it. COVID-19 PLANNED BY GOVERNMENT written across all the bins…as if we had a government that could plan anything at all.
From here we climbed up to Rooley Moor to meet the Cotton Famine Road. A cobbled road built across the moors by unemployed cotton workers, who sided with the abolitionist cause during the American Civil War. In solidarity with slaves, while also creating employment for themselves, they successfully campaigned for the passage of the 1863 Public Works Act.
I wanted more moors, more space, more air to breathe before going home, but it was getting late and the miles piling up. So instead of following this yellow brick road we headed back down to Healey Dell, back down into Rochdale. Home.
I am backdating this to the day we saw we came to this beautiful place but writing this late (maybe late, who knows how late) in lockdown (25 May). I long for a beach, air, space, emptiness, woods, trains, travels, pubs, new things.
A cold, windy day of great dark clouds and blue sky, we hoped to find the beach empty. The older I get, the emptier I like my beaches. Formby was surprisingly full of people along much of the beach itself, but for the most part spread across the long horizon’s sweeps like Lowry figures. But in the glorious dunes there were few people, and the bright sun and deep shadow showed the beauty of low wind carved hills.
Across wet hard-packed beach the wind swept wide rivers of dry sand, swiftly racing undulations of changing currents and rivulets that stung against my shins.
We saw many dogs with joy quivering in every bound and wet shake.
People did fill the woods, one of the last places that red squirrels can still be seen. We did not see red squirrels, only a notice that we might encounter them dead or dying among the pines of squirrel pox. Devastating on many levels.
Nor did we comb the waters edge as the tide ebbed out for the prehistoric footsteps, not knowing that was the only place they could be seen. I’m still a little heartbroken about that. Walking to Formby from the train we missed the informational boards positioned for the passengers of cars, but even for them it wasn’t all that clear.
I loved that this was also a productive landscape, a world of small holding (or so it was once) and asparagus beds — ah, asparagus! How I love asparagus. There is a plaque for the Aindow family, a rare local name. The plaque tells us:
William Aindow… with his brothers Ellis and Douglas and sister Joan, he leveled new fields next to Victoria Wood. The Aindows also grew asparagus on part of Pine Tree farm and a long pointed strip of land next to Jubilee Wood called tongue sharp piece! It was here they had their sheds ad a couple of caravans where they stayed during the main asparagus season.
Horses were used on the Aindows’ farm into the 1990s. The narrow drills suited horse cultivation and the horse would move between the ridges without damage to the roots of the asparagus plant. When the ridges were formed by tractor cultivation, they tended to be wider. It wasn’t always easy to plough or harrow with a tractor o the sand because of the risk of getting stuck, especially when the sand was dry.
The ridges of their fields can be seen here:
A splendid walk, if cold and the wind, well the wind was really something.
So lovely and that place where Yeats once lived in a lovely white cottage overlooking the water and where once upon a time Molly said yes I do yes I will yes or something rather close to that, but no one knows just where…thank god, or they’d commodify that too. It was full of birds and wildflowers and stick men blithely walking off of cliffs and long moments of silence and being alone in the wind and the rain. But also much of the time tourists and Dublin youth dressed like it was 1984.
This part of Wiltshire is best know for expansive chalkland, a scatter of sarsens across the landscape. Also called ‘greywethers’, they are ‘the only remainders of the Eocene here; pockets of hard sand originally set within a softer and easily-weathered matrix’ (Pollard & Reynolds 14). We sought them out in their natural habitat.
Watts (1993) writes that before the sarsen cutters depleted them for local building, they could be used as stepping stones from Delling to Clatford. They were being squared off and sold up through 1938, the last cartloads going by barge along the Avon-Kennet canal to Windsor castle. It was a dangerous occupation, and cutters died young of silicosis and exposed on the hillsides. Curiously they don’t all split easily, and many were attempted and then left.
Of course, it was those placed here in Neolithic times that I cared most about.
This place was being used long before then, a stop over for the people of the Mesolithic — Cherwell hill was used as an ongoing camp at least, a place people stayed off and on. Earlier archeologists spouted theories left and right but seems that we are more and more reluctant to commit ourselves to any one defined belief of how people moved across the landscape in these prehistoric days. The record tells us little.
There are more signs of occupation from the Early Neolithic (4000-3000 BC), we walked near to the Roughridge pits, which mark the beginnings of creating monuments in this landscape that still remain. They were followed by two long mounds, one at least covered several burials and was constructed within sight of the Roughridge settlement.
The creation of monuments has been seen as symptomatic of new attitudes to place, landscape and the natural world (Bradley 1993,1998). Their construction served to ‘alter the earth’ in a way rarely seen during the Mesolithic, creating permanent landscape features that marked socially and mythically important places… (29)
At this time it was a ‘treescape’ rather than open downs, and trees are described as sources of food fuel and timber, but also ways to hold memory within their clearings. In some ways we can know so little, but science has brought improved ability to trace people’s passage through the underlying geology of their food (crikey), and they traveled fairly large distances. One such study shows that a woman buried with three children at Monkton-up-Wimbourne had originally most likely lived in the Mendips 80 km away, traveled to Cranborne Chase and gave birth to two children. She returned to the Mendips to give birth to the third, then returned to Cranborne Chase.
But mostly we look still to what has been buried, preserved. Evidence of settlements like Hemp Hill in carefully dug pits where objects have been buried though the structures people lived in were fleeting and have left no trace. Archaeologists believe such pits, some colour coded through soil and pottery in dark and light, marked a link, an attachment with places. They describe a certain ‘persistence of place‘ (cf Barton et al 1995), a regular returning to familiar spaces (40). I like too archaeological descriptions of their lack of imprint on the earth beyond their monuments, which ‘seem so permanent and enduring compared with the ephemeral settings of routine existence that Barrett has spoken of Neolithic life as ‘a process of becoming, a movement towards a future state which was described by reference to ancestors or to gods and where life might be spoken of as ephemeral‘ (1994, 136 p 45).
I’m not certain what I think of that, but both the sentence and the life thus lived have a certain poetry.
This is a map of Neolithic presence in Avebury’s landscape.
Windmill Hill is perhaps the most significant monument over time in this landscape. We did not get here somehow, the timings and circuits were not right, but we did see it from over the path of West Kennet Avenue.
On Windmill Hill lies the greatest early Neolithic monument — a great oval enclosure enclosing nearly 8.5 ha. Bronze Age burial mounds cut into it. This hill, along with Knap Hill and Rybury also offer beautiful vistas across a country, which when wooded would have offered few such. There are various theories about the enclosures’ connection with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture and that it represents a lost communal longhouse. There is greater consensus that such a structure is an act of enclosing space, setting it apart, surely of symbolic significance. What I love most though, is that this enclosure is not complete.
The permeability of the enclosure created by the broken sections of ditch implies a lack of concern with exclusion, of people, animals or things, allowing access and egress from many directions. This and other evidence, such as the occurrence of many different pottery styles, some in non-local clays, indicates the participation of large numbers and a range of people in activities at the site (Whittle et al 1999) (50)
It was also filled with animal burials.
We did get to Knap Hill it is splendid, the views above all as there is very little to be seen.
It stands across from a hill with a great long barrow on it — Adam’s Grave. This belongs to the period that follows those of the great enclosures. A number of these were built, more than have survived. They were
‘deliberately sited on locations that had witnessed earlier activity; as such they ‘elaborated upon a landscape which was already composed of significant locations, whether natural landmarks or places associated with particular events or practices’ (Thomas, 1999, 203 quoted on 59).
Many of them are located on vegetational or soil boundaries. Adam’s Grave is the one with the greatest view, here from below:
And here looking over to Knap Hill. This whole escarpment was wondrous looking out over the Pewsey Valley. The Saxons would fight long and hard over this, but more on that later.
West Kennet was the largest long barrow, used like the others for burials of fragments of bone over time. Both West Kennet and Adam’s Grave also contained oolitic limestone, which contrasts white with the grey stone, and had to be brought here from Frome-Bath-Atworth region.
The Later Neolithic period (3000-2400 BC) saw continued use of these areas — a continuity of memory. West Kennet barrow for instance, remained a focus of continued mortuary deposits and then became a repository for an infill of chalk, bone and other materials — but a purposeful one, with contrasting materials in different areas. They don’t make too much of these contrasts but I find them quite significant. They are not all on hills, we found this one in the West Woods covered in bluebells, obscured by saplings.
This is a period when the land was opening up, not so wooded but no evidence of cultivation until the end of the third millenium BC.
This is when Avebury stone circle was built. Deposits of worked flint, pottery, fragments of bone and skull at the bases of the greywethers. Pollard & Reynolds argue it should be seen as a continuation of whatever belief system underlay the enclosures of Windmill Hill, Rybury and Knapp Hill. Built on is it is, it is almost impossible to get a sense of the whole. It is experienced now in quarters, in bits and pieces created by the road.
A map of Avebury and its remaining stones without the village and the road driven through it.
The people here built additional structures at Beckhampton, West Kennet Palisades, the Sanctuary. Avenues connected Beckhampton and the Sanctuary (2.4 k) with Avebury, though almost nothing remains of them. That from the Sanctuary contains a sudden jog as it comes to it’s final third before Avebury — possibly to ensure a turn and then the monument opening up before you. This avenue was also laid out to cross an older occupation site, and a gap was left in its western wedge where it crossed the densest part of the old settlement. Pollard and Reynolds write:
The Avebury avenues brought together disparate places of significance in the landscape, creating connections not only between different parts of the landscape, but, because those places often had long histories of activity, between the past and the present. (105)
Nothing remains now of the Sanctuary but markers showing its complex arrangement of circles of wood and stone. It’s marvelous, and rediscovered by Maud Cunnington, ‘lady’ archaeologist of the 1930s who is never named in the signboards so you never know it was a woman running these early digs, yet who excavated a number of these places. This is directly alongside the ridgeway, but sadly also the A4.
The final monument is Silbury Hill — the largest prehistoric man-made mound in western Europe. MAN-MADE MOUND. Or human-made mound we should say. They built this, rising 37 m above the valley floor, base diameter of 160 m. Like the middens and infills of different colours, this hill was also made of contrasts. The primary mound at the base of turves brought from elsewhere.
The reasons are all opaque to us, but its presence demands a reason. There is some thought that the wooden constructions like the West Kennet palisades are perhaps versions of the Avebury circles for the living. Silbury hill a transition point. Reading about this landscape I found Silbury Hill perhaps the least interesting but seeing it…
It is extraordinary, and perhaps more so knowing that people are still not sedentary in this landscape. But they soon will be.
A last more detailed map of where we know they might sometimes be found while living, where their dead remained.
Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.
Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.
This was a wopping 17.94 miles before my phone died, and the pub in Lockeridge closed down for refurbishment — so many pubs are gone. We felt the tragedy in a most visceral manner. But Knap Hill, the escarpment over Pewsey Valley was incredible. And the bluebells in Gopher Wood? Some of the loveliest I have ever seen, not to mention the hollow way leading down to Alton Priors. Road not taken…
More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.