We walked from Dorchester to Abbotsbury, first heading out to see Maiden Castle and then down to meet the South Dorset Ridgeway.
It was, to be honest, a very long walk.
Seems in Hardy’s time Maiden Castle was still known as Mai Dun, or big hill. Or perhaps he was just showing off.
Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via—for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire—to a distance of two or three miles… —Mayor of Casterbridge
It was big, extraordinary, everything promised by English Heritage and one of the few hill forts still in use when the Romans arrived here and conquered it in 43 BC.
Maiden Castle in Dorset is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe – the size of 50 football pitches. Its huge multiple ramparts, mostly built in the 1st century BC, once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape.
Excavations here have revealed much about Maiden Castle’s history, such as a Neolithic enclosure from about 3500 BC and a Roman temple built in the 4th century AD. The archaeologists also found evidence of a late Iron Age cemetery, where many of those buried had suffered horrific injuries.
We continued on to the South Dorset Ridgeway. The photographs show the beauty of it, but hardly do justice to the weight and feeling of both Mai Dun and the many barrows that cluster here as you stand and look out across the landscape. In the camera views, they are barely visible. Even Mai Dun, which circles the whole of the hill in the first few pictures hardly seems there, far less so the mounds of earth and chalk weathered now, and covered with grass and wildflowers.
Yet many barrows sit along the ridgeway. It is thought that perhaps this liminal space of the journey grew in its importance to the Bronze age people who lived here, connected as it may have been to the movement from life to death and resulting in the many barrows that line this ancient track as they do that around Avebury. But barrows are everywhere, along the tops of many hills, and down in the middle of fields… it is a sacred landscape that is hard to capture through a lens.
An incredible place to walk however. Mai Dun remains visible on the horizon for a long time, and the many barrows appear and then fall away with more always ahead.
We even found a handy barrow guide at the Hardy monument–not built for the author but for Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, Flag Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I’m not sure how many times Mark said ‘kiss me Hardy’.
I was only there for the barrows. For the Hell Stone (a completely misguided Victorian creation using ancient stones, but still, ancient stones) and the Hampton stone circle (so overgrown you can barely see any of the stones, and that we would have missed without the OS map).
But I do know Abbotsbury never looked so beautiful, and not just due to hunger and sore feet. Coming down from the Ridgeway it is stunning, settled as it is at the base of the hill with Chesil Beach and the sea behind it.
“What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!” said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. “It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.”
Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge—at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs—in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.
To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.
—The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
Casterbridge is in fact Dorchester, and perhaps it is not quite as it was in Hardy’s day, but yet it is not all that different either. It no longer is bounded by mathematical line, but continues quite compact and quite beautiful from afar, as seen from the top of Maiden Castle. It is still a similar mosaic-work of colour framed by green.
Its main museum was lovely, particularly the welcome from staff and the Roman section of mosaic, the first I have ever walked over. Gives you chills that does. It had a truly splendid selection of artifacts from the Neolithic through the bronze age and into Roman times. I was full to overflowing with the weight of history having just read Ray & Thomas’s Neolithic Britain, which I can’t really recommend highly enough. This made it extra exciting to see the Newton Peverill jadeite axe, an impossibly beautiful object brought to Britain almost 6000 years ago from the Italian Alps. Also amazing to see some of the objects excavated from the many Bronze Age barrows clustered here along and around the Southern ridgeway, though some had been borrowed by the British Museum. Given its embarrassment of looted riches, that hardly seemed fair.
Two other favourites:
Again, as Hardy writes in Mayor of Casterbridge:
Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years. He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm, a fibula or brooch of bronze on his breast or forehead, an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by.
This still feels almost true as well — we had also gone to see the Roman Town House that sits just the other side of the Council buildings along the old Roman wall.
And from there on to Max Gate. I hadn’t known Thomas Hardy was an architect and came from a family of builders — he designed this house and his brother built it in 1885.
I quite loved it, as I loved the guided tour and the stories of his reclusiveness, his dog Wessex who bit all of his guests, but also to my mind unforgivably, his poor servants. The visits from W.B. Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson (his visitors that I liked). The ‘druid’s stone’ as he called it, that was in fact part of a stone circle surrounding the house, though Hardy never knew it. And the room in which he wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.
Not to be confused with the large and beautiful sudy he built when he had more money, and in which he spent the rest of his days writing poetry and harassing the gardener.
We saw the plaque to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and saddened but I suppose not surprised to see the pub across the way named for Judge Jeffreys rather than for them. And the ancient henge of Maumbury Ring, converted by the Romans into an amphitheatre for gladitorial games, later a place of defense in the English Civil War, and a place for hangings. Hardy describes its use a place of assignations, but only sad ones:
The Ring at Casterbridge was merely the local name of one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.
The Amphitheatre was a huge circular enclosure, with a notch at opposite extremities of its diameter north and south. From its sloping internal form it might have been called the spittoon of the Jötuns. It was to Casterbridge what the ruined Coliseum is to modern Rome, and was nearly of the same magnitude. The dusk of evening was the proper hour at which a true impression of this suggestive place could be received. Standing in the middle of the arena at that time there by degrees became apparent its real vastness, which a cursory view from the summit at noon-day was apt to obscure. Melancholy, impressive, lonely, yet accessible from every part of the town, the historic circle was the frequent spot for appointments of a furtive kind. Intrigues were arranged there; tentative meetings were there experimented after divisions and feuds. But one kind of appointment—in itself the most common of any—seldom had place in the Amphitheatre: that of happy lovers.
Why, seeing that it was pre-eminently an airy, accessible, and sequestered spot for interviews, the cheerfullest form of those occurrences never took kindly to the soil of the ruin, would be a curious inquiry. Perhaps it was because its associations had about them something sinister. Its history proved that. Apart from the sanguinary nature of the games originally played therein, such incidents attached to its past as these: that for scores of years the town-gallows had stood at one corner; that in 1705 a woman who had murdered her husband was half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators. Tradition reports that at a certain stage of the burning her heart burst and leapt out of her body, to the terror of them all, and that not one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that. In addition to these old tragedies, pugilistic encounters almost to the death had come off down to recent dates in that secluded arena, entirely invisible to the outside world save by climbing to the top of the enclosure, which few townspeople in the daily round of their lives ever took the trouble to do. So that, though close to the turnpike-road, crimes might be perpetrated there unseen at mid-day.
Some boys had latterly tried to impart gaiety to the ruin by using the central arena as a cricket-ground. But the game usually languished for the aforesaid reason—the dismal privacy which the earthen circle enforced, shutting out every appreciative passer’s vision, every commendatory remark from outsiders—everything, except the sky; and to play at games in such circumstances was like acting to an empty house. Possibly, too, the boys were timid, for some old people said that at certain moments in the summer time, in broad daylight, persons sitting with a book or dozing in the arena had, on lifting their eyes, beheld the slopes lined with a gazing legion of Hadrian’s soldiery as if watching the gladiatorial combat; and had heard the roar of their excited voices, that the scene would remain but a moment, like a lightning flash, and then disappear. It was related that there still remained under the south entrance excavated cells for the reception of the wild animals and athletes who took part in the games. The arena was still smooth and circular, as if used for its original purpose not so very long ago.
The sloping pathways by which spectators had ascended to their seats were pathways yet. But the whole was grown over with grass, which now, at the end of summer, was bearded with withered bents that formed waves under the brush of the wind, returning to the attentive ear Æolian modulations, and detaining for moments the flying globes of thistledown.
But it is clear that Hardy quite loved this town. He writes:
Casterbridge was the complement of the rural life around, not its urban opposite. Bees and butterflies in the cornfields at the top of the town, who desired to get to the meads at the bottom, took no circuitous course, but flew straight down High Street without any apparent consciousness that they were traversing strange latitudes. And in autumn airy spheres of thistledown floated into the same street, lodged upon the shop fronts, blew into drains, and innumerable tawny and yellow leaves skimmed along the pavement, and stole through people’s doorways into their passages with a hesitating scratch on the floor, like the skirts of timid visitors.
We saw the cathedral long before we reached Ripon the first day. We emerged from our visit to Fountains Abbey and the water gardens up to the long road out of the estate. The cathedral massed there straight ahead of us on the horizon, a shining presence of stone.
It looked like we could walk straight there, I wanted to. Signs warned against this however. Private road, private property. We had to turn left. We never got to see the cathedral quite like this again.
But in our short time in Ripon we saw it countless times, from many angles. It stands tall on its hill, an oddly solid weight of stone trying to soar. Staring up at the great main face of it praised by Pevsner, it feels almost like a different building altogether. Razed to the ground several times over its 1300 years of history, the power of kings and church rebuilt it reincorporating old patterns–built it higher, bigger, but never finished it. No flying buttresses support its rising. A beautiful wood roof arches over the nave and quire in a still immense echoing of cathedral space that made my heart sing.
A small group of riotous monks moved to this valley of the Ure, expelled from the Benedictine abbey of York in 1132. Joining the Cistercian order shortly thereafter, they built the abbey low and sheltered in these hills, folding their religious beliefs into the stones and their humility before God into the landscape. It lies almost invisible until you are directly upon it.
I don’t think you can really see this aspect of it unless you walk there, as others did long ago. Even from How Hill, once a Saxon pilgrimage spot itself and now a substantial sort of folly, the abbey’s great tower is all that can be seen and looks simply like a parish church. I did not believe what I saw could possibly be the abbey. I have no picture in that direction, preferring the light playing across the rounded hills to the east, and the flocks of birds white against the dark earth being ploughed.
January 4th, our last day of holiday, an impossibly beautiful day of snow and glorious sun. This amazing train ride on the Settle Carlisle Railway through the Dales and into the hills, and a walk to see a stone circle and an incredible saxon cross. Lovely, sparkling.
Such a splendid walk today, although we weren’t sure about weather. The wind had finally died down, but we left the cottage in a fine drizzle to catch the train down to Settle. An incredible breakfast at the Naked Man Cafe and straight up the hills.
The sun graced us, lighting up the world below.
It only appeared now and then, but drew extraordinary colours out of land and sky. Blues I have never seen and clouds like feathers that touched the earth.
But of course there is still much continuity. Many graves were built on top of older graves, into older graves. The last identifiable act of deposit into the Avebury henge ditch probably took place in the first quarter of the 2nd millenium, and it contained worked flints, sherds of vessels in two fabrics, a sheep/goat metatarsal and a carved chalk ball. I love these miscellaneous sacred items identified more with the earlier period and a very different system of value…because of course people will continue their traditions, will have memories of older ways. I wonder what this change felt like.
Individuals were now buried, not left to become fragments of bone in a collective tomb. Several of them were buried crouched at the base of the standing stones with bowls and beakers.
Burials in such locations could have been undertaken with full respect for earlier sacred traditions for which these monuments stood. But whether intended or not, these actions did bring about a change in meanings. Certain monuments were becoming ‘personalised’, in the sense that they now had close contextual relationships with particular individuals or social groups. (129)
Thus we have the beginning of round barrow mounds for 1 to 12 people. There are over 300 in the Avebury area, and having walked so many miles of it they are the most distinctive apart from Silbury hill. But even the giant mound of Silbury is oddly hidden, only visible here and there in this great rolling landscape. Here it is peeking above the horizon in the dead centre between the barrows.
Barrows line the hills, particularly along the ridgeway. Left unplowed amidst the vast arable, they are now even more visible as stands of trees, but still they would have been distinct across the horizon in ways in few long barrows were.
Here the Overton hill barrows without trees:
Few of them are wealthy individuals, only one such ‘Wessex’ burial has been found of an older woman with gold and bronze. Pollard and Reynolds write:
The peripheral situation of the Manton Barow in relation to Avebury might even bespeak of the unacceptability of ostentatious funerary displays in the zone surrounding the earlier monument complex. (134)
I know others have noted this shift from an openness and collective humility to a hierarchical display. Carolyn Merchant, for example, writes of it as taken for granted in the collection I’m working through now, Uncommon Ground. Still, to experience the materiality of this in such a place is quite something.
These stands of trees are quite beautiful.
Much has also been written, of course, about how this hierarchy connects to permanence in the landscape, and we begin to see extensive field systems and the establishment of permanent settlements on Marlborough Downs. These do not encroach on older neolithic sites and archaeologists have encountered few remains there. This is also the time of hill forts, which include Oliver’s Castle, Oldbury, Rybury and the Martinesell/Giant’s Grave complex, but we remain unsure what they really mean. Oldbury at least was occupied, but Cherhill Down where it sits had been occupied on and off since the Mesolithic. This is the one we visited but there is little left beyond a hint of ditch. A good sign about livestock though.
The builders oriented all houses and barrows south-easterly.
Marlborough Downs have a patchwork of old systems that we struggled a bit to see ourselves, but have been subject to extensive excavation and documentation.
It seems to have become an oppidum or regional centre, but by the arrival of the Romans, this was most likely ‘a bit of a backwater‘. There is much here about the shifting fortune of place.
The Romans (43-450AD)
Their material culture appeared before them — arriving over a century before the conquest of Claudius. Likewise it seems that the ‘the influence of Late Iron Age tribal geography upon the Roman administrative districts is probably considerable‘ (150). This area seems to have remained a bit of a backwater, though villas and settlements are known to have been built at Windmill Hill, East Kennett, Cherhill, Oldbury among others, with a small town at the foot of Silbury Hill. A number of settlements were tied to the Ridgeway, while others sat alongside the Roman road of ‘Yatesbury lane’. They form a highly ordered landscape, through alternation between cultivation and pasture. Though I like the note that their domestic waste was spread across fields (hence the scatter of shards and things) so not too orderly.
We traveled the old Roman road for a way.
It runs into the A4 at Silbury, it’s interesting that that is where the Romans chose to settle. We climbed Waden Hill, and there is nothing left now to see.
It’s interesting thinking about how culture shifts and hybridises — and the nature of the relationships between one people and another. The Romans started building barrows too, and potentially started leaving coins and votive offerings at older long barrows. Of these ‘hoards’ it is hard to tell what was hidden, what lost, what sacramental. They also seem to have built a temple on Overton Hill inside of the hillfort, this continuity of religious spaces is well known elsewhere. They remained occupying the land until a generation into the fifth century. But I still wonder quite who ‘they’ were. They couldn’t have been all Roman or all Celt, couldn’t have had a completely unified culture. We look backwards and see so little.
The Anglo-Saxons (450-1100)
Avebury apparently initially flourished under the Anglo-Saxons and much has been excavated but little published (by 2006, I didn’t look up papers, they are often too much for me). The hillforts were probably first defended by the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, and then some like Oldbury Castle later reoccupied. But there is this incredible structure — the Wansdyke, a great earthwork I had never heard of.
Watts writes that Wansdyke was probably built by the Britons to keep out the Saxons advance from the north in the late 5th century, that it probably existed by 778 as the quaddum vallum mentioned in a charter, and it is described again in 825 as the Ealden Dic (Old Dyke).
L.V. Grinsell described the Wansdyke as ‘…one of the most spectacular experiences in British field archaeology‘ (as quoted in Watts). I probably agree (though my experience is limited).
Here it crests the horizon:
This part of Wiltshire seemed almost always to have a strange haze, but even on warm yet grey day, the Wansdyke is a spectacular walk. We found it again in West Woods, but there it is diminished…
Watts argues it would have in the end been taken by the Saxon advance from the south under Cynric and Ceawlin in the 6th century. He also mentions the strategic point where the dyke crosses the Ridgeway, known as Red Shore. We walked through this point without realising. Gah. Perhaps because we were looking ahead to the great long barrow known as Adam’s Grave against the sky.
This is the site of at least one, probably more battles but it is those between the West Saxons and the ‘Upper Thames Saxons’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 592 describing that ‘In this year there was a great slaughter at Adam’s Grave, and Ceawlin was expelled’ by Ceolwulf. He died the following year, and Wessex was then ruled by Ceol. (As quoted in Watts, p 63). There was a second battle there in 715 between Ine and Ceolred.
The Saxons developed a new public way alongside the Roman Road (Yatesbury road) and the Ridgeway. It is called the herepath, or Green St, now known as the Wessex Way — also a lovely way to walk.
They built a settlement using the henge as a part of the defense, and possibly also used the henge to keep livestock at need. There seems to have been a minster here, making this a clear centre yet ultimately Avebury diminished. Pollard and Reynolds write:
it is possible to suggest that Avebury is a failed small-town of later ninth- or tenth- to early eleventh-century date (Reynolds 2001b). (207)
Damn. Apparently failed towns are a new area of research, and the more I think about it the more I see why…
This is an area of open-field (planned, champagne) countryside, which generally started around the 10th century — but it is hard to know quite when it happened here. The Overton charters reference headland, furlongs and yardland. No charter exists for the area of Avebury however. Saxon graves were inserted into the barrows on Overton hill, which was common practice among those not converted to Christianity.
There was also the execution field. They write
On a clear day, if one looks due south from in front of the Red Lion public house at Avebury, the location of the gallows can be seen as a faint ‘v’ on the horizon which marks a break in the short stretch of dyke visible from the henge. A human figure is surprisingly discernible, even from such a distance…(233)
We did try it while awaiting our bus back to Swindon, and the henge seems to get in the way…
The henge came into cultivation in 12th and 13th centuries, without seeming to damage the stones, but this changed in the 14th century. Up to 40, and perhaps more, of the stones in both henge and along the avenues were buried, though it is uncertain of over what stretch of time. Another wave came in the 18th century, this time better documented. Some of the stones were burned as well as buried. But why some and not others? There is speculation that it was the division of land into plots, with some owners doing so and others not, which makes sense I think.
There’s one last mad story about a graveyard found at the base of Sanctuary Hill by a Dr Toope, who wrote a letter in 1685 to antiquary John Aubrey about bones having been uncovered by workmen. No evidence has been discovered, but that may be because he removed ‘bushells’ of bones to make medicine.
Also a final observation on today’s parish boundaries still oriented to the neolithic landscape.
Watts also notes however, that parish boundaries in the area tend to cross the Wansdyke, which means they predate its construction, predate the Saxons…rather wondrous.
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 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.
I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
There is so much more of course, a splendid book.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.