Tuesday, 23 December 2008


Do we attract a certain surrealness into our lives, we ask ourselves. Or is it the time of year, the conjunction of the planets or simply the fact that it has always been there and we just notice it at some times more than at others ? Who knows, or indeed cares: it is enough for us that our weekend away in deepest Wiltshire has a good dose of the surreal to increase our enjoyment of the Winter Solstice.

It starts in our Bed and Breakfast Inn, set in a wonderful location: a quiet village which spreads itself out through the surrounding fields. Wherever you stand in this place the sights and smells of agricultural England is all around you. The Inn itself sits very well amongst all of this, as opposed to the (too) many such establishments which have been extended into "family eateries". Financial dictates have changed and many pubs have had to change with them, this cannot be denied, but it is good to come across one which is unspoilt. Better still we are staying in it.

So much for outside of the Inn. Inside is where the surreal starts: we are shown into our room by the landlady who accompanies all of her speech with much wringing of the hands, bows and over-exaggerated smiles. She is wonderful ! Rather like a caricature of Basil Fawlty at his most ingratiating, she is so over the top that it would be impossible to be offended by her insincerity. Our room is so comfortable that we did not feel we were walking into it, more a sensation of melting into it. For the following twelve hours or so this will be our home and it proved to be a perfect escape from the noisy High Street upon which we live. Not even the eccentricities of the en-suite toilet could spoil our night.

If anything the fact that the shit-house declared it's independance when we were on the verge of sleep only gave cause for delight: it was then that we discovered that when the toilet in the room next door was flushed it made ours loudly gurgle and bubble. It was a sound to give rise to images of the Pooh Pooh Monster emerging from the depths of the pan. Being of an age where we have left such childhood fancies behind us such images held no terror. Instead we dissolved into fits of rum soaked giggles whenever it happened. Such was the lullaby that eventually accompanied our drift into the land of nod.

It was also our alarm clock the following morning: it seemed that the folks in the next room were arising early. As this happened shortly before we had intended to be awake anyway, the disturbance was not a problem. It was the start of the shortest day and we were in perfect surroundings to fully appreciate the dawn. Over the field to the left of the Inn an owl was still hunting even as it started getting light. We had this symbol of the night until it's end, at which point the rooks and crows took over the field and announced the daytime with their raucous cries. It was during our waking up process that the en-suite toilet, seemingly in an act of pique at our refusal to take it seriously, became rebellious and refused to flush turds away.

After a cooked breakfast downstairs we packed up to leave the Inn and set off for a days mudhopping. Before we left we paid the landlady, thanked her and then, heading towards the door, informed her about the blocked toilet. It was the least we could do.

Morgans Hill. The birds and beasts had welcomed in our day and then stayed with us through the morning. On our way to Morgans Hill we had diverted off to explore a path on the Marlborough Downs- one of our " where does that leads to ? " moments - and met a hare. Everybody knows that hares can run very fast but this one wanted to show off to us, to make sure that we were fully aware of how fast fast is. It is usual to only get a glimpse of one of these creatures before they bolt for cover: not so this one. We were walking down a grassy track between two fields when it was suddenly there at the side of the field to our right. It took off and ran straight ahead of us, ignoring all cover each side and giving us a good display of speed as it did so. Then there were the starlings and their air show. It is , apparently, rare to see large flocks of these birds nowadays so to have them all around us - at a little over head height - was a treat. The flock would take off from the field and create their dark mass, a shape in the air that constantly fluctuated with changes in direction. At times they seem to disappear entirely for a few seconds as you are looking at their side profile. When they then suddenly bank to swoop around in an arc, it is as if the flock has materialised in the air before you. This is an example of nature at it's most magical and knowing how the magic works does nothing to diminish it's wonder.

Climbing up to the top of Morgans Hill fires the imagination in another way. There are earthworks up here, also barrows. There is the Wandsdike cutting through it with all of these things showing usage at different times of pre-history. The name is evocative of "The Morrigan" and on occasions, when storm clouds are gathering in the sky, it could not be more aptly named. Today we are approaching it from a direction new to us attracted by a clump of trees standing atop part of the hill. It looks both intriguing and ominous mixed with more than a little inviting. We head towards these trees knowing that they were not placed here at random, we will find something amongst them. Which we do, but it is a new one on us. Having crossed a henge and ditch to get to the trees we find they surround a large bowl shaped hole dug into the ground, at a guess it's aout a hundred foot across and twenty to thirty foot deep. All around are Beech trees, their exposed roots clinging desperately to the sides of this bowl. The atmosphere in this place is very "other wordly" - so much so that had we encountered the little people we would not have been at all surprised. Normally after we have mudhopped our way up such a hill we would need to stop and get our breath back. But here we find ourselves clambouring about with new-found vitality, completely forgetting to have any theories about exactly what this place is. It has a very happy atmosphere too, which is proberly a good clue to it's secret: whatever it's use in the past it has retained a very strong energy, a very positive energy. All we can add to this is; go there, feel it and enjoy it.

Walking out of this clump of trees we can see the Wansdyke in front of us so we follow it across the rest of Morgans Hill. It is a good way to see the extent of this site and also the incredible views across this part of Wiltshire. The air is fresh and free, as it was to those who built this dyke all those thousands of years ago. Time passes but in places like this there are some things that have remained the same, in this sense we are walking with our ancestors. Above us a kestrel hovers, around us cattle and sheep are grazing giving us a connection to the present time. It is the winter solstice, and whatever else we do today, this is how we will remember it.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


We had been planning to go to Stoney Littleton for some time, but always seemed to end up somewhere else. Finally a day off was looming upon which we determined we would definatly go. Except that due to an excess of cider the night before- proper cider that is, Scrumpy: it comes out of barrels in a farmhouse, flat and cloudy. A totally different drink to the piss-water that comes fizzed up in plastic bottles, Scrumpy is a gift from Mother Nature.Where were we ? Oh yes, due to an excess of cider the night before we had overslept. Not only that, a forecasted dry day had made an error and started raining. We spent all morning trying to wake up while outside the rain increased. Another attempt to go and see this long barrow doomed to failure. Lunchtime came and we wondered what we could do with the day instead or, at least, the rest of the day. By now it was one o'clock and on a dull afternoon like this darkness would come early. Eventualy we decided that, sod it, we would go to Stoney Littleton anyway.

The drive up into Somerset was good despite the weather and an hour and a half after we set off we were within a mile or so of our destination. Then the fun began. It seemed that, for this last short distance, we were suddenly in an area of Somerset where the locals have a bitter hatred of road signs. The turning we had to take ended up being a matter of guesswork backed up with the knowledge that "it must be around here somewhere". We drove down a country lane and within a half mile started wondering if it was some kind of trick: it certainly looked like a country lane when we turned into it but, very quickly, it was only the hedgerows each side that defined it as such. It was not so much a case of "mud on the road" as "is there a road under this mud?". The unwary travellers would be forgiven for thinking that they had made a wrong turning and were actually driving across a field. Eventually though we came to a sign which read, rather reassuringly, "Stoney Littleton". We had arrived. We started looking for a sign to point us in the direction for the long barrow.

Silly us ! of course there were no signs, but it did not matter because there were equestrians. Having driven right through the village and out the other side we stopped by one of these horsey types and were pointed back to the direction from which we had just come- with the added information of where we had to turn right. Having done this we stopped alongside two more riders who gave us more exact information. Within a couple of minutes we there there- there being a small parking area for the car. From here on we would be mudhopping.

The walk up the hill to the long barrow is worth the drive in itself. With a wooden footbridge across a river, a stream to jump across, stiles and fences, it is the rural and rustic English countryside that many believe is lost in time. The blast of fresh damp air that hit us as soon as we escaped the cocoon of our vehicle lifted our spirits immediately. The hill we had to climb could not be seen as a challenge: ascending it would open up more of this countryside to us. The rain retreated back into the clouds and for the rest of the afternoon we exchanged suspicious looks with them. It was an uneasy truce.

Such is the route that the footpath up to the long barrow leads us we get no glimpse of it until we are practically there. Even then it's full potency is not apparant until you have walked around the mound and found the entrance to the passage leading into it. Then you find yourself fighting any fear of claustrophobia as it's long, low, narrow chambers pull you in. Unlike West Kennet, here you cannot stand upright. It has to be at least a crouch and in places a crawl to negotiate the passage. There are six chambers off this passage, three on each side, and one at the end. It is dark, damp and dramatic.

We spent an hour or so here. Exploring the stones by torchlight was our first priority, the neolithic builders of this tomb having used many stones that contained fossils. The largest of these is an ammonite at the entrance, clearly visible, but the rest have to be searched for in the dark. When not fossil hunting we sat in the chambers and had brief encounters with other folk who like to crawl around in burial chambers on a Sunday afternoon. It is, it has to be said, a somewhat unusual way to encounter strangers. Though they were few (it not being a well known site) the cramped space did make greetings both inevitable and easy. And although we ranged in age and dress we had two things already in common: the first has already been noted, the second is that we were all prepared to get splatted by mud in order to be here. It was our common uniform.

When we did venture outside of the barrow it was to go and stand atop the mound and look over the surrounding countryside. Even through the soggy haze the encircling hills stand out clear and proud. Grassed or wooded by turns they seem to create a barrier around this site: protective in a gentle way, like the warmth of a parents arms around a small child. A short time later, and back inside the barrow, this was echoed by a passing stranger. As we crawled into side chambers to allow him to pass he remarked, simply;

"This is the safest place on earth."

We stayed until the light started fading, by which time rain had started falling. This made the descent hazardous but fun: not even a torrential downpour would dampen our spirits in such a place. A hidden jewel, we shall return here one morning to watch the sunrise.

Friday, 12 December 2008


Just over halfway 'twixt our garret and todays destination we pass by Stonehenge. Even in mid-week and winter the coaches are rolling in from all over the country, disgorging the tourists out for this section of their itinerary. It did get us wondering what the experience must be like for the day-trippers. The posters and brochures do give the rest of the world an iconic image- the mighty stones set in the wide open space of Salisbury Plain. The reality, when they arrive, is somewhat different. Herded from the car park and through the dreary visitor centre, onto the walkways and kept away from the stones. It must be an anti-climax. Outdoor it may be but, with the fences around it and the ropes to keep the tourists on the correct pathways, the whole site does have a claustrophobic air about it.

It was noon and biting cold when we arrived at Avebury or, more precisely, the lay-by near West Kennet long barrow. Todays plan was to walk the path by the River Kennet into Avebury, eat, walk on up to Windmill Hill then back down through the Avenue, over Waden Hill and then up to the long barrow: which is how we spent the next five hours. During this time the mud which we generally squelch through showed no sign of defrosting so we clumped our way across the top of it . Having put much emphasis on the coldness it has to be said that it was a beautiful day, a clear sky filled with sunshine and a clean air that only comes with a frost.

Windmill Hill. The folk who built the hill fort here later went on to construct West Kennet, Avebury, and Silbury: this is where it all started but this hill fort has not weathered as well as the others in the area. It takes a bit of searching and guesswork to find evidence of the henges and ditches. Having said that the site has lost none of its' energy and the views all around take in many of the ancient sites in the area. We stood atop one of the barrows that sit in the fort and were joined by a dog walker passing through. During the exchange of general chit- chat common to these brief encounters, conversation fizzled out. This was nothing to do with having nothing else to say, more a shared wish to just stand and look: all around the horizen stretches into seeming infinity. Words cannot do this place justice.

After walking back down to Avebury and out through the Avenue we cut across Waden Hill where the sheep played silly buggers with the sight of the camera. They were stood on the ridge of the hill as we approached them. Silhouetted against a dramatic late afternoon sky they struck photogenic poses. However, as soon as the camera was switched on and pointed in their direction, they would then turn and present their dingle-berry encrusted arses to the lens and look back over their shoulders at us. Whilst this pose may be much used by glamour photographers and their models it was very definately not the one that we were looking for. But, after all, it was the sheeps' field and we were guests in it. Respecting their wishes, the photos were taken from a safe distance.

West Kennet Long Barrow. This was why we actually came to this place today: the night before, having a "what shall we do tomorrow" conversation, we had decided upon West Kennet. As is our wont we had taken a very roundabout route to walk to it. We reached the barrow just as it was getting dark. In the West the sky was golden yellow with the sun setting behind the distant hills. To the East a waxing moon, only two days away from full, was shining brighter and brighter as the sky darkened. Alone at this spot, we entered the barrow and walked down to the far chamber. This moment, just as daylight fades and night approaches, is when the barrow comes into its' own. There are spirits here and it is sometimes impossible not to be aware of them. They will soon let you know if you cause them displeasure but, otherwise, you soon realise that there is nothing malignant here. On this evening we only spent a short time inside the barrow, enjoying this connection to the past before we went outside again. Poets and dreamers have long looked to the moon and found magic in its' brilliance. Tonight it was our turn, we were the "girls and boys come out to play". Let the academics pontificate about the whys and wherefors of these neolithic sites we are here to enjoy ourselves: a simple exercise that involves little more than that which each of our senses gives us. There are six of these and we used them all during the following hour. If it had been summer we would have taken our clothes off, such is the sense of freedom here. The fact that we remained clothed may come across as lacking in bravado, but in December even we would have to admit that to do otherwise would have been bloody stupid.

Just before we left something that we had not realised about the long barrow before occurred to us. Standing in front of the entrance to the chambers is a row of sarsen stones All of them are quite large but the highest and widest of these stands directly in line with the entrance. Whereas in many of the ancient sites stones seem to have been placed to allow the rising sun or moon to shine through them at certain times, this one would appear to do the opposite- it blocks the light out. We walked back down the hill wondering if this was deliberate on the part of the builders and, if so, why.

Getting back to the car we hit the flask for warming cuppas before we started the two hour drive home. With the coming of the dark the biting cold had turned to bitter cold, it was time to warm up. Or so we thought. Instead, on a whim, as we headed along the A4 we decided to turn off toward The Avenue at Avebury, to walk it in the dark.

It is said that the folk who live close to the stones will not venture into them after dark. We had done this once before and we could quite understand why, there is a lot of inexplicable activity around the stones at night. Some of them have a dull light around them, making them appear bigger. Others seem to be moving. We have wondered if this was a trick of our eyes but, if this is the case, it does seem strange that it does not happen in other places where we walk after dark.

As we approached the parking space near the start of the Avenue we were treated to the sight of a barn owl in flight, the brightness of the moon making it look huge and silver. Once parked and into the stones this moonlight gave the same effect to our surroundings. The grass, from which that mornings frost had not disappeared, glistened and crisped beneath our footsteps. The stones showed up as in daylight and cast long shadows. The air temperature had dropped even further and the car had started warming up temptingly. We looked along the Avenue of stones stretching up the hill into the darkness and we knew that nothing would stop us from doing what we had come to do. We walked, it was beautiful.

Monday, 8 December 2008


Today we rose with the cockerel-or we would have done if we lived out in the country. As it is we live within a hundred yards of the sea so we rose with the seagulls. Those of you with romantic notions of living by the sea probably do not take the seagulls into consideration. Believe us, they are a pain in the arse, especially when they are waking you up in the morning. Dont believe us ? OK, look up a list of "songbirds", you will not find seagull on it; we rest our case. Their squawks can only be likened to the sound of the Bee Gees trying to sing with serious throat infections. But today the seagulls were forgiven, we wanted to wake up with them to make the most of the short winter daylight hours. Today we were on a mission : like so many millions before us we were heading towards Glastonbury as seekers. We felt the pull of the ancient Isle of Avalon Unlike the vast majoritory of those millions, however, we went in search of cheese.

Cheese ? OK, let's be honest here, the cheese was really just the flimsy excuse that we were using for a day out in Glastonbury. A mate had asked us if we were intending to go up that way at all in the near future and, if so, could we go to a farm and pick up a box of cheese that he'd ordered. He has a restaurant, a posh restaurant, and this was posh cheese y'see. We had a scrap of paper with directions on it of the "follow the old lane until you find a farm, go into the farmyard and in an outhouse you will find a box of cheese" variety, which, though vague, was a lot more precise than most seekers get when they head towards Glastonbury.In actual fact most people find Glastonbury by mistake: it is what they find at a time in their lives when they are , in reality, looking for themselves. Such is the power of this wonderful place that they then stay, or keep returning, hoping to find "an answer", some walk away disappointed, not realising that the secret of Glastonbury is that if you ask it nothing it will give you everything.

So, today, we went to get a good dose of everything and Petes' cheese. Being the sort of folk who definately do not view gluttony as a sin, the timing of the journey fits around a breakfast involving the frying pan before we start and Burns the Bread when we arrive. For those who do not know, Burns the Bread is a small bakers shop in Glastonbury high street which is the tastiest downfall of weight watchers clubs in the land. Even if you are not a seeker of the truth you now have a reason to go to Glastonbury. Once you have tasted the fare you could be quite forgiven for thinking that the town has nothing else to offer: you would be quite wrong but, if you need to, go back into the bakers and buy something else to munch on while you ponder. We do and we don't need to ponder.

Now, this might sound ridiculous but it is a fact: if a person, male or female, decided to walk down Glastonbury high street wearing flippers, a kilt, a boob tube and a busby nobody would take a blind bit of notice. On the other hand, nobody is expected to dress in such an outlandish fashion. Basically, it is a place where everybody fits in, there is no "norm"which makes it an incredibally relaxed place to be. During the first half hour that we were there we had a good chat with a druid, became on nodding terms with the local vicar (who seemed to have no objection to us munching our pasties in the church porch) and watched the hare krishnas chanting and dinging their way up and down the town.

From the town we set off in search of Pete's cheese-in a muddy farmyard far from the madding crowd. Once located it proved to be an idyllic setting. Idyllic, that is, to those of us who accept that farms smell of cow shit (rather than those whose knowledge of them has been gleaned from pictures on biscuit tins) Pete's cheese, it turned out, weighed half a ton (an exaggeration-it was heavy) but we managed to get it into the boot of the car without the aid of a crane and drove very slowly back through the farmyard. The speed was nothing to do with the mud, it was so we could admire the bull in its pen and the tiny calves in their byre. There were also some cows there , but cows are two-a-penny so we didn't bother with them. The next stop would be the Tor.

Glastonbury Tor. This is another place that folk dont seem to associate with mud and cow shit-preferring to concentrate solely on it's more spiritual connotations. Today the cows that usually graze on it were not to be seen and the mud was mostly dry and easily negotiable. At any given time here you will meet people from all walks of life and all ages, yet all of them agree on two things: it is a bloody steep hill and it is worth the climb. The first is obvious from the pained and puffed out greetings that are exchanged with total strangers engaged in the same arduous climb. Short greetings that somehow manage to convey sympathy, encouragment and solidarity in the struggle all in the briefest of glances. Once at the top it is a different story: the friendliness between strangers is still there but, for the most part, folk get lost in a world of their own.

Today, our world of our own is the view over the surrounding countryside. It is both breathtaking and inspirational. Due to the recent prolonged wet weather many of the surrounding fields, over a distance of four or five miles, have areas of slight flooding. Even with this minor display it is possible to imagine what it would have looked like before the sea defences some miles away were built. At that time the Tor would, on occasions, be totally surrounded by flood water making it an island, The Isle of Glass; on calm days such as this we would have stood here in those far off times and the land around us would have appeared as a huge sheet of glass. Today we can see it as clearly as if it was there in front of us. Moments like this are what brings us back to Glastonbury time and time again.