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.


Mark Reep said...

Hey guys- Great stuff, great blog.
And the bit about the uncooperative sheep turning their dingle-berry encrusted arses to the camera- Too funny :) All the best!

durogante mudhoppers said...

Thanks for your comments Mark. Dunno what they are like over there but English sheep act like Prima Donnas!
Happy Yule and Beyond.