A subject that is somewhat fraught, we talk of our own spirituality in terms that are not easy to define, but is there behind the life force another layer of being, invisible but transcending the physical world. Can we touch it, does it belong to our senses, created by our minds - does it really exist? There is no answer to that, we as humans are fallible capable of great evil and yet capable of self-sacrificing courage, people aspire to higher ideals and in doing so lay down there own lives for the greater good of everyone. Yet animals also fight to save their young, defend territory, can they be spiritually blessed as well. When reading poetry or looking at a painting, behind the words or daubs of paint will be a person trying to express his vision of the world, trying to draw through the medium of expressive art, the inner essence of the subject matter. Sometimes the expression will be abstract, it will become fragmented into a subjective view, and the onlooker will have to construct his own vision. Thinking about the landscape and the natural world as having a spiritual meaning is sometimes more difficult. We can perhaps classify it as a Gaian term, seeing the world functioning as a whole, each part dependent on each other. Whether there is a divine force behind all this we cannot tell, yet we are born within its safekeeping, we eat its fruits, and wonder at the marvel of a perpetually changing sky, the beauty of a flower caught for a moment in its upward seeking movement, - it is as if the world is sometimes laid out for our delight, as if its beauty is indeed the spiritual message we seek. Yet within this life force, there is the opposition, death and decay, autumn leaves crumble to dust, we kill to eat, paradise is lost, or at least out of reach. When someone dies we are deeply unhappy, a life force has been extinguished, a void has been made in the web of our lives. We return their dust to the earth where it belongs, to shift and blow in the wind maybe, or to be driven deep into the matrix of the soil becoming part of the minute teeming organic life that exists beneath our feet. As I write this, I remember all the deaths that have occurred during my lifetime, and how we must bear witness to the final moments of death, and the giving back to the earth the life form that was once so active. When the young are taken there is bitterness and anger that life has been so cruelly shortened, we grieve for their pain and the loss of a happy fulfilling life. So in coming to this moment of death, to the spirituality of the person and the spirituality of the place we marry these two aspects together, it is a moment of closure, a time of serenity and peace, it should not be an unhappy event but one of contemplation and acknowledgement that there is something indefinable that exists beyond the mere physical world that is our everyday life.
Notes; The longbarrow was excavated by Richard Atkinson in the years 1962-63. He seems to have uncovered two periods, though it could well be that there was much more there given his bad recording.
Period 1 barrow contained a wooden mortuary hut shaped like a ridge tent, but with a sarsen stone floor. Here some fourteen bodies had been laid, some articulated, others with limbs separated - probably due to the practice of excarnation. When the hut was full sarsen stones were placed around it, and chalk from ditches on either side were piled on top. The mound being kept in position by a kerb of boulders.
Period 11 consists of the mound that is now visible 54.9 metres long by 14.6 m at the front tapering to 6.1. m at the back. The front facade originally contained 6 great sarsen stones, each about 9 foot high, at the back was the passageway with a chamber on either side.
In the restoration work drystone walling was used to fill the gaps between the stones. Apparently an earlier excavation in 1919, in the left hand chamber 8 skeletons were found including 1 child. The latest excavation showed that the final barrow was excavated from ditches on either side of the mound and was held in place by a continuous kerb of sarsens. Radio carbon dating at this time was between 3700 and 3400 bc.
Apparently the two missing stones beside the entrance are marked by irregular dry-stone walling. There seems to have been a rather more formalised 'restoration' in which the flanks of the barrow were sharply revetted to form walls. Now, in 2007, the mound has acquired a graceful curve with what remains of the kerbing stone sitting comfortably in the ground. The work was done by the DoE, and it is well to remember that 'neatness' in the restoration work, may not necessarily give a true final picture..
Taken from James Dyer; An Archaeological Guide to Southern England; Gen.Ed. Glyn Daniels 1973.
Black and white photo from H.J.Massingham - Downland England 1930
This is a somewhat updated version of an earlier blog, it relates to the hillfort at Sodbury, though in actual fact defended settlement would be a much better term, on the A46 to Cirencester. The best way to approach this hillfort is from the village of Little Sodbury. Park up somewhere near the church and head for the path that goes past the small school, walk through the fields following the path, the escarpment will be on your right and to the left the flat farming land that heads west to the Bristol Channel. The path curves upward through the trees, and then comes out on a little lane, follow this for a short while, then turn right down a driveway. Here I went wrong, and continued down the drive, but a gardener put me right, in actual fact, just off the lane turn sharp right up into the woods along the path.
Either sneak past the back of the farmhouse at the top, over their lawn to the wicket gate that leads between the banks of the fort, or find another path that leads more directly through the wood.
It is an amazing place, the ground is as flat as a pancake, 24 acres (according to Nicholas Thomas's Guide to Prehistoric England) he describes it thus;
"Its outer bank and ditch are iron age; the earthworks at the S.W. end enclosing 12 acres are probably Roman. In places the inner (Roman) bank is 10 foot high> Original entrance to the I/A camp is approached by a track up the escarpment along the N.W.side of the camp (the one already described). It enters just S.W. of the N. corner of the pre-Roman earthwork; here there are in-turned banks defining it. Date of pre-Romanearthwork; 3rd to 2nd century B.C. Traces of earthwork to the N belong to deserted medieval village"
surrounded on three sides by two high banks, the internal one, neatly 'romanised'. The fourth side is of course the steep escarpment, now somewhat obscured by trees. This is the largest of the three hillforts that lie close to each other along this particular bit of the escarpment, Horton and Hinton (Dyrham) being the other two.
As a pleasant walk it lingers in the memory, taken in June 2006, the sun was warm and the banks were covered in ladies Bedstraw, a sweet smelling herb, the place was absolutely deserted and apart from Moss I wandered round marvelling at such a place could be so unexplored by archaeologists with its rich tapestry of history.
Its size as an Iron age defended settlement is huge, and must point to a largish settlement with animals penned in as well. Sometimes with the wonder of the Avebury bank and ditch, we forget to look at the work of people 2000 years later who also built such large defence systems, did it for instance have a wooden palisade on top? It points to a time of hardship, of having to protect ones animals from raiders, there is some evidence that the weather was poor through this particular millenia, wet weather would have meant reliance on animals rather than crops, perhaps that is why we see such a burgeoning growth of hill top settlement around this part of the country.
Looking back to Little Sodbury Village
This well known Roman camp is situated in the parish of Chipping Sodbury, •two miles east of the town, and •eleven miles due north of Bath. The defended area, which contains •upwards of twelve acres, is rectangular in shape, with the west side resting on the escarpment of the hill, the other three sides being defended by a double line of intrenchments, each consisting of a single bank and ditch. There are entrances both on the west and west sides, the camp in all respects being very perfect in form. Mr. King says:— "This seems to have been incomparably well adapted to have contained three cohorts, with double the number of allied foot and half as many more allied horse, encamped after the Polybian.
Taken from Archaeological Handbook of County of Gloucester by George Witts 1882
"Nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible - countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness throwing their yellow patches of ore broadcast about them."
Whilst reading Richard Jeffries book The Life of the Fields I came across an essay on The Roman Brook, Jeffries out on a walk one afternoon by a favorite brook of his came across an old man working in his garden. He stopped to chat, and the old man grumbled about how the hares pigeons, rooks and water rats ate his vegetables and as he rambled on Jeffries saw an old jug hanging from from one of the apple trees in the orchard. On enquiring why it was hanging he was told that it came from the brook from the time of the Caesars and that lots of pottery and coins had been found also. The children played with the coins and the labourers from the village tried to buy their beer with them at the inn, but of course as they were roman the innkeeper refused them as payment.
Strangely this story has an echo in an earlier tale of the fourth century at Nettleton Shrub, a roman temple situated by the Fosse Way and also by a small brook. Ransacking the temple, Irish raiders, also threw away the roman coins along the path as they came away from the temple, the money having no value for them; these coins were discovered in the 20th century when the site was excavated. The brook at Nettleton Shrub, also has the same story of pottery sherds to be found within its depths
The two photographs show Kingcups or Marsh Marigold that can be be found at Nettleton Shrub, the little valley is a nature reserve and is a quiet enchanting place to wander through. To find it one must take the road from The Shoe, towards the motorway, this lane is the Old Fosse Way from Bath, and winds up and down till you eventually reach a small bridge over a brook, here you can just about park the car by the farm gate, and crossing the bridge take the path on your left, following the old 'canalised' roman brook (now a path) through the valley. Its roman history belongs in another essay, buts it natural beauty of wild flowers and dark sluggish brook is still there. As you walk along following the waters edge, curving hither and thither amongst the trees, echoing down through the centuries the voices of the native British-romano people may faintly be heard, from the buildings and temple just up on the hill. There will be the sound of soldiers cantering along the Fosse, stopping here to rest their horses, and pay homage to the gods that adorn the temple.
Further on you will come to a wicker gate, and if it is summer, as you open the gate, you will be greeted by a profusion of meadowsweet, and policeman's helmet (impatiens glandifura - a pretty foreign flower it is cited as a noxious weed!) flowers all of which thrive in boggy areas. The path is crossed here by a small muddy stream, perhaps the site of an old roman well. Keep walking and now you come to an old packhorse bridge, for this track also served the little villages round here, cross over and climb the hill through the trees. In spring there will be bluebells and wood anemones on the banks and of course the little primrose.
Marsh Marigold- Caltha Palustris has another historic tale to tell, this time from Geoffrey Grigson. He says that this flower was growing before the Ice Age in Britain and its bright yellow flowers that arrive so early in the year must have forced itself into the consciousness of all who saw it on damp, cold grey days of early spring. In Iceland it appears when the snow is still on the ground, and its flowers surround the farmsteads on the high dry knolls separated from the boggy land below.
The Anglo-saxons when they arrived as colonists must have welcomed this flower from their home country and they probably called it Meargealla or mersc meargealla. Mear from 'horse' and gealla from 'swelling' or 'blister', a horse-blob or mare-blob. This is of course conjecture on the part of Grigson but is well to remember that names, and especially saxon names, have a direct correlation between that which is seen and experienced, and apparently because the round globe flower suggest a round swelling, and the flower itself looks like a large buttercup, whose roots were used as a soothing concoction for blisters.
I began with Richard Jeffries as he reminscenced about a walk he took way back in the 19th century along a brook and found evidence of a past roman history, my walk along the little valley of Nettleton Shrub shows a similar picture, but the exuberant wildlife and plants that Jeffries experienced is fast fading, over the intervening period much has been lost, we erode the diversity of the natural world till one day all that will be left are top predators and rank weeds that thrive in the artifical nitrogen rich world we have created in our farming regime.
His prose, and other writers, will be all that remains of a lost world we have polluted with our insatiable need to be prosperous, to rob the earth of all its wealth .....
Jaccquetta Hawkes is an evocative writer on archaeology and the remains of the past and in the above book her obvious love of our prehistory stands out. In days when the world was much quieter and the open road beckoned one can only envy her freedom to wander round the countryside. The following extracts are on Stonehenge;
.......We may have regretted the tickets, the waste-paper baskets, our fellow visitors; we may feel that publicity has destroyed the spirit of this too famous building; yet once among the stones all but the most stubbornly resistant mood must surrender to their power.
The massive, roughly squared blocks of sarsen seem to possessa forceful presence which asserts itself within the human consciousness. Their silvery grey colour fills the eye but now shows itself to be variegated with dark lichens and with the shadow of grotesque fissures and hollows worn by centuries of rain and frost. One upright has been so deeply and curiously carved by the weather that it looks like one of those huge wooden totem poles made by the Vancouver Island Indians. The visitor must be struck, too by an unexpected combination of static with dynamic forms; the uprights with their heavy lintels have stood for thousands of years and seem eternal, while some of the fallen stones, particularly the inner trilithons, although they have lain there long enough to have been trodden smooth, seem to preserve the force and movement, the noise almost of their colossal fall........
She goes on to describe the layout of the sarsen and bluestone circles and the horseshoe setting of bluestones following the theory that the bluestones came from Preseli and possessed their own mana. And she then describes the altar stone...
Across the toe of the bluestone horseshoe and therefore immediately in front of the great central trilithon lies a sandstone slab, also of welsh origin, now much encumbered with fragments of a fallen upright. Ever since Inigo Jones made the first plan of Stonehenge for James 1 this slab has been popularly been identified as the Altar Stone, but is far more likely once to have stood as a monolith. Certainly this central enclosure where the Altar Stone now lies must have been the most holy, the most charged with mana in the whole sanctuary...
She approached her visit to Stonehenge from the Winterbourne Stoke side past Yarnbury Castle, crossing the River Till....
...As he reaches the quiet cross roads on the summit, he will be on the edge of one of the greatest, and certainly the richest, congregations of burial mounds in all Britain. Here was a kind of vast scattered cemetery on ground hallowed by its proximity to the renowned sanctuary. Barrows cluster round Stonehenge on all sides - three hundred of them - but here to the west is the greatest concentration and the area most sequestered from the blighting military activities of Amesbury......
When the ritual and whatever its accompaniment may have been of masks, effigies and offerings have vanished so long ago, when there is no stir of emotion and the ghost which keeps emotion alive, when the very people responsible for raising these mounds have been overwhelmed,absorbed and forgotten, then their detailed study can become lifeless enough. Better perhaps to look at them with knowledge but with knowledge unexpressed, these round barrows that are like the floating bubbles of events drowned in time.
And so to H.J.Massingham - English Downland 1936
Massingham again explores the Wessex tribal lands with language both eloquent and emotional, and his writings on Stonehenge, fall more into the dramatic mode of imaginary grandeur.. but again he lays stress on the fact that all roads point to Stonehenge, a point still echoed today as once more roads are to be planned around or under Stonehenge..
So with Stonehenge. The hoary great pile exercises a magnetic pull over all the roads of the south, the south-east and the west. It holds the reins of allthe roads in its fist, from the Isle of Wight to the scalloped escarpment of the Marlborough Downs between the headlands of Tan Hill and Martinsell, and from Beaminster to Beachy Head. So deeply buried in the unrecorded past are these twin realms of ancient Wiltshire (here he is talking of Avebury as the other twin) that they have left us a mighty graveyard only, and nothing more, not even an inscription upon the tombs. Yet he chalk country belongs to them still, and of this mystery all who travel it are conscious. Their tombs are little rounded headlands and promontories, their roads and banks the very gestures of the downland manner, the peace in which the barrow builders dwelt together caught a breath of that lofty repose that clothes the downs themselves. The downs were the high places of their high cult of life and death. But we, we step upon their springing turflines as aliens, or at least with the dim awareness of having strayed and of seeking once more the ancient mother of our race..........
He goes on to say, wrongly as we now know, thatStonehenge resembles the Lion Gate of the pre-Hellenic Peloponnese, the tympaneum of the Lion Gate revealing the older and simpler religon of the Goddess of the Earth., overlaid with the state and political (as opposed to the elemental) creed of the sun, which was mainly kingship (interesting idea). Stonehenge and Avebury as two separate waves of colonial adventure.
...It is a monarch of stone circles with a court. A church with a church-yard inseperable from it. This court, this churchyard consists of the multitudes of barrows mostly round, which are set along the slight ridges in various groups, often in definite alignment, within an area of 12 square miles of the Temple..... and on
Avebury was by far the mightier work, but not erected with that precision and nicety of orientation which distinguished the lesser home of divinity, not were the stones so elaborately dressed. The Temple of the Plain was something of an observatory as well as a house of deified presences; it had its Cursus for the sacred spectacles and ball games between the sky and the underworld,..
It is interesting to see how early 20th education coloured the minds of its writers, and perhaps more important 19th century books with their flights of fancy, to imagine the world of the bronze age people. Today, archaeologists still play a somewhat different game, now the words have become more analytical and scientific, they may also play the game of imagining the past, but has anyone actually unfolded or come nearer to the truth of what happened round these great monuments? The answer is of course no, we still shuffle the bits around the board, like a great complicated jigsaw, we try to fit the pieces together but that picture of the past will never really be complete, it belongs to the people who lived it.
I once blew a blast into the Blowing Stone, which rolled a hollow wave of sepulchral sound into the hills. The megalith builders, taking their lesson from the conch-shells of the Eastern Mediterranean, blew into this very stone to summon the gods or, more probably, the goddess of the high places. Another two miles and there is the goddess herself or rather, the celtic descendant of the goddess, stretched in white and in flight across the bald brow of Uffington Hill. The downs lift to 800 feet and by their very godliness of combe and crescent, of jutting ness and plunging spur, ordain the tie beam of White Horse Hill to be one more of the holy places of the chalk. So it was on Windover Hill.... and so it is here where the Celtic town of Uffington is flanked by the galloping horse and a Neolithic workshop on the one side, and the chambered long barrow of Wayland's Smithy with its grove of beeches on the other........
H.J.Massingham - English Downland
White Horse of Uffington
Massingham walked the Ridgeway through Berkshire and on to Avebury, he savoured the great beauty of these soft downland uplands, he likens the Manger below the Horse as a "tree butt", and stopped and blew into the Blowing Stone which he felt sure our neolithic forefathers had once done as well. All this perhaps 80 years ago, his love of the English countryside and its villages and history are a reminder of those more nostalgic times before the roads became congested with cars and the noise of our modern society.
Places have there own special magic, The Ridgeway one of the great green trackways that follow the dry uplands, prehistoric people followed this track, driving their animals, trading their goods, moving through a landscape very different to what it is today. They would have come upon the Neolithic Barrow, but it would'nt have had its smithy legend then, what legend it had we can only guess at, a burial place for the local clan, a gathering place for ceremony.
Its been restored since Massingham passed by, and now has an almost cathedral atmosphere, a neatness that is modern and structured, and perhaps does not reflect its original state. Be that as it may, it still has the air of profound majesty, it reminds us that this stone monument has survived thousands of years, and dear old Moss standing atop it oblivious to history and death is also a reminder that humankind and animals are linked over the centuries too...
And a poem that is not so gentle....
As I Came, I Saw a Wood Ted Hughes Where trees craned in dirt, clutching at the sky Like savages photographed in the middle of a ritual Birds danced among them and animals took part Insects too and around their feet flowers
And time was not present none ever stopped Or left anything old or reached any new thing Everything moved in an excitement that seemed permanent
They were so ecstatic, I could go in among them, touching them,even break pieces off them Pluck up flowers, without disturbing them in the least. The birds simply flew wide, but were not for one moment distracted. From the performance of their feathers and eyes. And the animals the same, though they avoided me They did so with holy steps and never paused In the glow of fur which was their absolution in sanctity
And their obedience, I could see that.
I saw I stood in a paradise of tremblings
At the crowded crossroads of all the heavens the festival of the religions.
But a voice, a bell of cracked iron Jarred in my skull Summoning me to prayer To eat flesh and drink blood.
Buying more in local shops rather than in supermarkets.
Growing more of our own food and managing woodlands for firewood.
Encouraging the purchase of fairly traded, low carbon-footprint goods which truly benefit producer communities in other parts of the world.
Measuring our carbon footprints in order to identify where we can improve, and to monitor progress.
Reducing the number of non-essential overseas flights we take.
Reducing our energy use within the home, by insulating, installing low-energy bulbs, etc.
Generating our own power renewably, including solar panels, wind turbines and biomass as appropriate.
Reducing our landfill waste to zero by reducing consumption, re-using and recycling our waste . Supporting those around the world, particularly the poorest, who suffer the impacts of global warming-related disasters.
We no longer want to act as if climate change is someone else's problem. The problem is ours. But, if we act collectively, so too is the solution.