Thursday, February 26, 2009


'They just keep turning up
And were thought of as foreign'-
One-eyed and benign,
They lie about his house,
Quernstones out of a bog.

To lift the lid of the peat
And find this pupil dreaming
Of neolithic wheat!
When he stripped off blanket bog
The soft-piled centuries

Fell open like a glib;
There were the first plough-marks,
The stone-age fields, the tomb
Corbelled, turfed and chambered,
Floored with dry turf-coomb.

A landscape fossilized,
Its stone wall patternings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo.
Before I turned to go

He talked about persistence,
A congruence of lives,
How stubbed and cleared of stones,
His home accrued growth rings
Of iron, flint and bronze.
So I talked of Mossbawn,

A bogland name 'but Moss'?,
He crossed my old home's music
With older strains of Norse.
I'd told how its foundation
Was mutable as sound

And how I could derive
A forked root from that ground,
Make bawn an English fort,
A planter's walled-in mound.

Or else find sanctuary
And think of it as Irish,
Persistent if outworn.
'But the Norse ring on your tree?'
I passed through the eye of the quern,

Grist to an ancient mill,
And in my mind's eye saw,
A world-tree of balanced stones,
Querns piles like vertebrae,
The marrow crushed to grounds.

Seamus Heaney 1975

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Druidical Bath

John Wood the Elder - Stanton Drew Circle and Stonehenge;
Bath is famed for its neo-classical architecture but what underpins the thinking of the 18th century architect John Wood when he drew the designs for The Circus is a strange mish-mash of legend and myth, this of course is the age of the new 'druidism' that took hold when such figures as William Stukely called such places as Stonehenge the Druidical Temple. Fertile imaginations played with the ideas of sacrificial wicker constructions filled with victims, and Wood took it much further and in his book - A Description of Bath, he writes a history for Bath that is at once absurd yet full of that energetic imaginings that are still to be found in today's new age books.

To understand why Wood built The Circus as he did one must go back to the myths that formed the literature of the 18th century. Wood, though including neo-classical forms in the building, was not returning to a roman past but a pre-roman past steeped in the myths of a Britannic origin. The myth can be found in the 12th century writings of Geoffrey of Monmouthshire, and according to (R.S.Neal - Bath, A Social History) a 16th century edition written in Paris was very much alive in the oral tradition of Bath.
Putting stone circles and Druids together seems rather strange, but Wood thought that the chief ensign of the Druids was a ring. So as he began to plan his city on paper, he incorporated the pagan elements, but also he was relating the pagan symbol of the circle back to Jewish symbolism, therefore Christian, and then British and Greek, which led quite nicely to the "Divine Architect" who was of course God. This is all creative flummery, a mixing of ideas, so when we look at The Circus we see classical lines, but with little touches of druidism – in the acorns that sit atop the surrounds of the roofs – and the frieze which incorporates specific symbols of Masonic details.
First must come the story of Bladud, the founding father of Bath, an exiled prince because of his leprosy, whilst out herding pigs one day happened to notice that the pigs loved to roll in the hot muds of the spring. Bladud also tried this and was cured, and then went on to found the city of Bath on the spot. Our mythical King Bladud is given a date of 480 BC, and as Wood saw it Bladud created the city about the size of Babylon. Bladud was a descendant of a Trojan prince, a high priest of Apollo and a 'Master of Pythagoras'. Therefore this high priest was a devotee of the heliocentric systems of the planets from which the Pythagorean system was derived.

That the Works of Stantondriu (Stanton Drew) form a perfect model of the Pythagorean system of the planetary world............
At Stanton Drew it must have taken him many hours, with his assistant wandering round taking measurements of the circles, which were probably at this time partly covered in orchards. There was a precedence for this fascination with megalithic stones, Stukeley and Inigo Jones were all entranced by these heathen stones of an earlier age, and the development of myths round druidic religions were already forming and capturing imaginative minds – a bit like today.
Now Stanton Drew was, according to Wood, the university for British Druids, which thereby made Bath the metropolitan city seat of the British Druids.
'And since there is an apparent connection between the ancient works of Akmanchester (Bath) and those of Stantondriu, it see s manifest that the latter constituted the University of the British Druids; that this was the university which King Bladud, according to Merlyn of Caledon planted; that it was at Stantondrui the king feated his four Athenian colloeagues and that they were not only the heads of the British Druids in those early ages, but, under Bladud, the very founder of them'

The Circus is based on a diameter of 318 feet, Wood's rough measurements of the circumference of the stone circle at Stonehenge, the terraced houses form a perfect circle around a 'timber' circle of planted trees in the centre. There is an early drawing by J.R.Cozens which shows hitching stone post for the horses arranged symmetrically round the The Circus which would give the allusion of stones.
Wood also incorporated into his thinking the hills around Bath, giving them various titles such as Sun and Moon Hill, and The Parade is also aligned on Solsbury Hill which had an Iron Age settlement on top. The Royal Crescent built by his son John Wood the Younger, was crescent shaped representing the moon. Where you might ask is the masonic symbolism, well it is only seen from the air, taking The Circus as the round part of the key walk down Gay Street to Queens Square which is square, and you will see the 'key' of Bath.

ref; R.S.Neal - Bath, A Social History.
A Description of Bath - John Wood 1765

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Badgers and barrows

A badger entrance on East Kennet Long barrow

A tale; Once many thousands of years ago a great barrow was raised by men over their dead, nature grew its flowers and trees over the barrow, birds came and went, the little bones of their deaths adding to the fertility of the soil. Foxes, badgers and deer sheltered in the shade of its trees and bushes. All around the great downs stretched, softly rounded, giving semblance of the goddess that may once have been worshipped a long time ago.
But we are not concerned with the affairs of man, for they are soon over, it is the barrow, decaying gently over the years, the purple of violets and pale primroses in the spring, that would have grown on this mound under the shade of the trees . In the hot summer months, the scarlet poppies, the pale blue, butterfly blue of the cranesbill, the white ox eyed daisy would be seen in the fields around, and the sweet smells of crushed thyme on the path, the yellow of ladies bedstraw as it laced its way through the wheat, would perfum the air on hot afternoons.
Flowers drifting through the seasons, then their lives spent, seed would fall to the ground, and the cycle would go on. Nature moving through time.
Many years ago, badgers moved into the barrow, this was a slow process, for badgers are territorial and home-loving and take many generations to build their small clans. They must create a great burrow deep in the earth, warm and dry with the roots of the trees hanging from the earthen ceilings. Their bedding would be the soft dry hay of the meadows, arranged in a soft comfortable pad for daytime sleeping. Coming out at night to hunt, they would raid the nearby farms, rustling through the gardens of the sleeping village below the hill on which they lived. Drink from the clear flowing river that wound its way past the church and the manor house.
Denizens of the night we may call them, these black and white creatures, low-bellied they scuffle along in the dark intent on hunting for food, in the damp rainy season it would be worms pulled from the ground. When the earth was hard baked from the summer sun, then they would raid the farmers barn, perhaps taking a chicken or two, or if they were quick enough a baby rabbit from the burrows on the hill.
As the generations of badgers grew in the mound, they would expand the tunnels deeper into the barrow, going down beneath the soft dark earth, through the layers of white chalk till eventually they came to stone. Now badgers are strong creatures, and if you look outside their entrances you will see the small stones dragged out of their setts. But for our badgers in the mound these stones were enormous, like the walls of the houses in the village below.
They would eventually dig round the stones, finding themselves in a small stone cave, unvisited for thousands of years, a sepulchral space, bones would be scattered on the floor. Luckily for the badgers they would be indifferent to such a find, bones are just bones, the last remnant of a living creature. We humans on the other hand, would be given to excited speculation, a reverence for our past ancestors that would make an animal look with complete astonishment at such foolishness.
But stop are'nt we more intelligent than the dumb brain of our black and white friends, we have a right surely to know everything that there is about the world. Inquisitive and curious we pry and turn over any new find that passes our way, and so we acquire learning, though where it gets us goodness knows. I could make up a story about the humans that once raised this great mound, their hunting and growing of crops. Children born and dying in a time when illness was little understood, look over the hill there are more mounds and settlements around. The soft murmur of voices, the lowing of cattle, a tree is being cut down and the sound of its snap on the air travels down time. The sun is up in the sky and all is well in the world, but these people are gone and all that remains are the spirits of the mind.
The wind can be cold up on the downs, past spirits can haunt the air, rustling grass bending softly beneath an unseen footstep, the wind through the trees plays a different seasonal music as it bends the leaves to and fro. Just for a moment though, imagine the great entrance of stones to the mound, the forecourt on which the people will be gathered to perform some ceremony, an animal slaughtered maybe, the human dead picked clean of its flesh by the black carrion crows that wheel in the sky, now the bones must be laid solemnly in the dark cave with reverence. This will be the duty of the shaman, he will be attired in some form of dress (you must imagine this yourself) a decorated stone mace raised to the sky he will chant in a strange language. The smell of the woodsmoke, embers crackling and spitting on the fire, and up in the sky a great moon shine down illuminating the scene - the barrow's function is suddenly understood........

The great bulk of East kennet long barrow hidden beneath trees
Note; There are many different burial practices in other parts of the world, and one is the Tibetan Sky burial. Now this is far to gruesome to write about but in the Buddhist faith, when a person dies his body becomes an empty shell. Tibet is a high country mountainous with great plateaus, well above the tree line so that timber is scarce. Soil is also scant on top of this mountainous region, so that burial of the dead is difficult. So the monks take the body to a high sacred ledge or ground near a chorten and get rid of the corpse through a ceremony called Jhator - 'which means giving alms to the birds'..
Why I mention this is because there is a certain similarity between the Tibetan method and excarnation which is believed what happened in prehistoric Britain, the empty husk or shell of the body no longer housing the soul is disposed of. Which of course brings one round as to how the neolithic people may have thought of the 'inner being', was it represented in the bones of the dead, or was there another layer to their beliefs.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Reading Roger Deakin's The Wildwood and I come up with any number of delightful stories be it the interior walnut veneer of a Jaguar car (always wanted an XKl140) or Japanese wooden prayer shoes. But firstly a Japanese tale...

This is to do with driftwood, that rather lovely material of wood that has ended up in the sea and is given back to the land in various beautiful convuluted shapes. Well the story is more human than that for it takes in the concept of being cast out on the sea and left to live or die on the will of the currents.

There is an initiation custom by certain monks on an island in Japan in which a novice monk is launched in a wooden box on the tides, the currents could take him out to sea and he could never be seen again. Or the boat may take him on a circular trip back to shore, so the box can either be a coffin or a boat, the novice has consented to be human driftwood.

Perhaps we are all human driftwood, the vagaries of life pushing us here and there like a tumbling piece of wood on the crest of a wave, reminding us that though there may high crests there is also deep troughs of dark water as well.

Deakins has on his desk a wooden pine prayer shoe of a monk that has been washed up by the sea, and he wonders on the fate of its owner. Another fascinating thing I read is about the waves around the Islands of Japan, there is a painting somewhere of great crested waves meeting together, it always fascinated me, apparently this is a 'truth' (I will explain later) the sea does work in this different way quite different to the seas of our shores, that lap gently back and forth with the tides.

Now why I bracket the 'truth', for years I have loved the Chinese paintings of tall vertical sided mountains, these rocky crags with stunted fir trees make an eloquent magical landscape with their tiny bridges over rivers, but I never believed such landscapes could exist. That is until I saw a television programme a few months ago and saw the exact shape of the mountains somewhere in China.
Another story Deakin tells is about David Nash, an artist who sculpts in wood, often with a chainsaw, his works can be seen all round the world. Now I' m not quite sure I like the way he has with wood, he tends to 'torture' living trees to adopt certain shapes, but one story is fascinating. He lives and works in Wales at Blaenau Ffestiniog, and this tale is about a wooden ball carved and then set free on a river. David Nash followed the journey of the wooden boulder over the years, for it took a great many years for the boulder to dislodge itself from the rocks of the river and move gradually downstream till at last it reached the estuary. Here Nash would hire a boat and follow its progress as it washed back and forth on the tides over the months and lodged on different beaches. One day of course it disappeared and is now presumably out on the wide sea floating who knows where, another piece of flotsam that may appear years later on a foreign beach...... The Wooden Boulder can be found in this rather long article here....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ebbor Gorge

Ebbor Gorge; Photos from 2007 show, a lovely green wooded stone gorge, fallen branches, ferns and wildflowers growing in its hidden depths. It is approached from Priddy village, there is a car park at the beginning of the walk. Its quite a difficult walk for Somerset, for you have to go a long way down and then through the gorge and up again, a good hour or two is needed, but it is worth the effort climbing the natural limestone steps through the gorge. From the first rock shelters that were occupied 10,000 years ago, like all the landscapes of Britain it has been occupied through Bronze age, middle age etc, it is a hidden place that allows you to look into the wild heart of our countryside......

verdant green

the slope through the gorge

                                                            Nettle leaf bell flower

                                         this is the path through the narrowest part

                                                The narrowest part of the gorge

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sacred Groves

I have just been reading Roger Deakin's Wildwood, and one chapter immediately catches my interest. It is called the Sacred Groves of Devon, and he gives a list of village names all with Nemet/Nimet in their names. Celtic mythology, or at least here be our Romans naming an old celtic site and calling it sacred grove., so the villages are called Nymet Tracey, Broadnymet, Nichols Nimet, Nymet Roland, Nymet Wood and Nymphays. All named probably after the River Yeo(also after Nimet/Nymet) who's source is at Nymph. He also mentions that Beer, Bear or Beere are versions of the old english bearu, again the meaning is close to Celtic nemeton.
The Roman fort of Nemetotacio, the romans built a mile or two away on the banks of the River Taw, is obviously the place where it stems from Nemetotacio meaning "The Road Station of the Sacred Grove".
What visions this conjures up, history falling through time in its etymology, Deakins speculates that the Dumnonii people of the area refused to surrender their sacred woods and holy rivers of Nimet and Nemet to the Romans, for there are other forts in the area as well, and they put up a stout resistance.
Also about 20 years ago a wood henge at Bow was discovered by Frances Griffiths by aerial photography, information here on the Megalithic Portal ........,
Now Deakin goes on to say that the name Bow has contracted over the last seven years from Nymetbowe (the bend in the sacred river) and Nymetboghe, its root in the old english boga, a curve describing the wide curve in the River Yeo nearby. In fact very similar to the relationship of Durrington Walls and the River Avon. Frances Griffiths also discovered a large cluster of barrows and ring ditches surrounding Bow, and feels that this area was a major focus of ceremonial activity.
The flow of history is incredibly beautiful, Bronze age barrow cemeteries round the wooden henge, the river acting as a focus, and the names remembered through the Celts, the Romans and the small village settlements.
Terminology; Here I will break off to stand by my use of Celts/Celtic, there is so much contempt for the usuage of these words that perhaps we should use the term indigenous British people, but to be quite honest I like the term Celts, it has a far more romantic ring....
And what about the sacred curve of the river, does it not call to mind Silbury also surrounded by the curve of the Winterbourne, with the Swallowhead marking the rising of the River Kennet.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Beckhampton Longbarrow

But the masons leave
for the lime-pits of time, with flowers, chaff, ashes,
Their plans are spattered with blood, lost,
And the golden plumb-line of sun says; the world is leaning,
Bedded in a base where the fingers
Of ancient waters touch the foundation.

But feel the walls; the glow stays on your hands.

From the House of the Dead - Part one; taken from Richard Bradley's book The Significance of Monuments. The actual poem is from Ivan Lalic, 1996 'Of the Builders'

These late neolithic long mounds can be very complex, yes they may have burials in them but sometimes they do not - such as South Street and Beckhampton, both having a similar design pattern - Paul Ashbee in his book The Earthen Long Barrow highlights the different types to be found. Some can be extraordinarily long, and are often described as bank barrows, such as the one found in Maiden Castle.
It is the practical mode of construction that is so intriguing, archaeology is good at highlighting the methods used, sometimes we drift into an abstract notion of ritual and sacred landscape, our minds wallowing in some far away land of our own making; physical evidence, although scant, gives us a reality check.
South Street and Beckhampton when excavated, showed a framework of hurdles, set on an axial line with further offset hurdles creating bays. At the eastern end the hurdling was used to form a spurred convex or facade.
Ashbee says of South Street, that because of Stukeley's drawing it was thought to be stone built, the only stones found though were, small boulders (thought to form a core) in two of the bays, whilst at the end there was a cluster of large sarsen stones which did not form any pattern. A large capping of chalk rubble may have been added, remains of such were found.
The two barrows may have been tribal monuments, a 'clan' system is often postulated, perhaps delineating territory, West Kennet and East Kennet longbarrows both seem to have the same function in the landscape as does the one on Windmill Hill.
Its fascinating to think that the later Silbury also has some of these building properties captured in its make-up. Dean Mereweather mentions 'strings' radiating from the central primary mound, he also mentions stones round this mound, and in the latest foray into the heart of Silbury small sarsen boulders were found.
The other interesting thing to be found in some longbarrows are of course mortuary 'houses'; Wayland's Smithy had one, Ashbee says of this mortuary house that at....

..."the proximal end, two considerable flat-sectioned sarsen stones had been pitched together, an arrangement that was apparently continued by timbers set against a ridge supported at each end by the trunks, which seem to have projected above the barrow."

and Ashbee quotes Atkinson's account of his excavation in 1965...

"As finally revealed, the evidence leaves no doubt that the burials were deposited within a wooden chamber resembling a low ridge-tent, with a massive post at either end, between which a ridge-pole was supported by mortised joints. The combined sides and roof were presumably formed of close-set timbers resting at their inner and upper ends on the ridge-pole, and at their lower and outer ends on the ground immediately outside the lateral banks of sarsen stones, where there is on each side a significant linear gap separating the base if these banks from the basal sarsen cairn."

Wayland's Smithy seen from the back

The ' lateral' stones that may have faced the original timber mortuary house

Here we have another intriguing facet, large 'pits' often termed as ritual, found in longbarrows, could be seen as housing large timber posts, wood before stone, or perhaps another way of looking at it wood and stone, think Stonehenge and Woodhenge, and the flexibility of these two materials in construction and ritual use.

Fussell's Longbarrow contained the remains of a mortuary house, and though I can't show the detail of the isometric drawing in the book I can refer to Ashbee's article in 1998 in BA....

"What did barrows look like when first raised? At Fussell's Lodge long barrow, near Salisbury, the discovery of post-holes in a lengthy, trapezoidal structure showed that initially there had been a structure resembling a Neolithic long house of the type found widely on the Continent. Subsequent long barrow excavations showed that this formula was widely followed. These surrogate long houses contained deposits of human bone that were added to and subtracted from, for more than a millennium, and rites pertaining to ancestors and fertility were no doubt performed. Long barrows, the long houses of the dead, should be regarded as shrines rather than mausolea."
The idea that longbarrows are the houses of the ancient dead can best be explored through reading Richard Bradley's The Significance of Monuments, in it he puts forward the theory that the longhouses in certain parts of Europe, were left to decay after their inhabitants died, presumably the male, and that these 'dead' houses were left in the settlements alongside the contemporary'living' houses, so giving rise to the conceptual idea of a death house.. As ideas progress, and there is movement away from the original idea because it has become pared down movement of people and ideas through time and space evolve, so we can look at Wessex longbarrows as evolving in a similar fashion.

West Kennet longbarrow

West Kennet longbarrow, the thing that strikes the eye, or indeed the camera lense, is the stone facade, we are overwhelmed by the symbolism of their shapes, as well as the physical effort needed to bring such stones to a particular place. Yet we forget, that we are looking at a 'restored' forecourt, and that behind the stones there are tons of earth, something was 'created' in the eyes of the builders, it may not necessarily be what we have in our minds.
If West Kennet is a 'death' house, than the removal of bones from Windmill hill to the barrow will signify to us that it is indeed the place of the ancestors. An emphasis on certain types of bones is also to be found in some longbarrows. Yet down the hill Beckhampton and South Street show no evidence of human bone, Beckampton of course has three ox skulls placed symbolically in its length, and up on the earlier Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure there are child bone burials with ox bones, one small human burial cradled inside the 'crown' of oxen horns.

The' stalls' of Stoney Littleton longbarrow

Stoney Littleton also has a stone facade, and a stone decorated with an ammonite on the left hand side, which can just be seen in the above photo. As at West Kennet we can imagine a forecourt in front of this longbarrow, a place where the ritual activities would take place.
Further reading has taken me to David Field's Earthen Longbarrows, strangely he doesnt say much about Wayland's Smithy, except to point out that the barrow we see today was built on the wooden mortuary house which is fairly obvious. What he does say is that West Kennet and East Kennet might have been added to, given that EK has a slightly 'waisted' side and that WK's ditches curve at one point at about 35 metres from the facade, and that there maybe in fact two 'contiguous barrows. This could well be so, a couple of miles from where I live there are two round barrows that seemed joined, and in fact several barrows on the Lansdown are paired in such a fashion.

Friday, February 6, 2009


I have been reading Richard Mabey's Essays on Landscape, his pottering through the lives of William Robinson, Gilbert White and Richard Jefferies, our relationship to the land around us, our 'rootedness' in a place, Gilbert White living all his life in the same village, recording in minute detail the daily lives of the creatures around him - a methodical naturalist.
Over the last few days we had also been wandering around, in woods this time, and one is always struck how a wood, though manmade also carries in its history the story of its growing.. there is its youth, a maturity, then decay. Old trees jostle with impudent young saplings, but sometimes the canopy is too dense, and the young tree reaches towards the sky in an effort to get to the sun, becoming spindly and elongated in its efforts. Sometimes these trees in later life are vunerable to storms and topple over, though often caught in the branches of nearby trees, they never quite make it to the ground.
One wood we walked through, had what looked like to me coppiced stools, but on reflection may have grown from a fallen tree, they circled the top of the hill. Here we come to a cleared space, the harsh reality of the chainsaw, reveals the bright cream of sawn logs, the stump of the tree exposed cruelly, curving annual rings denoting good and bad years, there is the soft epidermis that carries water up its outer skin to feed its leaves. Finished now, in death the tree provides logs for the fire, and we gather a few to carry back to the car.
The wood is damp, small streams trickle through, muddy paths, a thick dense mulching layer of copper leaves keeping the footfall silent. An abandoned shoe, encrusted with bright green moss.

I am reminded of the alder fruit we had gathered a couple of days before for dyeing, steeping them in water they had produced a strong brown dye.
Today we wander through the woods for pleasure, but for many centuries trees were an essential part of the 'used' landscape, wood for the fire, wood for hurdles, pannage for pigs, wood for the great tall ships of war, wood for the curving grace of timbered houses. We laid waste our woods, so that the great giant oaks are no longer with us, we neglected them in the last century allowing the ugly march of the evergreen fir and pine on the mountains of Wales and Scotland.

Mean while the Mind, from pleasures less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other Seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

Andrew Marvell 'The Garden' 1681

Monday, February 2, 2009


Looking slightly puzzled by this white stuff

Pure white snow this morning, England slowly grinding to a halt, bliss, snowed in, unable to travel today, I potter through old photographs on Flickr and remember Moss at Avebury...
Though it may look beautiful, it was very cold early on that morning....

Moss at Solva in Pembrokeshire

Probably one of my most favourite places in the world. The last few years always done by myself with Moss as a companion. We walk the cliffs, Prescelli hills, and stay at a small cottage in the middle of nowhere at Llandinog.