Within the last week or so I discovered the Nebra Sky Disk. Well, I didn’t personally ‘discover’ it – if only – but I’m happy to report that it was found in 1999 by a couple of metal detectorists. Eat you heart out Lance! Interpreted as showing the sun, a crescent moon, the Milky Way and a star cluster identified as Pleiades, it’s the oldest tangible depiction of the cosmos known being dated to 1600BC. How beautiful it is. I want to see it in ‘real life’. Unfortunately, it’s in a museum in Leipzig. Try finding an easy way there with the interstellar help of Google.
Instead, I decide to go to Devizes where another beautiful artefact is waiting. This isn’t it. This is Westbury White Horse, the dating of which is somewhat indecisive but around the 1740’s; thus making it the oldest of eight of its kind in Wiltshire. On a November morning, when the crows are flying low over wind-torn hedgerows, I escape the Dorset downpours and head to sunnier climes.
This is what I’ve come to see: my favourite exhibit in the Wiltshire Museum at Devizes. It’s a stained glass depiction of the county as seen and created by John Piper, he of the old Shell Guides. Being given to the museum in 1982, it has nothing of the age of Nebra but, in its own right, all of the informative beauty of its subject. This morning, it hangs above another memorial, for today marks 100 years since the Armistice.
We know the numbers but there are too many to make sense of it all. We’re of the ‘what did you learn’ generation. There’s an installation next to Piper’s window wherein the names of the dead are being called out alongside their photographs. They are the dead members of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. So many from one tiny group of people in one tiny corner of England.
It’s suddenly all a bit overpowering but, from nowhere, an elderly gentleman appears to show me his grandfather’s Military Cross. ‘Did he talk about the war’, I ask (for he was a survivor)? I expect him to say ‘no’, but quite the opposite because ‘grandfather’ had horses shot from underneath him twice and everything my new friend learned was about the animals. And we have quite the second-hand conversation: he from familial memories and I because I’ve read John Lewis-Stempel’s account of the beasts on the Western Front. Between us, we know an extraordinary amount about lice.
After, I decide to search for beautiful things in the fresh air which involves passing through these gates onto Quakers’ Walk. The track leads onto what’s now referred to as ‘the extended Ridgeway’. It’s a nonsense as England’s thoroughfares once comprised an interlocking system of pathways along ridges. There’s an interesting history to these grade two listed gates which depict a sacred dolphin that allegedly saved one of Edward Colston’s ships and crew from destruction when a magnanimous dolphin blocked a hole in the side of the boat.
No-one seems to know why the path is called Quakers’ Walk and trust me, I asked a lot of people. More interestingly, the path was established in 1157 and I’m traversing it towards the Devizes White Horse which, not only have I never seen before, I didn’t even know of its existence.
I make it to the top, somehow, and have a look around. And the view is another beautiful thing. If they died for king and country, the best you can do is make sure you’ve witnessed an ancient landscape.