Something inexplicable: 4000 holes

South of the River Kennet, something remarkable is being unearthed in a non-descript field. Although we’ve had a classroom introduction, and I’ve dutifully undertaken a little research, it all seems relatively meaningless once we come into contact with the archaeologists engaged on this dig who bring ancient history alive. The answers to our questions only serve to deepen a new mystery in this enigmatic landscape.

I’ll try to place this field within its geographical, topographical and multi-layered historical context. Journeying down yet another apparently insignificant lane that runs from the A4, a little way before that dangerous lay-by where folk wanting to walk to the long barrow stop, Andy crosses the river and parks the mini-bus whereupon we all tumble out. Silbury Hill, which we can easily see, is less than a kilometre to the east; and Silbury is 1.5 kilometres south of Avebury and the same distance again from Windmill Hill. The ancient world is seemingly aligned. The Sanctuary is 700 metres to the east and the ceremonial, sarsen-lined avenue that links it with the Avebury henge passes by to the north. We’re talking Neolithic and Bronze Age by the way. Literally, ‘by the way’: the way along which folk processed. And we also have the West Kennet and East Kennet long barrows in close proximity. Whittle, who briefly investigated this site in the late 1980s, noted that, given all the monuments to hand, it was remarkable that the presence of so much strange and important archaeology in this field went unnoticed until 1987. Ironically, however, our field is, at some points, outside the current designated boundary of the World Heritage site of Avebury (and Stonehenge). They may have to re-think the frontiers.

So, what is here? In 2000, aerial photographs unexpectedly revealed previously unrecognised cropmark features associated with Late Neolithic (4500 BCE) palisaded enclosures. I can feel myself getting too technical. Basically, within our windy field, something strange to us was happening back in pre-history. The archaeologists have determined that a huge, as yet inexplicable, series of linked circles and walkways existed. That would be a ginormous timber construction of something or other which, in trying to explain by means of our 21st century culture, defies enlightenment. Further, the holes in which the wood was placed, sometimes sharpened, sometimes burned, were immediately back-filled with sarsen stones and earth to stop the timbers collapsing. And did I mention that they’ve estimated there were at least 4000 holes and tree trunks?

I won’t sleep tonight; and what keeps me awake is trying to get my head around this figure. I’m minded of Lennon’s four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire in the seminal A Day in the Life… ‘nobody was really sure if they would fill the Albert Hall’; and nobody’s really sure what was occurring in our field. Firstly, where did they get 4000 or more tree trunks from and how did they get them here? In the middle of the nineteenth century, the naturalist Richard Jeffries surmised that further along the Ridgeway, the earthworks at Barbary Castle, along with a vast swathe of the surrounding countryside, may well have been forested. But here’s the rub: can you imagine how busy it would’ve been here? How many folk did it take to work that quickly to dig the holes before it rained, plant the timber, and fill it in before it subsided? The place must’ve been like a super-efficient building site: noisy beyond comprehension in this now tranquil landscape. And in order that all these palisades linked with each other – and we know that alterations were made to fit the plan – someone without a computer or even a pencil made such a plan. It’s beyond my limited intellectual capacity or imagination.

It gets better. Today’s archaeologists surmise that there were separate timber-ringed enclosures for different groups of people with the most important in this hierarchy being closest to the river. There’s no evidence that folk actually lived here which means they came for a reason. It makes me think of a concert, a festival or a restaurant where some people get the better seats. Standing in this wind-blown field, I feel so privileged to have been allowed access to this conundrum. The next day, I mention to a fellow traveller that I was unable to sleep because … ‘were you thinking about all those trees’, she asks?

Map courtesy of English heritage

 

 

 

 

 

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Windmill Hill

 By 6.30 this evening, there’s more than a promise of rain which is sufficiently threatening to deter me from an organised evening walk. The pub beckons; but it’s the last night in town and I should make an effort. All aboard the mini-bus and up another lonely lane running away from the A4 where we are dropped in nowhere as if on one of those adventures where the first one home wins a prize. And the last is never seen again.

We are eight, including our leader, the effusive Jenny. Being a physics teacher at College, she knows nothing of archaeology but her enthusiasm for evening walking is infectious. Incidentally, I’ve noticed that the upper classes, of whom there are quite a few in this backwater, speak in a different language that hinges on the use of prepositions: here we must say ‘College’ and not ‘the’ college’; or ‘Court’ and not ‘the court’. Conversely, in Oxford, we use the preposition but not the end of the description: the High Street simply becomes ‘the high’. For me, it’s far more interesting to spend an hour in Marlborough Library, where they forbid the public to use the toilet, reading a book on Wiltshire country dialect which, strangely, seems to make more sense.

I can resonate with our leader’s desire to imbibe all the landscape has to offer. On my archaeology course we’ve paid to see the world through an expert’s eyes. But here, on top of the Marlborough Downs, we’re sharing the experience. So we stroll through the glorious Wiltshire countryside which is firstly bordered by a meadow of golden corn – one of the few still standing in this week which has been marked by early harvesting. Most fields have contained stacks of wheat, built like the Bako towers of my childhood attempts at architecture or, nearer the plain, acres of giant cotton reel-like rolls of cereal. In Marlborough, harvest-bearing tractors trundle along the roads, oblivious to the rest of the traffic, strewing countryside stalks along the way to remind the affluent townsfolk of their proximity to the open land that’s been farmed for generations.

The other side of this evening’s path is banked by diverse hedgerow including the already sloe-laden blackthorn and naturally the talk turns to gin making, and to late summer foraging in preparation for yuletide gifts. There’s also a profusion of foliage bearing clusters of bright red berries which are so tightly packed that we confuse them for flowers at first. This is the aptly named Wayfaring Tree. I love that, for what are we but temporal wayfarers along this track?

The late evening butterflies are still playing in the long grass and on the other side of the hedge a kestrel hovers having spotted its supper below. In the distance, something larger is about its business: a buzzard perhaps or even a red kite. It’s too far away to tell.

 

Suddenly, as we reach Windmill Hill, a Chinook helicopter appears from behind a Neolithic barrow without warning and we all jump at the incongruity of Apocalypse Now. Or then. The remains of bodies were discovered here. The reason for their abandonment is unclear.

 

Windmill Hill, a less-visited part of the Avebury World Heritage site, is the largest known causewayed enclosure in Britain and we have it to ourselves. The light is startling up here and all around the ancient landscapes are clearly outlined: in front, the Lansdowne monument on Cherhill points a way to the sky. To the left, the horizon is edged by Milk Hill, Walkers Hill and Adam’s Grave, on the other side of which the Alton Barnes White Horse is settling down for the night while it waits for its imminent re- dressing of chalk. And in the middle of it all, the enigmatic Silbury Hill sits silently, like a way-marker for those ancients who have travelled from all directions.

‘Fiona’s missing’, someone shouts and we are indeed down to seven in number. Jenny, in a panic, recounts just to make sure. ‘I’ll lose my job’, she cries. Secretly, I think the rest of us may be pleased at the temporary loss of our noisily flatulent colleague, but here she comes, reappearing from pre-history and, with a Muswell Hill dialect, refusing to offer an explanation for her absence.

A few spit-spots of rain are felt and as we turn to walk away from the enclosure, we notice that the hills, which were so sharply defined only ten minutes ago, are already shrouded in unseemly weather. Passing poppies, scabious and beautiful unidentifiable purple flowers, we walk a little more quickly now down to the farm buildings and onto a delightful back path into the village of Avebury. In this lane, the homes are so affluent that even the walls are thatched. The weather finally closes in and just as we reach our transport, the rain begins to fall relentlessly.

 

 

Poster

The rather large picture on my bedroom wall to which I awake each morning, a 1935 poster by Leo Lelee, was purchased in two provençal markets: the first, wherein a scruffy facsimile is tied around the trunk of a plane tree in Place General de Gaulle during a Tuesday evening market – or the more romantic sounding marché nocturne – in St Remy de Provence. I’ve acquired souvenirs from this vendor previously over the years and he knows a potential sale when he spots my head bobbing across the jewellery and leather handbag stalls. All the Gallic charm is switched on, hands are shaken in a business rencontre that avoids all that multiple kissing, I’m welcomed back en France, and a price is negotiated. I don’t want the battered copy on the tree trunk merci beaucoup so he promises me another, complete with cardboard transportation tube, by the end of the week. Thus, on Friday, the deal is completed at the second market, this being the morning one at Eygalières: a slightly less cosmopolitan affair, and thereby not as expensive as St Remy but, nonetheless, increasingly affluent, especially with the advent of Hugh Grant’s recent residency into the village environs. Allegedly.

 Subsequently, my version of the poster is ensconced in black by a superb framer who lives just down the road from me in deepest Dorset; a craftsman who welcomes my trips to Provence with the same relish as the guy who sells the pictures. They know what I spend my holiday money on once the wine shopping has been accomplished. A black frame suits the lavender-coloured background with its black and white graphics. Of course, you can buy similar on eBay – but they’re not quite the same. I remember once meeting a woman in Arles, who claimed she worked for the estate of Lelee, telling me that it wasn’t possible to purchase the complete poster any longer. In these parts, the heat makes one disinclined to argue a point, especially one which the other side will never admit to losing. Wherever you go in the world, there’s always someone who’s got something that somebody else desires. For example, the sole original Van Gogh on show in Provence is a dull representation of a train, housed at the Musèe Angladon in Avignon. However, being a fan of all things conspiratorial, I don’t believe it’s the only one hanging around in all senses. In those infamous nine week passed at the yellow house in Arles, Vincent sold his paintings before they were even dry for the price of a beer or an hour with a woman of the southern nights. Might not be on public display but it’s difficult to believe none of these masterpieces still exist in the locale. And anyway, my pal in the market is churning them out to order.

 The poster was a piece of promotional art designed to encourage tourists, having been persuaded that patrimony was now all the rage, to traverse the conveniently emerging ancient sites of Provence; that would be all those antiquities that Johnny Onion Man had been staggering past for eons. In particular, those on the new Grand Tour were advised to visit Fontvieille. This superficially insignificant village, set in the region of what is now the Parc des Alpilles, was the literary home of Alphonse Daudet who wrote a number of seminal pieces about the area that, á la mode Dickens, were published in the capital’s press prior to comprising a small but important book entitled Letters From my Windmill. Daudet wrote his pieces from the contrasting urbanisation of Paris but, like many writers since, contrived to convince the reader that he was, in fact, living elsewhere. And he pulled off this literary trompe l’oeil with exacting veracity. Want to read about rural Provence? Read Daudet.

On the poster, places of potential interest are highlighted under a row of dancing Arlesienne ladies: Daudet’s museum, the aqueducts of Barbegal – always mentioned in the plural but I’ve only ever found one, the underground water systems which are no longer accessible and the shell altar. I must have looked at my framed version for at least a year before actually registering and translating this final piece of information. Shell? Altar? What shell altar? I’d passed many a day in Fontvieille, mostly eating very rare steak at the Bar Tabac but, on one memorable occasion, having purchased an ancient tome from some boot sale or other, traipsing around the village counting wells. I knew the place but had never come across a shell altar.

 On a hot (what else?) June morning the Kiwi and I set off in search of the shell. On the road to Arles, fields are ablaze with sunflowers waiting patiently for an artist to pass by. We’ve seen them before – who hasn’t? But they’re like a magnet even for those of us without a handy paintbrush and we spontaneously pull over in order to stand or crouch between the sturdy stems for yet another photo opportunity. Vincent painted twelve pictures of the majestic tournesol – turn to the sun – which we know of. I can understand his lack of ennui.

Nearer to Le Paradou than anywhere else, we spot signage for the Moulin de Coquillage which seems a bit of a clue. This being the premier area in France for olive oil, there are moulins aplenty but not too many boasting a scallop. We take a sudden and startling turn a la droit and make for the mill whereupon we locate and interrogate a pleasant gangly youth. Before we’ve even considered how one might say we’re looking for a large shell in French, the pleasant gangly youth asks whether we’re looking for a large shell and points us in a completely different direction. From this I deduce that hordes of others have travelled this way before without the slightest intention of purchasing olive oil; although, this is simultaneously contradicted by the fact that we’re in the back end of nowhere on a track that looks like nothing more mechanical than a mule has passed by in eons.

Retracing our route, we come across two provençal types lurking in the trees who look as if they may be the descendants of those who came to the aid of travellers in the 1930s. ‘Looking for the shell’, they ask? ‘Follow the track that says no entry, no cars, entry forbidden and other such welcoming signage’.

On this same holiday, some days later, I once again see my friend in the market who had sold me the original poster. On this occasion, amongst the reproductions of the only time the Tour de France passed through Les Alpilles, I find a small copy of an ancient photo of three Arlesienne ladies, in full traditional dress, posing formally by the shell altar. It seemed such a fortuitous and timely discovery. Monsieur tries to explain the image to me but I stop him in his tracks, saying I’d been there a few days previously. He is horrified and more than a little disbelieving: ‘c’est impossible’, he cries. ‘No-one knows where it is and anyway it’s a private road. One can only go by personal invitation. Well, sorry old bean, but I went, I saw and I took a photo.

Coming back from Les Baux the other day, I recount this story to my daughter and remind her of the photo of the Arlesiennes on my dressing table. From the corner of my eye, I detect a possible spark of interest. The dressing table of one’s mother is often a source of private interests and considerations. Not my mother’s any longer but in another lifetime it was where the remains of delightfully scented powder compacts and carefully used lipsticks rested: things that signified some other part of her. ‘Do you want to go’, I ask, recalling that she’s turned down a trip to the antiquities in St Remy on the basis of having no time for ‘all that Roman stuff’. But something has stirred a sense of adventure. As she’s today’s designated driver, I offer a warning reiteration of the forbidden route she’ll have to traverse. A professional, a parent and a person in her own right, she’s still not developed that nonchalant and perverse ability to ignore ‘prohibited’ that one acquires with age.

She behaves as well as one can hope for; better actually, merely counting and expounding on the number of warning signs. And being driven down this track, as opposed to being in charge of the vehicle, avoiding ruts, roots and potholes, is a totally different experience. On the far right is a wall of stone in front of which a few trees cling perilously to the cliff. From the left, there’s a sudden flash of iridescent blue as unidentifiable bird darts from the trees, across the road to the other side. Is it a blue jay, she asks? I think not – too big and, ironically, too blue. Then another five or six which must have been hiding in the trees in front of the olive mill fly past to join their leader. They are European Rollers, exotic cousins of the jay. On another day, we’ll see single ones perched in solitude on telegraph wires.

Pull in here, I suggest as we reach a suitable piece of gravel off piste, and we abandon the car to walk further down the track into nowhere. It’s the sort of place that, on a good day, there might be large professional guard dogs wandering free in a cheerful but protective provençal attitude; on a bad day, there might be wolves. It would be difficult to hear them coming for here in the Alpilles the noise of the cicadas is deafening. It’s not that pleasant chatter that accompanies other sounds of the South – this is Provence at its wildest. Overgrowth abounds.

 Where is it, she demands with more than a hint of angst-ridden urgency? Just behind these trees, I say on reaching the bend. In fact, if you didn’t know where to look you would never see it. And when you do see it, well then you wonder how it can remain so hidden and so unknown to most people. A great and perfectly formed scallop shell is carved meticulously into the rock above a plinth that can only be an altar. She’s as amazed as I was when I first saw this edifice that has quietly contemplated its surroundings for hundreds of years. In the middle ages, it was mistaken for a waymarker of St Jacques on the route that crosses the Alpilles from Italy to Arles and onwards to Santiago Compostela, and many pilgrims somehow found their way along this lonely path. Its history is older and its raison d’être somewhat different as it’s now believed to be a Gallo-Roman taurobolic place of sacrifice.

 

Wow, she says, that’s weird. And it is.

 

 

 

 

photos: angladon.com; ebirds.org; monumentum.fr

 

A load of stones

Last Sunday, daughter number one took me to the beach for the day. Given that I live four minutes walk from the water, that might not sound like anything out of the ordinary. However, we were travelling along the edge of the county for many miles to Charmouth, almost on the Devon border, to look for fossils in the most Jurassic part of the UNESCO World Heritage coastline. I hadn’t been there for years, the last time being in the company of llamas. But that’s another story.

The dual carriageway that runs between Bere Regis and Dorchester is a dangerous affair: not because it’s a fast road but because the skies above are often full of large birds that demand acknowledgement. ‘Buzzard’, I shout. ‘Another buzzard’; ‘look, buzzard being chased by a crow’. ‘A pair of buzzards!’ Daughter politely explains that she can’t look at the birds and simultaneously drive in a reasonably straight line: ‘mum, every time I take you out you’re always shouting about buzzards’. I resolve to sit quietly. And of course, the photo is not of a buzzard but of a crow who, having chased away the predators, is guarding the clifftop above Charmouth Beach. ‘Crow!’

Jurassic limestone is comprised of hundreds of thousands of ancient creatures, crushed and built up over the eons. The reason why Charmouth is world famous for its fossils is due to the geology: the eternal crumbling of the cliffs means that new, or old, stuff is always being washed out to sea and returned on incoming tides. There are plenty of signs suggesting that the best fossils are found on the beach and warning folk to stay away from the collapsing crags; and definitely not to attack the cliffs.

It seems that most people ignore the warnings. After our picnic, we set off for ‘fossil beach’ where quite a few folk have strayed onto the unstable limestone with their hammers. And there isn’t that much to see or find. A bit disappointing really. We decide to go to the visitor centre instead. Some ramshackle affair on an unattractive beach turns out to be super interesting.

 

This is seven years old Helena who, irritatingly, picked up an ‘interesting stone’ on her way back from a beach picnic earlier this year. Her family took it to the shop and asked whether it was anything important. Well, just a 190 million year old fish fossil replete with scales.

And if that wasn’t sufficiently sickening, an eight years old boy on a fossil walk, also this year, found a 200 years old mammoth tooth. Haven’t these kids got a PlayStation to occupy them? What’s wrong with today’s parents? By the way, I took neither of these photos but they’re freely available to one and all.

 

 

We were going home at this point but, inspired by the horrid children and the receding tide, we ventured onto the beach on the Lyme Regis side where the ancient fish was discovered. Sitting on boulders and shuffling around, wondering how one might ever again stand up, is both backbreaking and rewarding: every stone within sight bears a fossilised imprint of times past. Daughter number one collects a bag full. The bag breaks and I transfer the loot to my rucksack. It’s backbreaking. My tiny leaf imprinted fossil fits snugly in my back pocket. Isn’t this where you offer to carry the bag, I ask. She laughs.

Doesn’t matter: we had such the time back in the ages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prelude to a walk

Lead us heavenly father, lead us. It’s Sunday and as I skirt the perimeter of the Church of St Nicholas at Studland, the musical praise of the hopeful seeps through the Norman walls like a poetic cliché. In the churchyard, the children of a local rabbit family play between two gravestones; parents presumably watching from the pitch edge like familial spectators at a Sunday morning football match, only hidden and not as vocal. Late Spring has taken hold when no-one was looking and many of the graves, including the most recent, have given up waiting for Abna to mow them and sit quietly like a row of barbers’ customers who’ve left it until the last minute to get a hair-cut. Someone’s been here, though, as the spare vases and jam-jars are missing. I lay my flowers on the grave and retrace my steps, tip-toeing past the bunnies, in search of a water-bearing vessel.

The service has finished and the vicar, with five disorderly choirboys trailing to the rear, is processing towards the church hall. Quickly nipping in before them, I plead my case to the ladies organising congregational coffee and they kindly furnish me with a bright blue plastic beaker in which to display my temporarily abandoned carnations. Graveside once more, I arrange the now shortened stems. Through sunshine-lit trees the sparkling sea is sporting its brightest blue Sunday best and I look up just as the Cherbourg ferry is passing out of Poole Bay. All of these folk that I have known, who now grace this field, desired to be left here for the view.

‘Got someone up here’, asks an old soldier balancing on two walking sticks? And because the sun is shining, and neither of we two are in a hurry, he tells me his life story and that of his wife who lies beneath the earth three plots down from Derek. As with all older people, it begins with his age. Eighty-something. At what point in time, I wonder, do we find it essential to state our age at the commencement of a narrative? Sometimes, it seems to necessitate congratulations at such a temporal achievement but he doesn’t seem very happy about his advanced years. Perhaps it’s because his wife has left without him and because he can’t stand with much confidence. Yesterday, he recalls, he walked to Knoll Beach to visit a special WW2 exhibition but found himself too exhausted to walk home. Not in possession of a phone, and with no-one to call anyway, he hitched a lift back to the village in a mini-bus full of schoolchildren on a day-trip. I promise to visit the exhibition, and I will.

Returning to the church hall to deposit the plastic wrapping from the flowers, I am accosted by a woman of indeterminable age, in an even more indeterminable type of dress, who claims to be from over the hill; provenance which I accept without question. She wishes to draw my attention to the new concrete rubbish bin: ‘nice and sturdy, isn’t it’, she asks? Although it’s really an affirmation rather than a question. She reports that the committee has removed the top of the outside tap. ‘It’s to stop campers using the water’, she explains. Good job they didn’t want any bread and fishes I think but don’t say and feel the whole episode to be in stark contrast with the beaker-giving ladies within. My new friend whispers that she will show me where the tap top is hidden as if initiating me into some sort of secret watery society. The thing is, the hiding place is inside the church hall which is generally shut. ‘Oh’, she says, ‘you’d need to know where the key is’, but clearly I can’t progress two stages in one day as the conversation ends there.

 

 

A new season at the Willows

‘What’s happening Mr Toad’, asked Mole? ‘Are we in a queue?’
‘She’s moving things around old boy. Getting ready for new plants don’t you know’, replied his graciousness.
‘I feel a bit crowded’, said Badger.
‘I think I can hear the sea’, puzzled Ratty.
‘Could be that giant shell Mr Attenborough left’, thought Mole; although he didn’t mention this.

 

‘What’s happening here Mr Badger’, asked Mole?
‘Nasturtium seeds, don’t you know’, replied Badger. ‘She thinks she’s going to have flocks of orange floating out of the jug and down the sides of the basin’.
‘That sounds lovely’, said Mole.
‘That sounds unlikely’, said Ratty.
‘That sounds like she’s drinking too much’, said Toad. ‘Or not enough’.

‘Ratty … ‘ began Mole
‘Don’t even ask’, the rat interrupted
‘After Damian Hirst’, explained Badger
‘After help’ Ratty said
‘After a bottle of the red stuff’, said Toad
Secretly, the mole was a little bit frightened and hoped it was a friend of that nice Mr Attenborough