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Landscapes of meaning

January 24, 2023

I’ve been feeling a little frustrated over the last ten days.  I spent the previous week in a holiday cottage in Eryri with some excursions to the Carneddau foothills only to be flattened by gale-force winds and saturated by driving rain and hail.  Since my return, the wind has dropped and the sky is clear and blue and it’s perfect walking weather but I’m stuck in Wiltshire which, with the best will in the world, cannot be called mountainous.

On the upside, I am in the midst of Neolithic Britain.  Avebury Stone Circle (older and more impressive than Stone Henge) is an hour or so’s walk away over the downs and if I do walk there I cross one of the oldest roads in Europe namely the Ridgeway.  All the way along that there are clumps of trees growing on Neolithic Burial Mounds or barrows.  I get a sense of comfort that those roots are entangled with the bones of my distant ancestors as the Welsh, along with Britons and the Cornish are the remnants of the Romano-Celts.

Walking that road at dusk you have a sense that others are walking with you.    Back when I was in the Sixth form the BBC broadcast one of the classic horror dramas of all time which worked on the premise that ancient stone could record and replay past horrors.  If you get a chance to watch The Stone Tape do, its a little dated but it terrified me at the time as it had a realistic scientific base for the horror that unfolds.  Having the misfortune to be gifted with an active imagination the Stone Tape seems pretty close to reality walking at dusk or at night adjacent to the sarsen stones that characterise the area.   My daughter and I have a sense from time to time of a presence at the back of our garden which appears malevolent.  It’s not always there but we have checked and our observations correlate.  Now it may well be one of the muntjac deer that intrude on the garden from time to time and my wife and son deride us as superstitious, but I walk briskly at night and close the doors and curtains.  There is an ancient spell that prevents evil from crossing your doorstep uninvited; I read that in Alan Gardner’s wonderful The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when I was very young and the comfort of that belief stays with me as I approach my 70th year in 2024.  The contrast of the old and new magic in his books helped structure my childhood and stays with me to this day.  Walking back from the local garage shop last night I took the banner picture of the crescent moon and (I think) Venus) as the sun set over the water meadows of the River Kennet and I started to wonder if Susan or the Morrígan would be in the ascendency and if I could invoke the wild hunt by setting wendfire on the old straight path  Maybe that presence at the back of the garden is the Brollachan seeking a new host?

Aside from a degree of confession, I am making a wider point that memory is tied up in landscapes.  I’ve been out for a couple of walks this week into the West Woods which are a three-minute walk up the lane.  One of the ancient woodlands of Britain will see bluebells carpet the forest floor in a few months’ time.  But this week my boots have broken the crust on frosted mud and the low sun has displayed itself through the pattern of trees.  Today I walked up the Wansdyke, an ancient boundary between the Celts and the Saxons that runs along the downs.  I’ve shown a picture of one section from today’s walk but it is more impressive a few miles to the west.  From the high points, I can see Silbury Hill which until recently we thought was unique but now core samples of the Norman Castle Mound in the college have shown that it was built on a neolithic mound and if true here may be true over the whole of Britain which opens up another fascinating set of questions about our neolithic ancestors who were far more sophisticated than people think.

The oral tradition from which I come, and to which I still belong, weaves the stories of the people and the landscape into meaning-making tapestries, not the static stories of the written word and the archive but a living out of identity over time and place.  We are a part of our landscapes and they are part of our extended consciousness, providing continuity and connectivity with our many and varied pasts.

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