Megaliths to Cathedrals in good company

July 5, 2009

Today was one of those perfect days weather wise here in Wiltshire. Blue skys, scudding clouds and enough wind to make the temperature idea. Shawn and family were over for the day to see the local sights so I organised a day that started with Avebury Stone Circle, returned home for lunch before taking in Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. I chose the above photograph to represent the day as a whole. It’s taken from Avebury by the Dovecot for those interested. More photos below and the full stream for the day is here.

I have lost count of the number of people I have escorted around Avebury over the years. It was one of the main reasons we moved to the area. Five minutes drive, an hours walk over the downs or somewhere in between on the bike and you are in one of the great pre-historic sites of the world. Its one of those places you can visit as many times as you want and always find something new, and at all seasons. On a cold winter’s day the sheer scale of the horizon from the earth banks that surround the site, the pale presence of a weakened sun and the bitter wind make you aware of your frailties. Autumn brings the rich colours of the turning trees and wonderful evening shadows as you walk the ancient paths with a sense, at dusk that you are never alone and shouldn’t look over your shoulder. Spring brings the bluebells. drying less cloying chalk underfoot and the first signs that the tourists are to return, with the Equinox the druids appear and as Beltane approaches ancient rites are enacted in private places. Summer is probably my least favourite unless you are luck with the weather (as we were). Then you get a sense of the fertility of the surrounding area. The Tolkein Trees are verdent green and the fields are a rich tapestry of meadowland flowers. On this occasion as you can see they attracted the photographer’s eye from that the 6000 year old stones. At all times the clumps of trees on the eastern horizon provide definition and each marks a burial mound. The most impressive on the Ridgeway is of course Waylands Smithy, situated near to the Uffingham White Horse. I recommended both the Sawn for later in the week.

Any trip to Avebury starts with a walk around the circle. I often stand on top of the bank above the entrance stones incredulous at the physical feat of such a construction achieved with antler bones and reindeer picks. That complete a visit to the Keiller Museum is rewarding (forget the more modern exhibit in the old barn is designed for primary school students only). Many people complete their tour at that point, but I always visit the Saxon Church of St James, one of the few in England still to have a Minstrels Gallery. Most times I also visit the new age shop in the centre. A great source of last minute presents at all time of the years as they work with good local artists and a collection of new age literature that provides interest and amusement alike.

Duly complete we drove past Silbury Hill, the great enigma of the area. The largest man made mound in Europe it has no purpose that we know of. No one is buried there, there is no treasure, no apparent religious significance. But using primitive tools it was built, and the building evidences advanced engineering knowledge. Shortly afterwards we parked at the side of the A4 and walked up to the West Kennet Long Barrow. This burial mound was used over an extended period of time and its possible to walk someway into the chamber. From time to time you also find the remnants of candles and a lingering smell that brings back memories of University in the 70s. We had the added bonus on this trip of seeing one of the first crop circles of the year (pictured). These days laser projection from a near hill with computer control guides the hands of the makers, and the designs have become more sophisticated as technology has advanced. Of course if you want to believe they are the results of alien presence or are linked to the various anticipated events of 2012.

It was then time for lunch and we returned home. I’d prepared one my favourite summer recipes the night before. A mixture of turkey, pasta, peppers, grapes, hazelnuts in a light curry sauce with mayonnaise and yogurt. That plus a selection of local cheeses (Cornish Yarg is one of my favourites and I’d secured some the previous day) along with local strawberries and fresh bread served well.

Thence to part two of the day and a visit to Stonehenge. Now I have always seen this as second best to Avebury, in part because you can’t go into the stones, just walk around them at a safe distance, in part because the whole site is so tacky. However for Shawn’s daughters it was a first ever visit and its always interested to see the first reaction to one of the iconic sites of our human heritage. The blue stones from the Preseli Hills were either glacial erratics or were transported by humans at the time. Recently someone replicated a possible process in which the stones were slung between two boats beneath the surface to reduce weight, so we know its possible and I admit to liking the idea of human choice rather than the accidents of glaciation. Given the incredible feats described earlier transporting a few stones seems a minor inconvenience rather than an impossible task. Walking around was a hazard given the number of people but we made it without being knocked over by camera toting thugs.

Leaving the car park we headed south with emerging views of Old Sarum on the left to Salisbury. Old Sarum is interesting, once the centre of the Salisbury Diocese the castle and cathedral were abandoned to allow a new centre to be built in the valley below. One side result of that was the creation of a rotten borough, finally abolished in the reform act of 1812. The new Cathedral was started in 1220 some five years Magna Carta; one of the four remaining copies can be viewed in the Chapter House. It took over a hundred years to complete (although the main builders were complete in less than half that time) and whole new building technologies had to be created to allow the Spire to be created. I took this picture form the cloisters, one of the few still extant following the depravations of Henry VIII and his agent Cromwell. The see of Salisbury was always political, playing its part in the making and breaking of Kings. The Bishop changed sides in the Wars of the Roses, played a part in the Barons dispute with John and Osmund was Chancellor of England and nephew of William the Conquerer. There is a strong military theme to the Cathedral as well with the various standards of the WIltshire Regiments. The tombs are in the main of knights in armour or bishops who led Crusades. There is a monument to those lost in the Burma campaign of the second world and numerous memorials.

The end of a long day and an hours drive home. Its a good route, over the downs and through Upavon. As one nears Alton Barnes you get a good view of one of the Wiltshire White Horses. Nearby is Adam’s Grave and ancient burial mound, to the right as you climb out of the vale of Pewsey is a hill fort and (out of sight but never of mind) the plague village of Shaws, wiped out by the plague my own village of Lockeridge was chosen as its replacement by the Knights Templer. Their Rockly base meant that we never had a church, indeed we are the only village in the Doomsday book without one!

The end of a long day, weather, good company and interest made it pass quickly. Its a privilege to have friends around the world, to be able to visit them and be visited in turn. It also gets you out and about in your local area. I hadn’t see Stonehenge for a decade. Salisbury for longer. I realised the other day that it is years since I spend a day down on the Dorset coast which is only a two hour drive away. There are parts of the Cotswolds I have never visited despite living next to them. I need to pick up on this when I return (as of next weekend I set off for seven weeks on a round the world). For the moment I’ll store these memories, find something to eat for dinner and attempt to catch up on email and preparation for next week’s sessions.

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