There’s a useful summary of recent work and thought here [link lost, sorry]. It turns out that *some* bones were found in the 18th century, but nothing very dramatic – nothing has been found since, apart from a few fragments which help suggest a date of around 2500 BC, and mediaeval and Roman finds.
John Barrett and Paul Devereux have both suggested its use as a platform, commenting that it would raise people to a level just about equal to that of surrounding hills, and apparently people standing on a missing Obelisk at Avebury would *just* have been able to see people standing on Silbury, as if they were actually at the same level. Interesting – though they must have had a very good reason to go to all that bother.
What I’d like is a map showing exactly where in the surrounding area Silbury is visible *from* – it’s largely hidden from south and east by natural hills. Oh for the time to do a circuit of it and make that map myself. Obviously what you can see from the hill itself would be interesting to tally, too. (Maybe a day off in July beckons…)
I’m three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt, kindly lent by DM after literally years of trying to find a copy. I was lukewarm to start with but now am more and more enthralled by its quiet subtlety. I particularly approve of the way so far it has reconciled a magical realist viewpoint with a secular materialism (not to mention all the stuff about my old chums John Dee and Giordano Bruno). As do many things, it reminds me of my favourite quote from Coleridge who, when asked if he believed in ghosts, replied ‘No madam, I have seen far too many myself.”
I think my new ancient site of obsession may be Silbury Hill. Hardly a new interest generally, and I still remember fondly ascending it at 5 in the morning with T. on our crop-circle-hunting holiday of years back, but H. and I now pass it on our route between Wiltshire and Oxford, and I love the journey partly just for seeing it.
I think it may be more mysterious than Stonehenge and Avebury, really, in the sense that they, although not entirely fathomable by any means, nevertheless yield certain information – the alignments give one at least some sense of their significance and purpose. Silbury is silent. As far as I recall (and I should really read up *before* writing this, but I will do it shortly…), we have almost nothing on Silbury: no significant burials, and of course it’s hard to align a mound with anything in particular.
I was reminded passing it yesterday that it is actually notably recessed: although its crown is visible for some way (a Roman road nicely traverses a field towards it and then deflects), which is curious. But it seems too small – and too much effort to construct – for a defensive structure, and again perhaps too much effort for a purely ceremonial one. Though what else it could be I don’t know. It’s beautiful.
Further to the essay thoughts, this all ties in with a whole style of book I really want to produce, and brings together several of my book ideas from the last few ideas, namely combining walking with writing. Hardly unusual, but I may have a new take on this genre to some extent (more on this another time, perhaps). Again, though, I’d rather have a commission first. I love being self-employed, but it has rather taught me to focus on what I *know* will bring in money rather than what *might*, which isn’t always very good for proper creative expression.
(Incidentally, the motto ‘solvitur ambulando’, which I first picked up a few years ago from reading Chatwin’s Songlines, is attributed to St Augustine.)
All this talk of ancient trackways and so on has led me to wonder about writing a series of ‘Wessex essays’. One would be about the Harroway, another about Roman roads in this area, I think. And the one that started this idea is ‘In search of Egbert’s stone’ (see May 18th entry). I read an online draft of a book someone has written about the whole subject of Alfred and the war with the Danes, which includes a lengthy exposition on the location of Egbert’s stone, including a couple more possible locations. There are some notable inaccuracies – describing the Harroway as a Roman road, for example (though they may have adopted it) – and it would need some editing, but I wonder if it might be worth contacting the author (my age, it turns out) to discuss the idea of trying to publish it. It occurs to me I should try and write something on these themes for one of the history magazines.
The problem with writing for me these days is that I seem only to make the effort if I have a commission first – I don’t like knocking something out and then trying to flog it. But I could make some enquiries, I guess.
Further to comments on ‘s LJ, this has got me thinking. Y’see, the beauty, if there is any, in society is that there’s not only a breadth of jobs that need doing, but also a breadth of people willing to do them. Somehow it generally seems to pan out that roughly enough people want to be doctors or firemen or shopkeepers or whatever (yeah, yeah, I know I’m ignoring the whole ‘nobody actually *wants* to clean toilets’ underclass – but what’s the point of writing nonsense if you can’t be blithe and elitist about it?), and so the world turns.
It’s clear, too, that people have different dispositions, whether bookish, fey, stultifying or protuberant, and there’s a reasonably constant level of murderous sentiment in the human populace down the ages. So let’s harness this energy, brothers and sisters, and make something good from it. No, not another raffia basket, but a National Union of Murderers. Let’s just be honest: some people are baaaad. Let’s use bad for good and harness them to kill people we *want* killed – we’d be happy, and they’d feel fulfilled.
I just want to make a better world, you know.
What a contrast this evening’s cycle rides were, on my wobbly but enjoyable Brompton folder. In London: from Battersea to Waterloo, choking on the pollution along Nine Elms Lane and across Vauxhall Cross. In Warminster: taking the back route from the station, past a nature reserve, woods and fields, smelling fresh from afternoon rainfall. Much as I still love London history, and enjoy socialising there, I’m finding my albeit now limited commute (6-8 days a month) more and wearing, and indeed depressing.
All this relates to another of my abiding topographic obsessions: ancient trackways, particularly Roman roads, but also prehistoric and mediaeval ones. It turns out (thanks to an excellent book I’ve got from the library, The Roads and Trackways of Wessex) that the ancient road running across White Sheet Hill, about 8 miles from Warminster, and one I’ve often wanted to walk at greater length, is part of the pre-Roman Harroway, which allegedly ran from Kent to Cornwall. You can certainly walk many miles of it in my area scarcely touching modern roads, There are numerous milestones dating from the 1750s along this stretch. Must explore it more soon, although it will be an ambitious walk, so a greater level of fitness might be required…
I’ve been overwhelmed with work, and illness, lately, so little time to write and reflect, but here are a few highlights from the last week…
1. A hugely and unexpectedly stimulating and excellent guided walk across the city of London with my friend A. We were led past Mansion House – and treated to a coincidental view of the decrepit Lord Mayor of London and his consort stepping out of their immaculate Rolls Royce Phantom (registration LM 0), followed by various nonagenarian friends hobbling out of taxis in their finest livery; and on through winding lanes of the city, punctuated with a great deal of history that, despite considering myself fairly well up on London history, knew nothing of. Also visited another old city wine bar (claiming to date from 1663, but this may be spurious – certainly early 18th century anyway) which I had no clue about – and a lot more authentic than the Jamaica Wine House.
2. A very enjoyable walk around the various buttercup meadows of Oxford with H., although feeling ill and therefore not at my best. Saw the ruins of Godstow nunnery, and failed again to determine the exact site of the ancient mound on Port Meadow.
3. A cycle from Salisbury to Coombe Bissett and back, plus a walk and pub lunch around that area with G. & S. Very good short walk: a quiet country lane, a stretch of Roman road (albeit not entirely clear at this stretch) and a riverside path (the River Ebble, yet another tributary of Salisbury’s Avon) forming three sides of a triangle.
This Roman road is part of the one running from Old Sarum to Badbury Rings, near Wimborne Minster: known in mediaeval times as Ackling Dyke, the stretches south of where we were are apparently some of the best preserved in the country: the raised agger strikes clearly across the fields south of Sixpenny Handley. I’m hugely keen to walk this stretch soon, as I’ve yet to visit such a clear Roman road across fields, and this one has the added advantage of an enormous prehistoric cursus running near it. Hopefully a visit soon.
The Old Man’s Road
Across the Great Schism, through our whole landscape
Ignoring God’s vicar and God’s ape
Under their noses, unsuspected
The Old Man’s road runs where it did.
When a light subsoil, a simple ore
Where still in vogue true to his wherefore
By stiles, gates, hedgegaps it goes
Over ploughlands, woodlands, cow meadows
Past shrines to a cosmological myth
No heretic today would be caught dead with
Near hilltop rings that were so safe then
Now easily scaled by small children
Shepherds use bits in the high mountains
Hamlets use stretches for lovers’ lanes
then through cities threads its odd way
Now with gutters, a thieves’ ally
Now with green lamp-posts and white curb
The smart crescent of a high toned suburb
Giving wide berth to a new cathedral
Running smack through a new town hall
Unlookable for by logic or by guess
Yet some strike it and are struck fearless
No like can know it, but no life
that sticks to this course can be made captive
And those that know it are not stopped
at borders by some theocrat.
– WH Auden