Monday, June 1, 2009

Neolithic Man - the precision worker.

After the hustle and bustle of London yesterday and a week or more in bigger cities, it was lovely this morning to be heading back out into the English countryside. The day is again beautiful (perfect one day, b***** beautiful the next!) We leave West Drayton just after 10 am and so, have allowed the worst of the peak traffic to have passed us. The trip to Avebury is uneventful even if slowed by road works from time to time.

Just before Swindon we pass a convoy of army vehicles on low loaders - by the condition of the troop carrier and the tanks we suspect that they have returned from active service - maybe in Afghanistan or Iraq. Sadly as I type this the nightly news reports the deaths of another two British servicemen in Afghanistan today. The other big news of course is the missing Air France A330 Airbus over the Atlantic Ocean with all 230 people on board presumed lost.

We are headed for Avebury, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a site that, like others we have seen in our trip through the United Kingdom and Ireland, dates back more than 5,000 years. There is something so imponderable that just draws you to them. The precision with which the stones have been placed raises more questions about than we will ever be able to answer - the why, how, what kind of questions. And as with some of these monuments, while you look keenly for them in the surrounding landscape, they allude you until, all at once, you round a corner and there they are - close enough to touch!

En route, we are driving down a narrow major road (the A4) with flowering rape seed all around us beaming brighter than the yellow sun when I glance further afield and there is - Oh. My. God. A white horse! You know, one of those that has been carved into the side of the chalky hills. A quick u-turn a couple of kilometres down the road and back we go to Hackpen Hill to take a closer look. Michael walks down the (12%) slope to where the carving is, to find that it is totally open and that if he had wanted to, he could have walked all over it! Of course, he doesn't but certainly gets close enough for some interesting photos. Turns out that they were dug out in 1837 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria.
Back down the road then and on to Avebury . . .

The hamlet of Avebury has grown around and through the Stone Circle over time so that now, the Circle is an integral part of the village - or maybe, the village is an integral part of the Circle. And just on cue, around the corner - there are the first of the stones! What makes this circle stand out are a number of features - its size, the mound, the enclosed circles, the surrounding 'hills' and other mounds, the tombs and its accessibility. The National Trust manages the property and the best thing about this is that it is totally accessible to the people of the UK and of course anyone else who happens to find themselves here. In fact, on the brochure, one suggestion is "... for an unusual place to have lunch why not put down a rug in the stone circle..."!

We park in the car park and walk about 600 m around to the henge so that from ground level you look at the curve of the outer henge. This henge is built upon a huge raised flat area surrounded by a ditch that when first constructed was an incredible 9 metres deep. And all this was dug with antlers. The stones are HUGE - much larger than any others we have seen to date. Sure there was one stone on the Isle of Islay that was taller, but these are not only tall at up to 12 feet high, the are LARGE rocks - and consequently very very heavy. So again we are faced with all the engineering and logistics questions - how did these people who for so long we have accepted to be uneducated and brutish move and construct such a henge?

But we have only just begun our journey of discovery here! Turns out there were circles within circles and avenues of stones leading to them, a vast barrow tomb and a constructed symmetrical hill that so far has escaped all explanation. Oh, how arrogant man has been in quickly dismissing the skill and knowledge of his ancestor. These days are the ones when we just feel so small. It is a O. My. God. experience - all day long!

Once we have a look around the main henge, Michael takes off to explore the rest, while I adjourn to the Red Lion Pub for a pint of Cider and some lunch - Open King Prawn and Loch Fyne Scottish Smoked Salmon on toasted multi-grain bread. Gosh it was SO good! When Michael joins me in a little while he orders the Shredded aromatic Hoisin Duck and Cucumber Wrap. Mmmm mmmm.

After we lunch, we drive around to have a look at the Silbury Hill. Archaeologists have so far been unable to explain why this huge mound was constructed. This in no way diminishes the impact that it has on the surrounding landscape - or on us!

From here Michael walks over and 700 m up a hill to the West Kennet Barrow. While Michael is there I watched in amazement as the breeze ripples the grasses across the hills like waves on the land. And all this in a beautiful English summer landscape with little white cotton clouds being puffed along on the wind in the otherwise brilliant blue sky.

The walk up the incline to the barrow was quite a challenge, and my endeavour was rewarded with a spectacular view of a vista dominated by the Silbury Hill. However, nothing could quite prepare me what I was to find at the very top of the climb. Before me stood a long mound with a final sarsen stone at the entrance, standing at least three metres high. My excitement was overwhelming as I could walk into the barrow's interior. The barrow is maintained by the National Trust who have installed small skylights which shed light into the main aisle of the barrow.

Similar in construction to the passages and chambers of Newgrange in Ireland, one could be excused for assuming this was the work by the same builders. The main aisle doesn't run the full length of the barrow, however, the construction is just breathtaking. Stout sarsen stones supporting much larger lintels, along the length of the central aisle and similar construction of the five chambers. Four of the chambers open onto the main aisle, whilst the five and largest chamber is at the end of the aisle. There is evidence of visitations by devotees who have left flower bouquets in the main chamber. The small slabs of oolitic limestone were used for packing between the larger sarsen stones. Similar to the cairn mounds in Ireland, the interior construction at West Kennet is as appeared over 5000 years ago.

The mound was built up from chalk rubble dug from the two ditches on either side. This barrow was first documented by the diarist John Aubrey during the 16th century, and again in the 17th century by William Stukely. And our last stunner of today was the sight of a long avenue of standing stones lined up in an avenue facing each other and leading to or from the Stone Circle. West Kennet avenue connects the circle with The Sanctuary, another circle long disappeared and with only the ditch outline remaining. Yes, neolithic man rocks!

Tonight we are staying at the Castle and Ball Pub in Marlborough just a few kilometres away. This is another pub in the Greene King Old English Inns chain - the same as the Red Lion today. The room on the first floor is spacious and overlooks the main street - the widest main street in England! We have dinner in the restaurant at 8:15 pm so that we can be upstairs again in time to watch a special on Stonehenge! Fancy that - on the day that we have been to another amazing henge.

Dinner tonight was just as amazing as today's lunch - Fisherman's Catch (West Country whitebait fillets with fresh tartare sauce and seasonal fresh vegetables and bay peas) Michael and Farm-assured roast chicken breast (with a Provencal sauce, buttered new potatoes and green beans) Maria. We followed it with Chocolate Fondant with ice cream (Michael) and Sicilian Lemon Tart with fresh berries (Maria). And while Michael had an Appletiser to drink, I tried a Bombay Raspberry Crush - fresh crushed raspberries in Bombay Blue Sapphire Gin topped with lemonade - too bad raspberries are so expensive at home - this is absolutely delicious!!

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