This bank holiday weekend we went a visiting and a wandering around the wonderful Wiltshire countryside. Our lovely hosts, Gregg and Lucy (and their assortment of kindly critters) looked after us well – good food, excellent company and a little taste of British history I had not encountered before. And my, isn’t Wiltshire a magical place?! Having been to Stone Henge before on Salisbury Plain I had some awareness of the mystical notion of druids and ancient pagan ritual, but I was utterly unaware of the extent of this hippy vibe. Much of the Southern Counties in fact have echoes of a neolithic era which the Northern realms seem to miss – could it really all be due to the lie of the Ley Lines? Or is it something all together more geographical; the chalk plateau of the south coast mesmerising with its whiteness perhaps or simply the fact that temperatures plummet by several degrees the further north you travel? What ever the reason for such a concentration of mythical mystery it makes Wiltshire a fascinating place to visit – I am certainly not done with it yet and very happy to have conveniently positioned friends!!
Our first stop was the stone circle at Avebury. Apologies to all for forgetting to take my own camera and having to rely on Google images, plus the weather was fairly grim this weekend. However, we are British, we are stoic, we WILL barbecue in the cold and we WILL march around in the rain looking at big rocks! However, it wouldn’t have made for particularly striking photographs.
Avebury was incredible, although you wouldn’t have guessed that Wiltshire County Council realised this! We were treated to all of five information boards with only two of them actually providing some detail to this truly ancient monument. This tiny village is home to possibly the oldest stone circles in the world. Thought to have been begun in 2600BC as a pagan temple (or some kind of mystical focal point) the Avebury sarsen stones, allegedly weighing an average of 40 tons each, are positioned in a series of circles across 28 acres of land. Two inner circles positioned north and south are surrounded by a larger circle and then a man-made ditch, once thought to have been flooded. The effect would have been mammoth; 154 twenty foot high stones, positioned in alignment with some Pagan philosophy, standing proud against the Wiltshire skyline on its own private island, only accessible by one of the four entrances matching exactly the main points of the compass. Sadly, only 36 of the original stones exist today, but false blocks are included to provide a sense of scale, which cannot really be appreciated until stood on the outside of the large ditch looking on. The purpose of such a structure, I don’t know. The man and will power taken to construct I cannot begin to comprehend. Some ‘interesting’ literature suggests that the stone circles are some form of direct telephone line to God – a little difficult to believe as the structure existed somewhere around 2000 years before Christianity, but what do I know?! Whatever the reason four and a half thousand years ago, it was an important one. One which caused over a hundred years of work and labour and love and ritual to position these monsters just-so. Breath taking. I just wish there was a little more detail and direction on the site itself – but that’s just the booky historian in me!!
Stops two and three (well, discounting the stop for clotted cream and jam scones – om nom nom nom nom) were to visit two of the county’s white horses. I’ve seen photos and features on TV of the chalk images in and around Wiltshire, but I had never actually seen one first hand (or walked upon one) until this weekend. Nor did I realise just how many there are! Wiltshire is of course the county of the White Horse and we were lucky enough to visit two of the eight chalk horses dotted around on various slopes. Originally there were closer to thirteen white horses, but through time and perhaps necessity some have been lost. All were turfed over during the world wars so as not to provide key geographical information to our enemies, could it be these missing five horses were never uncovered?
The oldest horse, which we did not visit, is actually in Oxfordshire, just next door, and is thought to be around three thousand years old. During the past three hundred years other chalk images based on the horse at Uffington were created, however accuracy of dates is debated for some of these stallions. Our first stop was the horse on Hackpen Hill and as with both our equine visits, the view from the low level roads was quite spectacular. Parking above, we had a rather blustery stroll down to the image to take in the whole size – which is pretty huge! I think I read that its legs measured around 12 feet in length. This particular image was believed to be crafted by a pub landlord and a parish clerk in 1838 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s coronation.
The horse at Cherhill, standing opposite the Landsdowne Monument dedicated to Sir William Petty (click the link if you are not as up on your Civil War economists as some. I do not count myself as the knowledgeable!) is thought to be the second oldest of the Wiltshire horses, having been cut by the ‘mad doctor’ in 1780. Dr Christopher Alsop made his design from the original chalk horse but directed in something of a novel way; he called his instructions from a distant slope using a megaphone. This horse in particular has an added variation to its counterparts, it has a glass eye!
Restoration and up-keep of these horses is imperative. Without the endless and undoubtedly thankless work or charities and locals, these incredible chalk beings are still with us today and will be for generations to come. It is entirely possible to follow the horse trail, but to walk would take some time as they cover over 90 miles in distance. But it does mean each time we visit Gregg and Lucy we might be able to tick another couple off the list! In fact we have future plans for picnicking with these magnificent beasts – even if it rains! Marvellous!