About Me

My photo
Bristol , United Kingdom
My fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory, was published in 2019 by Indigo Dreams. I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy. https://theleapingword.com

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Walking back to the distant past

Start as you mean to go on. Well, it is a new year and for a few days, you really mean it. To that end, Son the Younger, the dog and I got up early on Thursday and went for a walk around Avebury. 

It's hard to visit without encountering at least some of its famous stones ... 

... though this visit was more about the surrounding landscape, and we were soon heading up the Herepath (also known as Green Street) towards the ancient Ridgeway that is styled as 'Britain's oldest road' and runs from nearby West Kennett to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.

First, though, a pause to pay homage to the celebrated beech trees near the eastern entrance on the outer ramparts of the henge. 

The climb to the Ridgeway was long but gentle, although we were glad the wind we were heading into was fresh rather than cold.

At the meeting of the ways, we paused and looked back at the way we'd come.

Then along the ridge of hills ... 

... with views on either side over the chalky Wiltshire countryside.
As the track descended to the A4, we encountered a series of bronze age round barrows ... 

... and over the road,  the now obliterated henge known locally as The Sanctuary, and a further round barrow. 

We crossed the bridge over the chalk stream that is the infant River Kennet, very close to where the local Saxon lads fought, and were defeated by, the Vikings, led by Svein Forkbeard. 

Then we passed through their village, East Kennett, now home to picturesque and doubtless hellishly expensive houses and strikingly coloured winter vegetation.

Our route then took us back across the Kennet ... 

... down very muddy lanes ... 

... and around the edges of fields with views to the mysterious prehistoric mound that is Silbury Hill

What was it for? We just don't know.

But before we got any closer, it was time to head up the hill to visit West Kennet long barrow

As long barrows go, it's big and high, so instead of squeezing and crawling, you can walk inside and wander about in the different chambers.

At one point all I could see was the tip of Ted's tail, like a magic wand waving in the dark. 

Silbury Hill from the top of the barrow

The Kennet was evidently running faster and higher than usual, as our next crossing place was flooded and we had to pick our way over. Not much of a problem for me in my walking boots; pretty uncomfy for Son the Younger in his 11 year old trainers ... 

... so instead of paying closer attention to the Hill, we squelched back along the river to Avebury. 

Then home, vowing to return, more adequately shod, sooner rather than later. 

Monday, 30 December 2019

Three remarkable trees at the turn of the year

I was already sunk in post-electoral despondency, and the news that Iain Duncan Smith, architect of so much suffering, was going to get a knighthood in the New Year honours made me realise that comfort-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, good as it is, wasn't going to salve my soul anytime soon. So I decided to get some perspective by visiting a few aged trees.

It's a bit shaming to admit it had taken me so long to travel no more than a dozen miles to visit the ancient sweet chestnut tree at Tortworth in South Gloucestershire. 

Even so, I delayed our meeting a little longer by popping into the St Leonard's Church, with its elegant but strangely disproportionate tower.

The church has clearly been heavily restored and not a lot of its past remains. 

One of the two Throckmorton tombs in the South Chapel made a useful table for a nativity display.

The font is Norman, 12th century, with a 17th century cover ... 

... and there's some mediaeval glass in the traceries of a couple of windows, some of which depicts King Edward IV and the sun emblem of the House of York. 

The famous Tortworth chestnut is nearby and fenced off, presumably for the health and safety of both visitor and tree.
Written records go back to the 12th century, when the tree was a boundary marker; legend dates it to the reign of King Egbert in 800AD. 

It's difficult to measure its girth as many of its branches have rooted to become trees themselves. In fact, it looks more like woodland than a tree.

It was good to get to see it at last. 

My other two remarkable trees dictated a detour en route to the south coast. The first was the yew tree in the churchyard of St Peter's in Tandridge, Surrey.

It wasn't a surprise, the church being locked on a Sunday between services, though it looked interesting in an Arts and Crafts Movement sort of way and I should like to visit on a non working day some time.

The churchyard had some interesting tombs in it, though, and loads of squirrels floofing about. 

As for the yew itself, it's believed to have been struck by lightning in the mid-19th century and was declared to be in a state of rapid and terminal decay around that time, but here is it, magnificent and thriving. 

As far as we know, yews are the oldest living entities in Europe and Asia. This one is hollow inside and has three mighty trunks that have grown around the decayed central one that fell, probably, centuries ago. As for its age, no one really knows. Over 1000 years seems a reasonable supposition; possibly even pre-Saxon, the remnant of a Celtic tree cult. 

We didn't see the sign that says not to walk under it until we'd walked under it. (Very respectfully, of course.)

Then it was off to nearby Crowhurst for an even more venerable yew, this one in the churchyard of St George's. Which was open because there was no service being held. 

It was lovely inside, with mosaic and painted frescoes in the Pre-Raphaelite style on the east wall, providing colour and light. 

It also has a 13th century font with mediaeval graffiti ... 

... more graffiti in the porch doorway, as well as deep grooves caused by bowmen sharpening their arrow heads ... 

... and presumably a Christmas gift of beer stashed in the pulpit.

Outside, I spotted this striking headstone from the 1960s with its beautiful wheatsheaves, symbolising both the harvesting of life and resurrection ...

... and we paused to listen to a pair of extremely raucous jays having a right old barney with the magpies and the crows in the meadow over the back. 

But the yew, the yew ... ! 

Here it is, reaching out ... 

...  and thoroughly bewitching.

This is a very very old tree indeed.  In the early nineteenth century it was fitted out as a room with door, table and chairs, during which a cannon ball from the civil war was discovered embedded in its wood. 

A storm struck the tree in 1845 and brought down the 'roof'.

Inside, the growth of new wood on old is simultaneously architectural and grotesque.
 It's almost as if it has grown its own daemons.
As for its age ... the Parish Council claims 4000 years, but they would, wouldn't they? Again, it's impossible to know, but it does seem likely that it's at least in its second millennium.

So how do you end your pilgrimage to three timeless trees that have witnessed so much social history and probably don't care much about the preoccupations of its short-lived protagonists? 

With something that is equally unfathomable, I think.

Rock doves