Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones

Megaliths have been in the news lately, with the unearthing of a large Neolithic settlement where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived. For centuries the mysterious Wiltshire monuments have been a source of puzzlement and fascination for tourists, archaeologists and writers, and they figure prominently in my “Grey Isles” Bronze Age trilogy. Some years ago, on a holiday trip to Britain, I mapped out a course that retraced the steps of my characters across the Wessex landscape of four thousand years ago.

The Grey Wethers

Cresting a ridge, Naeri saw beneath her a vast saucer-shaped depression strewn with a multitude of grey sarsen boulders. Half-embedded in turf, they looked from this height like a great flock of grazing sheep. (The Sarsen Witch)

That was my hero’s first sight of the Grey Wethers--and from a distance, thrusting up out of the short dry grass, they do look remarkably like sheep. The indefatigable early Brits who built Stonehenge hauled these massive blocks -- the shattered remains of the chalkland's sandstone cap-- all the way from the downs above Marlborough to their present site on Salisbury Plain.

We took the A4 to Fyfield village, following the guidebook's instuctions to park our car "off the main road by a barn on the side road leading to the church"; and immediately got lost. The local vicar, clearly used to doubling as an information kiosk, put his head out of the vicarage window and steered us along a footpath beside the A4. Just out of town we found an unobtrusive National Trust sign marking the Piggledene valley, which stretches north towards Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.

Richard Symonds, writing in his diary in 1644, described the area around Fyfield as "a place so full of grey pibble stone of great bignes as is not usually seene." "In this parish," he went on, "they lye so thick as you may go upon them all the way." The locals called these peculiar grey boulders “Saracen Stones" --- Saracen meaning heathen and suspicious.

We climbed over a stile, and wandered along the floor of the valley among scrub trees and thickly scattered stones. Little has changed here in the last four millennia. We were quite alone, apart from a flock of rather surly sheep. The valley of the Grey Wethers is less frequented by tourists than other, more spectacular megalithic sites. The sheep, who seemed irked at our intrusion, surged irritably to and fro.

Of the vast tract of sarsen boulders described by Richard Symonds, only a small protected area remains. Most of the stones were hauled away by nineteenth century masons to make roads and gateposts in the Fyfield area.

I picked up a small curiously shaped stone, just the right size to fit comfortably into my hand. My husband eyed me apprehensively. "I think they have rules against carting off the scenery," he said.

…to be continued

1 comment:

Lavonne said...

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