I always like to start a new year somewhere high up with a good strong wind. Yesterday, it was a particular stretch of the Ridgeway (one of England’s most ancient routes) that I hadn’t walked before, being mostly familiar with the section near to the Uffington White Horse and the long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy or the portion above Goring and Streatley…and, yes, it was blowing quite nicely!
Its almost bizarre that I hadn’t walked in this spot before, being only 25 mins from my door with a starting point at the village of Aldworth, which apparently lies at the intersection of the Ridgeway with another ancient route (so, very likely, two ley lines) with a tiny church on the site of a pre-Christian spiritual site and with the original 1000-year-plus yew tree still in situ to mark the spot. Like so many pre-Christian sites ‘replaced’ by a church, this one is a St Mary’s’ (others are typically dedicated to St Michael). Why was a yew tree such a typical marker of a sacred site, long before Christianity arrived? Theory goes that, as likely the only evergreen tree in Britain at the time, it served as a symbol of reincarnation and continuity, of long life and of many stems growing from one central point, its branches growing down into the ground and then forming separate yet linked boughs that seem to wrap around each other as a single organism. These boughs could become well established in their own right and strong enough to outlast a decaying centre; self-perpetuating in a way that makes it easy to see how the symbolism was taken on. Across many cultures, the yew has long-running associations with ‘protection’ and the Tree of Life. The yew tree at Aldworth, as is typical of early circular sacred sites, is positioned on a relatively flat-topped bank, higher than the rest of the churchyard, which would have absorbed the extent of the original sacred soil within the boundaries of its own consecrated ground as soon as Christianity came sweeping along but the hint of what was there before that, in the form of this ancient tree, is enough to induce tingles as you stand admiring its gnarled ancient boughs. In other words, what a gem of a place (and West Berkshire is dotted with such villages, tucked at the end of long winding country lanes bordered by forest; almost another world waiting just five minutes away from the M4 motorway).
The village also boasts what is thought to be the deepest well in England at 111 metres, cut down into the solid chalk of the hill – quite a feat – as there is no river or spring to serve the village (this was dug in 1868, during an outbreak of typhus). Also, nearby, Grims Ditch, a ‘mysterious’ prehistoric earthwork – the names ‘grim’ and ‘devil’ being common around Britain where applied to earthworks and old routes, a hint of their pre-Christian significance. For instance, I live close to the Devils Highway, a long ancient route that joins half a dozen of my regular walks and crosses over Roman Silchester/Iron Age Antrebatum, with – guess what – the ancient church of St Mary’s Church (left) being neatly positioned on its own raised bank where the ancient route intersects the settlement boundary (the bench between its two yew trees being a regular sitting spot of mine). Like the earliest churches, the existence of a Roman settlement in a location is a classic nudge that an earlier settlement may have existed in that place, before their arrival, and Silchester is a classic example of all three phases; from iron age community to Roman town to the Christian church that is still standing. A number of ancient routes are known to have crossed over at Silchester, like the spokes of a wheel; the one to the north having been speculatively traced in a line towards the tiny church of St Mary’s at Sulhampstead from where it would, presumably, have continued on to meet the Ridgeway somewhere not far distant from Aldworth…
Up on the Ridgeway, on that first day of January, the wind was as bracing as I had hoped for and the expansive views in both directions, including down into the Goring Gap – even in rainy drizzle – was convincing enough to persuade me that ancient people would have been naturally drawn to this place and would have made use of its advantages, even if the elements can be particularly challenging up there. As ever, the views in all directions, from the muddy Ridgeway path, provided such a strong sense of being part of a topography that has remained relatively unaltered over vast periods of time – and of being grounded, by your own heavily mudded boots, to something much grander and more resilient than the minutiae of life – and it was just what I needed to start my year off amply. We returned to the village feeling bizarrely uplifted by how damp and cold we were and extremely ravenous for our lunch.
Where lines cross, people gather – and the Bell pub in the village centre of Aldworth is a magnificent and rare example of the proper ‘spit and sawdust’ variety that is now, sadly, almost extinct. On the first day of the year, it was packed to the point of standing room only, with a spontaneous gathering of musicians hammering out some lively folk music in one room, and good basic pub food (mostly cheese or salt beef slapped inside some bread) being passed on trays over people’s heads out of a sliding hatch from the kitchen to people crammed into every possible space, including the porch, the corridor and both the front and the back gardens. The same family have owned this fourteenth century pub for over 250 years and ‘modernisations’ have been few and reluctant – but not in a way that deters the crowds on New Years Day. I recommend reading this colourful article for more of a flavour of this traditional English pub and its history – and I daresay its changed little since this was written about it in 1956; the brownish soup of low ceilings, alcoves and wooden benches are certainly original and, I imagine, electricity was added with some hesitation. Apparently, you can get chucked out for so much as drawing your mobile phone out of your pocket!
On this occasion, the Bell was so packed that we resolved to come back soon and had our hearty ploughman’s in a spacious corner by the fire at the thatched Four Points Inn down the road past the church – so not before we had been to visit the famous yew – and this seemed particularly apt in a village that was all about intersecting lines. We were feeling very windswept and pink-cheeked by the time we got home.
Its been that sort of week; picking up threads of old routes and joining up old dots. Earlier in the week, our walk was high up on the Chiltern hills, near Stonor and adjacent to Russell’s Water, whose village pond was immortalised in the film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. That stretch of the Chilterns and I have shared quite a bit of history together; for a few months, in need of an emergency roof over my head (age 23), I stayed with a friend on Pheasants Hill, above the time-stood-still village of Hambleden (left), also featured in the above film, and spent some memorable evenings walking in the pitch dark to the village pub and back, all of which planted a seed of attachment to the place that has never waned (and, it suddenly occurs to me, I moved there 23 years ago today, as I write this, making it the mid-point in my life to date). Many other threads of my history and serendipitous tales of my life have woven in, around and across the extent of geography that is the Chilterns (far too many, and personal, anecdotes to retell) – from the Thames at Whitchurch and above Henley then as far as Gerrards Cross and Hughenden Valley and North towards my favourite, remote, villages of Fingest and Skirmet; so much personal history unfurled across all of these places like a snake line.
Yet it was only as I stood on the opposite hill to the Stonor estate, in the December sunshine, and gazed down at the familiar house, nestled picturesquely into its green hillsides in what must be the most blessed spot to reside in that I can imagine, that I was jolted into recalling it has its own ancient stone circle (hence the original name ‘Stonora’, one presumes); just a small one, almost a folly and perhaps easily overlooked by the casual visitor – yet a reminder of the larger one that is believed to have once been there, one of the standing stones of which was quite literally absorbed into the south-east corner of the chapel walls when the house was built. You could say, this was a classic case of the ancient being, quite literally, turned into the corner-stone of its next interpretation and it certainly brought the family the ‘good fortune’ that allowed them to, almost uniquely, out-survive the reformation as unwavering (if secret) Catholics. These days, it is the large annual craft show in the grounds that seems to be the great drawer of people to the site; one of my highlights of 2014, as with many previous August afternoons, being the wonderful time we spent there on that hillside, with a view of the cricket green opposite, enjoying glorious sunshine surrounded by flowers and folky stuff, Morris dancers and tea stalls.
In close proximity to Stonor’s nestled position, on top of the chalky ridge, is the hamlet of Fawley with its tiny church, dedicated to St Michael – one time location of its own very large and ancient yew tree – on the site of an ancient settlement Calles Falle, so evidence of more ancient people venerating a high-up chalky spot. A description of Fawley, from 1925, reads “At the north-west of the churchyard is a fine yew tree of which twelve persons can take shelter at the same time”, so clearly one of some antiquity, and the church is positioned on a bank of raised land above the hamlet, again typical of early spiritual sites so you are left to presume that it, very likely, was one.
Zooming out for the overview of these ‘high up’ locations – the Wessex Downs (where the Ridgeway begins its journey, close to Avebury – one of my eventful places) and then following its line into the crest of the Chiltern Hills where all these other places of such significance to my life lay dotted out like a string of pearls in a line, its not hard to see the raised topography of this part of England as a unit with a definite theme stringing it together. This comfortable dot-to-dot starts at Ovebury Hill and follows the natural high-points of the territory, continuing on past Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse at Uffington (also big players in my life-adventure, going back 30 years to my very first trip down to this part of the world and my decision to move here), past Aldworth and then, as the Ridgeway veers off sharply to the North, this alternative, more natural, line continues with easier grace if joined-up instead with Stonor/Fawley and St Mary’s Church at Hambleden, with its nearby Roman settlement at Yewden (interesting name – I can’t help wondering if there was a tree there…) and then on, I suspect, in a gentle curve following the central bulk of the Chilterns, towards St Michael and All Angels at Hughenden.
As I gazed down at Stonor, pondering its stone circle (what a thing to have in your own front garden) it stuck me how that garden was the location where I made, probably, the most life-detonating decision of my life, almost twelve years ago; the kind of decision that blows your current life paradigm to smithereens and reinvents you from the ground upwards and yet, with none of my usual hesitancy or need for pre-planning and consideration time, I had already set the decision in motion and made sure it was utterly irreversible by nightfall – the rug definitively pulled on my old life – so, clearly, Stonor’s garden is a particularly potent spot to stand in! It turned out to be the best decision, if the most game-changing one, of my life and so I silently thanked the spot for its guidance.
Ley lines and ancient routes seem to keep reasserting themselves to me as a point of interest and I’ve played out before, in this blog, how these geographical landmarks are only as potent as they seem to catalyse our own journey of life upon them; how the invisible map they lay upon the landscape is revealed to the degree to which we can track our own undulating journey along their route, like a long-running series of happy coincidences over many years’ expanse. It takes a number of years crossing over the same places, repeatedly, to even notice such a thread and yet, suddenly (from a high-up place, with the wind in your hair), its as though it all falls into clarity and you can’t help but notice the path you have been treading; an intersection of geography with the soul. If this is what a ley line is – a meeting place of the spiritual with the physical, you could say – then they are no fiction or pseudo-archaeology to me as such routes, woven across my own landscape like a spider’s web of deeper understanding picked out in dew and glinting in the early morning sun, seem to become more and more apparent with each and every passing year.
- Of peacocks and dragons
- Circles within circles
- Roman Silchester – lost or found?
- Grassing over the bumps