8 July 2008: Uffington White Horse and Castle, Wayland’s Smithy, Woodhenge and Stonehenge
After breakfast we drove, then walked up from the car park to the White Horse of Uffington. You can’t actually see the whole of the horse from the ground or from the road, and it’s only visible in its entirety from the air. It has a stylish, flowing shape.
It was made about 3,000 years ago, and is still kept ‘scoured’ so that the underlying white chalk shows through. It is perhaps the most elegant of all the chalk figures, many of which are relatively recent.
From the White Horse, there are views over the rolling countryside, so much like that around those at home except for hedgerows (field boundaries planted with trees and shrubs) instead of barbed-wire fences. To the left was one of the many giant windmill farms generating sustainable energy; to the right a nuclear power station in the distance. It was odd to stand in one place and see both the past and the future.
Uffington Castle Iron Age hill fort is just behind and above the horse, and was built around 300 BC.
We walked through it to get to the Ridgeway, which is thought to be the most ancient road in Britain. It currently runs 137 km but was once much longer. It is about 5,000 years old, and hugs the ridges so that you can see a long way most of the time. The hedgerows along the edges of the fields have many little unseen twittering birds, and I even saw a field mouse trot across in front of us (tick!). In general, there seemed to be little wildlife, even though it was high summer. We saw one live fox and, alas, three roadkilled badgers. I was really happy to be one of the thousands who walked along the Ridgeway, and felt a connection with those ancient people.
Eventually we reached Wayland’s Smithy’s long barrow, but not before the heavens opened and we had to shelter in a beech forest. Wayland’s Smithy is a 4,000-year-old long barrow, named after a Saxon god who was thought to shoe horses there if you left the horse and money overnight. Twenty-two human skeletons have been found there. It had a fantastic atmosphere, even in the pouring rain and with the large party of school children who turned up with their teachers.
After lunch at yet another historic local pub, the afternoon started with a visit to Woodhenge. Modern concrete pillars mark the sites of the holes in which timber posts were planted. It’s thought to have been an enormous wooden building.
Then on to Stonehenge, which of course is incredibly famous. It seems dwarfed by the massive Salisbury plain, and hundreds, even thousands of tourists a day in the peak season, visit it (official stats are 800,000 a year). But once you get near the stones, their presence takes over. In archaeology, a “henge” is not the stones, but the flat area with surrounding bank and ditch.
You must stick to the path around the outside of the stone circle, and guards make sure you do. But our group was able to go right inside for an hour – English Heritage allows 26 people per hour inside, after hours, for 13 quid a head, and we had paid for that exclusive access. It was a very different view looking out from the inside. Lisa of the Druid Network did a very nice meditation with us, and we had time to ponder the meaning of whatever we wanted to while within the circle. I was trying to get a sense of my ancestors going back to the neolithic age. At the pub later, I found out Lisa is working with an otter conservation group.
This part of England is a very tamed landscape, with very little wilderness left after people have tilled the earth for so long. It has a very different sense of place to what I’m used to. The sun going round the sky ‘the other way’ (still from east to west but over the other side of the highest point in the sky) contributed to my navigation instinct taking me in the opposite direction a few times, until I figured out what was going on. Nevertheless, it had been a long and satisfying day covering many neolithic monuments and landscapes.