Friday dawned. Sort of. Instead of the brilliant sunshine of the previous day, the morning managed to do little more than open a rheumy eye before retreating back into a mist of tears. Still, we were not about to let that put a damper on the day. Duly fortified with bacon and eggs, we readied ourselves for our trip south-westwards for the Silent Eye’s Mountains of the Sun weekend. Failing to be my usual Virgoan self, I hadn’t even packed, but managed to cram at least half of the absolute essentials into the weekend bag. I may prefer to travel relatively light, but a spare pair of trousers and shoes would have been useful. The Mountains of the Sun were wet.
The planned weekend would not officially begin until we all converged upon a village in Wiltshire, but everyone was ready so, not wanting to waste the day, we had left earlier than intended, choosing instead to visit Uffington… a first for two of our number. For Stuart and I, this was something of a special place on a personal, as well as a historical level… it was here that our adventures together had really begun; a journey that had given life to our books and which had deepened a long love affair with this land. That day we had arrived to mist, buzzards and skylarks.
We had not returned together since that day, though we had passed and paid our respects as we glanced at the distant hills. I had been back once, with dear friends, on a day of blazing sun when a magnificent sunset marked our parting for another year. But it seemed as if the land itself was preparing to repeat our first experience. The fine rain was not as heavy as our morning mist, but overhead a buzzard soared, corvids and pipts were everywhere and it was as if all the skylarks in the world had joined together to greet the day with song. We had seen the small, white scar on the hillside from a distance, knowing what it was that our eyes sought as we drove through the narrow village lanes. The undulations of the landscape are unmistakeable once you have seen them and their shadows capture the eye and lead it to the strange marking on the hillside known as the White Horse.
First, however, we walked up to the gateway that cuts through the embankment of Uffington Castle, a huge earthern enclosure of ditch and bank set high on the hilltop. It is a strange place. The air sparkles and time has no meaning there. The enclosure covers an area of some 35,000 square yards… and was built around the same time as the Horse was cut. Yet there is almost no evidence of occupation from that time. What few fragments have been found date most activity to the Roman period, when a shrine seems to have been built there and two burial mounds close by.
You have to wonder what the occupants were doing there. To my mind it was, perhaps, not a permanent settlement… more a gathering place for whatever festival was celebrated around the Horse. Perhaps a small group resided there, serving the figure and the divinity it represented. Perhaps tending travellers who walked the Ridgeway… that ancient High Way that has run along the hills, passing beneath the shadow of the grassy banks of the Castle for at least five thousand years.
We turned and looked back, following this path with our eyes towards the trees where Wayland’s Smithy is hidden… wondering how many feet have passed this way over the millennia and wondering too if it is the echo of their passing that makes this old track so easy to walk as we too pass like ghosts into history.