For one reason or another, we have spent a lot of time driving backwards and forwards to Glastonbury since the birth of the Silent Eye. We never take the motorway, choosing instead to travel the slower, more beautiful route south and west into Somerset. The road leads through an ancient and sacred landscape, passing the White Horse at Uffington and beneath the stark contours of Barbury Castle before crossing an unseen threshold into Wiltshire. There is no need to be anything other than simply open to the moment to feel the difference; there is a change of gear, an indefinable frisson and you get a glimpse of the weight of ages carried in the memory of the land.
The road passes beside Silbury Hill and the stone circles of Avebury and it was a simply as a gesture of respect that we formed the habit of stopping by the great mound for a moment. Avebury is a huge complex, not ‘just’ a stone circle and a sense of presence seems to radiate out from its heart. We spent Saturday with a friend and were returning from Glastonbury in the dark. We had already stopped at Silbury on the way there and paid our respects to hill and stone in the sunlight; now, however, it was dark and while the land gathered its shadows, we decided to dine at the Red Lion, the reputedly haunted pub that has stood in the middle of the stone circle for the past four hundred years. The last time we had been here, we had been taking an extensive detour northwards to a Silent Eye workshop in Yorkshire. The time before that, it had been the midsummer workshop.
There are no lights on the road that leads into the village; the darkness is complete save for the light you bring with you. The circles and stones of Avebury have stood here in silence for around five thousand years. The stones that are overwhelming by their sheer scale and presence during daylight hours seem immense and overpowering when they loom out of the darkness, caught in the headlights like frozen ghosts. In summer, this is a place of rich green adorned by swathes of wildflowers. But winter has the land in its grip; the ground is iron-hard and the trees as leafless skeletons, stretching hoary fingers to the stars. It is an eerie sight. It does not look like the kind of place anyone in their right minds would want to explore.
So, of course we did. The sub-zero temperatures of midwinter meant we had the stones to ourselves. Without light, there is no way to see a clear path across the uneven surface of the grass… yet for some reason, our footsteps were sure and confident. Without light, the stones should have blended into the moonless darkness, yet they stood clear and luminous, reflecting back at us, or so it seemed, more than the meagre glow from the darkened village should have allowed. They even cast shadows on the embankment of the henge… confusing shadows that seemed to replace the lost stones with ghostly memories.
There was too little light to take photographs without a flash…and my flash doesn’t work and it wouldn’t have seemed right either to intrude upon the darkness. The few pictures I did take rendered only blank screens…until I got them home and lightened them. Their grainy texture reminds me of ultrasound scans, looking for life…and that was pretty much how it felt as we looked for the life within the stones. And it is there. A life deeper, slower and older than our own, whispering of mysteries we have both forgotten and are yet to comprehend… and yet which seems to reach in and awaken a hazy awareness of something we ought to know. The stones were not silent, though their voices are not heard. Their mystery seems to be tantalisingly just out of reach… a whisper in another room, barely heard and indistinct, yet almost, almost enough to sense what is being said. Even time seemed to cooperate; improperly dressed for such temperatures, we could not stay out as long as we would have liked… yet the clock seemed to think that we had.
Avebury is a magical place at any time; there is no place quite like it and none of such a scale where you walk so intimately with the stones. Whatever their purpose in sunlight, at night both their purpose and their presence is something very different. There is a palpable sense of being within a place that is gathering itself in the shadows… almost like being in a battery while it charges. It is not a fearful place, but a place of awe and wonder and against the backdrop of darkness, far more than in the light, the stones come to life. Darkness only hides the detail from a distance. Once you step out into it, immersing yourself in what looks like utter obscurity, it is only then that you realise just how much light the apparent darkness still holds. Even the faintest light from the village is reflected back from the surface of the stones, seemingly magnified and revealing faces and forms unseen by day. It is only when you are caught in blinding glare of artificial light that the shadows become truly dark and your footsteps falter. Maybe that is one of the lessons the stones still hold, even now when we have forgotten their true purpose.