There was a lot we would have liked to have done and seen as we paid our flying visit to Avebury that day. We could have visited all the places we had planned for our ‘Hidden Avebury’ workshop weekend, postposed now until next year due to the COVID crisis, but some things, like the almost forgotten Devil’s Den dolmen, would have to wait for a time when we had no appointment to keep at the end of the afternoon.
So, heading… as we always seem to do, somehow… in completely the opposite direction from our final destination of the day, we left Avebury’s circle of stones in a northerly direction. It was a deliberate choice. It would allow us a quick glimpse of Windmill Hill, the largest causewayed enclosure in Britain, as far as we now know. There is nothing spectacular to see there on the surface, so it is often ignored, and yet our ancestors settled here almost six thousand years ago, leaving behind them traces of their lives etched into the landscape, their bones, their pottery… and so many questions about how the site was used.
We had a chance too to pay our respects too to the local White Horse on Hackpen Hill, just below the five-thousand year old Ridgeway, the track that once crossed much of the country, coast to coast, lined and attended by sacred and significant sites. This White Horse, though, is just a ‘foal’, with the story going that it was cut to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. The horse looked particularly good on this visit, gleaming white, having been scoured single-handedly by John Wain earlier this year…which seems a perfect way to spend virus-imposed isolation time.
From there we went hunting a small statue. Time was pressing, ancient churches that we would dearly love to explore were closed, parking was awkward… so, this time, the little statue remained undisturbed. It is an old one, dating back to Roman times and having, strictly speaking, perhaps no real place guarding the entrance to a Christian Church. For a long time the damaged statue was thought to be a representation, though, of St Christopher. When its Roman origin was finally realised, it was thought to be Aesculapius, the healer. These days it is recognised as a representation of the genius loci.
In ancient Rome, the genius loci was a protective spirit… an active guardian of a place and the districts of Rome itself took their presence into account at the city’s building. These days, we tend to use the term ‘genius loci’ to speak more about the abstract spirit of a place… though perhaps the two are not nor need not be disconnected.
There is a scientific argument that says the brain chooses what it allows us to see. In an era of data-based evidence and psychological manipulation, we are probably far more likely to be at ease with an abstract idea of spirit than we are the vision of some otherworldly guardian. In just the same way, the old visionary and fairy encounters seem to have shifted to alien beings and interplanetary forms, these being far more acceptable to the mind of modern man, on the whole.
It is not just places that hide their true depth and essence. For fear of dismissal, hurt or ridicule, many people hide their true selves, their beliefs and their experiences behind a façade of sterner stuff. Sometimes, like the little church we could not find, it is simply not the right time to reveal all… the old story about casting pearls before swine still holds true. But sometimes you just need to take a chance… just as we did by meandering down unmapped country lanes. You may not find the thing you thought you were looking for… but then again, you just might end up somewhere totally unexpected and find treasure. Or, at the very least, something well worth waiting for…