Almost everyone knows of Avebury, the great stone circle within which a village was built. A World Heritage site and one of the most incredible sacred complexes of prehistory, it is justly famous for its beauty and mystery. The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year but while most simply walk in awe amongst the majestic standing stones of the Circle and Avenue, there is far more to discover for those who will walk the paths less travelled.
Join us in June, 2020, as we explore some of the hidden corners of this amazing landscape, ranging beyond the boundaries of the Circle to seek a deeper understanding of what our ancestors hoped to touch by building this earthly temple to the stars.
Based in the landscape around Avebury and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking. There will be time during the weekend to explore Avebury and its stones.
The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.
“GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.” Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
I was looking for some information and came across a video of a paranormal investigation at a place we are very familiar with… Avebury. It centred on the old Red Lion pub, reputed to be haunted by a whole host of ghostly presences; from the shade of Florrie, thrown down the well in what is now the dining room by a jealous husband, to the bedrooms that have seen guests packing their bags in the middle of the night and vowing never to come back, right through to the spectral coach and horses that clatters into the yard. I watched out of curiosity, enjoying the glimpses behind the scenes of the 16th century inn I know so well.
A further bit of browsing took me through several other clips along the same lines, and while it may make for popular entertainment, it does little to substantiate the insubstantial, seeming instead to offer such a clichéd approach that it is more likely to cause people to be dismissive than to question whether there might actually be some truth in the phenomena.
I am not a blind believer in much of what is purportedly paranormal activity, particularly as it is shown in popular media. I am sceptical and will always look for the logical explanation, while thoroughly enjoying the old tales. On the other hand scepticism does not discount belief and I am more than willing to admit that there are a good many ‘more things in heaven and earth, Horatio’ than we can account for with logic.
Over the years I have experienced enough subjective examples of such weirdness to be convinced that there are layers of reality not measurable by the scientific means currently at our disposal. We are, however, constantly developing new ways and technologies with which to see and understand our world. Just because we cannot prove something empirically or scientifically at this stage of our evolution does not mean we will never be able to do so and the anecdotal evidence of centuries holds some fascinating trails.
We may not even be asking the right questions as we attempt to define the unexplained. Is the perception of a ghostly figure a manifestation in space or across time? And if the latter, which may not exist at all as the linear phenomenon we generally accept, how could we measure it? Or is it perhaps that the mind gives form to something less tangible, something sensed at a subliminal level?
“MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
The mind itself is an unexplained object in many ways. We know so very little about its workings or its capacities. We are intimately acquainted with our own mind and believe without question in the invisible but seemingly evident minds of others. Yet, let’s be fair, we’re not even sure where the mind is, although we can probably agree that the brain is its primary vehicle of expression; a junction box that brings that insubstantial and elusive quality of self-awareness into physical and measurable manifestation. Perhaps we underestimate its capabilities as well as its whereabouts?
“ELECTRICITY, n. The power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.” Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
There are, after all, a good many things we simply cannot see and do not know, yet we can deduce an explanation… a description… from the actions of their presence, absence or combination with other materials or forces. Think about electricity, for example. Without it you wouldn’t be reading this. We know how to generate, capture, direct and harness it. There are long scientific papers about electrons, particles and flow, but I’m still not sure we know what it actually is. ‘Life’ is another…some of the ‘definitions’ are wonderful examples of the way we accept description without question rather than realising we simply have no clear answer.
“LIFE, n. : A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed.” Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
But then, would we really want to take all the unknowns out of life? Where would be the sense of wonder or the joy of discovery if we were omniscient? For me the mystery is half the beauty.
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.
In 1939 a sculpture was found in Stadel-Höhle im Hohlenstein. Carved of mammoth ivory, the Löwenmensch, as the lion-headed anthropomorphic sculpture became known, was determined to be some 40,000 years old and is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. It is surprisingly sophisticated and, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an artefact of the ancient Egyptian culture some 35,000 years later. The fusion of human and animal would imply a level of thought beyond the mundane… perhaps some magic to ensure a good hunt as the usual explanation would suggest, perhaps a desire to endure the strength of the lion for the hunter… we cannot know. What is clear that already our ancestors were looking at a reality beyond the purely physical realms… reality where such magic was possible, or where perhaps they had the intimation of a divinity behind the forces of nature.
The caves where the figurine was found also yielded other carvings, some thousands of years older still, along with evidence of instrumental music. Hardly what we generally expect from our idea of ‘cave men’. The cave paintings of Lascaux date back some 17,300 years. The swimming reindeer carving from Bruniquel is 13,000 years old. Our ancestors were evolving a more and more complex culture, with an obvious appreciation of art.
Art is a luxury in many ways. It can only be created when there is no desperate struggle for survival. Its very existence at this far off time implies a certain amount of stability and ‘civilisation’. Its vision and complexity implies thought and creativity…and that was flourishing. From the simple napped flints of 50,000 years ago to more complex and purpose-designed tools like fish hooks and needles, the technological advances were spreading widely through cultural groups across Europe, Africa and Asia.
Nine thousand years ago the land mass known as Doggerland still connected Britain to the rest of continental Europe. It is from this time that the earliest traces of human activity have been found at Avebury. It was not until much later still, a mere 4,600 years ago that the great stone circle within its henge was constructed, contemporaneously with the pyramids of Egypt.
It is astonishing that some still look upon the great monument as no more than a stock enclosure or defensive structure. Most, however, look at the wider landscape and see the enormous undertaking as a Temple complex. The circle of Avebury does not stand alone. The Avenues, the Sanctuary and the vast mound of Silbury Hill are all too close to each other to ignore… and that is without the incredible number of round barrows, the beauty of West Kennet and the other long barrows, or the fragmented circles that dot the landscape, many lost over the centuries to farming.
Merlin’s Mound is a mere six miles away, Marden henge, another huge bank and lost circle, just ten miles southwards, and Stonehenge ten miles south of Marden. It seems inconceivable that the three should not be linked to the same purpose.
My personal opinion, and that of many, is that our ancestors knew more than we give them credit for. If it is acceptable that Egypt could align pyramids with the stars and build fabulous temples, creating a beauty and a body of knowledge that has been preserved through five thousand years, how can we not credit the builders of these circles with as much sophistication?
Much of what we know of Egyptian culture only became accessible after the finding of the Rosetta Stone that allowed the decoding of the hieroglyphs. The builders of the stone circles left us nothing so simple as a written language to decode… they left us stone and earth, art and geometry. Theories spring up daily about intent and purpose, alignments are discovered… and dismissed… from the convincing to the ridiculous. There is a fascination that leads us to question and wonder… and perhaps we will never know the answers.
Perhaps we do not need facts carved in stone to begin to understand these sites, at least at a very human level. Whether or not we can interpret these immense landscapes, we can at least tread them with a shared reverence for the earth. The questions that echo in our own hearts, the search for understanding in our minds may not be so far removed from those behind the building of these temples. Life and death, purpose human and divine, the nature of being itself… I do not think the quest for understanding is exclusively the preserve of our modern society, but a human and global one. For those who walk within the stones of Avebury, as we did for the Mountains of the Sun weekend, there is a sense of connection that does not span time, but transcends it, and snakes, like the stones of the Avenues, across the face of our shared and continuing story.
Our group had left Silbury Hill in need of refreshment before our next visit of the Mountains of the Sun weekend, and where better than the Red Lion in Avebury to seek it? The pub sits in the middle of the ancient stone circle…the sun had made a watery appearance as we sat down outside the pub. The benches were almost full. Nothing unusual there on a summer Saturday the week before Solstice, but it is not every day that the place is full with a party celebrating a handfasting.
There were flowers, children with garlands and smiling faces. The bride wore a gown of white crochet-work and one of the flower girls, with an impish smile and the face of a small angel, brought us a deep red Sweet William. It was a moment of transition from one life to another for the young couple, in a place where it seems very likely such transitions were celebrated long, long ago.
And an ambulance arrived. Not for some drunken reveller, but for a little old lady with frail, birdlike hands that fluttered her distress as the bride leaned down to reassure her.
Around us the children still ran laughing. A couple argued quietly, most seemed oblivious to the drama being played out but feet away from them… or if not oblivious, then they discretely turned their attention away; perhaps the kindest thing they could have done for the old lady.
Here, it seemed, all life was being played out around the benches of the pub. Not only the story of all our lives, but also the story of the landscape in which we found ourselves, as if we were being given a glimpse into a greater mystery.
We, of course, had just come from another place of transition, from life to death, at West Kennet long barrow. We had talked of how naturally the cycle of life must have been viewed by our ancestors. The comparison had been drawn between the pregnant belly of Silbury and the womblike darkness of the barrow. We had spoken of the spiral path that winds up Silbury Hill, like the ones at Merlin’s Mount and Glastonbury Tor… and surely they too must represent a reflection of the cyclic nature of birth, death and rebirth into another state.
We had spoken of the fear of death and its causes… the fear of the unknown that is carried by those who have no firm belief… the fear of divine retribution, Hell and Purgatory for many who do… and the fear of dissolution, perhaps the widest fear of all. The idea of ‘not being’ is one we generally find impossible to contemplate; our ego fights back, desiring survival. Yet if there is nothing after death… no consciousness, no spark of self… we will not know it, because we will not be. If there is something… then we cannot avoid it and there is little to be gained by meeting it with fear. And if the ego is dissolved, becoming part of Something Bigger… then, is that not a beautiful concept, and if it is so, our natural state?
To our ancestors it seems that death and birth were a more natural pairing than they are seen today when death is, as far as possible, kept quietly sanitised and joyless. We grieve, and I think we have always done so, for the loss we feel, and because we love and will miss those who have passed that portal and gone beyond our touch and the meeting of eyes. Love is at the root of life, the force behind birth and the cause of our grieving. Yet perhaps we need only look to the cycle of life for reassurance. Is anything ever truly lost, even love, or does it simply transform into a different state; its component parts rearranged, reordered… yet remaining themselves?
The vows at a lifetime handfasting are traditionally ‘for eternity’ or ‘for as long as love shall last’. For the group seated around that pub table, the unfolding events were a pertinent illustration. We were there to share a weekend of exploration, both in the green land and the inner landscape. Our goal together is to seek a transition as complete as any other… a death to the self that is rooted in the ego and a birth into a new awareness where the world takes on a different hue. Yet here too there is fear of ‘what next’… the same questions of ‘who will I be if I am not I?’ and the ego clings to life as stubbornly as we do. More so, perhaps, when we walk towards it willingly. Maybe this too is a natural transition and one which, one day, we must all meet and perhaps all we need to do is be ready to step on that spiral path and see where it leads.
‘…Keep to the road, and beware the Full Moon…’ – An American Werewolf in London.
The plan was to base our inaugural public ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and thus it seemed natural to book a room at the Public House which is situated in the centre of the Stone Circle…
Only, The Red Lion no longer provides B&B so we ended up instead at a hotel some ten miles away in Ogbourne St George.
Now, Ogbourne St George is a curious name and one redolent of both mystery and intrigue and given our literary proclivities we thought it might be possible to find something of interest in the village to occupy our Companions for at least one of our allotted slots over the weekend.
We had stayed in Ogbourne… before and had a visual memory of a strange mound like structure in one of the fields lying adjacent to the hotel and had pinned to it an accompanying mental note which ran, ‘…must have a closer look at some point.’
A little research in the form of flick through the ley-line dowsers’ classic, The Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, confirmed both the visual memory and our hunch that the structure would hold some interest for us.
It was not a prehistoric construction at all but a ‘folly’ built sometime during the Second World War by a local farmer but somewhat amazingly it had, according to our venerable authors, been constructed over a node which marked the crossing of the Michael and Mary currents.
This it seemed to us was very curious…
Of course the mound now looked like nothing so much as an overgrown hillock with its spiral causeway, rising twenty-feet in height, all but obliterated by trees, bushes and shrubs and there was a picture of it in the afore mentioned tome which approximated with the mental image which had been stored in my mind for future reference all those years ago.
It was in this respect reminiscent of another of the mounds we planned to visit over the weekend.
The now slightly more famous, but equally tree infested Merlin’s Mound stands in the middle of the private grounds of Marlborough College beset by houses of learning and no doubt deliberately dwarfed by both the sheer bulk and the lofty spires of the College Chapel.
This mound is a prehistoric structure and has recently been given a date of construction commensurate with Silbury.
As we had been unsuccessful in our request to the authorities concerned to climb the mound and as the third of our mounds the aforementioned and world famous Silbury Hill is now fenced off and no longer accessible to the public we were hoping that our unobtrusive poor relation in Ogbourne St George would afford our Companions the chance to scale its relatively modest sides and experience the dual currents of the Michael and Mary leys.
In this though we were destined to be disappointed…
Our first introduction to Avebury came in 1977 via Children’s Television.
At the time we probably scarcely realised that the fictional village of Milbury conveniently situated within a pre-historic Megalithic Stone Circle for the cunning plot of, ‘Children of the Stones’ was based largely upon fact.
In this superlative piece of Seventies Tee Vee an astrophysicist, Professor Brake, and his teenage son, Matthew, arrive in the spooky village of Milbury in order to undertake a three month long study of the stones.
Even before their arrival proper the high weirdness begins when they are seemingly about to crash into a Sarsen stone which then apparently ‘morphs’ into their housekeeper for the research stint, Mrs Crabtree!
Would you be happy about such a woman cooking and keeping for you?
Other strange events begin to take place as the pair of newcomers’ settle into their temporary home.
For one thing the village appears to be divided into ‘Happy Ones’ and ‘Others’.
The ‘Others’ it soon transpires are all relatively recent arrivals to the village whilst the longer term inhabitants all greet and depart from each other with the soon to be seen as rather sinister refrain ‘Happy Day!’
Then there is the Village Elder, Kendrick, erstwhile astronomer extraordinaire and discoverer of a super nova which now bears his name, who displays an uncanny knack of appearing at the drop of a hat and also shows an unhealthy interest in a painting which Matthew has acquired from a junk shop.
The painting depicts what appears to be the stone circle in former times and shows two figures fleeing the circle and the preternatural beam of light which apparently descends into its centre…
We shall say no more lest perchance one would care to check out the series oneself which is available these days on DVD.
Indeed, we mention this only by way of introduction to our planned ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and also, it is rather strange to say in order to relate our first visit to the site some thirty years later.
We were by then cognisant of the fact that Milbury was Avebury the name clearly taken from the nearby Mound of Silbury.
Having parked up in the car-park alongside the book shop we were heading up towards the circle of stones when a heavy and virulent deluge of rain descended.
Whilst attempting to keep as dry as possible during the downpour we darted under a tree, holding our jacket over our head, and bumped into what we assumed to be a local lad.
“Just waiting for us to get the tent up,” beamed the lad showing no concern about his unprotected and by now already sodden state.
“Just driving the last peg into the ground, I was,” the lad continued, “then whoosh…” he laughed and embraced the heavy rain with an open armed gesture of acceptance and another beaming smile.
Not wanting to sound totally ignorant of our whereabouts we laughed too and responded with, “It’ll be your fault then.”
The lad laughed enthusiastically some more and then delivered his parting shot, “Happy Day!”
Go on… when was the last time you went out to play? I don’t mean with children, wonderful as that is… but just you… playing out… in the fields. Leaving the world and all its worries behind for a little while for a lighthearted romp, exploring the strange landscapes of the imagination?
When was the last time you thought it was okay to go looking for fairies, or ghosts from the past? How long since you tackled a proper mystery… and yet came home in time for tea ( or a pint at a village pub, as the case may be?)
When could you last take the time to look at the world with wonder and see time lose its place and the story of ages unfold?
Wouldn’t you like to be able to just play out again?
Well, we are going to. And you are welcome to join us!
Mountains of the Sun
12-14 June 2015
What are the mysterious mounds that cluster around Marlborough? Why are they marked by the dragon’s coils?
Join the folk of the Silent Eye for a Solstice tale of dragons in the living land of Albion as we explore Avebury and the Marlborough Downs.
Workshop costs £50.00 per person.
Accomodation/meals not included, though advice can be given.