I smiled, knowing what was still to come… and knowing that our companion had picked up on something not yet visible when she had said that the place reminded her of the stone blocks of the old South American cultures. I knew what she meant, but while the precision of the masonry at Cusco still defies understanding over a thousand years old since its building, the place to which we were walking was older. Far older.
Following the path that climbs through the bracken, you can see the changing forms of the stones. Peering from the top of the plateau, they seem to shapeshift in the fading, afternoon light, taking first one form and then another as you approach the steps that lead into the enclosure. It is a strange place. To some, it is just another hill to climb. To others, ‘just’ another ancient hillfort. Cinema buffs may recognise one of the locations from The Princess Bride and geologists would have a field day. To archaeologists, though, Carl Wark is pretty much an enigma and unique in this part of the world.
As soon as you reach the plateau you begin to see how important the site must have been. No direct dating evidence has been found so far, but comparisons have been drawn between the construction of the enclosure at Carl Wark and one we would visit next day at Gardom’s Edge… and that has been dated to around 1300BC. The general consensus seems to be that although some of the more visible features date back only to the Iron Age, the site and features of the surrounding landscape have been in use since the Bronze Age. The trouble with such dates, however, is that they can only work with what they can see, dig up and measure. If a place becomes important in the life of a people, how long does its legend take to build before the walls are begun? How long before it becomes so entrenched in the life of the clan that its safety becomes a priority?
A natural outcrop rising around eighty feet from the valley floor, the hillfort sits much lower in the landscape than nearby Higger Tor. Even to a layman’s eyes, the Tor makes a far more defensible position, having much wider views of the surrounding landscape and being visible from a far greater distance than its smaller neighbour. Not only that, but the enclosure of the hillfort is completely covered by huge boulders, making any kind of settlement there impossible to establish and no evidence of such has been found. If it was a fortress in the sense that we understand it, what were they protecting? There is nothing there but the stones.
It was stone that greeted us as we reached the plateau… a great wall of boulders, carefully placed and buttressed from behind by an earthen embankment. The wall, so the archaeologists believe, dates back only to the Iron Age, which in Britain began around three thousand years ago. The site has been in use for far longer than that. Only one section of this rampart remains, a hundred and thirty feet long, twenty-six feet wide at its base and nearly ten feet high. Each stone is huge and the construction quite unexpected in the middle of the moors.
Beyond the wall, you enter a magical landscape of frozen forms and movement captured in stone. Perhaps the eyes of the heart can come closer to understanding what the old ones were protecting than the eyes of science. Almost every boulder reveals a face, shape or limb that to the human eye and imagination, suggests life. Some stones, like one of the ‘rocking stones’ perched precariously on the edge, seem to have been encouraged into their position and carefully chocked with small boulders. Some seem to shapeshift, from bear, to cat, to hawk depending on where you stand… as if Nature has shaped a cathedral to honour the totems of the ancient tribes.
We left our companions to explore for a while and headed over to the southern end of the hillfort. Here there was a stone we had planned to use, carved by Man or Nature into a perfect chair for storytelling or teaching, but the wind had increased, the clouds had come down and the rain had begun… nothing major, but not exactly conducive to sitting around on the grass. We sought out a more sheltered spot and gathered everyone together, showing them the great blocks of millstone grit that had been added to the natural revetments of the cliff to fortify the place.
Taking our places in a shelter between towering boulders, we shared a meditation where we each sought a thread within the web of light, tracing it back, through our own ancestry and beyond; back to the beginnings of our own civilisation to a time and place where there were no religious doctrines, or dogma wars… just the many-faceted One that each could see moving across the face of the earth in the shapes of the life that they knew. That web of life is not a thing of the past, but the matrix of life.
As the echoes were erased by the wind, I thought of a passage from Dion Fortune’s Sea Priestess that seemed to sum up both something that has gone wrong with our society and something of what we were attempting over the weekend. “…sinking back into the primordial sleep, returning to forgotten things before time was: and the soul is renewed, touching the Great Mother. Whoso cannot return to the primordial, hath no roots in life, but withereth as the grass. These are the living dead, they who are orphaned of the Great Mother.”
We were far from being the living dead that day… We shared our thoughts and some readings. One of our companions shared a poem he had come across and which had seemed appropriate to the moment. We all smiled in recognition at the first lines of Tolkien’s ‘The road goes ever on and on…’. I smiled twice, loving the poem and remembering that, quite coincidentally, I had been reciting it just below where we were sheltering at dawn that very day. Another of our companions gave us music, singing October Song a cappella. Written by Robin Williamson, it had been a hit in the 60s for the Incredible String Band. We had to smile at that too; we were going to see Williamson play later that week. Such small synchronicities seem to offer a reassurance that you are getting things right.
Which is more than we could say for the weather. We had allowed plenty of time to explore the hilltop and its mysteries knowing how much there was to see, then had planned on sharing the sunset there before returning for dinner. The wind, damp and chill, though, were too much for us to linger… and the sunset would be hidden by clouds. There would be other days. We gathered in the lee of the ancient wall and, with the sound reverberating from the stone, joined in chanting the close of day, bringing sound to the stones in a spirit of reverence for Life. Somehow, it felt exactly right.