We drove down to the next layby and for once, I booted up, knowing that there was a goodly walk ahead of us through the wet landscape. In front of us, Silbury Hill rose from its bed where once a mirrored lake had held its reflection. From here the sheer scale of the man-made mound begins to become apparent, yet it is not until you stand at its feet that you really appreciate the size of the hill. But we were not going there, not yet. The Mountain of the Sun could wait… our path would first lead us beneath the earth.
Once through the gate that separates the fields from the road and there is another shift. With each site, we go deeper; further from constraining time and closer to another mode of being … a purity of purpose, perhaps, that guided the hands of the makers and the footsteps of those who came to visit their dead. We pass the fairy tree… hollowed, with a gateway at its feet and votive ribbons streaming from its branches. Where now do we stand in time? It is hard to tell. Present, yet distant from our world. Creatures clothed in modern apparel and most ancient flesh, we cross the bridge over the Kennet and begin the gentle climb towards the hilltop, following where feet have passed since before Stonehenge was begun.
On either side of us the fields stretch away into the distance, scarlet with wild poppies, green with crops. They seem to echo both our personal transience and collective history. The wild and the tamed, something that lives within all of us. Then, as we near the crest of the hill, the looming face of West Kennet long barrow; gnarled stone, bones of earth, placed there by human hand to guard the bones of our kin.
West Kennet long barrow was begun around 5,600 years ago, 400 years before the first earth was cut at Stonehenge. The whole mound is around 35 feet long, one of the longest surviving, and from the air resembles the shape of a stone axe head. It is only the front of the mound that was used, however. Across the entrance stones up to seven feet high bar the entrance to the forecourt.
Within the mound itself, a central corridor leads to the main chamber. On either side, two pairs of chambers, precisely constructed. As with all these sites the geometry is astounding. We have thought of the folk of the Neolithic period as being little better than unlettered savages, yet here again is evidence that the idea is far from the truth. Even without the incredible feat of cooperation and engineering it took to build the barrow, the five chambers all fit within an isosceles triangle whose perpendicular axis is twice that of the base. There are other notable features too. Some of which we would experience for ourselves.
The barrow was, it is thought, in use for around a thousand years. Excavations found burials of 46 individuals of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest. Those who were found all died within three decades. Not all the bones were there, some of the disarticulated skeletons were missing long bones and skulls, which adds to the theory that bones were sorted and removed for special occasions. Perhaps they were brought back to their own family’s hearthfire.
There would not have been the same fear of death in those far off days when it was ever present. Nor was there fear of hellfire so long before Christianity came into being. The seasonal, cyclical nature of life and death was written in the very earth and it was to the womb of earth that the dead were returned. Who knows if the old ones hoped for a rebirth into this world or another? Either way, it seems certain from the traces that remain carved in earth and stone that the land was the womb from when these cycles came into the world… a place of transition.
The barrow was sealed, perhaps many times, unsealed for each new ritual, until it was carefully filled with earth and fragments of pottery, including some of the finest pottery that has been found, bones, beads and tools. It is thought the earth was brought from a mortuary site nearby, perhaps enhancing its sacredness to its people.
The place has a gentle, loving feel… and although a place of death, it is alive. There are faces in the stones, guardians, perhaps. And though it might be argued that man sees faces in the most abstract of patterns and that therefore these faces are random constructs, we are not so sure. That they worked the stone is unarguable. The shaping of hands is visible in the stones of the doorway. If we can see the faces… why not our ancestors who saw the life in the land with a clearer eye than we do today? Could they not have chosen these stones for the life within?
And there was life within… two pairs of swallows, nesting in the barrow, flying fearlessly past the faces of our little party as we entered the cool, green darkness. It was a delightful encounter, closer than I, for one, have ever been to swallows and they showed no sign of anything other than resigned patience at the invasion of their home… as if they knew they were under no threat except being captured on camera. There was a rightness in their acceptance of us and our wonder at their presence.
We each took some time in the barrow. Little was said. It is one of those places. Then, when other visitors had departed, we joined in impromptu meditation in the barrow, hand in hand, each calling up from within whatever note rose unbidden to our lips, feeling our way through chant into a reality where the stone answered, and sang with us, vibrating with sound and unseen light.
That this dark cavern is a place of light is indisputable for me. Incised, by man or nature, something that looks incredibly like a huge scratch dial, like those found within our churches, adorns one of the major stones of the inner chamber. If a staff was placed within the central indentation, what would the shadow show … for there is more than that, though we would have needed to be there for an equinox sunrise to see the play of a single beam of light across the chamber.
As we took our leave, the swallows came to greet us, one perched upon a pointed stone, seemingly waiting for me to come close… within just a couple of feet. That eye to eye communion with a wild creature somehow felt like a final blessing from a sanctity older than any rite or dogma. A wordless acceptance and recognition for which there was nothing to do except be thankful and share a soundless joy.