We had the morning and the sun. By the time we had gathered in the car park amid dancing butterflies, Sunday was bidding fair to be a perfect example of English summer at its best. It is a little over a mile from the main car parking area to Wayland’s Smithy. You could park closer, but somehow it seems right to take the ancient trackway, aglow with wildflowers, from the shadow of Uffington Castle to the haven of Wayland’s. It is part of the journey and a symbolic offering, perhaps, to those who have walked this way on more solemn business.
Wayland’s Smithy is a long barrow, a burial mound. Over five and a half thousand years ago, an oval mound was raised to enclose a stone and timber structure, floored with sarsen stones. Fourteen people were buried there and their tomb sealed until excavations in the20thC found their remains, crushed by a collapse of the mound in later years. The bones showed that the bodies had been defleshed before burial and entombed in four phases behind the timber-pillared façade of the barrow.
A few years after the sealing of the mound, around 3,500 BC, the trapezoidal mound we now see was built to cover the original structure. The barrow is around 180ft long and made of chalk and earth which came mainly from the two deep ditches that once flanked the mound. Six great stones stood before the entrance to a central chamber, with a pair of side chambers leading from the corridor. Two of the monumental stones are now missing… four remain… and the burial chamber stands open to the wind, the reverent and the curious alike.
Excavations found the ransacked barrow to contain a further eight burials, seven adults and a child, their bones jumbled and damaged by raiders who obviously did not fear the legends of the place. Wayland was The Smith… the ‘silversmith of souls’. In the old tales he had wed the Swan Maiden who later left him, giving him a ring. Wayland was captured, hamstrung and forced to work his magic with metal, imprisoned on an island. His captor took Wayland’s sword and gave the Swan Maiden’s ring to his own daughter. Wayland sought freedom and revenge, raping the daughter, killing the king’s sons, making goblets of their skulls, jewels of their eyes and a brooch from their teeth before flying away with wings he had fashioned. Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to get on the wrong side of Wayland by ransacking his Smithy.
Of course, the local legends are somewhat gentler and may have their roots in older gods than the imported Wayland. The stories tell that should your horse lose a shoe… odd, so close to the White Horse itself… then you must leave the horse and a silver coin on the capstone of the Smithy overnight, and when you return next morning, the horse will be shod and the silver gone. This sounds less like a Norse or Saxon god by the minute, and more a tale of the Fae and their Hollow Hills.
We too had brought silver, as a token of respect for the ancient depth of this place. First, however, our Companions had to find the Smith for themselves. Not an easy task. While we walked the green mound three times round, following the kerb stones that edge the barrow, they looked. With eyes accustomed to the faces in the stones after our day at Avebury, they saw and left their offering. There is more than one presence within this place.
Reality takes on new depths and time is hazy in the ring of trees that separates the barrow from the outer world. There is no fear, no cemetery feeling. This, it seems, is not a place to hide the bones of the dead from view, but a place of warmth and loving life that shelters them. More than anywhere else I have known, this gentle grove highlights the different ‘feel’ between the modern attitude of western society towards death and that of the old ones, who seem to have seen it simply as a birth into another state of being. There are many today who see it so, ourselves included. Perhaps that is why we always feel as if we are made welcome here.
We seated ourselves on the mound, unconsciously choosing a spot above the more ancient chamber at its heart… a place where a feather had once fallen at my feet. Those who had brought something to share, lip to ear and heart to heart, read aloud, their voices soft on the balmy air. The meditation was itself a rebirth, born from a poem that could have been written for this moment. We broke bread and shared wine, giving the last to the old gods of the portal. And the healers did their work in a moment of beauty.
As we walked back along the Ridgeway, one of our Companions saw a dung beetle and moved it from the path. A perfect encounter… we use much of the symbolic thought of ancient Egypt and the scarab was a representation of the cycle of rebirth and regeneration. I hung back a little, savouring the silence and the moment, watching my companions walk the path before me, following their footsteps and wondering how many kindred souls had done so over the millennia since mankind first raised his mind to the stars and asked, ‘Why?’
It had been a wonderful weekend. Forty-eight hours when the clock had no place and time slipped into neutral. There had been no hurry, we had not rushed, yet it has taken me a week to share what we saw and experienced… and I have barely scratched the surface. It is always thus on these weekends, as if we slip through a veil into another version of reality. There was only one thing missing. And as we sat down to lunch a little while later in the garden of the White Horse pub, we looked up to see a solitary red kite sailing the wind.