Albion, ancient sites, Art

“…. the bones of wise Merlin…”

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“They’ve got guards,” had said our host, unequivocally putting the mockers on our planned look at the famous mound. Undeterred by his shaking head, we had decided to find the best spot to show it to our companions from the road. Our walk had shown us, however, that someone had created a public crossing over the road and onto a pathway that led, unavoidably and very conveniently, through the edge of the college grounds and pretty close to the mound before curving off to either side of the chapel and back out onto the road once more. Just a matter of yards, but even so…. Were we to cross there, we would have to pass Merlin’s Mound. We couldn’t help it. Honest. And anyway, a jackdaw had flown in and shown his approval.

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The whole affair felt rather as if we were up to mischief, like some undercover operation. Two staid groups joined the general trickle of people heading for the open day at the college and blending in nicely. One group went on ahead while I backtracked… not to make us look less conspicuous, you understand. I had seen something, a gleam of white through the trees.

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Well I never… there, where it had lain unnoticed on our trips to Glastonbury last year … was the Marlborough White Horse! Bright as a button and looking as if it was first cousin to its more ancient relative at Uffngton. The head was obviously inspired by the older Horse, though this, we knew, had been cut by the boys from Mt Greasley’s Academy in 1804. It had been designed by one William Canning, son of the Manor at Ogbourne St George where we were staying. We wouldn’t need to climb the tower… we had a perfect view!

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My party walked up the chapel steps and took our illicit look at the mound as we went, planning on following the path to the left and back out to rejoin the others. “Follow the path round to the right,” said the nice young man on usher duty. It would have been churlish to refuse, so we got a much better look at the mound than we had expected on such a busy day.

Engraving of Marlborough Mound from 'The Ancient History of Wiltshire', 1812-1821
Engraving of Marlborough Mound from ‘The Ancient History of Wiltshire’, 1812-1821

Merlin’s Mount stands hemmed in by the college buildings. In its day it has been a garden feature, with a shell grotto cut into its side and a water feature plated on top. It has been the site of a Norman castle from where the invaders could rule the town and it was long thought to date back no further than that. Archaeological core samples taken in 2011, however, confirmed a much earlier date for its creation, placing the construction of the sixty-two foot high mound at around 2,400BC… which makes it of the same era as Silbury Hill, and the second largest, man-made prehistoric structure in Britain.

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Silbury and the Avebury complex are a mere six miles away and the landscape between is scattered with barrows and remnants of that early past. It seems fairly obvious that the two, so similar, were part of that same sacred landscape; it is not the only example of the mammoth scale on which our ancestors worked. Stonehenge, for example, is not just the world famous circle of stones but a vast complex of circles, barrows and avenues. Aerial shots of both that and the Avebury landscape preclude any doubt of the coherence of these sites.

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And then, of course, there is the name. Merlin’s Mount… or Merlin’s barrow as it was called. Some say this is how the town got its name… and not from the old word ‘marl’ referring to the local chalk. Legend says that it is here that the Merlin of Britain lies sleeping. The motto of the town of Marlborough is Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini (‘Where now are the bones of wise Merlin?’). What deeper mystery does this legend hold? And how does it tie in with King Sil who is said to sleep in the hill at Silbury? These and many other strange questions would be debated as we continued on our way to the next destination…