Innocence is invaluable. It is like being barefoot in a forest, every detail makes its presence felt. So, when, I was young and fit enough to think that walking twenty miles every day for a week was what holidays were all about, I took myself off to Wiltshire. My pocket guide to archaeological sites had photos of hill forts and details of a few barrows and wasn’t there suppose to be a ley running up from a hill fort through Salisbury cathedral to Old Sarum?
Such holidays were solitary events where my only companions were a brace of cameras and a large supply of film. The rhythm of a few days’ walking soon cleansed the mind of complicated thoughts. The pace of the human gait allows a closeness with the particulars of every place that is blurred on a bicycle and unimaginable when driving. Internal streams of thought can be followed along their courses until they merge with the Big Ideas of Life that occupy wide rivers or even entire oceans.
‘Walking Zen’ I knew it as then, for at the time my tutors were books about eastern religions. My local ‘born-again’ librarian clearly considered my appetite for Hindu Goddesses and the like to be very peculiar. It would be many years before I was to discover that there were even a few others in Britain who felt that feminine deities were still alive, and later still to find that practising pagans almost abounded, if one knew where to look!
About half way into my week’s walking in Wiltshire, having already ‘done’ Salisbury and Stonehenge, I found a farmhouse doing B&B. The next morning was Wednesday (Woden’s Day), and it seemed appropriate to walk Wansdyke (Woden’s Dyke), which is the remains of a long earthwork running over a ridge of downs. The horizon seemed so far away as to have all of southern England spread around; the solitude was nearly total, the weather was hot and almost sultry, and the sense of self slipped away to be replaced by a one-ness with the land.
So it was the day after this rapturous experience that I made my first encounter with a place that has called me back on many occasions since. The enormous grey sarsen stones along the avenue and within the vast space enclosed by the gargantuan ditches have a presence unlike at any other stone circle. At Avebury, for this is where I am describing, each stone had its own personality, and to photograph them was like taking a portrait of a human face—from different angles the character changed but was always distinct.
Perhaps because of the spaciousness of this monument, other visitors rarely disturb your thoughts. They seem almost other-worldly, like ghosts that can be seen but not felt. The sheep and cows which graze there have a greater presence, but they too seem transient. In several photographs that I took people dissolve away in the light, and sheep blur at the edges. To say that this is ’caused by’ effects of focus and flare, or from slow shutter speeds, is to miss the reality of these images.
From the circle it is an easy walk along the side of a stream to reach the most enigmatic of all prehistoric sites, Silbury Hill. The writings of Michael Dames (The Silbury Treasure, 1976, and The Avebury Cycle, 1977) had been like throwing a handful of pebbles into a lake; in this case the ripples resonated with all my feelings for the Earth as Mother. Although I was unable to connect the reality of the monument with the complex ideas which I associated with it, the scale of the construction and perfection of its shape were surprising.
On the crest of the next hill is the chambered long barrow at West Kennett. Irresponsibly restored, with a glass-block roof, it has still succeeded in retaining its sense of sacredness. Like a human figure laid down there are five recesses corresponding to the head, arms and legs. That this is intended to be recognised as a Goddess, the Great Mother, is left in no doubt—the entrance is between the legs, and to enter that tomb/womb for the first time aroused the same intensity of emotion as, say, the moment of conquest of a lover. But this was no sensual emotion, but a primeval resonance with both Her life-giving and dark aspects.
The mixed enchantments that this cluster of sites aroused in me led me to read avidly about them and to visit the many other sites in the area. On subsequent trips I waited patiently for dusk and dawn, sleeping rough through the short summer nights. But the innocence was gone. I now knew too much, my head was full of knowledge, and it left no space for words of wisdom to speak across the millennia. My preoccupations became more concerned with ‘getting a good photo’ and whether the light was right.
There is a moral here. My interest in earth mysteries is such that I helped create and edit a magazine devoted to the subject (Mercian Mysteries); my understanding of the goddess and other aspects of neo-paganism has developed so that I feel able to discuss my ideas openly. However, I recall when someone wrote to me wanting to come along on a Mercian Mysteries field-trip as she was "only just scratching the surface as far as knowledge of earth mysteries etc. goes". She felt in some way inferior because of her ignorance, but my reaction was entirely opposite, and my heart went out to her as this is an experience I can no longer regain.
Too often we know too much; far better to allow places to tell their own tale and wrap you with their wisdom.