Avebury and Uffington: Thoughts on the British landscape, literature and counter-culture


I've finally made the time to sit down and write down some of my thoughts about my recent trip out to the so-called 'sacred landscapes' of Wiltshire and parts of Oxfordshire, namely Avebury, Silbury Hill, and The Vale of The White Horse near Uffington.

This trip was an alternative birthday present from my girlfriend, and stood in stark contrast to the previous weekends hijinks, a house party in Stoke Newington complete with visits from the police and inadvisable amounts of alcohol consumption. Of course, the cliché of 'getting out to the country' was ever present in my mind, but I would like to think that I'm not the idiot stereotype of the Londoner wandering around in inappropriate footwear destroying protected flowers as I ignore the English Heritage signs.

The drive out to Avebury was surprisingly short, about ninety miles up the M4, though in that time we were in a completely different environment; it continually surprises me how small Britain is, yet how the landscape and accents change so radically in such a short space. Avebury, for anyone who is unaware, is a site similar to Stonehenge, somewhat less well known but much bigger, older, and without a shitty fence around it or a seven pound entry fee. A Neolithic stone circle, the largest in Europe, that completely surrounds the village of Avebury, it is also one the oldest prehistoric sites in Britain. It attracts its fair share of tourists - myself included - as well as being a focal point for the modern Neo-Pagan movements.

I myself am an avowed atheist, and I'm very dubious about retreating into misty, vague notions of paganism as some sort of alternative to Christianity; I understand the impulse, but browsing the shop located by the stones, with their books on lost Atlantis and their dowsing rods, I have to admit that I winced with embarrassment. However, this is a minor gripe, as the place itself is impressive enough without the need to impose some fixed meaning on it. The knowledge that where I was standing, some six thousand years previous, people had felt the need to go to the superhuman effort of erecting such a monument was humbling and reassuring. Only an idiot would not be able to see that this site had massive cultural, spiritual and possibly religious significance to the people who lived in the area at the time, and that is enough. There is a sense of continuity achieved by visiting such sites that cannot be recreated by any other means.

I myself began to take a great deal of interest in these sites due to their stories becoming intertwined with the alternative and counter-cultural movements that sprang up in the UK in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. One of the books that really galvanised me into visiting these places and writing about them was George Mackay's excellent 'Senseless Acts of Beauty', which anyone who is interested in the history of British counterculture should read - http://www.versobooks.com/books/747-senseless-acts-of-beauty

 The Cherhill White Horse

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a passionate advocate of the UK punk scene, and I became utterly fascinated by how a particular strain of punk culture became deeply concerned with ecological issues and the British landscape. Notable bands that sent me down this path would be P.A.I.N (whose song 'Beltane' inspired my story of the same name), Inner Terrestrials, Autonomads and Oi Polloi (who sing exclusively in Scots Gaelic these days and created the intense eco-punk LPs 'In Defence of our Earth' and 'Fuaim Catha'). One small example would be that Beltane is the Celtic name for May Day, a day that is a focal point of protest in the UK, and that the song concerns itself with the road protests in the nineties, defending Solsbury Hill against motorway expansion. All these things seem inextricably linked together, and this is the main theme I have been trying to explore in my fiction in stories such as 'Beltain' and 'The Camper Van and the Criminal Justice Bill'; this, of course, is not a new topic in any way.

The further one delves into non-canonical British fiction, you find these notions of ancient history, folklore and counter-culture cropping up with surprising regularity. One of my favourite writers, Niall Griffiths, has built his entire literary career out of exploring the intersection between the British landscape - specifically Welsh, in his case - and the punks, hippies, dropouts, druggies and crusties. His novels 'Grits' and 'Sheepshagger' remain two of my all time favourite novels, stunning in their literary magic. Go read his stuff, now. Other than Griffiths, many other writers have addressed these topics - they range from the Hellblazer comics written by Jamie Delano and Paul Jenkins, the dense poetic novels 'Hodd' and 'Ulverton' by Adam Thorpe, Alan Moore's stunning 'Voice of the Fire', Hugh Lupton's recreation of John Clare's teenage days in 'The Ballad of John Clare', the Albion triptych by Andrew Sinclair - 'Gog', 'Magog' and 'King Ludd', John Cowper Powys' 'Porius' and the work of Alan Garner. This, really, is just scratching the surface of a long, half-hidden but utterly compelling literary tradition. 

The story of what happened to Stonehenge, with the free festivals culminating in the horrific Battle of the Beanfield, is pretty well documented, which is why we didn't bother visiting that particular site. There's a great book documenting Stonehenge's modern social history, 'Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion' by Andy Worthington, well worth reading: http://www.activedistributionshop.org/shop/books/585-stonehenge-celebration-subversion-by-andy-worthington.html

In addition to this, as a kid I was dragged around the UK by my father, who is an odd mixture of birdwatcher, hippy, West Ham fan and reggae/dub listener. We visited such far flung places as the Scilly Isles, Snowdonia, Lindisfarne, as well as the many historical sites in Kent such as Reculver and Pegwell Bay. This all left an indelible mark on me, so it's basically my dad's fault for all the shit I come out with...

We left Avebury, with the affable lady at the information point recommending that we go visit the nearby Cherhill White Horse. Our intention had been to visit the White Horse at Uffington the next day anyway, but I was surprised to discover that there were a number of other horses cut into the chalk hillsides in the nearby countryside. Hopping in the car, we finally found the horse on a hillside next to the A4. Slightly disappointed, we discovered the horse was 'only' a couple of hundred years old, but impressive nonetheless, and we got to clamber up steep hills covered in sheep droppings for that authentic outdoors experience.

That night we stayed in the market town of Marlborough, a pleasant little town with more pubs than seemed strictly necessary. We stayed above a pub called The Lamb, got drunk and were treated to the dubious pleasure of an entire rugby team on a pub crawl belting out songs at deafening volume, before buggering off to torment other venues. A kind of England that I had all but forgotten about. 

The following day we crossed the border into Oxfordshire to go see the Uffington Horse. This is the real deal, an abstract representation of a horse cut into the chalk hills some two and a half thousand years, only fully visible from the air. The location itself was very remote, and stunningly beautiful, again giving me that feeling I got at Avebury, a sense of palpable history that is unique and affecting.

The area also contains two other sites of considerable interest. Further up into the hills are the remains of a Bronze Age hill fort, connecting to the Ridgeway - the ancient road that stretches a good eighty miles from Avebury to Invinghoe Beacon - a very impressive site that's purpose is still clear. Below the horse sits Dragon Hill, a curious mound that was flattened at its peak by human hands, for reasons unclear. According to local folklore, it's where Saint George slew the Dragon, as well as being the burial mound of Uther Pendragon i.e. King Arthur's dad. All in all, an amazing area that everyone should visit.

What this trip made me realise is how much of my own country I have yet to explore. I find it a way of keeping myself sane - being a long time London-dweller - of remembering that we live in a very, very old place, and that the past isn't really past at all, it still has continuing relevance to people's lives. Travelling out to these places allows me connect the dots between all the things I consider important and exciting, the deep ties between British landscape, literature and counter-culture (with my emphasis on punk rock).

On another note, my clearly mad friend Jevon made this video of the trip. Go figure:

And here are some of those eco-punk songs: