Ancient and modern sites in England
After attending the wedding of Lesley’s friend Lindsay last Friday (at which Ewan McGregor’s dad was also apparently at; Lesley’s blog entry about the wedding is here), Lesley and I travelled to southern England for a few days. We stayed one night in Bristol, where we attended Lesley’s cousin’s 40th birthday party (highlight for me was the whole pig cooked on a spit roast), and two nights at her sister’s house in Witney, near Oxford. We also took the opportunity to view a lot of the sights in that part of England (pictures here).
First we paid the obligatory visit to Stonehenge. The last time I went to Stonehenge was in the 1970s and I was about six. You could clamber all over the standing stones then and the site still retained some sense of isolation. This is not the case any more; the stones are fenced off, and there is an entrance fee and a car park that was overflowing with cars and coaches when we were there. The crowds of tourists around the stones were very large too, but it was a sunny Sunday, so this was probably a bad time. Despite all this the visit was worthwhile as the site still looks mysterious and imposing.
Stonehenge is the most famous ancient historical site in Britain, but many say that there are finer sites worth seeing, and the day after going to Stonehenge, we saw some of these. First, we walked for a few kilometres along the Ridgeway to the Uffington White Horse. The landscape in this part of England is very pleasant to walk in with the upland chalk downs giving expansive views over Oxfordshire. The ancient trail (over 5000 years old!) of the Ridgeway that runs along the top of these downs is a delight to walk on and is a real contrast to the boggy, wet and undulating walks I’m usually on in Scotland. The escarpment that the Uffington White Horse is situated on is a good viewpoint, although it’s difficult to get a sense of the chalk figure of the horse itself from the ground. Up close, you can see why the figure needs to be cleaned every seven years or so, as tufts of grass were starting to grow through the unturfed chalk surface that forms the shape of the horse. We also visited the nearby Wayland’s Smithy, an ancient tomb that lies hidden in a small wood.
After Uffington, we travelled to Avebury and walked around the very large stone circle that surrounds the more modern village there. This is in many ways more impressive than Stonehenge - it’s about 500m in diameter and you can walk right up to the stones (some of which rival Stonehenge in terms of size). We also saw Silbury Hill through the rain.
At the end of the day we drove past the RAF base at Brize Norton (from where I travelled to Germany via an RAF TriStar in 1990) where we saw a VC10 tanker doing landing and take-off practices. Also visible on the base were a couple of Antonov An-124s (second largest plane in the world).
Whilst these ancient sites in southern England are interesting places to visit, I can’t help thinking that the best place in Britain to see this sort of thing is the north of Scotland and in particular the Ring of Brodgar and Maes Howe in Orkney (which I visited about ten years ago). The barren treeless Orkney landscape, dotted with lochs and defined by coastline, that these sites are situated in is very dramatic, and the sites themselves are relatively untouched by tourists, modern developments or visitor centres. Unlike southern England, It’s still possible here to get a sense of what these places were like thousands of years ago. Another ancient site I’ve not been to (but which is a definite target for a future visit) is the large stone circle at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.
On the drive back to Edinburgh, we stopped off in Oxford (where we saw the pub that Inspector Morse drinks in) and also visited the Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead. When walking up to this enormous and strange man-made structure situated at a natural viewpoint it struck me that this was really a contemporary equivalent of the ancient sites we had just visited. It provided an intriguing counterpoint to Stonehenge - the reasons why both of these objects exist are tied up with the same questions about art and religion.