The Neolithic town of Avebury in Wiltshire has figured in much that I love for a growing number of years now. Its draw has been one that has crossed all areas of the arts that dominate my current interests, to the point where the village almost seemed to embody a fictional realm akin to Alan Garner’s Elidor or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It had become a projection in my mind that seemed intangible and dreamlike. Now living within a reasonable travelling distance from the site – only an hour by train to the town of Swindon and then a twenty minute bus to Avebury itself – I finally felt that it was time to enjoy the reality of its fields and hills. But, more than this, I wanted to experience it with a vaguely pagan sensibility; I did not want to experience it purely through a mediated “National Trust gift shop” restriction. What better way then to explore the place afresh than to take a date, and not only that but one met on a digital application of questionable repute? As Adam Thorpe writes in his wonderful monograph, On Silbury Hill: “Sex, the experts assume, was an integral part of whatever rituals took place here”. At the very least it would make a more interesting Tinder date than the usual “How’s it going?” pub jaunt.
I met my date at Paddington and the journey went smoothly, soon finding ourselves in a strangely empty Swindon with a typically lax bus service. I soon began to think about our destination, the childish excitement rising giddily as I thought of all of the artists who had previously visited the area. Throughout the day Derek Jarman in particular figured heavily in my mind. His first proper short on super-8 film, A Journey To Avebury(1971), captures eerily his walking trip down the Ridgeway path to the village in a sort oneiric yellow haze, contrary to how this journey was faring. I wondered how tired he must have been carrying his reels of super-8 and camera on his back, still high on the success of his design work for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Was he making that same journey to search for his own fresh demons and devils? He was, after all, the principle pagan punk. Jarman could have found no better place to parlance again with our pagan ancestry than Avebury, a place of impossibly old worship and mystery. As our bus arrived, I couldn’t quite contain my excitement, mimicking the same glee of leaving reality behind that a child no doubt experiences when first confronted with a theme park. Images of the television series such Children Of The Stones (1977) and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s ghost story for Christmas, Stigma (1977), flashed before my eyes in a flicker-book fashion as the first huge stones came into view. We were entering an older realm.
Getting off the bus, it quickly became clear that changes had undoubtedly been made since Jarman had filmed there, not to mention the huge topographical changes made since artists like Paul Nash and John Piper had documented the stones through photography and painting. Parts of the pathway – especially around the initial village, the Red Lion pub and Avebury Manor – were busy enough to feel almost urban. Jarman’s film works because of its absence of people, hinting at a landscape that seems to have swallowed its occupants whole as if possessing some malignant agency. The pathways here were roped and well-walked, groups of tourists meandering in a mixture of obvious awe and general boredom. But the spark still crackled, the same spark that possessed so many artists to visit in the first place. Perhaps possessing a rather pagan confidence myself, I grabbed my date’s hand (an usually confident move for a generally anxious person) and sped off around the first few stones, inspecting them like a critic ponders over a painting. I was glad she was understanding of the slight mania that was gradually unfolding as more and more stones were viewed, especially as her friends had searched for information about me online and found various Folk Horror connections; had I brought her to this site for some ritualistic sacrifice? She admittedly only confided the concerns of her friends to me on the bus back at the end of the day.
Wandering down the stone-laden pathway known as the West Kennet Avenue, people began to disperse. The walk was refreshing what had been a mind wearied by digital life, bombarded by emails, social media and various other trappings of living in the blue-light realm of London. I thought of E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops (1909), and how its character, Kuno, finds the same escape on the hills of Wessex where “… I felt that those hills had called with incalculable force to men in the past, and that men had loved them”. The Wiltshire hills had the same draw, an ancientness calling even now to our removed lives, always stepped with one foot in cyberspace. The ancientness here seemed to still communicate in a language that was understandable, even if beyond words. In an older time, it would have been called a magic of sorts but, for the scholar in me, it was more accurately transcendental; in the Kantian sense where the knowledge was not gained through (impossible) experience but infinite because it was beyond pure knowledge.
At this point, we were getting a little lost and I was enjoying the feeling greatly. The place had a latent eroticism as we climbed another hill towards what I hoped to be the Ridgeway path. Tinder dates work surprisingly well among the ancient, sexually charged realms of a Neolithic site, all protruding stones and various mounds. Finding the path, we came across a large group of teenagers struggling through the last few feet of a Duke Of Edinburgh challenge, scrambling towards the car park at the end to a cloying gaggle of parents. Fighting our way through the mob, we briefly viewed the various burial mounds adjacent to the A4. A quick, if disappointing, visit to the remnants of the Sanctuary Circle lead us up another path towards the impossibly busy road. Aptly, like the concrete of the road, this circle is now only designated by a group of concrete markers, due to some early vandalism in the name of farming by a Farmer Green in 1724. Ironically, his folly appears to have been in vain as the rich pagan character of the area has won over his lonely position as an early agricultural developer. Struggling to find the West Kennet Long Barrow, another dead end appeared until eventually the barrow ominously revealed itself on top of a beautifully ploughed hill.
In its various alcoves there was evidence of fresh pagan activity, strange objects covered in melted wax, small figurines and candles still lit. Sitting on top the barrow, we kissed for a while and it felt impossibly appropriate; more akin to the character of the place than the mere observance of a tourist’s day out, looking down onto the beautiful Silbury Hill in between. A small group of people walked up and I heard an amusingly awkward “Oh…” as someone spotted us by the barrow. Our reaction was far more in keeping with the place, one of the land, cyclic enveloping of the seasons and the body; a natural kinship between people and grass.
After a while of soaking in the hills, wisps of my date’s hair dancing out a playful ritual on my face and neck, we ambled down in a pleasant trance towards Silbury Hill. Our time was quickly running out so we gently made our way back to the village. Once again on the West Kennet Avenue, I was coming close to finishing my last reel of 35mm film. I asked her to touch one of the stones for a photo. At first, I couldn’t quite place where the idea came from, then, of course, it tied back to Folk Horror and, specifically, to Children Of The Stones. In the show, when Professor Adam Brake (Gareth Thomas) is asked flirtingly to touch one of the stones by Margaret (Veronica Strong), his touch links to all of the built up negative thoughts and impulses drained by the stones in the play; “Will you do something for me Adam? Touch one of the stones…”
Nothing dramatic happened of course but something did click: that such places and the times they hark back to connect to an openness that, with all of our liberalism, has still gradually diminished in recent years, even since the era of the counter-culture when Jarman first walked these pagan paths. The stone didn’t render our attraction away to some impulse-draining black hole but instead showed it be the wholly positive and pure aspect that it had been for centuries before the enlightenment manacles of chastity fixed their prominent hold upon society. We briefly were what we once were, so to speak, and arguably still are underneath the distance of digital life. We walked back, hand in hand, to the Red Lion; the stones standing in the late afternoon sun, quiet and knowing in their silence.