Wayland’s Smithy

After walking from the White Horse across Uffington Castle perched on the hilltop (see previous post  Iron Age hillforts), I walked for about a kilometre to join the Ridgeway track that leads across the Wessex Downs in southern England. I followed this west for about a mile to another Neolithic chambered long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy. The Smithy is about 100 metres off the Ridgeway nestled in a grove of trees.

The ancient Ridgeway track

Some forest near the Ridgeway

The first version of the barrow was built between 3,590 and 3,555 BC. It was 20m long and the remains of 14 people were buried here in a stone and timber box over a period of less than 15 years. Between 3,460 and 3,400 BC a second larger barrow 56m in length with a stone chamber was constructed over it, and the chambers contained the jumbled remains of several people.

Wayland’s Smithy

This barrow was built about 200 years later than West Kennet Long Barrow.It is not as large as West Kennet, with the later mound being185 feet (56 m) long and 43 feet (13 m) wide at the south end. The burial chambers at the south end are not as large either.

Wayland’s Smithy showing the burial chamber entrance

The name of Wayland’s Smithy has been linked to the long barrow since at least AD 955, when it was referred to as ‘Weland’s Smithy’ in a Saxon charter. The name refers to Weland, the Saxon god of metal working and associated with the barrow is a local tradition about Weland. As reported by Francis Wise in 1738:

All the account which the country people are able to give of it is “At this place lived formerly an invisible Smith, and if a traveller’s Horse had lost a Shoe upon the road, he had no more to do than to bring the Horse to this place with a piece of money, and leaving both there for some little time, he might come again and find the money gone, but the Horse new shod.” [1]

In Germanic mythology, Wayland the Smith is a legendary master blacksmith who is the subject of several sagas. He appears as Völundr in Norse mythology where he and his two brothers are married to the three Valkyries, and as Weland in the Old English poem Beowulf, where he fashioned the mail shirt worn by Beowulf.

Closer view of the entrance

Rudyard Kipling, in his collection of stories Puck of Pook’s Hill [2], set many of the stories near the Smithy, and told of the arrival of the smith god to England in the first, “Weland’s Sword”. This tells of the rise and fall of the god, reduced to shoeing horses for passing farmers, until he is freed from this duty and leaves England.

Tolkien also would have been thinking of these Barrow Downs when Tom Bombadil described them to the hobbits in the Fellowship of the Ring:

Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. [3]

While writing this blog, I took a look at Wayland’s Smithy on Google Earth, I was not expecting to find evidence of an alien visitation. In the photo below, Wayland’s Smithy is in the circle of green trees towards the top left of the photo, and there is a giant jellyfish-like creature about 200 metres in length, only a couple of fields away.

Wayland’s Smithy seen on Google Earth

Alien visitor? The locals say it just appeared one day from nowhere.


[1] Ellis Davidson, Hilda R. (1958). “Weland the Smith”. Folklore. 69 (3): 145–59. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1258855?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[2] Rudyard Kipling. Puck of Pook’s Hill. Originally published in 1906 and available in many subsequent editions. Including as a free Ebook at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/557

[3] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.


Ulysses and book burning in Australia

Today the 16th June is Bloomsday, a celebration of the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses is set on that day in 1904, the day of his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.

This lengthy novel has been highly controversial, and has been banned in various countries. It is written using a stream-of-consciousness technique, with careful structuring based on Homer’s Odyssey. Its revolutionary technique and experimental prose as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history.

I read Ulysses as an undergraduate during my daily commutes by train to and from Sydney University. I was particularly taken with the final chapter of Ulysses in which Molly Bloom is lying in bed next to Leopold and her thoughts are reported as a stream-of-consciousness 42 pages in length. I think I read a paperback edition that belonged to my father. I remember him during that period quoting to me the following passage highlighting Leopold Bloom’s adoration for his wife Molly, because he loved the sound of the words:

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmelonous osculation.”
                James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 17 “Ithaca”.

My father and before him my great-Uncle John (1895-1975) were book collectors and I have kept some of their books, including a copy of the first edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. After the initial printing of 1000 numbered copies in 1922, my great-uncle acquired a copy in 1927 from the 8th print run of May 1926.

Title page

A publishing history of Ulysses can be found at antwerpjamesjoycecenter.com

I knew that Ulysses had been banned in Australia for some time and looked up the dates. it was not banned until 1929, then released in 1937, only to be restricted again in 1941 after pressure from Catholic organizations. This ban was lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

Ulysses was banned in the USA until 1934, when it was deemed not to be pornographic in a court case brought by the publisher Random House. Throughout the 1920s, the United States Post Office Department burned copies of the novel. Ulysses was also banned in the United Kingdom until 1936 and in Ireland until the 1960s.

During the 20th century Australia was one of the strictest censors in the western world, often banning imported material that was considered suitable reading in England, Europe and America. A vast range of books have been banned in Australia for reasons including depictions of sex, homosexuality, violence, crime and drug use, or for “subversive” political themes. In 1935, the responsibility for banning books fell on the Department of Trade and Customs who could ban the import of any book it deemed “obscene, indecent, blasphemous and seditious, or those identified to excessively emphasize sex, violence or crime”.

Other prominent novelists and writers who have had books banned in Australia include William Burroughs, James Baldwin, Balzac, Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, Daniel Defoe, Ian Fleming, Jean Genet, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Barry Humphries, D.H. Laurence, Vladimir Lenin, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabakov, George Orwell, Ovid, Rabelais, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Gore Vidal.

In the year I was born, Ray Bradbury published the dystopian science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 about a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. Incidentally, every few years, Fahrenheit 451 ends up on a banned book list somewhere in the United States. It’s an irony with a long history. In 1979, Bradbury himself demanded that Ballantine Books cease publication of a high school edition that censored some of the language.

At the time Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, Australia had a very active regime of banning books and burning those illicit copies that it seized. Far more so than the USA, where there was some constitutional protection for free speech. In contrast, the Australian constitution has no clauses on human rights, and there is no bill of rights. Hence, there are no real legal impediments to the persecution of whistle-blowers and journalists, as is happening at increasing rates at present, or to the censorship of films and books.

Lists of banned material from the 1920s to 1970s have been compiled by Google Arts and Culture, the National Library of Australia and the University of Melbourne Library among others. I list below a selection of books that have been banned in Australia at various times; it’s an idiosyncratic selection including some famous books I am astonished to see there as well as various books I have read and, in some cases, currently own copies of. I’ve largely ignored the quite large numbers of banned erotic, romantic or crime novels by largely obscure authors, but have included some that illustrate that our government used to think Australians were too sensitive to be given information about hippy culture, birth control, or sexual practices, orientations, and psychology of sex, among other things.

 Selected books that have been banned in Australia

  • William Adlington (trans.), The golden ass of Lucius Apuleius (banned 1933–1936)
  • Stuart Anderson, The how and why of birth control (banned 1937)
  • Anon., Hash cookery (banned 1970)
  • Anon., The mad, mad world of Aubrey Beardsley (banned 1969)
  • James Baldwin, Another country (banned 1963–1966)
  • Simone de Beauvoir, The Marquis de Sade: An essay (banned 1956–1973)
  • Brendan Behan, Borstal boy (banned 1958–1965)
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (banned 1923–1936)
  • William S. Burroughs, The naked lunch (banned 1960–1973)
  • Sir Richard Francis Burton (trans.), The Kamasutra (banned c.1900–1968)
  • Erskine Caldwell, God’s little acre (banned 1933–1958; banned in Victoria 1959)
  • Alex Carlson, She-male: The sex-reversal true story of Coccinelle (banned 1966)
  • John Cleland, Memoirs of a woman of pleasure (Fanny Hill) (banned c.1920–1940; restricted 1940–1973)
  • Robert Close, Love me sailor (banned 1946–1960; author and publisher convicted of obscene libel)
  • Leonard Cohen, Beautiful losers (banned 1967–1973)
  • Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (banned 1930–1937; restricted 1940–1973)
  • J.P. Donleavy, The ginger man (banned 1957–1967)
  • John Dos Passos, 1919 (banned 1932–1937)
  • Bret Easton Ellis, American psycho (R-rated in Australia, banned in Queensland 1991 to date)
  • Ian Fleming, The spy who loved me (banned 1962)
  • Jean Genet, The thief’s journal (banned 1965–1972)
  • Radclyffe Hall, The well of loneliness (banned 1928–1939)
  • J.M. Harcourt, Upsurge (banned 1934–1958). A novel of working class Western Australians during the Depression, it was regarded as indecent and seditious.
  • Frank Harris, My life and loves (banned 1926–1973)
  • Ernest Hemingway, A farewell to arms (banned 1931–1937)
  • Abbie Hoffman, Woodstock nation (banned 1970)
  • Barry Humphries, The wonderful world of Barry McKenzie (banned 1968–1971)
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave new world (banned 1932–1937). Libraries were required to return copies of the novel already imported, to Customs for destruction in 1933, when they were duly burnt.
  • James Jones, The thin red line (banned then released 1963)
  • James Joyce, Dubliners (banned 1929–1933)
  • James Joyce, Ulysses (banned 1929–1937, restricted 1941–1953)
  • Phyllis & Eberhard Kronhausen, Pornography and the law (banned 1960–1968)
  • D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s lover (banned 1929–1965)
  • Timothy Leary, Ralph Metner & Richard Alpert, The psychedelic experience: A manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead (banned 1968)
  • Gershon Legman, The limerick: 1700 examples with notes, variants and index (banned 1956–1973)
  • Vladimir Lenin, The State and revolution (banned c.1930–1937)
  • Jack Lindsay (trans.), The complete works of Caius Petronius Arbiter (banned c.1930)
  • Norman Lindsay, Age of consent (banned 1938–1962)
  • William McCarthy, Bible, Church, and God (banned 1943–1958)
  • Larry McMurtry, The last picture show (banned 1967–1973)
  • Norman Mailer, An American dream (banned 1965–1971)
  • Norman Mailer, Why are we in Vietnam? (banned 1968–1973)
  • ‘Ern Malley’, The darkening ecliptic (publisher Max Harris convicted of indecent publication 1944)
  • Robert Masters & Jean Houston, Psychedelic art (banned 1968)
  • E.P. Mathers (comp.), The thousand and one nights (banned 1930–1938)
  • Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (unexpurgated edition banned 1957–1971). Payton Place sold more than 12 million copies in the USA, and it surpassed Gone With the Wind to become the best-selling novel of all time in 1958, a position it held for nearly 20 years. Despite this, Australians officially could only buy a specially “expurgated” edition.
  • Henry Miller, Nexus (banned 1955–1973), Plexus (banned 1955–1973), Sexus (banned 1955–1973)
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (banned 1949–1956; restricted 1956–1971)
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (banned 1949–1956; restricted 1956–1971)
  • Joseph Mouet (trans.), Casanova’s memoirs (banned c.1930)
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (banned 1958–1965)
  • Muhammad Ibn Umar al-Nefzaoul, The perfumed garden (banned 1929–1968)
  • Phillip Nitschke and Fiona Stewart, The peaceful pill handbook (refused classification 2007)
  • John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (banned 1935–1954)
  • John O’Hara, Butterfield 8 (banned 1950–1963)
  • George Orwell, Down and out in Paris and London (banned 1933–1953)
  • George Orwell, Keep the aspidistra flying (banned 1936–1954)
  • Ovid, The love books of Ovid (banned 1926–1936)
  • William Powell, The anarchist cookbook (banned 1970)
  • François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (banned 1926–1929)
  • Erich Maria Remarque, All quiet on the Western Front (banned in NSW 1930)
  • Harold Robbins, The adventurers (banned 1968–1971)
  • Harold Robbins, The carpetbaggers (unabridged edition banned 1961–1971)
  • C.H. Rolph, The trial of Lady Chatterley (banned 1961–1965)
  • Panama Rose, The hashish cookbook (banned 1970)
  • Harold Rosen, Therapeutic abortion (banned 1963–1969)
  • Philip Roth, Portnoy’s complaint (banned 1969 to mid-1971). Penguin Books Australia went to court and gained the rights to publish it locally, although that edition was then banned by most of the States.
  • Marquis de Sade, Justine (banned 1936–1973)
  • Marquis de Sade, Oeuvres completes (banned 1967)
  • Marquis de Sade, The 120 days of Sodom (banned 1957; restricted release 1973)
  • J.D. Salinger, The catcher in the rye (banned 1956; ban lifted after copies seized from Commonwealth Parliamentary Library 1957)
  • George Scott, Modern birth control methods (banned 1936–1956)
  • Cecil E. Skitch, Woman’s destiny and birth control (banned 1928)
  • Manning Slater, Sex offenders in group therapy: The personal experiences of a clinical psychologist (banned 1966)
  • Wilbur Smith, The train from Katanga (banned 1966)
  • Terry Southern & Andy Warhol, Blue movie (banned 1971)
  • Mickey Spillane, I, the jury (banned 1951–1967) and several other novels
  • Norman Spinrad, Bug Jack Barron (banned 1970)
  • Norman Spinrad, The men in the jungle (banned 1972)
  • W.D. Sprague, Sexual rebellion in the sixties (banned 1966)
  • Olaf Stapledon, Sirius (banned 1945–1958)
  • Irving Stone, Pageant of youth (banned 1936–1958)
  • Marie Stopes, Wise parenthood (banned 1918)
  • Kenneth Tynan, Oh! Calcutta (banned 1969)
  • Gore Vidal, The city and the pillar (restricted 1950–1966)
  • Gore Vidal, The judgement of Paris (banned 1953–1958)
  • Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge (banned 1968–1973)
  • Oscar Wilde (trans.), The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter (restricted 1935–1951)
  • Edmund Wilson, Memoirs of Hecate County (banned 1946)
  • Kathleen Winsor, Forever amber (banned 1945–1958). There was some government embarrassment when it was discovered that Hollywood was making a movie of the book, released in 1947. However, that did not alter the views of the Literature Censorship Board.
  • Xiaoxiaosheng, The golden lotus (restricted 1948–1968)

Another set of books on the list above which my great-uncle John had in his library was The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night translated by Dr. J.C. Mardrus and compiled by E. Powys Mathers. This was privately printed in London as a 16 volume set for subscribers of the Casanova Society in 1923 and acquired by my great uncle on 24 September 1923. It was banned in Australia from 1930 to 1938. In part, because it was compiled by a namesake, I have kept this set of books also. Such classic stories as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves are from the 1001 Nights. As is the story of Aladdin, recently made into the second of two movies of the same title from Walt Disney.

Among other banned books that my father had in his library were Frank Harris’s very explicit autobiography My Life and Loves with a focus on his many seductions of teenage girls and women, as well as other Frank Harris memoirs. I started seriously buying my own books around 1970 when I started university, and made it a habit to include a tour of the second-hand bookshops of George Street, on my return home at the end of the day. I picked up a number of books, new or second-hand in the early 1970s which, at the time, I had no idea  had been banned. These included Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s complaint, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metner & Richard Alpert’s The psychedelic experience: A manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead, Gershon Legman, The limerick: 1700 examples with notes, variants and index, and Barry Humphries, The wonderful world of Barry McKenzie.

The election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 was a breath of fresh air after many years of conservative government. Among the many things his government did was an easing of censorship, particularly of books. Perhaps Gough Whitlam was particularly sensitized to this, as the then Deputy Leader of the Opposition had his copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country seized by Australian Customs in 1964. That book explored race relations in the USA in the 1950s.

One of Australia’s best known comedians, Barry Humphries, published a cartoon strip The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie in Private Eye, which was banned by the Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton in 1968. It was Bazza McKenzie who popularized the term “technicolour yawn” for vomit, and educated me on the two main classes of vomiting: “Herg” and “Ruth”. Four years later, the film version not only received cinema release but even featured a cameo appearance from Gorton’s successor, Gough Whitlam.

Although book burning and banning are much less common in Australia these days, there is more active censorship of films, and in recent years there have been backyard screenings of banned films, with police raids and seizing of “illegal” DVDs (see theguardian.filmcensorship).  The thought police and their cheer squads remain very active and recent moves by Australian governments to persecute and suppress whistle-blowing and politically embarrassing journalism give no cause for complacency. Western Enlightenment values such as freedom of speech seem more under threat from both left and right these days than they were when I was younger.

There were fortresses on the heights

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights.” [1]

As well as the barrows and stone-circles of my two previous posts, the Wessex Downs have quite a large number of Iron Age fortresses on the hilltops. The closest of these to Avebury, and the first I visited was Barbury Castle, a few miles south of Swindon.

Barbury Castle

Barbury Castle is perhaps the most remarkable of the Ridgeway hill forts. It’s on the edge of the Marlborough Downs with views in all directions, on the Ridgeway, and it’s huge! It is defined by a broadly elliptical double rampart with a ditch in between, which even after two millennia of erosion, remains quite steep and imposing. The fort was built in the 6th century BC as a refuge against warring tribes. At times of attack, people would bring their animals and shelter in huts inside the 12 acre enclosure. The outer bank was reinforced by huge sarsen stones and the inner bank was topped by chalk blocks and a continuous wooden fence.

The fortress is clearly visible in this satellite photo, taken from Google Earth Pro, and also just outside the western entrance can be seen a round barrow which dates from 1,700 BC.

Barbury Castle  (Google Earth Pro)

The fortress lies on the Ridgeway track, and has  a track running through it with eastern and western entrances through the ramparts. The entrances were defended by wooden gateways and semi-circular earthworks. Pottery, iron tools, weapons and vehicle fittings dating from 300-1 B.C have been found, but it appears that the fortress was abandoned as a living area in the 1st century BC. From a later period, there is also evidence of Roman-era metalwork inside the fort, and pottery around the small mound outside the north-western rampart. Possible Saxon burials have also been discovered, together with weapons of that time; a knife, spearhead and a seax dating 5-700 A.D.

Ditch and ramparts near the western entrance to Barbury Castle

Legend has it that the Saxons (the first and more successful German invaders) defeated the Romano-British here in 556 CE at the Battle of Beran Byrig. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year states: Her Cynric 7 Ceawlin fuhton wiþ Brettas æt Beranbyrg (This year Cynric and Ceawlin fought with the Britons at Beranbury). Ceawlin later became King of Wessex in 560 CE.

More recently during the Second World War, the dominant position of the fort was exploited as part of the local anti-aircraft defences, with some damage to the entrances, as well as the positioning of guns and the digging of trenches and such positions around the interior.

Liddington Castle

Liddington Castle sits on the hilltop, seen from the west.

I was not able to locate any clear directions to reach Liddington Castle beforehand. I managed to locate the Castle itself on google maps but when I got there it was surrounded by farmland. I first tried to approach it from the west via a track which led on to the Ridgeway, but after about a mile realized I was heading away from the Castle. So I returned and went to the other side of the hill on which it sits, and found the Ridgeway track which led uphill towards it. It sits on the edge of the Downs on top of a quite long and steep hill and has two ramparts and ditch enclosing an area of approximately 7.4 acres, with two entrances cut through it. Liddington Castle was constructed in four stages, likely beginning during the very late Bronze Age / early Iron Age, 700-500 BC.  The last stage of construction was probably in the late Iron Age, but it could possibly have occurred as late as the Roman, even the post-Roman era.

Ditch and rampart of Liddington Castle near the western entrance

It was once thought to be the location of Badon Hill [2-4]; the mythical site of King Arthur’s great victory over the Saxon invaders, though recent excavations have found no support at all for this. Finds of pottery from the post-Roman era suggest that the fort may have been re-occupied in some form, adding weight, but still no evidence whatsoever, to the Badon Hill theory. The earliest mention of the Battle of Badon is in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), written sometime in the period 510-540 CE [5]. Gildas states that the Battle of Badon occurred 44 years earlier, so sometime in the late 400s, though he does not mention Arthur. Some three hundred years later, Nennius identified Arthur as the victorious leader of the 12th and last battle against the Saxons at Mons Badonicus [6].

Returning from the Castle, I passed a hilltop after a few hundred metres on which there was a concrete bunker.  I looked this up when I got back home, and discovered that it was a “Starfish Bunker” built in the Second World War as the control centre for a large-scale night-time decoy to protect nearby Swindon from bombing.  The “Special Fire” or “SF” sites became known as Starfish (SF) sites and consisted of elaborate light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker, and laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town.  By the end of the war there were 237 Starfish decoys protecting 81 towns and cities around the country.

Starfish Bunker near Liddington Castle

Flowers near the Starfish Bunker

Uffington Castle

The Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse can be seen for miles away leaping across the head of a dramatic dry valley in the Ridgeway escarpment. The Horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland. It is 110 metres long, and in 1990 archaeologists dated it to the late Bronze Age, some time between 1380 and 550 BC.[ They also discovered the figure was cut into the hill up to a metre (3 ft) deep, not simply scratched into the chalk surface.

The Uffington White Horse and Dragon Hill

Directly behind the White Horse in the photo above lies Dragon Hill, a small roundish hill with a flattened top, said to be the site where St. George, England’s patron saint, slew the dragon.

The White Horse was scoured every seven years during a local festival to prevent it disappearing under vegetation and period scouring has been continued since 1990 by the National Trust. The Horse was covered during the Second World War so it could not be used by the Luftwaffe for navigation. Tolkien took inspiration for the Barrow Downs from this region and quite possibly the White Horse was his inspiration for the flag of Rohan also.


White horse and Uffington Castle (Google Earth)

On White Horse Hill is an Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle. A simple design of one rampart and ditch, the castle at 860 feet (262m) above sea level forms the highest point in Oxfordshire, with views for miles around over six counties. This hillfort, defended by a bank and ditch, was built during the Iron Age (300 BC – 43 CE).

Walking the ramparts of Uffington Castle

Segsbury Camp

It started to rain while I was at Uffington Castle, and I headed onwards about 7 miles to Segsbury Camp, which is up a long farm road leading out of the village of Letcombe Regis.

The Google Earth satellite photo below shows the camp sitting on the crest of the Berkshire Downs. Segsbury Camp or Segsbury Castle is an Iron Age hill fort with an extensive ditch and ramparts and four gateways. Excavations in 1871 found a cist grave and human remains, and determined that the fort was occupied between the 6th and 2nd centuries.

Segsbury Castle (Google Earth)

I very much enjoyed visiting these Iron Age hill forts along the ancient Ridgeway track, and was impressed by their size and the still quite impressive ditches and ramparts after more than 2,000 years of weather, grazing, farming and other human activities.

“There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again.” [1]

[1] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.

[2] Hirst, S. et al. “Liddington Castle and the battle of Badon : Excavations and research 1976“. Archaeological Journal. 1996, vol. 153, pp. 1–59.

[3] Ashe, Geoffrey. From Caesar to Arthur, pp. 162–4

[4] Wood, Michael, In Search of Myths and Heroes (2005), pp. 219-220.

[5] Gildas. De Excido et Conquestu Bitanniae. Project Gutenberg Ebook. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1949

[6] Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Translated by J.A.Giles. Medieval Latin Series,Cambridge, Ontario 2000. Available at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/nennius_giles.pdf


The Avebury megalithic stone circles

While in Wiltshire earlier this month, I stayed in the village of Avebury, which lies within the world’s largest megalithic stone circle, and is about a mile north of Silbury Hill (see previous post at Exploring-the-barrow-downs-of-wessex

Constructed over several hundred years during the Neolithic period from around 3,000 BC to 2,600 BC, a large henge (a bank and a ditch) with a large outer stone circle encircles part of Avebury village. Two separate smaller stone circles are located closer to the centre of the henge.

The ditch and mound surrounding the Avebury outer stone circle

The outer stone circle is 332 metres in diameter with a circumference just over 1,000 metres and encloses two smaller stone circles near its centre.[1] The available evidence suggests that in the early Neolithic, Avebury and the surrounding hills were covered in dense oak woodland, and as the Neolithic progressed, the woodland around Avebury and the nearby monuments receded and was replaced by grassland.

The great outer stone circle originally contained 98 sarsen standing stones, some weighing in excess of 40 tons.

One of the outer circle stones.

The largest stone is estimated to weigh more than 100 tons, making it one of the largest ever found in the UK. Radiocarbon dating of some stone settings indicate a construction date of around 2870–2200 BC.

The Avebury stone circles are less well known than the better preserved and more famous Stonehenge, about 17 miles to the south, as In the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, local people destroyed many of the standing stones around the henge, both for religious and practical reasons. In the 20th century, archaeologists restored much of the monument, re-erecting stones which had been toppled. A geophysical survey of the circle in 2003 revealed at least 15 of the megaliths lying buried and identified where they fitted in the circle [1].

At the centre of the inner northern circle is the “Cove”.

These two stones form the “cove” marks the centre of the inner northern circle and is thought to be the oldest part of the complex, erected around 3,000 BC.

I had found this brass dowsing rod in some long grass and it did seem to want to align with various stones. Perhaps the energy field of the stones is the reason that the SatNav system in my car crashed when I drove into Avebury and my mobile phone also had no reception within the circle.

Using the brass dowsing rod

Part of the Southern Inner Circle.

The West Kennet Avenue, an avenue of paired stones, leads from the southeastern entrance of the henge towards West Kennet and the Sanctuary and is thought to have been constructed around 2,400 BC. There are also traces of a second Avenue leading out from the western entrance.

The Avenue at sunset

I had walked the Avenue earlier in the day, after I left West Kennet Long Barrow, but I returned near sunset, and managed to take some nice photos.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avebury

Exploring the Barrow Downs of Wessex

I recently had an opportunity to spend a weekend exploring Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites on the Wessex Downs. Britain’s “oldest road”, the Ridgeway, runs 87 miles (137 kilometres) across the Wessex Downs eastward to the Berkshire Downs and the River Thames. It has been in use for over 5,000 years and I briefly visited it over 30 years ago.

West Kennet Long Barrow, an early Neolithic grave.

West Kennet Long Barrow

At the western end of the Ridgeway, a couple of miles from Avebury, I visited West Kennet Long Barrow which was built during the early Neolithic period around 3,650 BC. There are five stone burial chambers in the eastern end, and at least 46 people were buried here over a 1,000 year period. The entrance consists of a concave forecourt with a facade made from large slabs of sarsen stones which were placed to seal entry towards the end of its life.

Large sarsen stones guard the entrance to the Barrow

Dry stone walling of oolitic limestone has been used to fill the gaps between the large sarsen stones. Such limestone does not occur locally and must have been transported from the Cotswold hills some 20-30 miles away. The burial mound is 100 metres in length and sits on a prominent chalk ridge about a kilometre south of Silbury Hill. In total, it is estimated that 15,700 man-hours were expended in its construction.

The entrance passage in West Kennet Long Barrow

The early Neolithic period was a revolutionary period in British history when agriculture was widely adopted as the primary form of subsistence, replacing the previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  One of my maternal line ancestors, Urwen, lived around the period that the West Kennet Long Barrow was constructed, and may even have lived in this area. I have written about my maternal line ancestors in a previous post, in which I estimated that Urwen was my great*292nd grandmother (maternal-ancestors-ice-age-europe-and-britain).

Inside the burial chambers

Silbury Hill

Clearly visible about 1 km away is Silbury Hill, built around 2,400 BC at the beginning of the Bronze age. This dates it over 1,200 years later than West Kennet Long Barrow. Silbury Hill the largest and tallest prehistoric  structure in Europe, standing about 30 metres high and 160 metres wide.

Silbury Hill, seen from near West Kennet Long Barrow

Comparable in size to some of the smaller Egyptian pyramids, it was built at around the same time. No burial chamber has ever been found inside and its purpose remains a mystery. It is estimated to have involved about 4 million man hours of work over a period of between 150 and 400 years (based on radiocarbon dating [1]), and clearly involved a massive and sustained communal effort over many generations.

Another view of Silbury Hill from the other side

Overton Hill Barrow Cemetery

About 1 mile east of West Kennet Long Barrow on Overton Hill lies a Bronze Age barrow cemetery known as the Sanctuary Barrows or Seven Barrows. These burial mounds are over 4,000 years old and dated to the early Bronze Age, around the same period as the construction of Silbury Hill. The barrows are recorded are far back as AD 939 in the Charter of Athelstan and by the 17th century the site was known as Seven-barrow hill, from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Seorfon Beorgas’  although the site really consists of twelve round barrows.  It is not be confused with the similarly named Seven Barrows near Lambourn in Berkshire where there is a barrow cemetery containing around 40 barrows.

Bell barrows on Overton Hill

The prominent mounds to the north of the A4 road mark the start of the Ridgeway and consist of the five barrows, four are examples of bell barrows, with a smaller fifth bowl barrow in between. Both burials and cremations have been found there, and these were sometimes accompanied by grave goods such as pottery and bone and flint implements. The general construction of these barrows consisted of building material up and around bodies/remains within. The barrows had secondary use by peoples of other periods spanning hundreds of years. Often, later surface burials or burials nearby were created.

Three of the Seven Barrows

About 150 north of the barrows shown in the photo above, part of the London-Bath Roman road crosses the barrow field and is clearly visible in satellite photos, although the low mounds and ditches on either side of it are not prominent on the ground, with a height of about 0.5 metres. Three of the burial mounds located right next to the Roman road have now been identified as Roman burial mounds, thought to be a unique occurrence in Britain. Perhaps the Romans were inspired here to take on the local customs?  Post-holes found on the mounds suggest that they were surrounded by a fence. Roman and post-Roman Anglo-Saxon weapons and remains were found in them [2].

Some of the Seven Barrows on Overton Hill

The Sanctuary

Across the busy A4 road from the Seven Barrows is the Sanctuary, the site of a stone circle that once formed the terminal point of the West Kennet Avenue of standing stones (see below). Large enough to contain the outer ring of stones at Stonehenge its earliest parts are dated to around 3000 BC which is about the same period as the earliest part of Stonehenge (about 20 miles away) was constructed. It is believed to have only become linked to the distant henge at Avebury when the avenue was built about 2400 BC. Although John Aubrey in 1649 recorded it as a double ring of stones in 1649, all the stones disappeared and the site was lost until rediscovered in 1930.  Excavations have revealed the locations of the stones (blue markers), and also of post holes (red markers) that were used for a timber structure.

The Sanctuary

The Barrow Downs

J.R.R.Tolkien Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings while living in Oxford, which is about 40 miles from Overton Hill, and closer to some of the other Barrow cemeteries on the Wessex Downs. Almost certainly, these Barrows were the inspiration for his Barrow Downs in the Lord of the Rings [3] where Frodo and the other hobbits encountered a malevolent barrow wight who ensnared them in a barrow.

It is said that the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad, as the Barrowdowns were called of old, are very ancient, and that many were built in the days of the old world of the First Age by the forefathers of the Edain………..Some say that the mound in which the Ring-bearer was imprisoned had been the grave of the last prince of Cardolan, who fell in the war of 1409 [4]

In the previous Chapter, Tom Bombadil gave the hobbits a description of the Barrow Downs which could very easily have been describing the North Wessex Downs and their barrows that I visited.

Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. [5]

Windmill Hill

Later in the day, I spent an hour trying to locate a route to Windmill Hill, which is about 1 mile northwest of Avebury and only accessible by a hard-to-find farm track. The top of this low hill was the site of a large Neolithc enclosure formed by three concentric circles of ditches. It was built around 3,650 BC, the same time as the West Kennet Long Barrow, and was in use for about 300 years. The large mounds on the site are Bronze Age burial mounds dating from about 2,000-1,500 BC.

Approaching Windmill Hill and already inside the Neolithic ring of ditches.

The large barrow at the centre has a prominent ditch around its base.


[1] Alex Bayliss, Fachtna McAvoy & Alasdair Whittle. The world recreated: redating Silbury Hill in its monumental landscape. Antiquity 81 (2007): 26-53.

[2]  Historic England. Three Roman burial mounds, a Bronze Age bowl barrow, a pagan Saxon inhumation cemetery and a short length of Roman road on Overton Hill. June 1994. Available at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1008461

[3] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VIII. Fog on the Barrow-downs.

[4] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Return of the King. Appendix A, I, iii, Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur.

[5] J.R.R.Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter VII. In the House of Tom Bombadil.

WW1 Diaries of Tom Mathers – extracts on the Battle of the Somme 1916

Just over 100 years ago my grandfather Will Mathers and his brother Tom, both in the 8th Australian Field Ambulance, took part in the Battle of the Somme, on the front line from 18 September 1916 to 8 November.

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of upper reaches of the River Somme in France. It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front; more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Tom kept a diary throughout the war [see Endnote 1] and his diary account provides a terse but graphic account of the experience of being a stretcher bearer on the front lines.

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Barcroft Boake (1866-1892): Australian bush poet

In an earlier post https://mountainsrivers.com/2015/10/26/ancestral-tales-a-theosophist-a-thief-and-an-indian-princess/ I wrote about my great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) who was a theosophist, whose father was a bank robber and she was also descended from an Indian princess.  I mentioned in passing that her uncle was a famous Australian poet who committed suicide but did not give any details. So this post is about Barcroft Boake, an Australian bush poet, who committed suicide at the age of 26.

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