Writing the landscape

I’ve always been fascinated by landscape, and that fascination has shaped my identity as a writer. Ironically – or perhaps inevitably – I grew up somewhere with a particular kind of landscape that some people think of as no landscape at all. The flat expanses of North Essex do not share the character of the Lake District or the South Downs, say. The land may be spread out around you, in wide fields of crops, and the skyscapes may be spectacular, but there’s relatively little sense of history imprinted on it. The name of the county may recall Iron Age settlers, but you can’t sense their ghosts.

I’ve recently been working in Chippenham, a market town in Wiltshire, and travelling to that job has afforded me a glimpse of a different kind of landscape. There are a few parts of Britain where the presence of our ancient ancestors can still be felt all around you – Dartmoor, for example – but I can’t think of anywhere where the ancient footprint of man is so apparent as the North Wessex Downs. It seems that wherever you turn, the fields and hills bear the mark of people who lived and died hundreds or thousands of years before the current generation.

There’s a wonderful moment when you drive North along the A34 that your vehicle springs into an ancient landscape. You curve through a cutting, pass between rows of trees and burst out into the open in the Bronze Age. The road passes directly through Seven Barrows, a string of ancient burial mounds formed in an arc. And at that moment, there ahead of you, sensed rather than seen, is the ditch-and-bank earthwork of the hillfort atop Beacon Hill, an almost conical mound rising out of the fields and dominating the skyline in a way that belies its low elevation. It’s comparable to that spot on the A303 where your car breasts a rise and there is Stonehenge – or it would be if the road went right through the stones.

Beacon Hill Seven Barrows
Part of Seven Barrows with Beacon Hill in the background (Zzapper, via Wikipedia)

It’s undeniably sad that some barbarian of a road planner decided to cut right through the ancient cemetery – the road even clips the edge of one of the barrows – in the kind of act of casual bureaucratic vandalism that destroyed Twyford Down. The atmosphere at Seven Barrows will forever be ruined. And yet that anonymous suited fool unwittingly gave the sensitive motorist a moment of time travel every time they pass along that stretch of road.

Seven Barrows
The A34 road passing through Seven Barrows, Hampshire (Apple Maps)

The train journey between Salisbury and Bath is not dissimilar. The ancients have left their marks like tattoos in the skin of the land all around. The railway skirts a seemingly straight ridge of hills, the Southern boundary of the downs. The slightly ragged edge that betrays a ditch and bank can be seen every so often. There must be more hill forts here than anywhere else in England. Who built them? Who lived there? What were those ridges of earthwork intended to keep out or in?

Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill fort, Hampshire, showing the ditch-and-bank boundary following the shape of the hill, with terracing from agrigulture on the slopes below (Apple Maps)

Below the forts, the hillsides are striated with terraces. This land was farmed once, every available inch of it. Below, the broad ribs of mediaeval open-field agriculture occasionally poke through the grass fields, those that haven’t been ploughed into arid modern flatness by tractor-towed blades, year in, year out. Each one of those heaped strips was farmed by an individual, a family, working for themselves but part of a wider community.

Those downs have their own, almost unique marks as well as the shaping of the earth in life and death. Something more dramatic and mysterious. At the point the ridge of the downs slopes down into broad, flat fields – the downs don’t peter out, they just end – is a white horse, carved in the chalk. (Well, once it was – these days the Westbury White Horse is laid in concrete and painted white).

Alton Barnes white horse, Wiltshire
Alton Barnes White Horse, Wiltshire, with a Bronze Age round barrow above and to the right

It’s not unique. A couple of years ago my wife and I decided to do a whistle-stop of the Wiltshire White Horses, leaving the best known and most outlying two, Uffington (anyway in Oxfordshire) and Westbury. There are more than most people know about. Some are small, serving a tiny community – others larger, proudly visible for miles around. Alton Barnes, Broad Town, Cherhill, Hackpen, Marlborough, Pewsey. Most are generally reckoned to be relatively new – Uffington is properly ancient, though chalk figures are notoriously hard to date accurately; Westbury was recut in the 18th century into a lifelike horse over an older figure; the others generally date from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are, however, several ‘lost’ horses and many of those newer figures may well have replaced older ones as happened at Westbury. I find it hard to believe that the ancients who shaped the North Wessex Downs with their hill forts, henges, farms and burial mounds, missed the opportunity presented to them by the bright chalk just beneath the surface. Several of the horses mark the slopes close to hill forts and barrows, and the association is a tempting one to make.

History is in the records, the politics, the cities, the great churches and castles, but it’s also written in the country, the very soil. As someone who comes from part of the country where modern, industrial farming has scoured the land of much of its heritage, the rolling hills and fields of the North Wessex Downs are a revelation. Sometimes it’s almost as though those people, who lived so lightly on the land and yet left signature in it that has lasted millennia, have only just left. Walking with the ghosts of our forefathers is more possible here than anywhere.

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