§ CHAPTER FIVE
Alfredan burghs—St Martin’s—T. E. Lawrence—Britons and Anglo-Saxons—Thomas Hardy—Tolpuddle martyrs—Divelis and Dubglas—Cerne Abbas giant—hidden Dorset—childhood heroes—St Juthware—Sherborne—Cadbury/Camelot and Arthur—lightning—Street—Glastonbury—Philip Rahtz—Moon mirrors and ley lines—lake village—England’s lost footpaths—Cheddar and Mendips hills—Congresbury—Dark Age hampers
I WALKED OUT, one midsummer’s morning, from a farm campsite at the head of Poole harbour in Dorset, to walk across the Wessex peninsula. My fellow campers formed ranks of white, shiny miniature mobile houses, either motorised or towed behind glistening polished cars. This is the sort of conspicuous, portable wealth whose equivalent, in the ancient lands of Britain, was cattle. There is an essentially petit-bourgeois competitiveness to these vehicles that one catches fragments of evidence for in half-heard conversations between temporary neighbours. Desocialised by the self-imposed isolation constructed from garden fences, block-paved driveways, security lights, CCTV and paranoiac television, they don’t leap out of their doors to make conversation with their new neighbours, or passing pilgrims; net curtains twitch in a cultural semaphore that might have been inherited, distantly, from nesting birds spotting raptors overhead.
Land-bound again, I was nevertheless accompanied by the sounds of clanking halyards, squeaking fenders and the rustle of a half-hearted breeze through willow and reed bed. A mile inland from where the River Frome empties into the harbour, boats sat easy at their moorings on the ebbing tide and the day’s heat began to infuse the earth. The riverside path into Wareham was dusty; the forecast promised thirty degrees. July’s brilliant light seemed to energise the air into a new level of clarity: saw-edged sedge leaves sharply pencil-drawn against china-blue sky; dark green hedges chiselling lines between oat-yellow fields fat with grain and ripe for harvest. To the south the protective line of the Purbeck hills, the ramparts of Wessex, crisply profiled the horizon. Ahead, and across the river, above tall waving banks of reeds, the square crenellated tower of Lady St Mary church marked the south-east corner of Wareham town. Following the lazy meander of the river, I came to the modern bridge that carries the road from Corfe Castle into the town centre along a route more than a thousand years old.
I went to Wessex to walk with the heroes of the Dark Ages: not to praise them, but to understand how a mythic past has infiltrated the fabric of the landscape. My route took me from the fortified town of King Alfred, via the martyrs of Tolpuddle and the virile chalk giant at Cerne Abbas, to the hilltop Camelot of Arthur, then to his supposed resting place at Glastonbury where Joseph of Arimathea planted his thorny staff. It took me to a site associated with the legendary St Congar and through the landscapes of Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It also drew me back to associations of more obscure heroes from my own past. Along the way the idea of the hero morphed into something complex and ironic, while the apparently homely, very English counties of Dorset and Somerset took on, in my traveller’s mind, a secretive and ambivalent cloak of obscurity.
Wareham, then, and a beginning rooted in geographical and historical certainty. The town is a neat square, planned, laid out and constructed under the orders of King Alfred of Wessex in the last decade of the ninth century. Wareham was a burgh, a fortified settlement whose purpose was to protect its hinterland against Viking raids, to provide a focus for civic functions and trade and to act as a fixed point in a comprehensive system of military co-ordination and cultural revival. Alfred was taking advantage of a strategic site at the head of Poole harbour and of the near-confluence of two rivers: the Frome, which marks the town’s southern, unwalled edge, and the Piddle, which flows parallel to and just outside the northern ramparts. Within Wareham’s earthen banks a regular grid of plots was established along north–south and east–west axes with a crossroads at the centre. The roads were lined with wooden houses, with craft workshops, with wharves and warehouses by the river; these days the buildings are of brick, but the layout is not much altered. Inhabitants enjoyed rights that went with the responsibility to man its walls. Despite the depredations of time and later military alterations over the centuries, the ramparts survive to a substantial and impressive height. Each side of the enclosure, which contains something like ninety acres, is more than five hundred paces long. As I made my tour of the perimeter, I realised it made a perfect dog-walking circuit. A woman, I guess somewhat past retirement age, passed me in the company of her dog and, noticing that I had my camera poised, stopped for a brief chat about photography, evidently her passion. I am ashamed to say that I was a bit terse, if not exactly impolite, and carried on my way, anxious to complete the circuit.
Where the northern rampart is pierced deeply by the main road there was once a gate; even now the entrance to the town is imposing, high walls rising sheer on either side of the cutting, and the sense of entering a canyon is enhanced by the tall west wall of the church of St Martin which looms above it. The church door was locked, but a notice promised that a key was available by application to A. F. Joy (outfitters) at 35 North Street. I had not been in a shop like this since the 1970s, supposing that they no longer existed. It smelled of old clothes for slow people. A woman there, looking slightly sceptical at the sight of me, as if my rucksack might be designed for looting precious church relics, took the satisfyingly solid, heavy iron key from the drawer that held gentlemen’s ties, and made me sign for it. I was not, thankfully, required to purchase a tie.
St Martin’s-on-the-walls was built in about 1030; but its dedication, to the fourth-century St Martin of Tours, may reflect an earlier foundation on the same spot. The interior was all elegant, catholic delicacy, with the splendid tall proportions of a tower-house. The Romanesque chancel arch was more refined than the squat dog-tooth of many Norman churches and pierced on either side by smaller arches which brought more light into the nave and gave it the air of a basilica—the sensibility was distinctly Carolingian. Above the chancel arch, and in the chancel itself, faded paintings almost floated on the lime-plastered walls: a twelfth-century depiction of St Martin on horseback; the lion and unicorn crest of Queen Anne; the Ten Commandments, and an extract from Exodus. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, cool and gracefully welcoming. It would have been a fine thing to have a companion to talk to, for sound diffused through its patient, dust-moted air like the faint echo of its own history.
In the north aisle I stopped before the creamy-white marble effigy of a great warrior, a flesh-and-blood templar returned to his homeland, honoured by art and family. Recumbent, dressed in the robes of a Bedouin prince, hand on ceremonial dagger at his waist, his feet were crossed, braced against a block of stone carved with a representation of Hittite fighting bulls. The body does not lie here, but in a small cemetery in the village of Moreton, not many miles to the west, wrapped in a union flag. This warrior hero was no medieval crusader but a latter-day adventurer, scholar and champion of Arab rights.
I spent some time in quiet contemplation of Thomas Edward Lawrence. The face betrays nothing of the emotions, but even in its apparent blank passivity an extraordinary, restless intellect can be read: the marble is cool, much polished from visitors touching it. His friend and sculptor, the war artist Eric Kennington, had intended the effigy for St Paul’s Cathedral; but Lawrence, who died in 1935 on the back lanes of Dorset in a motorcycling accident (the official version),45 was as divisive a figure in death as he had been in life. Like the incorrupt body of St Cuthbert or the relics of King Oswald, his remains were a matter of more than academic interest to contemporaries. Lawrence was too controversial a figure to lie alongside the remains of Nelson, that other troubled secular saint, in St Paul’s. Neither man’s heroism was by any means straightforward. Lawrence’s Arab sympathies and discomfort with British policy in Arabia (the fruits of which are splashed across the newspapers as I write), his self-advertising memoirs, distinctly equivocal attitude towards Hitler’s Germany and his refusal to play the part of gracious (and tight-lipped) English war hero, have corrupted the comforting narrative of perfection that we like our heroes to conform to. Dark Age heroes such as Alfred and Arthur are also less reassuring, less readily graspable than the simple certainties their mythic portrayals would suggest: for the archaeologist or historian, reality is always more complex, always more interesting.
Wareham has more secrets, and they subvert its Alfredan narrative. The parish church of Lady St Mary, which overlooks the river crossing and which seems such a fitting building to mark the south-east corner of the town, must in fact pre-date it. A king of Wessex, Brihtric, was buried here in 802, having apparently been poisoned by his wife, a daughter of King Offa of Mercia, long before Alfred left his mark. The Great Heathen Army, or mycel heathen here as they were called by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, made their headquarters here in 876 and had to be paid off by the embattled King of Wessex. His biographer, Asser, mentions the existence of a monastery here; and five stone memorials, inscribed with Latin names—the largest collection of such stones in one place in Britain—suggest that as late as the eighth century there was a British Christian community still active in Wareham. That sort of evidence forces a radical rethink of the relations between Briton and Saxon in Wessex, whose conquest by the Germanic Gewisse is supposed (by their later chroniclers, the West Saxons) to have been absolute, and complete long before. Do we suppose a cultural tolerance? A cult ghetto?
King Ine, an active and enterprising warlord contemporary with this community, made provision in his law code for the wergild or blood-price of his Welsh horsemen, perhaps a cadre of native couriers; and it is clear that in his time, around the end of the seventh century, Britons could own property in the territories of the West Saxons, even if their wergild was less than that of a freeborn Saxon. Lady St Mary Church may have been a minster in the seventh and eighth centuries—sited at the heart of a royal estate to preach to a wide populace—that would explain a king’s burial there. Was it also the court of an ancient community of Latin-speaking British clerics? If so, were they a conservative rump in denial of the new world order—or did they serve an active British community in these parts? There is an unspoken risk, for historians intimately versed in the loaded, anti-British narratives of Bede, of assuming a greater degree of cultural and religious homogeneity in his era than was in fact the case. There is a growing feeling among scholars in this field that Early Medieval England may have been much more a patchwork of identities and affiliations than the monumental record generally suggests, just as the Welsh Marches are. After all, Wessex had some distinctly British-sounding kings in its early centuries—the kingdom’s alleged founder, Cerdic (r. c.519–34) and the later Cædwalla, who waged genocidal warfare on the Isle of Wight in the seventh century, among them.
Wareham’s museum, sited next to the ancient crossroads at the heart of the town, was due to open at ten. I returned the key to its relieved keeper and walked the two hundred yards south along North Street, wondering why so many cars and vans choked the street and thinking idiotically how appropriate gridlock was for a grid-iron town. There had, it seemed, been a serious accident on the A352 which links the major towns of south Dorset: Poole with Dorchester. Everyone was trying to get around the blockage by driving through Wareham. The museum was a ground-floor room in the offices of the town council. At five minutes past ten the metal grill was opened by the woman I had met on the walls: my chance to purge guilt, and we chatted for a while about this and that, cameras, Saxons, Lawrence and motorbikes. Pam Bowyer-Davis is a volunteer curator. She turned out to be a keen student of the town’s past, having at one time run an Anglo-Saxon festival here—but Saxons are not very interesting to people nowadays, she admitted. Her prize exhibit, on loan from Dorchester Museum, was a tenth-century sword, or at least the copper- and silver-plated guard, hilt and pommel and the upper part of the blade, found in the River Frome during the construction of the modern bridge in 1927. Very few such weapons survive: this one is particularly significant because, incised into the antler-bound hand-grip is the first part of a name, Æthel…, meaning ‘noble’, the sword of a great aristocrat or king; one of Alfred’s brothers, perhaps.
Much of the museum is, perhaps unsurprisingly, dedicated to T. E. Lawrence whose cottage at Clouds Hill lies just a few miles west—a place of pilgrimage for historians and followers of his modest cult. Pam told me that there is a settle in one of the local pubs which was a favourite perch of the warrior hero; that she once had the privilege of sitting astride a Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle (the model Lawrence rode when he was killed), and would have kick-started it and taken it for a spin had she not been prevented by a spoilsport at the Bovington tank museum. It is a salutary thought that this motorcycle, whose top speed was about the same as my modern Japanese hi-tech slickster (roughly 125mph), was being ridden about the lanes of Dorset by a semi-crazed adventurer with no helmet eighty years ago. The one that killed him is a priceless treasure in the Imperial War Museum in London.
I had rather hoped to walk along that iconic stretch of road towards the cottage; but the pedestrian takes his life in his hands negotiating these roads in high summer so, leaving Wareham behind, I followed instead the shallow valley of the Piddle. I was kept from the riverbank by a scout camp, a Highways Agency maintenance depot, a grassy meadow defended resolutely by two jet-black African oxen who looked as though they had liberated themselves from the philosophy of vegetarianism and might eat me; by a quarry and a golf club; by private roads and dense woodland of chestnut and hazel. I was afforded brief excerpts of Dorset’s heathland, all bracken and spiky gorse. Not until I came out onto the Bere Regis road did I cross the Piddle, no more than a foot deep and running perfectly clear over a bed of gravel and chalk.
My second campsite of the trip was a mile short of Bere Regis (it has nothing to do with bears; the name means something like ‘the king’s pig-grazing wood’). I found a friendly welcome, a discreet field and a soft pitch; made my camp, showered and read a few pages of my old, thumb-worn copy of Leslie Alcock’s classic archaeological survey of the Dark Ages, Arthur’s Britain. I read it as an undergraduate at York in the early 1980s; I have reread it since: soon, for the first time, I would be visiting the site of Alcock’s famous excavations at South Cadbury, a view of whose ramparts provides the cover image for the book. Hunger soon distracted me from this professional comfort food. From the back of the campsite a suitably time-worn hollow way, cut through the chalk and lined with coppiced hazels bearing their acid-green fruit, led to Bere Regis. It’s a small, neat village with a couple of pubs, a Post Office and shop. The church has a remarkable decorated hammer-beam roof adorned with distinctly earthy figures; otherwise, the village is famous as the ancestral home of the Turberville family, immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s Tess. She is no less a heroic figure than Arthur, or Lawrence: wronged, raped, shunned and two-timed, her death by suicide is Shakespearean tragedy confined in Dorset’s dark lanes and torpid, poverty-ridden hamlets.
Dorset emerges into history as a shire during the ninth century; its name derives ultimately from that which the Romans recorded for its Iron Age tribe, the Durotriges, whose lands also embraced the southern parts of Somerset and Wiltshire. Its physical and cultural landscape evolves slowly, not impervious to change but cautious, conservative. To find out what its native peoples were doing and where they lived over the last two millennia, you need to look beneath the farms and hamlets that survive in the present landscape and excavate there. Mostly, what you would find would be farms and hamlets much as we see them today, minus the veneer of technology and with many, many more people thrown in. For clues to its Early Medieval character you might as well look in the pages of Thomas Hardy as try to peer through the eyes of Bede or the Chroniclers.
For some reason I did not feel like eating in a pub that night. I bought a couple of pork pies, some tomatoes and a wedge of cheese, and took them back to my den via Bere Regis’s near neighbour, the tiny but picturesque hamlet of Shitterton. People used to come and steal its village sign until, in 2010, the villagers had a new one carved into a ton-and-a-half block of creamy grey Purbeck stone. Shitterton is one of the very few properly attested scatological place names in England: it means, in Anglo-Saxon, the settlement of the open sewer—scite being the Old English word for, well, shit.
My second full day on the trail was hot enough without getting lost, first thing, in a maze of green lanes and sunken paths as I tried to effect a shortcut back to the Piddle. Dorset’s myriad footpaths tend to keep to the valleys and combs instead of breaking out onto the breezy, open spaces of the downs. So many trails criss-cross each other that it’s hard to navigate: landmarks are invisible from these green tunnels, and it’s as if I have stumbled on a Wessex version of the Ho Chi Minh trail, thoroughly invisible from above during the summer months. In truth the paths are so old that they have been worn into hollows by time, water and the hooves and feet of drovers and their charges. The effect, after a while, is slightly sinister, as if Dorset has something to hide. I began to harbourRogue Male fantasies.
I more or less stumbled out into the open at the tiny hamlet of Turner’s Puddle: a more Hardy-esque, ramshackle, dozy Victorian estate farm it is hard to imagine. The orange-tiled brick barns and courtyards could easily be old Melbury’s place in TheWoodlanders. I was all wide-eyed at this rural shabby-chic and had my cameras out, until a woman, passing me at little more than walking pace in a Volvo estate, gave me a look that suggested I was off-piste and intruding on her privacy. I have been getting used to the idea that a tall, middle-aged man walking on his own with a rucksack and cameras might seem threatening. It wouldn’t be like that if I was young (impoverished gap-year student: harmless) or in company. I am not sure if they think I will steal their daughters, or their televisions; rather, I think they are threatened by my apparent poverty: for a middle-aged man, alone (and therefore single), must be a misfit, unable to hold down a job (he is evidently NOT at work) or purchase an automobile. In another age I might be a refugee from some great conflict, or from Dust Bowl America. The only thing I can do to assuage their fears, should I choose to, is smile, wave, chat and tell them what I am about. Or act the fool. It always worked for Lord Peter Wimsey. It is a pity that I don’t look quite so harmless.
When opportunity arises, in cafés and campsite receptions, the response is universally kind and interested. But when I walk along lines of white caravans and motorhomes I can feel the fear behind the twitching of polyester curtains. Some people don’t give one a chance. Cars depersonalise in a way that not even brick walls and closed doors do. There is also the sad fact that on all these journeys so far I had not yet met a single other walker, except those being towed by their dogs. Ambulists have become an unusual sight, almost as rare as hitchhikers. The English are forgetting their walking rights and privileges, neglecting to keep their paths open. Like muscles, they atrophy through lack of use: choked with brambles and nettles and eventually reclaimed by nature, rights of way will become artefacts to be studied, not defended and enjoyed. Like the Post Office and the rural bus service, the public footpath, and the chance encounter on the trail, is in danger of becoming a casualty of the age of transport.
I came to Tolpuddle in the middle of a very warm morning. It was the most impeccably kept village I have ever seen: every house in its Sunday best with perfectly pointed brickwork and neat thatch or tile, fresh paint on woodwork, windows clean, lawns manicured and pavements swept, hanging baskets in their mating plumage, the full glory of high-summer blossom—as if, perhaps, royalty were expected. As it happened, I came here the day before the Tolpuddle Festival, which annually celebrates its nineteenth-century trades-union martyrs; and so a degree of polish was not surprising. Even so, I got the impression that it’s always like this in Tolpuddle. It gave me a slightly uneasy feeling, like Switzerland does.
I stopped, sweaty and thirsty, before the Methodist chapel where memorials to the six men imprisoned and transported in 1834 are mounted either side of the entrance. It is still salutary and depressing to think that, at the time of the Great Reform Bill debate, when Combination Acts banning trades unions had been repealed and when liberty and representation for the people were matters of supreme public interest, small groups of rural workers, their jobs threatened by low wages and the infiltration of agricultural machinery, were still being oppressed by government in a case which belongs more to the world of the 1790s, of Jacobin paranoia, treason trials and French regicide than to the dawn of the modern age. On the marble gateway to the church is an inscription which records the defence of George Loveless, their leader.
We have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation.
After the first great public campaign of its kind in England galvanised opinion against the transportation of the six men, all but one were released in 1836. I was sorry to miss the festival: there is something compelling about watching large crowds of people drawn to a place—a village becomes a temporary town; old friends meet; new friendships are forged. Tolpuddle might have been an important meeting place long before the martyrs—a Roman road crossed the river here and it is a natural focal point in the landscape for farmers and travellers; another site for a caravanserai, perhaps.
A mile further west, my horizon now confined by a maize crop whose plants dwarfed me at well over six foot tall, I walked along the south bank of the river, sorely tempted to strip off and jump in, except that I would only have got my calves wet. Here I passed the confluence of the Piddle with the Devil’s Brook which runs directly north into the chalk downlands through the old villages of Dewlish and Hilton.
The Devil’s Brook bears an intriguing name—there are several like it in England, and they all seem to derive from an early form Divelis (as does Dewlish). This is an English corruption of a Brythonic river name, Dhuglas, or Douglas, meaning ‘blue-black’. In the Historia Brittonum the name occurs (Latin Dubglas) as the site of four battles fought by the British general Arthur in the region of Linnuis (unknown, but sometimes identified with Lindsey or Lincolnshire). Across the Tyne from Corbridge is a river called Devil’s Water, also probably derived from a Dhuglas original, where Oswald slew Cadwallon in 634 to reconquer Bernicia.
As it happens, no river bearing the name Douglas or its several derivatives is to be found in Lincolnshire. Another candidate for the place-name root of Linnuis is Lindum on the north side of the Clyde estuary; a third, slightly corrupted, is Lininuis which, Leslie Alcock argued in his survey of the evidence, can be identified with a section of the Durotriges tribe of British Wessex around Ilchester (Roman Lindinis). And there are four rivers in West Wessex which bear the name Douglas in one form or another. So the would-be Arthurian geographer might justifiably be excited by the possibility of identifying a battle zone between Briton and Saxon in just the area and at the time—that is to say, late fifth-century western Britain—when we suppose tensions to have been at their greatest, and Arthur to have been militarily active.
By the time I reached Puddletown in the middle of a sweltering day, I was sorely in need of refreshment. I bought lunch from the village grocery store, downed a can of ginger beer in one and paused to sit on a wall to consult the map. It was time to leave the low ground and its limited-visibility frustrations. Dorset was acting like a teenager, monosyllabic, distant and impenetrable. I wanted to head for the hills. My first long-distance walk, in 2001, was the West Highland Way, from Milngavie on the edge of Glasgow to Fort William, all camaraderie, laughs, beer and mountain vistas. At the time it seemed epic. In 2007, with my friend Paul McGowan whom I had met on the West Highland Way, I tackled Corsica’s notorious GR20 route along the island’s alpine spine. It was hard: seriously hard. Three walkers had died on it the previous week in a freak blizzard; we passed the remains of their belongings on the trail. To spend two weeks in the mountains is to redefine walking—and life. These lowland trails are fascinating in the palimpsest detail of the topography, its intimacy, its crammed-in richness: a filo pastry landscape. But the experiences seemed to pile up, as if I was being buried under a sensory and cultural tumulus. I began to resent having to write so much, take so many pictures, read so many books. I longed for the open downs, their big air, their sightlines and an opportunity to think less. Thinking can be hard work; and walking is for hard physical effort, not for brain-ache.
The afternoon, leaving Puddletown, did not start well: the path that circumvented a crossing of the busy A35 was choked with briar and nettle; one needs a machete for this sort of jungle. After what seemed like a couple of miles (actually, just over half a mile), I emerged, cut, scratched and sweaty, onto a back lane, took a right, and at Druce Farm left the Piddle to follow the line of a small stream that would take me up onto the downs. The heat was like a lead weight slipped into the pack while I wasn’t looking. The smell was a composite musk of straw dust and baked earth. The dead rasp of stubble against trail shoes, and ahead of me the growl of a tractor ploughing it into the crisp, dark reddy-brown earth, were welcome noises in that still air. I was reminded, for reasons I can’t quite pin down, of Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, with its evocation of the dry intensity of the Cossack landscape and the crushing, infinite labour of the Russian peasant. The contemporary British landscape is largely devoid of peasants or labourers: it is a modern, industrial space. But its past is written in the lines of its boundaries and lanes, paths and monuments, and to be able to read them is the privilege of speaking a native language. The peasant experience was, I suspect, universally similar.
On either side now, on the rounded crests of these convex hills, pimples of tumuli perched on the horizon reminded me that Dorset is primarily a prehistoric landscape of Bronze Age pastoralists, who cleared the wolds of their forests and buried granny on their summer pastures under a pile of stones and a mound to remind their children and their neighbours that this was their grazing land; that it had always been their grazing land. Thousands of barrows on the downs of Dorset echo a time before the construction of the great Iron Age hill forts—Maiden Castle, Hambledon Hill, Badbury Rings—that mark a feverish tribalisation of these rich lands in the three or four centuries before Caesar planted his untimely hobnail sandals on the shores of Kent.
Higher, then; and higher still, as the trail, surely an ancient route between sheltered winter quarters and summer grazing lands, followed the lazy incline of the valley sides. And then out, out onto Whitcombe Hill at over four hundred feet (not exactly Buachaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe; nor Monte Cinto in Corsica; but still). At last a vista, an uncoiled horizon. Grasshoppers chirped in the long grass; flies buzzed, the faint wind a gentle caressing murmur. Wiping the sweat from my eyes and dropping the pack for a few moments, I enjoyed what little breeze there was, stood beneath the boughs of a lone sycamore for its shade, and looked around. Puddletown lay to the south, now hidden in its valley; the Purbeck hills lost in blue haze beyond; the line of the downs sprawling east, back towards Bere Regis. Higher land spread to the north, land parcelled out three thousand years ago by cross dykes and join-the-dots barrows and interconnected by the even older Ridgeway, so ancient a route that it qualifies as a geological certainty almost as much as an artefact of longdistance prehistoric travel; or a Wall.
I had to point myself west; so I must descend once more into the valley and to the village of Piddletrenthide, where I found a pint glass of lemonade in a pub (shades of Lawrence again, after Aqaba and the Sinai crossing; that marvellous Officer’s Mess scene in David Lean’s film. ‘We. Want. Two. Large. Glasses. Of lemonade.’ And later, General Allenby to orderly: ‘What do you think of what Major Lawrence has done, Perkins?’ Perkins: ‘Bloody marvellous, Sir!’).
Up the other side, then, and I found a very welcome campsite perched at six hundred feet on the hills above Cerne Abbas. After pitching the tent, showering and enjoying a snack, I made a late-afternoon excursion to visit the celebrated phallic Giant. What to make of him—seventeenth-century folly or prehistoric message to the ancestors? He is Hercules or a native British totem, not Woden, but whether a Romano-British fertility plea to the gods or a Civil War parody of Oliver Cromwell none can say unless definitive archaeological evidence emerges one day to prove his antiquity. Cerne Abbas, reached by a steep descent off the chalk ridge, through a field of rape (that sweet, rancid smell again), a track carpeted with pineapple weed (the abiding odour of the day) and down sheep-worn paths has other pleasures—half-timbered houses, a tranquil spring and shady burial ground inside the high walls of the former abbey; good food and beer. The abbey was not founded until the reform movement of the tenth century; but the sweet water of St Augustine’s well might conceivably link it with a visit by the first Archbishop of Canterbury on his way, perhaps, to that fateful meeting with the British bishops in 602/3.
That evening, heavy clouds gathered; the air became very close and dusk coincided with rumbles of thunder—Thor making his presence felt. During the night a terrific gusty wind came dashing across the ridge and with it a fistful of short, sharp rain showers, but they passed; and at first light there was nothing to see or hear but a grey, enveloping veil of swirling hill fog. Dorset was invisible again, and silent; sulking. More green lanes funnelled me through field and wood, across small streams. As I came down onto farmland, through the hamlet of Hermitage with its Lady’s Well and small neat flint church, the fog lifted. I crossed a meadow whose hedges hosted great, ancient oaks and I saw, as my feet swiped the damp grass, thousands of tiny oak saplings, all delicate green, the fruits of the labours of dopey, forgetful jays and a bumper mast year. I reflected that, should this meadow lie neglected, uncut or ungrazed for just a few years, it would revert to oakwood. This mannered human landscape of field and hedge, wall and fence, is a very temporary borrowing from nature, whose colonising forces sit poised, leashed in like hounds and ready for deployment. Just a decade away from woodland regeneration that might look, to my future self, like the onset of a Dark Age of abandonment. Sure, it’s a comforting thought.
Further on, emerging from a very minor road, I passed a row of down-at-heel bungalows with chickens and geese in the gardens; piles of scrap metal and assorted piles of reclaimed wood everywhere; a wheel-less Nissan Shogun, mounted high and dry on axle stands, being used as an outdoor storage cupboard; suspicious looks when I took a snap. Here were Dorset’s dark equivalent of the denizens of the liminal creeks of Essex: its rural poor.
When I planned this walk my intention was to explore a parallel track six or seven miles west of here to visit regions of my own past. In the long, hot summer of 1975 my mother sent me away for two weeks of the summer holidays to an archaeological excavation in the village of Halstock. It was the only dig we could find that accepted children as young as I was—that is to say, fourteen. The campaign to excavate a Roman Villa just south-west of the village was directed by an ex-Royal Navy, former child-probation officer, by that time some years retired, called Ron Lucas. Ron, his assistant Ted Flatters, his wife Joan and a small army of genteel but very sharp folk assembled every August to dissect the villa. I arrived on a rainy day from the station at Yeovil Junction wearing, I remember, a quite unsuitable pair of white flared jeans, wanting very much to be back home. It was about the last rain to fall that summer, or indeed the next. Ron wore a too-small khaki scout hat, bleached almost white by the sun. His trousers were tucked into battered desert boots. He spoke with a Brummie accent and knew everything about teenagers. His party trick, when anyone complained that they were wearing their fingers to the bone, was to hold up his forefinger, truncated to the knuckle by some naval accident years before. His digging technique was old-fashioned, meticulous, thoughtful and confident. With him I served my apprenticeship.
I was an unhappy young man. Ron and his clutch of retired schoolteachers, spinsters and various eccentrics from Dorset’s cadre of part-time excavators took me under their collective wing, demanded nothing more of me than companionship and camaraderie, and gave me back my childhood. They taught me how to use a trowel, a dumpy level, a scythe (I still have the scars), a spade, shovel and wheelbarrow. They could not have been kinder; and I served my time with them almost every year for a decade, right through my own university career. They are the modest heroes of my archaeological beginnings. And Halstock retains a fascination: partly because it is my childhood; partly because it is one of those late Roman sites that can boast a mysterious saint: Juthware. The name Halstock comes from ‘Holy enclosure’ and near to the church, which lies a little outside the centre of the village, were once a spring and a shrine. Here Juthware was supposed to have led pilgrims until a jealous step-brother decapitated her. At the site of the murder a spring burst from the earth. Juthware picked her severed head up and walked to the church before expiring. The fondly remembered village pub of my youth, sadly no longer extant, was called the Quiet Woman in ironic veneration. In the British-speaking parts of the island, the site of a holy martyrdom was sometimes preserved in the place name merthyr.
Juthware, like St Winifred on the Welsh Marches whose shrine I had passed a few months before, seems to echo the memory of conflict in the early church between proprietorial rights and local cults—a tension in late Roman or Early English culture—perhaps between Briton and Saxon; perhaps between conservatism and radicalism, Christian and heathen. We cannot say; but sufficient numbers of these stories survive from around Britain for us to believe that they reflect a common set of tensions woven into the stuff of the landscape’s fabric. Juthware is an example of what is called, marvellously, a cephalophore—a head-carrying saint, following in the tradition of the original martyrdom of St Paul and going back at least to Homeric poetry. St Denis of Paris was another; so was St Osyth in Essex; and Cuthbert, England’s greatest saint of the Early Middle Ages, is depicted carrying the head of the decapitated Oswald. Oswald ties the motif into a very ancient, arcane head cult as, perhaps, does the first British martyr, St Alban, who lost his head to a Roman executioner before a well sprang up where it came to rest.
There is another side to the story. Richard Morris,46 in his majestic and insightful book Churches in the Landscape, asks whether the earliest monastic establishments in Western Britain, during the fifth and sixth centuries, might not have evolved from the luxurious villas of a late Roman Christian elite. Villas have produced evidence for the new faith—the Christ and chi-rho mosaic at Hinton St Mary is not far away—and experts in early monasticism, notably Dame Rosemary Cramp, have noted the evident similarity between the classic monastic layout and the villa complex. Was Juthware the inheritor of the villa estate, and did she attempt to found a monastic community there in the face of family opposition?
It seemed a pity to miss out on Halstock; on the other hand, part of me was relieved not to revisit a place with such intense memories. It could not but be painful, especially since the villa now lies beneath a golf course, my old friends are long gone and the Quiet Woman is silent for good. I was afraid of what I might find there; or not find there.
Sherborne is a small, very pretty and venerable town grown up around its minster, supposedly founded by Aldhelm, the first Bishop of West Wessex, under King Ine (r. 688–726) at the beginning of the eighth century. Aldhelm was one of the great Anglo-Saxon scholars, a correspondent of Northumbria’s King Aldfrith, a poet and former abbot of Malmesbury much admired by Bede. Crossing the River Yeo over the bridge by the railway station, I walked up the main street and found a community café where I consumed coffee and cake with the appetite of the refugee and chatted to a couple of customers and the waitress. I indulged in a room for the night, at the charming and cosily eccentric Old Bakehouse on Acreman Street. Arriving early in the afternoon I had, for once, ample time to explore the town; but not the abbey—there was a founder’s day service or some such, for the famous school which shares the town centre, and I could not get in. It was a shame; not only does the church offer architectural splendours, but it is reputedly the site of St Juthware’s translation in the eleventh century. Walks are strewn with lost opportunities; there is no space for the dead weight of regret in my rucksack.
The room was a mixed blessing; the bed too soft and hot after nights in a tent. The streets were full of school-leavers hell-bent on erasing the night with drink; traffic was noisy; the humidity oppressive. I had a poor night of it and woke to torrential rain that the weather forecast threatened would last all day. The early news was full of lightning strikes, flash floods and a generally apocalyptic prognosis. As it happened, this was to be my longest day’s walk of this trip. I resigned myself to getting wet, so I stripped down to shorts and a vest—no point getting more clothes soaked than necessary—and set out early with Camelot my first destination. The sky was like a pillow, or a low corridor underground. The streets were wet with standing water, the back lanes and paths steamy with vapour. The atmosphere seethed moisture. I got lost, musing on Dorset’s impenetrable personality; by the time I realigned myself and came out onto the north-running Corton Ridge I found I had crossed into Somerset. A creamy-white barn owl emerged ghostly from a hedge in front of me, not two yards away, and silently flew off in search of peace and quiet.
At last a view: west, to the flood plain of the River Yeo, the Roman town of Ilchester (Lindinis—perhaps the focus of four of Arthur’s battles according to the poetic list in the Historia Brittonum) and the beginning of the Somerset lowlands so recently inundated by the floods of winter 2013/14. Laid out like a threedimensional model, the counterpane drama of woodland and village, ribbon roads and church tower, farm and field, harvest interrupted by the rain, seemed held on pause. Low cloud scraped the top of the ridge and the morning’s humidity was palpable. The clouds wore yellow. More arresting still was the sight ahead of me of the cover photograph of Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain: South Cadbury hill fort. I stopped as near as dammit at the place where the photographer had stood in about 1970, on the brow of Parrock Hill which overlooks the fort. Its strategic location was blindingly obvious—an outrider of the Dorset hills which dominates the plains north and west to Glastonbury. Even in today’s murk the massive triple ramparts looked like a serious disincentive to anyone wanting to take it. The flat, kidney-shaped crest, grazed by brown and white cows, was open pasture; below the ramparts a fringe of dark green woodland made the whole look like a tonsured monk’s head. It needed noTime Team reconstruction of its palisades and halls, bristling with spear and shield, to evoke an age of power, prestige and elite warfare: of glory and extreme violence.
I descended to the foot of the hill and walked widdershins around the base of the fort to South Cadbury, the hamlet that nestles below its eastern entrance. The path to the top is steep and, like every other track in this part of the world, deeply incised through each successive rampart. I came out onto the top, breathless, and took a circuit of the formidable defences. This, then, is the place claimed by some desperate romantics to have been the Camelot of King Arthur. I have owned a copy of Leslie Alcock’s account of his excavations here, Cadbury/Camelot, since I was a teenager. It’s a riveting story of a campaign of excavation and a marvellous evocation of the appeal of archaeology in the late 1960s even if, as a technical publication, it leaves much to be desired. It was the campaign which set Alcock on the way to write his definitive account of the archaeology of the Dark Age British Isles in Arthur’s Britain. The project to uncover South Cadbury, identified spuriously by the early antiquary John Leland as Arthur’s Camelot in the sixteenth century, was an overt attempt to uncover the archaeology of Arthur. The results of five years’ digging more than justified the time, expense and heartache that all archaeologists are familiar with. At the time, Alcock concluded that if one wanted to put a historical Arthur anywhere, it might as well be here, at South Cadbury. Over subsequent decades, however, he took up a position of hard-line scepticism, treating evidence with a much more rigorous, forensic scrutiny. But standing on this superbly atmospheric site, looking down on the plains and watching a raven perched jet-black in the clouded canopy of a Scots pine tree, one could easily forgive him for allowing Arthur to infuse his earlier thinking.
So, let’s get the Arthurian record straight. As Alcock himself pointed out, there are just three enigmatic references to a historical Arthur in all the surviving literature which may lay claim to authenticity. In the Annales Cambriae, not compiled before the ninth century but based on a set of British Easter annals originally dating from much earlier, two entries stand out:
Ann. LXXII [equating to the year 518] The battle of Badon [Bellum Badonis] in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders [or, more likely, shield] and the Britons were victorious.
Ann. LXXXXIII [equating to the year 539] The battle [or ‘strife’] of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.47
And, in the chronicle known as the Historia Brittonum, likewise a British compilation no earlier than the ninth century, there is the most famous entry of all, a list of twelve battles probably originating in a poem of praise for a great warrior.
Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle [dux bellorum].
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of ?Lindsey [in regione linnuis]. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his ?shield/shoulder and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no-one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.48
None of the battle locations have been identified with any confidence, despite the spilling of a positive lake of ink, the wearing out of many a map and much tramping over hill and dale. Nor is there any sense of the length of time over which that campaign was fought. If we are to believe theAnnales, Arthur survived another twenty or so years after Badon.
The list seems, to begin with, straightforward, if rather thin and with no sense of political or narrative context. The geography ranges from an apparent conflict in southern Scotland (Cat Coit Celidon) to Badon, traditionally associated with a hill near the Roman spa resort that later became Bath. In reality, it’s not so simple. The only other source—belonging genuinely to the sixth century—that mentions the battle of Badon (but not Arthur) is the epistle of the British monk Gildas to his fellow countrymen on the history and woes of the Britons in the face of impious kings and rapacious Saxons: De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, ‘On the Ruin and conquest of Britain’.49 Gildas’s broadly accepted dates (a putative death in the 540s) and his account of Badon (he says he is writing forty years after that event) mean that the Annales Cambriae date of 518 for this great siege is probably twenty years too late. Who to believe?
I do not think that we need worry much about the modern debate between a ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ Arthur. A sub-Roman British commander of what amounts to a cohort or warband of auxiliary mounted troops might perfectly well have fought campaigns along the length of Western Britain over two or three decades. The appendant fluff of round tables, holy grails, excaliburs and courtly chivalry belongs to a time when those tales were composed, more than half a millennium later. Only archaeology can offer more penetrating questions and answers to what Britain was like between about 430, when it seems Roman Britain was in a state of partial administrative meltdown, and a hundred and fifty years later when the Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Caledonian kingdoms emerged into the pages of literate recorders of history. Archaeology tells us that South Cadbury was fortified in the sixth century or thereabouts—a rebuilding of Iron Age defences; that a great hall stood on the summit; and that there was, perhaps, a church here. Pottery from the Mediterranean found its way to the site (via Scillies and Bristol Channel?); there is speculation that Cadbury became a royal estate centre, replacing (or restoring) the function of the Roman town at Ilchester—perhaps a relationship like Wroxeter and the Wrekin and then back again. But we don’t need to place the semi-mythical Arthur here; if we want to give its lord an identity, why not that of Cadda, the otherwise unknown Saxon who gave the place its name?
Some centuries later, in the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon (see page 119) and the resurgence of Viking power in Eastern England, King Æthelred’s men reoccupied the fort, reinforced the defences one more time and set up a burgh here, church, mint and all. The place names and archaeology of the South-west which emerge from decades of scholarship and coal-face fieldwork suggest that for all the great deeds of kings, bishops and saints, most people, most of the time, stayed where they were. There was never a great immigration or colonisation of these parts by Germanic warriors or peasants (see Postscript: Who are the British?—pages 423–6). Control was concentrated in the hands of an aristocratic tribal elite, an exclusive warrior caste whose names, whether British or Germanic, reflect politics more than genetics. Most people were ethnically indigenous Britons, speaking first Brythonic, then a mixture of Latin and Early Welsh, and then, if they wanted access to lines of patronage flowing from Germanic-speaking lords, the language of Beowulf. I suspect that for several centuries bilingualism was common; that English became the lingua franca of trade and power and then the tongue of an English state and culture, even if the language of the literate remained Latin well into the Medieval period.
South Cadbury’s most dramatic imprint on the history of the Britons came not, I think, in the Dark Ages, but in the first century AD when it was the site of a battle that seems to have resulted in the massacre of large numbers of the indigenous people by the armies of Rome, after which its defences were slighted and the site abandoned until Rome herself found the game not worth the candle, four hundred years later. There is something to be said for the idea that the Roman period was no more than an interlude in the late Iron Age.
Down into the plain of Somerset, then, with the sky threatening; through Sparkford and across the busy A303; down a muddy, thorny green lane, through rolling fields past Babcary and across the Roman Fosse Way (now the A37, it was built as a Roman grand design, to link the South-west with the Midlands and the East Coast in Lincolnshire) towards a group of villages, the Charltons, whose names reflect that caste of English farmer, the ceorl, who forms the backbone of any discussion about free warrior peasants in pre-Conquest England. Charlton is by no means an uncommon village name. It is often found in association, as it is here and in the Welsh Marches, with ‘cott’ names (Ashcott, Buscott, Hurcott)—small outlying farms, probably dependent on larger settlements or royal estates, probably poor, perhaps also liminal like those bungalows I had passed a day before. The small town of Somerton, immediately to the south-west, is the place from which this shire was named, a one-time capital of Wessex. It means ‘summer settlement’, a seasonal centre for the rich grazing lands of the high ground between the Rivers Cary and Yeo. In this layer cake of generations of farmers, drovers, artisans and cottagers, Arthur assumes his rightful place as a footnote to reality. Somerton sits on an island of high ground, never much more than 300 feet above sea level, surrounded by dead flat peatlands. On a much smaller, much lower rise a few miles to the west, lies Athelney. I had tried and failed to plan a route that would take me there. The fastness in the marshes on which King Alfred hid from the Great Heathen Army in 878 before his brilliant counter-attack at Edington is a place to evoke heroism like no other.
As I turned off the Fosse Way onto the lane that leads to Charlton Adam, the heavens opened: a great crashing bombardment of thunderclap artillery, lightning and torrents of rain that had me soaked to the skin in less than half a minute. Within four hundred yards I could not have been wetter had I jumped into a river. I came to a pub and dashed inside; thankfully they had stone floors so the extravagant pool I made at the bar didn’t much bother them. I ordered a pint of Guinness, took the pack off and wrung out my vest; and at that moment a tremendous explosion overhead took out the pub’s electricity supply, while a few customers who had been standing in the porch, watching the rain and smoking, scuttled back inside in a state almost of stupefaction. I had escaped the eye of the storm in the nick of time. One of the locals asked me if I would like a lift somewhere; or an umbrella, as if I were an object of pity, an inadvertent civilian trespasser onto a battlefield.
The storm passed. I trudged squelching onward, up and along the wooded ridge of the Polden hills between two levels and above the town of Street, from where I got my first view of Glastonbury’s looming Tor; then on to the small village of Walton where I found my campsite, and a glimpse of sunshine, after a twenty-three-mile hike. Walton: not, as it appears, ‘wealh tun’, an enclave of Britons in an Anglo-Saxon landscape, but ‘weald tun’, the settlement in the woods. I hung damp clothes from the bowing branches of a walnut tree, and retired early to my tent. The next morning, confounding my prejudice against the white-goods campers of England, an elderly chap emerged from the small caravan on the next pitch and brought me a large mug of sweet, hot tea.
The small town of Street is famous as the home of Millfield School and as the birthplace of Clarks, the shoemakers, who began making their trademark sheepskin slippers here in 1825 and who still employ twelve hundred people at the company’s headquarters on the original factory site, even if they do not make any actual shoes there these days. I made my passage along the high street too early in the morning to see the workers thronging to their desks. After yesterday’s storm and Saturday-night drinking, it had a ghostly, quiet charm. A pub called the Lantokay reminded me that Street, whose English name (from the Latin strata) reflects both the proximity of a Roman road along the south edge of the levels and a medieval stone causeway that ran across the marshes here, is lucky enough to retain in documentary form the memory of its Brythonic name. Lantokay was the church of St Cai (Lan- deriving from Early Welsh Llan—a church enclosure). The present church is a Victorian restoration of a fourteenth-century building; but the churchyard is large and seems once to have been circular, typical of the Early Medieval Llan layout.
Avoiding the main road that links the high ground on which Street stands to Glastonbury and its Tor across the narrowest point of the levels, I tracked east along the edge of the peatlands for about a mile so that the Tor was in my sights all the time with the early sun silhouetting it against a sky of fluffy white cloud on a blue ceramic background. The Tor is such a striking and unmistakeable feature of the English landscape that to approach it on foot is to feel like a pilgrim reaching the base of a holy mountain. As if to reinforce that otherworldly sense, a young gentleman dressed in the guise of a Civil War cavalier pedalled past me on a bicycle, waving; and I was accosted by a man with a dog, who insisted that I share his packet of chocolate digestives. I wondered if I was beginning to look like a tramp, in need of alms.
Looked at on a photograph from directly overhead the Tor is an ossified prehistoric cetacean stranded on a green beach, its flanks ribbed like a humpback whale, its blowhole the crenellated church tower that seems to poke out of the top of the hill; the sheep on its grassy slopes are barnacles; the snaking age-worn path the uncoiled rope from a hunter’s harpoon. The view from the top is quite stunning, especially on a day when cloud scurries before a brisk shepherding wind and the light is piercingly sharp. I found myself in the company of cross-legged yoga aficionados and t’ai chi practitioners, a couple of dog-walkers and a generic hippy or two in tie-dye baggies. We were tolerant of one another. I could pick out much of yesterday’s route, at least as far as South Cadbury whence the sun shone; and this morning’s walk across the orchards and meadows of the reclaimed peatlands, protected by levees that suffice to hold back its rivers in all but exceptional years. The ruinous outline of Glastonbury Abbey stood proud of its surrounding cluster of roofs; I could hear church bells faintly tolling. To the north, across another green expanse of wetlands lay the Mendip Hills, rich in minerals and history: my destination.
Between them, the abbey and Tor offer the Dark Age fantasist an irresistible potpourri of myth, conspiracy, forgery, mysticism and magic. I was lucky enough to be taught by Glastonbury’s pre-eminent archaeological investigator: from the first days of my undergraduate career as an archaeology student at York University I was steeped in both the Glastonbury myths and in archaeology’s achievement in testing them. Philip Rahtz was by no means a hardliner so far as fringe archaeology went. He was a polymath, a man of great intellectual appetite, an astoundingly prolific excavator and, with his second wife Lorna Watts, publisher of excavations. His is a unique legacy to our heritage. He was also an open-minded, hugely gifted and entertaining, if sometimes infuriating, teacher.
No amount of academic scrutiny or scepticism will dull the bright Excalibur blade of those who believe that Glastonbury was the fabled Isle of Avalon or that Christ himself founded a church here (despite the fact that there was no such thing as a Christian church during the lifetime of Jesus). There is no evidence at all that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury (or ever left his native Judaea) in the first century. It is a story invented a thousand years later to enhance the fame (and profitability) of the abbey. The Glastonbury thorn which, according to legend, sprang into life where Joseph placed his stick, is a natural hybrid of the native hawthorn; it sometimes flowers in winter. I know of another example not far from where I live, at Houghton le Spring, said to have been taken as a cutting from the Glastonbury thorn. There is, as yet, no direct evidence of any Christian activity in Glastonbury before the fifth or sixth century, when a hermitage of sorts (excavated by Rahtz) was built on the Tor. An early church, perhaps seventh-century, was constructed on the site of the abbey but destroyed and built over after a disastrous fire in the twelfth century. There seem to have been two decorated stone high crosses here, later described in masonic fashion as ‘pyramids’. A well, sited close to the south-east corner of the earliest church, may belong to the Roman period. The supposed exhumation of the remains of ‘King’ Arthur and Queen Guinevere is almost certainly a deliberate forgery concocted by medieval monks in a bid to recover their prestige and economic fortunes after the fire. The Tor excavations aside, much of the archaeological or antiquarian work carried out in the grounds of the abbey was conducted before modern methods had been adopted; the sort of forensic detail that we might now obtain to resolve some of these questions is lost. It is a great shame.
I am not one of those who give any credence at all to the idea of ley lines or zodiacal marks in the fields surrounding the Tor. More exciting, I think, is the knowledge that tracks of thoughtful design and engineering cunning, dating to the Neolithic period (from nearly 4000 BC), were demonstrably built to afford early settlers access to the abundant resources of the levels. The ingenuity of the early monks of Glastonbury in controlling and channelling water courses, in manufacturing metalwork and glass; in managing to import all manner of exotic items from the far end of the known world, including Byzantium, is remarkable enough to keep any sane and inquiring mind happy. Even so, one has to admire the ability of the religious community at Glastonbury, and elsewhere, to generate the sort of theme-park fantasy of relic and superstition that kept pilgrims coming here for over a thousand years and creating the wealth that the abbey relied on for its splendours. I wandered dizzily through the town and marvelled at the proliferation of businesses offering ‘psychic cartomancy readings’, ‘Wheel of light’ bed-and-breakfast accommodation, ‘Moon mirrors’ and any amount of crystal-stroking, dragon-charming, homeopathic vial sniffing and transformation-inducing tat, designed to relieve the credulous latter-day tourist of a great deal of money and to provide a comforting affirmation of the supposedly harmless mass psychosis which spawns it.
Marvellous too, though invisible, is the site of the famous Lake Village which I passed on a back road lined with drainage ditches and pollard willows heading north-west out of town. It was excavated by two particularly brilliant and progressive archaeologists, Arthur Bulleid and Harold St George Gray, around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and shows just how sophisticated were the settlements of the late Iron Age on the edge of the marshes. Here, preserved anaerobically in the peat, was the settlement of a complex, hierarchical society whose dwellings consisted of roundhouses and barns, threshing floors, weaving huts and ‘special places’ for women, and whose social structure was evolved and perpetuated through each phase of rebuilding. Their repertoire of domestic artefacts finds modern equivalents in every household. The whole was enclosed in a large village compound whose foundations lay on stakes driven into the mud of the shoreline, consolidated by hazel hurdles laid flat to create a stable platform. These villagers were sophisticated managers of their environment and in their animistic kin-based, highly practical culture lie the roots of Early Medieval society.
That afternoon I walked along the lower slopes of the Mendip Hills from where the Romans extracted lead on an imperial scale to satisfy their voracious plumbing needs. On a more relaxed schedule I might have stopped at Wells, another important centre of pre-Conquest religiosity. But time pressed. As afternoon turned to evening, I came down from a delightful green lane that hugged the two-hundred-foot contour, through fields which had once been orchards and where I browsed on small, sweet plums, and into the village of Cheddar. Cheese and gorge notwithstanding, Cheddar’s archaeological fame rests on the Anglo-Saxon palace excavated close to the church by none other than Philip Rahtz. There is nothing to see of the great timber hall and minster, built probably in the reign of King Alfred; the site is marked by concrete plinths in the grounds of a school. Such is the way with the fragile remains of the distant past: the monument is the published report, often written in very technical language that fellow professionals understand and can interrogate. In Philip’s case, there has rarely been an archaeologist who did more to write accessible, unpatronising accounts for general consumption.
I woke in a quiet corner of a campsite close to Cheddar’s medieval church on another perfectly clear morning to the sound of its bells tolling the sixth hour, struck camp early and, finding nowhere open for breakfast or supplies, climbed the south-west scarp of the Mendips through narrow green lanes and dense woodland. I broke cover on the crest at over six hundred feet, a quarry on my right a reminder of the precious treasures of the hills. A small tribe of hairy bearded goats with wicked-looking long horns accompanying me on the narrow road offered a sense of more ancient exploitation of the Somerset uplands. It was very fine to be high up and in the open and I motored along at a good pace, munching on the last of my oatcakes. From Black Down, at over a thousand feet, the view towards the Severn Estuary and the coast of South Wales was breathtaking and seductive and took my mind back to the sea. On either side of me squatted the mammiform burial mounds of Bronze Age pastoralists whose summer steadings can just be seen here and there as grassy humps in sheltered spots. A sharp descent on the north side brought me out through a shallow gorge and past the site of Avelina’s hole, a limestone cave where a very early cemetery, dating to 8000 BC, testifies to the enduring appeal of these rich coastal lands.
At the small village of Burrington I attempted to make my passage along a green lane so choked with brambles and nettles that I finally gave in and had to backtrack, once again scratched and pricked and in militant pedestrian mood to berate the locals for allowing a right of way to fall into disuse. But there was nobody to berate; the twenty-first-century English live in their cars. I diverted via a winding lane that crossed the juvenile stream of another River Yeo and eventually brought me to Wrington: here my mood was lifted by the charming sweep of a Georgian terrace and an equally charming shop on the corner, where I was able to buy a packet of Eccles cakes, a beef sandwich, two hot sausage rolls and a can of ginger beer. The shopkeeper asked me if I would like a bag. No need, thanks, I said. Outside, I sat on the nearest bench and consumed the lot in a sort of last-day-on-the-trail demob happy ecstasy of guiltless gluttony.
Refreshed and refuelled, I climbed the last hill, up through mixed broadleaf and conifer woods. A maze of paths, timber roads and trackways linking old mine workings soon had me lost. I reverted to navigational glimpses of the sun and the lie of the land to bring me out at last onto a promontory at the end of the ridge before it descended to the plain and thence to the Bristol Channel. Here is another Cadbury Hill. This Iron Age hill fort overlooks the village of Congresbury, where the holy man Congar is said to have built a monastery. The site of his foundation was still known, and identified by, no less a bishop than Asser, the Welshman who became King Alfred’s enthusiastic biographer at the end of the ninth century. Congar, a native of Pembrokeshire, lived during the late fifth century during the very earliest period of Western British monasticism; he may even have been a marginal contemporary of St Patrick, and of Halstock’s Juthware. Did he inherit or acquire the nearby Roman villa which lay on the banks of the River Yeo just downstream?
There is no spectacular approach to the fort as there is at South Cadbury: one emerges from the woodland on the ridge, catches a glimpse of the village below and ascends through a hollow way beneath more trees onto a scrubby hilltop from which there is no view. It felt more like enclosed and secretive Dorset than open Somerset. Part of the summit interior of the hill fort was excavated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a distinguished team of archaeologists, not least of whom was the indefatigable Philip Rahtz. The rock-cut features made excavation and recording complex and challenging; the reward for their endeavours was evidence for major circular buildings occupied during and after the Roman period; and a large quantity of imported Mediterranean pottery (amphorae for carrying olive oil and wine; late Roman fine tableware), type G penannular brooches (a decidedly unsexy name for a distinctly Early Medieval British decorative artefact) and a longhouse of barn-conversion form. One of the more modest but significant finds was a circular ceramic sherd, which archaeologists recognise as the stopper from an amphora—the implication being that Congresbury’s masters were no second-hand receivers of dodgy goods or empty containers, but capable of purchasing unopened, full casks of wine or olive oil from the Graeco-Byzantine world of the Emperor Justinian. This was the Dark Age equivalent of a Fortnum & Mason hamper sent to an Indian rajah. Congresbury was not merely visited, but inhabited, and pretentiously so. It was a busy place, with much rebuilding and restructuring over two or three centuries, even if the complete picture of settlement and ritual activity here was not available to the excavators. The site also has to be seen in the context of a pagan Roman temple complex which lay very close to the north at Henley Wood; was Congresbury its ostentatious Christian successor?
The broader significance of the site is obvious when one looks at the geography. This River Yeo is tidal as far up as Congresbury village, which means that there is and was access to the sea; a former wic site lay down on Woodspring Bay where coastal craft could have pulled up onto the beach and traded elite, valuable goods in return for perhaps slaves, furs, hunting dogs and silver or lead. I might almost imagine this as the place where the Alexandrian ship’s captain had his lucky landfall in the days of John, the almsgiving patriarch. And on the other side of the Bristol Channel lies Dinas Powys, a more or less contemporary kingship site and hill fort which has also yielded significant amounts of exotic, imported material.
The native Christian elite of the South-west, immersed perhaps in a folk memory of their status under the Romans as town-dwelling traders and magistrates and even, conceivably, harbouring mythological fantasies of their tribal Iron Age ancestors, were attempting to live in a sort of imperial manner, even if they did not have a very clear idea of what Imperial Rome had been like, or had meant to the Romano-Britons. They refortified some of the great former hill forts, fitted them with grandiose houses and collected trinkets from distant lands. Occasionally they were able to drink wine from cracked glass goblets; their smiths made them beautiful brooches from recycled Roman metalwork, and they indulged in the sort of ostentatious tribal warfare, on a rather reduced scale, that allowed them to sing songs and tell tales of heroism; to dress up in battle finery once in a while; to celebrate minor war leaders like Arthur and praise both the gods of the animistic universe and the crucified one of the far distant Holy Land.
From the summit of Cadbury Hill down to the village of Yatton, its coffee shops and railway station, was a mere eye-blink on an epic journey in search of heroes. If those heroes are in most cases long departed, their spoor can still be followed in the folds of the hills, the river crossings and the names and stories that they left in their wake.