Eric Ravilious, ‘The Long man of Wilmington.’
I return to the issue of myth, inspiration and the British landscape. On the recent E17 Art Trail in Walthamstow, London, I visited an exhibition by local artist Henriette Monteiro. Her pencil drawings and water colours were imaginative illustrations of ancient sites around England, such as Avebury, Kit’s Coty House in Kent, Belas Knapp long barrow on the Cotswolds and Cymbeline’s Castle in Buckinghamshire. She complemented the art with poetry, and I was thereby introduced to the work of Andrew Young (1885-1971), whom I had not previously encountered.
Here’s his poem A prehistoric camp, which has been used by TfL as a ‘Poem on the Underground’:
A Prehistoric Camp
“It was the time of year
Pale lambs leap with thick leggings on
Over small hills that are not there,
That I climbed Eggardon.
The hedgerows still were bare,
None ever knew so late a year;
Birds built their nests in the open air,
Love conquering their fear.
But there on the hill-crest,
Where only larks or stars look down,
Earthworks exposed a vaster nest,
Its race of men long flown.”
Eggardon Hill, which is east of Bridport, Dorset, is an Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence of much earlier use in the form of several tumuli or long barrows on its summit. The presence of barrows within the defences is what interests me here: it is quite a common feature, as for example at Hambledon Hill further east in the same county. The barrow within the ramparts at Hambledon provided scenes for my one of my ‘fairy tales;’ the conjunction of ancient sites and supernatural mysteries makes intuitive story telling sense.
Also by Young is the poem ‘Wiltshire downs’ from which I quote here the final stanza.
“And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.”
I like the verse, but I’d take issue with his depiction of the bones like broken sticks. Young has connected to a key feature of our landscape and folk lore, but he does not take advantage of the full mystery associated with these features. Welsh poet and artist David Jones in his extended prose-poem concerning the first world war, In parenthesis (1931), described slumbering British troops in Flanders dugouts as being “like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach.” He returned to this theme decades later in The Anathemata. In the poem Sherthursday and Venus day Jones mentioned “the hidden lords in the West-tumulus.” In the same poem he also recognised the intriguing mystery of hill-forts as well as barrows, imagining a climb “up by the parched concentric bends over the carious demarcations between the tawny ramps and the gone-fallow lynchets, into the vision lands.”
“Into the vision lands…” Jones intimately knew and worked with the legend and myth of the British Isles. Rudyard Kipling also drew on the deep wells of folklore and in his poem ‘Song of the men’s side’ from the book Rewards and fairies advised:
“Tell it to the Barrows of the Dead—run ahead!
Shout it so the Women’s Side can hear!
This is the Buyer of the Blade—be afraid!
This is the great God Tyr!”
In Kipling’s story The knife and naked chalk Puck introduces Dan and Una to a neolithic herder who tells a tale of “a Priestess walking to the Barrows of the Dead.” He sees a girl he knows at a tribal ceremony- “I looked for my Maiden among the Priestesses. She looked at me, but she did not smile. She made the sign to me that our Priestesses must make when they sacrifice to the Old Dead in the Barrows. I would have spoken, but my Mother’s brother made himself my Mouth, as though I had been one of the Old Dead in the Barrows for whom our Priests speak to the people on Midsummer Mornings.” The ancestors lie beneath the tumuli and their purpose is to advise and help their living descendants. Perhaps that function is not yet exhausted…
A vital element of British folk stories (the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’) is the concept of the sleeping hero. King Arthur, most commonly, is not dead and buried in Avalon but lies hidden beneath some ancient feature- a hill fort or cave, perhaps- awaiting the time when he is summoned to save the island and its people. On the ancient heights of those tribal fortifications, warriors lie in wrapped in the dreams of centuries, patiently biding their time until the call is sounded and their slumbers are ended.
In another of his poems, Rite and fore-time in the collection Anathemata, David Jones equated tumuli with altars, regarding both as places of worship and of burial of holy relics. His analogy is perceptive and powerful. The sleepers in the barrows are our ancestors, our predecessors on the land, and doubtless one element in their interment and the rites associated with their monuments was a reassertion of community links not only with those who had gone before but also with the landscape over which their remains now watched. They had become both features in the landscape and guardians of that landscape.
Today campaigners declare ‘The Land is Ours.’ The barrows and stones carry the same message. The land is a common inheritance and a common resource. The long-barrow sleepers repeat and protect that message. This is where we dwelt and where we dwell.
To return to Andrew Young, I must again demur from his description of Eggardon hillfort- “its race of men long flown.” They, we, are still here. They still speak, albeit faintly and only if you are attuned. What’s more, in times of trouble, they may perhaps:
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.”
For fuller details of my fiction and nonfiction writings on British folklore, see my website.