Scorhill Stone Circle- tranquil beauty

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For me, the north-east quadrant of Dartmoor is the best part of the whole moor.  To the south deep wooded valleys cut into the plateau around Holne and Dartmeet, whilst the western side seems generally higher and bleaker.  In the area of the moor north of Chagford, there is an ideal combination of features: there is natural woodland fading into expanses of moorland, there are deep winding lanes, lush valleys and small sheltered farms and settlements.  Access is by a network of minor roads, barely navigable without local knowledge or a good map, and this tends to keep away too much traffic.  On top of that, there are several excellent megalithic sites.

The Nine Stones stone circle above Belstone is well worth a visit, and is an easy walk up a broad track from the centre of the pleasant village with its very handily placed pub, The Tors Inn.  The entire fringe of the moor running south-east from here, through South Zeal and Throwleigh, is very attractive.

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The Belstone Nine Stones- image from ‘megalithic portal.’

The primary purpose of this post is to eulogise Scorhill stone circle, but it has other neighbours in the vicinity worthy of a visitor’s attention whilst in the area.  If you walk due south of the site itself, skirting the plantation you can see, you will come to the stone rows at Batworthy and Thornworthy.  Some distance further to the south, at the end of a lengthy and frankly tedious trudge through conifer forest, is the twin stone circle at Greywethers.  It’s an impressive site which rewards the fairly miserable approach and is unmatched elsewhere in the British Isles, except perhaps by The Hurlers on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

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The Greywethers

Scorhill itself is best directly approached by driving on the by-roads either from Chagford or south from Throwleigh.  Eventually, the road runs out in a small parking area.  A gate lets straight onto the moor, a lush pasture at first with a clear stream running through what may be old mine workings.  A walk of a quarter of a mile takes you to the crest of a ridge, from which you look straight down at the circle standing towards the bottom of a wide valley.  It’s clearly visible, only another quarter of a mile away, with a clear track leading to it.

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It’s a compact circle, quite complete, but with some marked gaps or low/ prostrate stones. What recommends it is its relative accessibility (no bogs, no barbed wire and no wandering aimlessly amidst tussock grass), its fine position and its tranquillity.  On this latter quality I lie slightly- on my last visit the Army was in occupation on its firing range to the west of Belstone and was cheerily blasting away with its artillery.  The war, nonetheless, was going on the other side of the hills you can see in the photos and was muffled enough to be dismissed as distant thunder.

Scorhill is always worth a visit.  It’s not a demanding site to reach yet the rewards of the monument and its location are considerable.

More on megaliths?

I’ve discussed a number of other sites, such as the stone circle at Boscawen Un in West Penwith (twice), other sites on Dartmoor,  Bevis Thumb long barrow in Sussex, and Bosiliack cairn in West Cornwall.

On wider megalithic themes, see my musings on Neolithic language, on chalk white horses and on long barrows.  For even broader contemplations of Britishness, see my postings on the mystical vision of Albion, on the romance of the landscape.

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The lost languages of Albion

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Basque speakers?  Builders of Stonehenge, by tj.blackwell, flickr

We learned recently from DNA analysis that the so-called Beaker People truly did settle Britain, rather than their culture being imported and adopted by the existing inhabitants.  This revised view of our ancient history reverts archaeological thinking to positions held three or four decades or more ago.  It had become the academic norm to suggest that the trappings of elite culture were taken on by the existing population and that there was no need to suggest wholesale extinction of the natives.  In the same way, the indigenous British adopted ‘Celtic’ culture without any major Celtic incursion from the continent and the those same British/ Welsh became absorbed into Anglo-Saxon society, taking on their dress, material culture and language, once again obviating the need to imagine massacres and ethnic cleansing in East Anglia.

What has long fascinated me- a thought reignited by the renewed status of theories of population replacement- is this: what language(s) did our neolithic ancestors speak?  Before Britain (Prydain/ Britannia) was British, what was it?

If you’re considering these issues, you must inevitably speculate about Basque and Etruscan.  Both of these languages are what are called ‘isolates’ in Europe, they have no known surviving, spoken relatives.  As I have described in an earlier post, there has been some speculation that Etruscan came to Italy from Asia Minor, but the evidence on this is still uncertain and unresolved.  As for Basque, some have related it to a variety of more or less remote tongues, such as to a pre-Roman Iberian language or to speech of the Caucasus or even further east, but the evidence seems to be even less clear than for Etruscan.  One (now largely discredited) theory is that Basque is one of the so-called ‘Turanian’ family of tongues, with links to Ural-Altaic languages.  This idea certainly appealed to one of my favourite authors, Arthur Machen, who in his story The shining pyramid had the Stone Age inhabitants of Britain speaking Turanian.  In turn he imagined these cave dwellers as small and reclusive people, whose existence gave rise to the stories of the Welsh fairies, the Tylwyth Teg.  Links between fairies and megalithic monuments have always been strong, as I have discussed before, for example in my very recent posts on Boscawen Un and onthe monuments of Dartmoor.  More respectable academic opinion is that Basque may well be a Neolithic survivor, given the presence of the word ‘stone’ in the root for many its words.  Linguist Isaac Taylor, in his 1865 book Words and places, went so far as to propose that the name ‘Britain’ incorporates a Basque root, ‘etan,’ denoting country.  He was not suggesting a Basque settlement, but that some of the earliest seabourne trade may have been by Iron Age mariners from Aquitaine.  Others tend to ascribe the word to root related to Pict and meaning painted or tatooed.

What we can say with some confidence is that these two tongues demonstrate an essential fact: before the Latin languages and before the Celtic family of tongues both spread so widely, there were other populations speaking something else, something that was not Indo-European at all (because as I’m sure many of you will know perfectly well, the Latin and Celtic tongues are themselves ultimately related and are part of one vast language group that stretches from Ireland to India).  Just as any traces of speech to which Etruscan and Basque might be related have gone, so these former modes of communication are lost utterly to us- although there are those such as Joseph Greenberg and his students, who are pursuing attempts to discover the earliest forms of human speech.

All we can do is muse on fascinating and frustrating questions, such as the what the builders of Stonehenge and Avebury might have called those places, and the island upon which the stood.

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Stonehenge, by Alan Sorell

More on megaliths?

I’ve discussed a number of Neolithic sites, such as the stone circle at Boscawen Un in West Penwith (twice), Scorhill stone circle and other sites on Dartmoor,  Bevis Thumb long barrow in Sussex, and Bosiliack cairn in West Cornwall.

On wider megalithic themes, see my musings on chalk white horses and on long barrows.  For even broader contemplations of Britishness, see my postings on the mystical vision of Albion, on the romance of the landscape.

Going down to Boscawen Un.

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Whenever I visit Cornwall, and certainly whenever I am in the west of the county in Penwith, I try to visit the stone circle at Boscawen Un.  It is- possibly- my favourite megalithic arrangement in the country (as I’ve mentioned before).

Although it’s a well known stone circle, the trick with Boscawen is to know where to stop on the main road that races past the site.  There’s a pull-in large enough for two or three cars, but there’s next to no signposting and you have to be prepared (and ideally on the right side of the road) to be able to park.  There are distinct advantages to this physical difficulty: it’s never too busy, which means that you get time to listen and to feel, to get to know the spirit of the place.  As many readers will know, these sensations are rarely enjoyed at such great and accessible monuments as Avebury or Castlerigg.  Splendid as these may be, ready access to coach parties kills the very experience that everyone (I assume) came for- by which I mean communing with the stones and the landscape, NOT taking selfies…

Having managed to park, then there’s a bit of a walk, past some rock outcrops, to the circle itself.  The distance is perhaps a quarter of a mile downhill through the usual Cornish scrub of bracken, gorse and bramble.  You’re offered a glimpse or two of the site, which sits in a small valley, but one of the beauties of Boscawen is that the circle lies within an enclosing Cornish hedge, the circumference of which is mostly topped with elder, hawthorn and other bushes. These particular shrubs are highly appropriate: hawthorn has supernatural associations, being widely known as the ‘fairy thorn’ (as demonstrated by poems of the same name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter); elder has a double significance in this context- the place name may be derived from bos (dwelling place) and scawen (elder tree); moreover, British folklore mentions The old lady of the elder tree as a spirit inhabiting and protecting the shrub. I have written on my other WordPress blog, British fairies, about the long perceived connections between fairies and standing stones, so that it appears that here the mystic connotations of the site are further enhanced by the environment within which it sits.

The hedge hides the circle from the approaching walker and, once you’re inside the perimeter, gives it a secret feel, something like a shrine accessible only to the initiated.  You’re surrounded by greenery and bird song, sunk in the landscape far enough from the busy A30 to mean that the only hints of the twenty  first century are likely to be occasional sounds of farm machinery or jets high above.  The location is sheltered- not a virtue enjoyed by the nearby Merry Maidens, which stand in a rather exposed and windy field adjacent to another main road and which enjoy the dubious benefit of a large gravel parking area next to the field stile.  The boundary at Boscawen is perfectly proportioned to the circle within: there is enough of a sacred space, but not so much that it feels like a barren prairie.

As the illustration shows very well, Boscawen Un is a very complete circle.  It’s large- but not on the slightly too vast scale of Long Meg in Cumbria where the impact is diminished by the huge diameter- and it’s evenly spaced with stones of roughly even height.  There’s a serious lean on the centre stone, which was probably not intended by the builders.  This stone also gives satisfying completeness and character to the site and its partial collapse adds to this.  It’s like a sundial gnomon and is a natural spot for offerings, of which there are usually several, suggestive of the continued reverence for the site by others, present but unseen.  The entire landscape of Penwith is rich with monuments and invested with ancient meaning, and Boscawen-Un is arguably the most impressive of these many sites.

More on megaliths?

I’ve discussed a number of other sites, such as the stone circle at Scorhill on Dartmoor, other sites on Dartmoor,  Bevis Thumb long barrow in Sussex, and Bosiliack cairn in West Cornwall.

On wider megalithic themes, see my musings on Neolithic language, on chalk white horses and on long barrows.  For even broader contemplations of Britishness, see my postings on the mystical vision of Albion, on the romance of the landscape.

Notes from a long barrow- Bevis Thumb, Sussex

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On a bright, fresh February morning I visited the Neolithic long barrow called Bevis’ Thumb on the Sussex downs above Emsworth, north-west of Chichester, north-east of Havant.  The barrow is not as spectacular as some in the south of England- West Kennet near Avebury, Stoney Littleton or Belas Knap in the Cotswolds, for example- but it has its own character and atmosphere.

The barrow lies just by a minor road along a field boundary.  Ploughing has taken the ditch on the south; the road and hedge have swallowed the northern ditch. Nonetheless, it is impressive.  It may not look much until you walk it, and then you appreciate that it’s quite high (two metres at the west end) and it’s long (sixty metres).  It is aligned east to west, with the higher end where the entrance would have lane looking towards the sunset.  There are sadly no megaliths in evidence, but standing on the top you can imagine how impressive it must have seemed when first constructed on the crest of the hill.  Trees have now grown up to the west, but the view once must have been spectacular, looking across a lush valley to the next ridge beyond.

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There was, I believe, a ‘ritual deposit’ on the top of the ridge of the barrow.  Someone had placed together a magpie feather, a mandrake-like root resembling a forked human body and a phallic flint nodule (the soil all around was full of flint in its usual remarkable and often anthropomorphic variety of shapes).  This may have be a coincidental assemblage of natural items, but it seemed to me unlikely and suggested that others still sense the ancient power and majesty of the secluded spot.

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More on megaliths?

I’ve discussed a number of other sites, such as the stone circle at Boscawen Un in West Penwith (twice), Scorhill stone circle and other sites on Dartmoor,  and Bosiliack cairn in West Cornwall.

On wider megalithic themes, see my musings on Neolithic language, on chalk white horses and on long barrows.  For even broader contemplations of Britishness, see my postings on the mystical vision of Albion, on the romance of the landscape.

‘The ancient dead’- Eden Phillpotts and Dartmoor

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Scorhill stone circle

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an English author, poet and dramatist. Born in India, was educated in Plymouth, Devon, and worked as an insurance officer in London for ten years before studying for the stage and eventually becoming a writer based in Exeter.

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Phillpotts was for many years the President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and cared passionately about the conservation of  the moorland and its antiquities. Phillpotts was an astonishingly prolific writer and wrote a cycle of eighteen novels and two volumes of short stories with a Dartmoor setting.  For more detail of his intimate relationship to the moorland landscape, see the discussion on the Legendary Dartmoor website.

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The menhir at Merrivale stone rows

For a fine evocation of the neolithic monuments of Dartmoor, here’s his poem The neolith:

“Sole standing in utter loneliness- superbly alone-
A monolith ruggedly lifts, with the roseal ling at its feet.
Only the murmur of bees and twinkle and throb of the heat
On the league-long height, and a shade from the granite thrown.

Roll upon roll of the moor flung out on a sky-line free;
Clouds at the zenith blue; in the flower-clad earth beneath
The dust of a neolith: one who swept over this heath
As the chieftain of vanished hordes and their fate and their destiny.

When he died, that no mocking phantom, or jealous shade
Of him mighty, should darken their lodge in the distant glen,
They brought their lord hither, on shoulders of mourning men,
And tore at their hair and howled long and fierce music made.

Then they sought for a stone of girth, that should evermore mark his place
And be seen for remembrance, afar on the frowning hill,
Of that leader of men, whose right arm and resistless will
Had lifted his clan to power and to splendour and pride of face.

He was cooped with his knees to his chin in a granite kist,
And a granite flake over his head that should last till doom.
So near doth he seem that one feels him not dead in his tomb,
But crouching, alive and alert, with a warrior’s axe in his fist.

Does he hear the old gods of the thunder? Can summer sun
Reach down to his pit? May his ears still discern the rain
Hissing over the heather, or tell if the purple stain
From a cloud-shadow dims his grey stone? When the ponies run,

Can he mark the dull drumming above of their unshod feet?
Does he chill when the snowdrift is clogged on the frozen ground?
Does he thrill to the shout of the stream, or the bay of the hound,
Or heed the sad curlew’s cry and the brown snipe bleating his bleat?

Nay, for nothing lies under the grass but the buried stones,
Or mayhap a primeval crock, or a fleck of red rust;
For the hero is earth of the earth, and its dust is his dust,
And his flesh is the flesh of the peat, and its bones are his very bones.

That master of men is ascended, for good or for bane,
And life after life hath he lived and relinquished since then—
In the heather and herbage and birds, in the beetles and foxes and men,
Each in their turn sprung of earth, each in their turn earth again.

Yesterday clad with great thews, that builded a chieftain of might;
To-day where the milkwort and fern and the starry tormentil
Spread joy by the auburn beck and loveliness on the hill;
To-morrow a moorman’s fire at the fall of a winter’s night.

And the aura, so azure clear, that is running above the red,
Was the glow of a savage heart imprisoned within the brand;
And the warmth on your hand was the sun on a stone-man’s hand
From the far-off, hard-bitten days that were lived by the ancient dead.

So mutable myriads wake to the ring of their morning chime;
So mutable myriads pass at the set of their final sun;
And only Matter remains- the august, the unchanging one-
But no shape and no shadow of aught that she moulds on the wheel of Time.

And ye who would bring man his soul from a mystical matrix apart;
And ye who would conjure man’s life to a land beyond Matter’s ken,
Must proclaim how her rape overtook her, and wherefore, and when,
Ere we bend to your idols, or take these your fairyland stories to heart.”

“I am excessively fond of a cottage”- ‘Detectorists’, rural idylls and the English character

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“For my own part,” said he, “I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy. I advise every body who is going to build, to build a cottage.” Robert Ferrars to Elinor Dashwood, Sense and sensibility, c.36, Jane Austen

On Wednesday December 13th the BBC broadcast the last ever episode of Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists.  He concluded the series and tied up many unresolved elements in the plot in his usual elegant, if oblique, manner: the feuding groups of detectorists were reconciled, Varde proposed to Louise, Lance and Andy finally found their Roman gold (spilled from a magpie’s nest in the very last moments of the programme) and Andy and Becky bought a family home- an ideal rural cottage ornee in the Gothic style that was so popular in the early nineteenth century.

The cottage ornee was  a deliberate design innovation of the first decades of the 1800s; it rejected the classical formalism of the Georgian period, in which form was more important than function, and promoted an architecture in which comfort and convenience were the paramount considerations.  Cosiness of accommodation, it might be said, triumphed over appearance.  It was, of course, an elite preoccupation: design books were issued by architects for wealthy patrons who were building primarily for themselves.  They were not interested in the needs of their tenants as such, although estate cottages did often appear in this style.

As Robert Ferrars suggests, there was something more than mere accommodation involved here.  The fashion was part of a very English yearning for a mythical version of England- a ‘merrie England’ in which roses twined over the pointed Gothic window frames.  The building manner involved a flight from the contemporary and the urban to a largely imaginary rural past in which the cottage dweller felt safe and comforted.

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In Detectorists lead character Andy several times expressed a wish to have a shed.  This shed is a metaphor for some far greater aspiration or dream: it stands for a garden, a little patch of land to cultivate; it represents a bucolic Eden enclosed by a hedge- a private paradise of hollyhocks and butterflies and seclusion.  Andy and Becky’s attainment of the English dream of ownership of a cottage with a country garden is a deeply characteristic English trajectory.  The retreat to rural independence and self sufficiency, the cottage as castle within the protective hedge, is a pattern repeated in English history, for instance by the Diggers and the Chartist Land Company, as well as by many individual refugees from town and city.

The series Detectorists (as I have proposed previously) reflected many deep seated traits of English character- attachment to the countryside and nature, affection for small country towns, an instinctive responsiveness to the past.  In the main characters’ aspiration to possession of their own piece of bucolic paradise, the series portrayed one of the deepest tendencies within our culture, the wish to escape from the settlements and the sources of wealth generation which many might regard as characteristic of the British nation and to revert to something simpler, older and more innocent.  Blur parodied this instinctive desire in their 1995 song Country house:

“He lives in a house
A very big house in the country

Oh, it’s like an animal farm
That’s the rural charm in the country.”

Nonetheless, despite the satire, the song perfectly identifies the wish of the “City dweller, successful fella” to renounce the roots and venue of his success and to reinvent a quasi-medieval ideal.  Whether it’s stockbrokers or hippie communes, the English can’t resist the urge.

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Damon Albarn and the others go a bit Benny Hill…

 

 

 

‘Stairway to heaven’- Led Zeppelin, Tolkien and the dream of Albion

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This post is just a quick plug and link to a posting I’ve made on my separate music blog, Broadcast Barnsley.  I’ve written about the song ‘Stairway to heaven’ by Led Zeppelin and discussed what I consider to be the themes of pastoralism and rural retreat I detect in its lyrics.  I consider the heaven of the title to be a semi-mythical Albion for which all British people have an innate and often unconscious yearning.

Read the post here.  Read about my general writing and blogging on the music scene on my website.

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