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Send My Conscience Home in a Taxi

Externalised Memory

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Ancient UK
Drawing of a trike
Wednesday in the UK, Deb and I had to get up very early indeed! We had to be in some place called Knightsbridge, famous for some store called Harrods, to get picked up by a tour bus. We had to be there at 8AM, which meant we had to leave Blackheath pretty damn early. Even so, we got there with at least half an hour to spare.

We'd booked a tour all over the UK - well, in fact, mostly in Salisbury - to see lots and lots of Old Stuff. I mean, the UK is littered with Old Stuff, walls and random ancient buildings and what have you, but it also has some really, really Old Stuff if you know where to look. And the chirpy driver of our tour bus knew were to find said places. And boy did we pack in a lot in one day!

We hopped on a little bus with an American couple, a couple from Israel, a woman with three kids from the states, and another pair of random Americans (I think).

I'm writing this offline, on a flight from Cologne-Bonn to Zurich, so my spelling of place names will be entirely from memory, and hence probably vague indeed!

First stop, a hill top fort called Old Sarun. It had been a Roman fort, or even something pre-dating that, and then had had a castle on it, as well as a big cathedral. As usual with these things, the place had more or less been allowed to fall down, after the stone had been scavenged for other buildings, and the ruins were only really uncovered early in the twentieth century. But it commanded quite a bit of ground, and William the Conqueror (I think) had spent a number of years there after taking over the country. But eventually the cathedral was replaced, or indeed recycled, into one down on the plane - Salisbury cathedral in fact - and the castle abandoned.

Sarun is on a circular hill, with a large ditch around the top area. I can't remember now if the hill was man made or just happened to be handy, it was certainly a commanding spot!

Next, we popped in on Salisbury Cathedral itself. An old old cathedral in it's own right, from something like 1200. It's also huge and tall and historic. The spire is the tallest one standing, there were taller one's back in the day, but they all fell down! The interior is suitably gothic - I overheard a guide saying "This is Gothic, and I don't mean people who dress entirely in black and wear white make-up..."

There are also heaps of tombs in the church, kings and significant personages of one sort or another. And notably a recent one, in the floor, of a certain Edward Heath, former prime minister o' the UK. Looks like he spent his retirement in Salisbury.

Salisbury cathedral also has a copy, one of four originals, of the Magna Carta, a founding document of common law and human rights and so forth. Apparently it was forced on a reluctant king at the time, who immediately started trying to undermine it!

From Salisbury we went to the Kennet Long Barrow, which is near Silsby Hill. The Long Barrow is an ancient burial chamber, with an entrance bordered by very large stones. The found lots of skeletons there from several centuries, possibly from the same family.

Silsby Hill is an interesting one, one of the stranger things I have seen. It's an almost perfectly conical hill, which once upon a time was entirely white chalk. It's quite large, and must have taken a great deal of work to build. And of course no one is sure what it's for. The whole area was forested at the time, and so the peak of it must have projected above the tree line. It looks like later someone popped a fort on top of it, and there may have been a Roman village at its base - but that was some thousand years after it was built... Talk about ancient... And yet another thing which will send me scurrying to the internets to read up on these things.

Next stop on the tour... Stonehenge! Another ancient and strange little place. Lots of work must have gone into that place - the smaller outer stone circle was made from stone brought all the way from Wales, the inner, larger circle of very large stones were brought from closer by. And then beat into shape with other stones! Lots of work. Although I don't have that "oh my goodness how on earth did they do it?" response some have - they were resourceful humans as smart and organised as we are. That these four thousand year old monuments are there implies that they did somehow move and erect these bigs stones, probably with wooden structures which have long since dissolved back into the landscape.

What is interesting is what motivated them, and exactly how much organisation there must have been. It would have taken decades of effort by the equivalent of a small nation to make these things happen. And I can't imagine we'll ever know - to look into the minds of our ancestors and try and figure what was important to them will always be impossible.

Next we went past a horse, carved into a hillside, although not an ancient one - this one was more like two hundred years old, so its a baby really! We also stopped outside Sting's house and gave him a wave - our tour driver had some kind of gripe about him, so he made a point of stopping every time he went past and waving at his security camera...

Then we went on to another stone circle, at a place called Avebury. I'd never heard of it - I'd like to thank my tour company for taking me to places I'd never have thought to go otherwise. It's actually bigger than Stonehenge, but differs from it in a number of important ways, notably because it has a town built in the middle of it. It's also made from less sculpted stones, the rocks are more or less in their natural state. And finally, a large number of them are missing (more on that).

Avebury is big indeed, two circles of earthen ridges around a ditch, around a circle of stones, with some central stones place in an a pattern in the centre. The significance of the central stones is unclear, like just about everything else to do with these sites. There is some theorising that the two main stones line up with one of the solstices.

As I mentioned, a lot of the stones at Avebury are missing, their places marked with cement markers. What amazed me was as recently as a few centuries ago, people were actively destroying the stones! They were regarded as pagan symbols, so certain puritans took delight in lighting fires around a stone, then throwing water on it, in order to break it up! Clearly this is well before ideas of national heritage etc. came into being! Ignorant bastards.

Our tour guide also told us some interesting titbits about the history of the area. That there are a number of very old monuments close to together, the theory goes that they are linked in some way. Back in the day, these places would mostly have been surrounded by forest. They have also unearthed trails leading from the entrance of Stonehenge. And intriguingly, it's possible that from the top of the hill called Silsby it was possible to see Stonehenge and Avebury and at least one other significant site. It does make you wonder what they were thinking, as if it was some kind of very sacred area.

This Megolythic thing seems to have gone on all over Europe. There are other sites from Turkey all the way to Ireland. There are also some in Brittany. It seems likely that there were once upon a time far more all across continental Europe, but time and later civilisations have erased all traces of them. Until relatively recent times, the areas we know as the United Kingdom and Ireland were backwaters, off the edge of Europe, which is probably why these things have survived more there than in other locations. Pity really, it would be amazing to see other sites like this and maybe learn a little more about what our hard working, bearded, rock moving ancestors were thinking.