‘We’re all being treated like sheep’ – future self to younger self; or, a conversation with an eccentric enemy of English Heritage, Stonehenge.
I awake at around eight, weary and cheated of restful sleep. The previous night’s intoxicated visions have left me with a headache, though reaffirm my scepticism about the divine origins of prophecy that so many mind-fugged messiahs have purportedly possessed.
Sheltered by a huge sarsen stone, I ensure that no damage or sign of my stay remains, and push my cycle out into the misty morning. In the village’s local shop I’m told a little more about the area, which the friendly shop-owner tells me should be called ‘Kennett’. My fuel for the next sixty miles is water and granola. Fortunately I have enough of it, and chew my gruel by the public loos. Inside is some graffiti that sums the mood: ‘the stones make me hungry & tired. 2012 AD’.
Buses and cars arrive with inquisitive tourists, some walking the dog, others bending over camera tripods, eager to add to Flickr’s abundance of tourist photo-trophies. I cycle out through the villages of West Kennett and then East, and for a while find myself near to the Fosse Way, the near-45 degrees Roman road from Exeter to Lincoln which I joined up with in the Midlands. These roads are quiet and the fields veiled in a cool fog. The occasional hiker appears and then disappears on the horizon. Villages emerge then return to the protection of the clusters of woods, trees and moors which enfold them: Boreham, Honey Street and Woodborough, then past Pewsey Downs. I pass an old telephone box filled with books, and two people carriers filled with Indian tourists. The majority pose with some nondescript rural scenery in the background whilst a few males stand in an orderly row and piss together into the adjoining field.
There’s a mild drizzle. I pass MOD sites on the way to the royal artillery base at Larkhill, with large military transporter trucks struggling to overtake me on the narrow roads. There are even tank warning signs, and nothing about this seems troubling. I reach Woodhenge, an ancient monument of which nothing remains except some earth outlines and some modern timber stumps marking its original boundaries. Information about its ceremonial usage is mostly speculative, but the remains of everyday objects like pottery, flint tools and animal bones have been found, suggesting people may have come here as much to eat or socialise, as these might have been sacrificial objects offered to the dead. In the distance, I spy the wide Stonehenge cursus, a long oval-shaped mound built by human hands as part of the wider Neolithic complex that comprises this, Stonehenge and Woodhenge. Hobbes’ friend John Aubrey was one of the first to re-discover it, and speculated that it was the remains of a Roman racecourse. His explanation seems more probable than anything else. This large space would’ve been ceremonial, and would’ve accommodated large numbers of people, but for what?
Christianity’s conflation of paganism with devil worship still taints secular understandings to grasp Stonehenge. If it does not hum with dark menace, then those large sarsen stones in the distance become the vehicle of all manner of mystical and solemn speculations. I wonder instead if this large, lavish and remarkably distinctive complex might not have been the location of some kind of regular festival, bringing together peoples from across what is now England and southern Wales to socialise, celebrate and commemorate. Life back then was thought to be agrarian, with people living in small groups with their animal herds and travelling the land based on the season. Such a spectacular fixed site would’ve brought distant groups back together for special social or religious events around the solstices. But then without the necessary evidence, my speculations are as much value as Mystic Meg’s. One can make of it what one wants…
And what can one make of it? In the distance I see those tall sarsen and bluestone posts with their lintels straddled across them, and beneath them, an unearthly traffic of tourists drifting in circles in some group somnambulance. It’s a thrilling and troubling vista that seems to confirm my festival thesis, but such a contrast to peaceful Avebury.
I ride down to the large visitor centre, an ugly carbuncle which constitutes a criss-cross of a McDonalds drive-thru and an out-of-town Ikea. Buses continually take tourists the half mile or so from the visitor centre up to the stones themselves. I try to find the place where I will buy a ticket, and follow a throng of noisy Italian teenagers into the gift shop, where the worst impulses of marketing creeps have been explored with painful permissiveness. Eventually I squeeze out and join the right queue. The entrance price is extraordinarily expensive, and I’m wishing I was far away. But out of scientific interest, I screw myself into my intentions and wait patiently.
‘It’s like Legoland’, I say to the cashier.
‘Yes’, he laughs. ‘It’s not even that bad today. Sometimes we get 8 000 people in a day.’
I break ranks and cycle back towards the stone circle, leaving the peoples of the world behind as they wait for their buses. Most press audioguides to their ears, others take selfies or generic photos. I struggle to spot a single person who is here simply to look or understand. Taking the photo makes the experience real. That said, one elated-looking chap stands before the stones, legs akimbo and arms raised to the skies. Avebury might be a more suitable site for this kind of cosmic adoration.
Whilst Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe, it would seem that Stonehenge is older by around 500 years. A circular enclosure was established 5000 years ago with around 56 pits inside, until 500 years later huge sarsen stones were brought and arranged around the site, with Welsh bluestones raised to form the distinctively unique shape of the monument. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering and one of the most extraordinary achievements of the human race. Just how was it done…? But today one cannot get anywhere near the stones. It is the most touristified, overpriced and underwhelming experiences. It takes a lot to ruin a place like Stonehenge, but English heritage have done an impressive job.
What would those paleolithic visionaries think of the spectacle today? It seems far more mysterious than even their astrological ancestor-worship. Masses of visitors talk into plastic communication devices aided by satellites which orbit the earth, beaming emoticons and lols from Amesbury to Armenia or Australia. Most have arrived by oil-fuelled aircraft and then automobiles. Am I wrong to suspect that few looked up during these journeys to assess the nature of their environs as they transformed? Instead digitally recorded movies and algorithm-based video games consumed their attentions. Despite receiving all the luxuries and sensory stimulation of consumerism, there has been no corresponding religious or intellectual movement that has sought either to explain or give thanks to such an unusually sophisticated form of animal life. Few even suspect that this way of life isn’t sustainable. Beyond recycling the cardboard packaging of one’s microwave meals, has any behaviour collectively changed since the late 20th century warnings of environmental scientists?
Crow mocks us all with its beady glinty eye and a harsh caw caw like at the top of Ben Nevis.
An old gentleman of eccentric and unkempt appearance wanders over to me as I stand by my bicycle, observing this maelstrom. His irregular and seemingly self-shorn hairstyle and unsuccessful efforts to shave the entirety of his chin suggest a life event that’s left him struggling out of necessity with living alone. He tells me of a free route to Stonehenge over National Trust land, along a nearby lane that bends around before eventually getting somewhere near to the stones. His finger traces the unlikely route in the distance, a spindly path threading between moo cows and moving tractors. His conversation is animated and defiant, and proceeds from a deep-held conviction that his interlocutor will rubbish and reject whatever he says. My thesis is later confirmed when he quotes his own impassioned letters to various home secretaries and English Heritage officials. I love his eccentric rebelliousness! But what is this war in well-heeled Wiltshire?
‘I deprived English Heritage of many pounds yesterday!’
‘We hate English Heritage round here. The land should be free to roam.’
The fences, car-parks, coaches, and ticket-prices are evidence of a wider blight, as he sees it. In his view, adults have become too molly-coddled and infantilised. Most of us are little more than grown-up children, playing with our adult toys whilst road signs and newspapers instruct us in what to do or think, a soft parenting for spoilt girls and boys. Wilderness by contrast takes a certain wildness and independence of spirit to explore it. He’s lived locally for around ten years and tells me much about the stones. This gentleman’s campaign, consisting of regular letters and impromptu conversations with tourists, is one polite and well-mannered assault on authority and received wisdom. What a delight! Raise a hand and salute, high-five or just stick a thumb up to this unlikely rebel!
As visitors queue to return, speculations are shared among strangers about the origins of the stones. Discussion’s flowering. I hear a lady talk to another as they pass me: ‘sit down, watch TV 24/7, that’s not me, I’m not like that’. These are incremental reminders that though it may be easier to be treated like sheep – or, just as bad, to view the complexity of human society as little more than some them-and-us struggle of sheep-like brainwashed masses against a small cadre of enlightened and educated people – we’re each human, each possessing a spark of curiosity, understanding and independence of spirit.
I step out of ‘England’s story’ and take a busy road westward to Warminster, weaving through hillsides aureate, hay bales curl in the dips of the Wylye Valley. Unusual chalk outlines have been cut into landscape, votive offerings or symbols of pagan worship, overlooked with the same indifferent if baffled tolerance as our nudists and unkempt eccentrics. Would you find this in any other country of Europe? I feel I should call it English, but it feels inconceivable even in the West Midlands or the North, where a certain hard-headed scepticism would no doubt stall even the most wet-eared visionary from making the effort to cut these lines beside a Travelodge or Tesco. No, there’s something quite distinctly lovely and bemusing about this corner of the south-west.
There’s little use in bringing a guide. Serendipity will stand you in better stead. Cut one road or another, either way there’s the companionship of the gentle Wiltshire villages and fields, as rural idyll as anything I’ve come across, verdant, fertile, and alive. There’s no need for animation in words or gesture – the manner tranquil, phrases truncated – when all around are trees and songbirds, shrubs and livestock, each teeming with life. I would’ve headed further south to Imber, a ghostly and abandoned village now used as target practice by the MOD, but it is only open to the public during certain dates in August. I strongly advise any Wiltshire wanderers to check these dates as I hear it is a truly extraordinary place.
Instead, I ride to Warminster, a quiet market town. Trade’s sluggish, income elusive. Arrival is akin to entering the fusty, musty, fussily-appointed front parlour of a distant and aged relative. Dusty photoframes, doyleys and charity chintz, socks darned, tea served on saucers. She goes without heating, claims stoicism and offers you a hot water bottle, but you laugh and feel embarrassed, it’s a play that conceals dogged necessity, the prices they charge for a new boiler, that’s daylight robbery! This would be an easy place to carry out a daylight robbery. Time’s sluggish, and past skips ahead into future without regard for the present. Would they even remember I’d passed through? But I struggle to find anywhere worthy of the drama of a hold-up, and so I wander around the shops, picking up some unusual honey for my couchsurfing host for the night, Ellie, and making conversation with the local shopowners.
They reinforce my suspicions. I’m told of a generational gap here, between the young army soldiers based nearby and the older couples who prepare for retirement in the bungalowland on its outskirts. Poverty is politely tucked away down alleyways, where local churches administer wafer and wine on Sundays and crates of tinned provisions in its weekday foodbank. In one coffee-shop, the proprietor speaks animatedly and passionately about her fears. People are being brainwashed, she thinks, by a dream-world of familiar brands and loyalty cards. A Costa coffeeshop has opened up the high-street, wiping out her trade. Regulars no longer stop by, despite their expressions of support for local trade. It’s a familiar story.
I cycle out of Warminster westward, and I’m surprised by the extent and age of the town. The road crosses into Somerset and I head into Frome, another market town similar in nature to Warminster though with a little more bustle about it. Bright bunting has that effect mind, and the local businesses also appear to be struggling in a sluggish half-life. An explanation is provided by a thriving out-of-town supermarket, where I pick up some coriander and carry on.
There’s still a good few miles ahead, and sleep deprivation is dogging me like a bad ankle. What eejit came up with this route? Can I not just sit down and lie here in this field and rest my eyes a little while? Peer up at the sun, now marking its fading fall back down towards the west. I ride on towards Shepton Mallet, another small market town though more ugly and workaday than its neighbours, Crusader windows, ya ya industrial estates, thriving chippies whose calorific portions meet the needs of Olympic triathletes. Large chips and cheese, habitual cod dinners: a community united in gut-size queues up for familiar favourites. On the road this long, one can confidently make ball-park guesses about the median incomes of areas based on the quality of their eateries. But after a shit week, who’ll deprive us of our treats…?
Wells, I’m told, is a very special place. Feeling weary of anaemic market towns, I impulsively change direction and take a road north. It trades those aureate fields for sweeping forests and flickers of green, cutting up, down and around towards the Mendip Hills. Wells itself is extraordinary, a wonderful old town that enchants with its soaring steeples, tumbled market rows and wide open spaces gifted for reflection. It’s so pleasant it’s ripe for parody, and I realise I’ve seen the place before, sent-up in the comedy caper Hot Fuzz, about two hapless policemen who attempt to solve a series of mysterious murders connected to a local and conspiratorial Neighbourhood Watch Alliance. Life and death is subordinated to the need to win ‘village of the year’. In this deserted market square, CCTV-secure, with its bijou boutiques and precisely-pruned hanging baskets, it’s plausible!
The cathedral is the main attraction of Wells, quite rightly. The figures carved into its façade are extraordinary, and the façade on the West Front demonstrates a complicated religious hierarchy beyond anything in the Gospels, and, to my mind, the most spectacular and accomplished surviving medieval sculpture on these islands. The niches at the bottom are empty, though it is thought that once Old Testament prophets and early missionaries stood in these places. From this base, above stand the angels and Biblical scenes, the animation of religious belief, and the figures and inspiration that might take sympathy on a humble sinner and pass up a prayer or entreaty up the hierarchy. Above these stand life-size figures in their own proud niches, bishops and royalty, church and state on the same standing, medieval man and woman conflating both and knowing her or his own lowly but divinely-sanctioned place.
Above these are more biblical scenes, including undead figures rising from the graves for the day of judgement, an apocalyptic zombie day of the dead of a more historic and haunting kind. On the next level are nine angels, including Gabriel, then Christ’s twelve apostles, each customarily distinguished by some sign either relating to their vocation or to their typically grisly method of execution (Peter holds a key, Thomas a carpenter’s square), though age has eroded most of their features. The cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew who stands in the centre, bearing the x-shaped saltire on which he was later crucified. Above these, at the top of this calendar of religious belief, sits Jesus on his throne, passing judgement on those gazing up at him. John the Baptist and his mother Mary once sat besides him in smaller niches but were later destroyed by Puritan iconoclasts. Some vaguely angelic cherubim occupy their place today. These figures were once coloured in bright paints and gold, but today are the colour of stone. The façade is an extraordinary achievement of the medieval Gothic imagination, communicating a sophisticated worldview to worshippers unable to read or even understand much of the Latin in which religious services were conducted in.
Frustratingly for me, the cathedral is closed for some unknown reason, cheating me of the chance to wander around. Instead I drift by some almshouses, then cup my ear to the wall of a hall in which a big bang practises tunes from Star Wars for some public event. There’s a monument here to Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran to fight on the Western Front during the First World War. He did not speak about his experiences until he turned one hundred. His testimony contradicts all the toxic bilge about noble sacrifice that TV centenaries have put out. War was nothing more than ‘organised murder’, regrettable and futile. His stories of the trench life tell a story of squalor and lice, rum and mutiny, and of soldiers who refused where possible to kill the Germans, choosing instead to shoot to injure. They recognised a fellowship with them, and a common enmity with the politicians and incompetent officers who had placed them in the way of catastrophe and needless slaughter.
‘You used to look between the fire and apertures and all you could see was a couple of stray dogs out there, fighting over a biscuit that they’d found. They were fighting for their lives. And the thought came to me – well, there they are, two animals out there fighting over dog biscuit, the same as we get to live. They were fighting for their lives. I said, ‘We are two civilised nations – British and German – and what were we doing? We were in a lousy, dirty trench fighting for our lives? For what? For eighteen pence a flipping day.’
Harry said that his experiences of seeing the dying and dead destroyed all faith in the Church of England. His memorial sits by the cathedral, garlanded with plastic poppies and two inappropriate union jacks.
I wander besides smart restaurants and the ruined remains of a bishop’s palace. Ducks glide across a tranquil moat. European backpackers photograph the swans. With a setting sun behind me, I cycle south-west from Wells towards Glastonbury, my final stop for the day. The route is largely flat as it crosses the Somerset levels, and in the distance I trace the hill and tower that is Glastonbury Tor, overlooking the plains and small market town.
There’s a funfair on the outskirts of town, the heady thumping of bass from blaring dance music and groups of pished teens making an incongruous contrast with the spiritualist stores, hemp outlets and prophetic promises of the colourful shops that make up Glastonbury’s small town centre. Instead of cut-price Carlsberg or cookies, here one can choose from cauldrons, crystals, or gurus offering mystical rituals. Shops offer tarot not tattoos, runes over radios, and serves organic flax-seed polenta instead of kebab or chicken korma. Gary and Karen have become Gawain and Lilith-Karenina. It’s a joy to people-watch here, everyone dressed up glamorously with pony-tails, colourful velvet waistcoats, stiffened corsets, theatrical staffs, yard-high heels and boot soles. There is nowhere quite like it. In its relative isolation and conformity of eccentricity, one could take oneself entirely seriously here. It is remarkable and most enjoyable. Buskers howl and mages laze in the slow evening sunset, talking and gazing, their expressions deliciously inscrutable.
Ellie lives a couple of miles away in the nearby village of Meare. She’s an inspiring, wise and energetic young woman, and quickly makes me feel at home. She’s from Glastonbury and knows it well, too well! There is a fascinating, strange and utterly unique book to be written about the town and its people that currently resides inside her mind. I’m sworn to secrecy over its stories, but the evening passes quickly in impassioned and intriguing conversation. ‘Glastonbury is not like any other kind of community’ she says, as we prepare freshly-picked vegetables from the back garden. Its gravitational pull has brought together an unlikely assortment of characters. ‘Great British eccentricity lives and thrives here’, her mum chips in. Too rightly!
I hear of a small community where most know each other. Such communities have mixed effects on their young. I commonly hear in the pubs and caffs of these places, always under hushed breath, ‘everyone knows each other!’ There’s a necessity to cut oneself adrift and move away if one seeks a feeling of freedom through independence. Fortunately going away to university provides this social opportunity in a way impossible to all but the last three generations. I’m drawn to people of my own age, mid-to-late twenties. They often make these complaints but have since returned. ‘Why are you back here?’, I ask, in the most friendly way I can conjure. Reasons differ in specificity but not nature: small town communities continue to offer a kind of home to return to. Work is easier to find and relatives provide free accommodation. Some friends may have moved away, but the feeling of friendliness lingers, from the ghosts of one’s youth recreating those life-changing dramatic scenes to the ease of the familiar, the ease of gliding around without having to excavate again a new persona for oneself.
Ellie has a lot of affection for Glastonbury, though punctuates her praise with an occasional wariness and scepticism. ‘Everybody’s a therapist!’, she laughs. She began travelling from a young age, exploring Europe, Japan and then Latin America on her own. Her curiosity and courage is inspiring for someone like me who has never travelled before, but for her is second nature. Though travelling across Japan was ‘weird’ and as isolating as it was inspiring, and Latin America at first took some getting used to, a pragmatic and inquisitive attitude has taken her through all kinds of experiences and encounters. With a gift for languages she’s learned more and more about the cultures, music and dance of Latin America. Undeterred by a painful spinal condition, Ellie is about to move to Bristol. She’s busy learning French, beginning a stand-up comic routine, and starting to learn Afro-Brazilian percussion. Inspiring, indefatigable! One of the rewards of travel is stumbling across other individuals whose appetite for life dwarfs your own, and indicates the possibility of previously-unconsidered opportunities. Why can’t you?
Some of this culture is growing out in the garden. With the curry Ellie throws in some tomateo, tasty green vegetables that look like Chinese lanterns, as well as a great tromboncino courgette the size and shape of a boa constrictor. We cut and chuck in aubergines and red peppers, also thriving out in the garden alongside other vegetables usually found in hotter climes. Red wine, gluten-free beer and locally sourced smoking herbs are shared, and we continue conversing into the night, about prophets and politics, marriage and music, Bristol and bicycles, and about everything else that appears in the minds of two travellers whose paths criss-cross on that most unusual of all towns, Glastonbury.