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Friday, 4 September 2020

The Grey Weathered Stones You Shelter Behind

                                                         Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey

One of the side effects of this summer's Covid restrictions has been me dragging my family round a good number of Neolithic sites. These places have several Corona advantages- open air, free to visit, you can go without touching anything and they are crowd free. When we visited Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick in the Lake District (on the way to Scotland at the start of August) my seventeen year old daughter was genuinely surprised to find other people there as well as us. 'there are other people here' she said, slightly amazed, and then followed this with (in tones dripping with teenage sarcasm), 'I thought it was only us who were arsed about stone circles'.

   Castlerigg, Keswick

In the early summer we started by driving to Mellor, in the hills overlooking Stockport, which has an iron age hill fort and down the valley and up the hill a long barrow (the barrow is on private land behind barbed wire sadly). A week later we drove to The Bridestones, a chambered cairn on a hill overlooking Congleton and the Cheshire Plain, no one around. We got out of the car, walked through a field, ate our sandwiches, poked around the site and then went home. In August, before new restrictions were imposed on Greater Manchester, after stopping off at Castlerigg on our way to Scotland, we drove out to Wigtown Bay and up to see Cairn Holy I and II, a pair of magnificent chambered cairns, burial places, from four and a half thousand years ago. Cairn Holy I has some really dramatic upright stones at its entrance. Cairn Holy II has a huge cap stone. There were to our surprise another family visiting this site but social distancing was easy.

Cairn Holy II, Dumfries and Galloway

                                                  Cairn Holy I, Dumfries and Galloway

In Scotland we were also able to visit the Twelve Apostles, a large stone circle in a field just north of Dumfries. This site was were the rest of my parry's enthusiasm faded. Two of them refused to get out of the car, the third said she'd stay in the car to answer some text messages, leaving me to tramp around a slightly wet field on my own.

Since then we've been to Anglesey which has more Neolithic sites than you can shake a stick at- the amazing burial chamber with henge and stone circle Bryn Celli Ddu (pictured at the top of this post. We were down to three members for this visit, one not wanting to join our Neolithic road trip). Anglesey also gave us the three chambered barrow overlooking the aluminium works at Trefignath, the nearby standing stone Ty Mawr (now across the road from a service station) and the burial chamber at Ty Newydd.

Ty Newydd, Anglesey

Last weekend in a desperate bid to have one more day out before September brought us all back into the real world of work, college and increased risk of transmission of the disease, we headed out to Derbyshire and the double treat of Arbor Low stone circle, a large site in the Derbyshire Dales and the neighbouring barrow at Gib Hill. 

                Arbor Low, Derbyshire


                                                             Gib Hill Barrow, Derbyshire

I have a genuine fascination with these sites. Their age, four to five thousand years old, is one part of it. To stand at a barrow or stone circle and look at the landscape around them, to stand where our ancestors stood so many years ago, is in some ways magical. The view, give or take a few roads, hedges and fences, and fewer trees, is often what they might have seen. There is a sense of the unknown about them- we don't full know how they were constructed, what their use was, what people did there- and we probably never will. In a world that demands certainty it's good to have unanswered questions. Our Neolithic brothers and sisters had difficult, dangerous lives where starvation and disease were ever present threats but they had a desire to mark the lives of their people, to build and construct, to leave an imprint on the landscape they lived in, to create art of some kind. 

As I walked to and from these stone circles, barrows, standing stones and cairns I often found myself humming this 1992 Julian Cope cover of a 1977 Roky Erickson song, I Have Always Been Here Before. In Cope's hands it becomes an ode to the Neolithic peoples and the monuments they've left behind. He puts in some extra lines and stanzas, lines such as 'Like the grey weathered stones you shelter behind' and he adds an extra section to the start of the song-

'From the long barrows of Wiltshire to the pyramids
From the stone circles that challenge the scientists
And the Neolithics that tread the ancient avenues
And the children that died forever more exist'


Khayem said...

As soon as I saw the post's title, I knew we were in for a treat. Yes, it's a cover version, but Julian Cope completely reinvents this song and it's one of the best songs he's ever recorded. This version originally appeared in 1990 on a Roky Erikson tribute called Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye. I spent a year working & travelling Australia in 1990-91 and station Triple J played the hell out of this, I taped it off the radio and ironically, this would have been on my well-worn mixtape, going to and from Uluru (you could still climb to the top in those days).

I was a member of the Julian Cope mailing list in the mid-late 1990s and one of the lovely perks was receiving promo postcards featuring photos of his various visits researching The Modern Antiquarian. I've never got hold of the book but I did recently discover the 60-min BBC documentary of the same name on You Tube, which is great.

I completely empathise with the trials of making these trips a family outing. I usually find myself in a party of one, if I suggest something similar...

Great post, photos and song selection as always, Adam. Hope the start of the new school term has gone as well as can be expected and have a great weekend.

londonlee said...

Haha proper teenage stuff from your daughter there. Mine’s 13 and already getting stroppy

Nick L said...

Great track and lovely evocative photos. In 2002 we based a family holiday (the kids were still tiny and we carried them on our backs) in Cornwall around Cope's superb "Modern Antiquarian" book. I completely get your fascination. If you ever get down south you really should get to Avebury, with it's stone circle and Silbury Hill nearby, as well as West Kennet Long Barrow just down the road. Yes, they're a bit obvious for the neolithically interested but they easily earn their fame, plus, if they're good enough to make Cope move to Wiltshire...

The Swede said...

Terrific post (and tune) SA. I can absolutely see how these structures fascinate you so much.

C said...

Yes - as TS says - fascinating. I love the feeling of being somewhere where there is genuine, tangible evidence of our ancient ancestors' existence and just trying to transport myself to their world. Those unanswered questions, as you say, are part of the appeal.

Swiss Adam said...

Khayem- I never got the book either, keep hoping a copy will turn up somewhere. And you're right about the song, it's a total re-working rather than a cover version.

Nick- I visited Avebury as a kid but haven't been since. Silbury and West Kennet are on my list, we'll get down to Wiltshire at some point.