A Postcard from Wessex
Historian and expert tour guide Paul Beston gets ready for an upcoming tour to Wessex, exploring the history of this ancient region, from Neolithic Avebury to Georgian Bath
There’s not one Wessex, familiar though the name is, but several. None of them is quite real, anymore. They’re either historically distant, meaning we have to fill the gaps with hypothesis and speculation, or there was already an unreal, invented quality to them.
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom
Historically, of course, there’s the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, still able to reach us dramatically with that chiaroscuro darkness-and-dawn tale of her epic of endurance. It’s hard not to feel a thrill at the almost novelistic sweep of her story over a millennium ago: the hammer-blow of the Viking Great Army crashing over her frontiers, a king in hiding, a civilisation almost extinguished on the threshold of its greatest achievement, then a storm weathered and a triumphant battle. After the darkness, broad, sunlit uplands: now there’s a theme that has resonance in British history! That Anglo-Saxon Wessex can be a little hard to find on the ground – you can see it in places like the lovely idiosyncratic church at Bradford-on-Avon or Wareham’s ramparts, still heaped-up against the Northmen, and there are glories in the museums; but it remains a little elusive and hidden to the casual eye.
Then there’s the archaeological Wessex. Few parts of England are more richly-endowed with early remains, to a level that is sometimes truly astonishing. It’s quite easy to stand in a lane or on some eminence, and with barely a turn of a head take in landscape traces from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age – hundreds, even thousands of years old already when the Romans came. Haul yourself up the steep, rippled flanks of Maiden Castle to her Roman temple, and you’re standing in an Iron Age hillfort, built over a Neolithic causewayed camp, with Bronze Age burial mounds on your short walk back down. At nearby Maumbury Rings on the edge of Dorchester, you stand in the bowl of a four-thousand-year-old henge that became a Roman amphitheatre, a gun battery in the English Civil War and a place of execution as late as 1705 when Mary Channing was burned for murdering her husband with poisoned milk. This Wessex, too, keeps some secrets, but sites like Stonehenge and Avebury are still tantalising us with exciting new finds in the last couple of years.
Or there is the Hardy Wessex, borne out of that beautiful landscape. I wrote a little while back of Hadrian’s Wall and its cragginess. Wessex isn’t like that. It rolls, it sweeps, it folds. There are great green hills, home to hillforts and beacons, and there darkling combes and gently undulating stretches of green chalkland, like a warm blanket concealing some hidden form. It’s an inspiring and inspiriting view, probably best captured by the artist Eric Ravilious. Speckling this, there are the villages, the parish churches and the seemingly ageless market towns, where you can easily imagine a tragic nineteenth century heroine’s story acted out.This Wessex is a little more visible, for example in part of the fine museum at Salisbury where I take our tours, which was once a training college for schoolmistresses – one attended by Hardy’s sisters, which seems to have been the kernel of a dramatic moment in Jude the Obscure. The executed Channing’s story seems also to have moved Hardy, and parts of it have made their way into the Mayor of Casterbridge (Hardy’s cover-name for Dorchester).
There’s a beauty, but also an almost Gothic edge to this Wessex that gives us nocturnal denouements at Stonehenge, or the same site’s lurid Victorian tales of sacrifice and Slaughter Stones. There’s also a sense, even for the firmly rationalist among us, that it sometimes regards the everyday world as a bit of dressing up, with the ‘real’ one behind a permeable curtain. It’s a region that certainly has more than its fair share of outstanding sites dedicated to the otherworldly and, without getting too New-Agey (I’ve rolled my eyes more than a few times at Stonehenge and Avebury), ways of piercing the barrier between. The gathering of burials at Stonehenge is an extraordinarily old phenomenon, related in part to a sense, already ancient when it was built, that this was a special spot. That sense might arise from natural, localised fissures scoring the earth near the Heel Stone that seem to align with the Solstice, the earth itself pointing out a significant solar moment, but people had to see that and build upon it.
Seeing significance and monumentalising it is a common thread across Wessex’s history, and it’s often related to water. Stonehenge and Durrington Walls are linked by the River Avon, thought by some to be a kind of Neolithic river of the dead. The huge artificial mound Silbury Hill was built beside a river source which periodically makes a moat around it in a way that still gives goosebumps. Even vast Avebury over the fields had a ditch hewn so deep that the water table would occasionally part-fill it and cut it from the mundane world. Water carries us on: the warm, thunderous gushing waters over the reddened stone by the Sacred Spring at Bath transports us through the Iron Age and past the great Roman healing complex down to ‘taking the waters’ in Austen’s genteel Georgian England. It’d be hard to imagine societies further apart in some ways, but in Bath the connections are always there. Even in the Christian Middle Ages, we see the same watery theme run – Glastonbury Abbey has its holy well, and was built on a site – the supposed Isle of Avalon – that was regularly turned almost to an island in the waters.
This blend of the tangible and historical with the aesthetic and emotional is what makes Wessex special. It’s encapsulated by standing at the core of Stonehenge at sunrise or sunset, a real privilege of the special access we get on our expert-led tours. There’s the spellbinding historical achievement of the past generations that shaped it and the landscape around, immeasurably more impressive here within the barriers. The whole monument seems vast by comparison with the normal view, and the trilithons tower above. There’s the excitement of getting up close to the stones and finding those Bronze Age carvings of daggers, made when the visible monument was already centuries old, almost invisible to the naked eye even up close in daylight. All around, there’s the factor that gives Stonehenge its real uncanny quality – not the hokum talked about the stones, but the sentinel Hitchcockian rooks and jackdaws, the monument’s true owners. Wrapped in this, wait and absorb the changing sky: mauve, purple, orange before that final sublime flash on the horizon between the dark orthostats. That doesn’t leave you, ever.
With all these Wessexes, then, we get to project, imagine and interpret our own. For Americans, there might be a personal one, a bond with young men in Skytrains flying from her fields into the darkness on June 5 1944, over their fellows huddled in the waiting ships in Weymouth Bay. For me, Wessex is a place of beginnings. I spent a few years as a child living near Stonehenge and Avebury. There’s an antique-looking photo of me near the former, but it’s the latter that really had an impact. It was the first archaeological site I studied in detail, aged five or six. Every time I visit, I still see the ghost of the next class trooping off down Avebury’s great ditch. Here I encountered the story of the unfortunately-flattened mediaeval Barber Surgeon, and at the superb museums in Stonehenge and Devizes the Neolithic remains set me on a path to eventually discovering what they could tell us about the diet, date and lifestyle of their living owners. At West Kennet, that impossibly-old, huge Long Barrow, reached from Avebury by the atmospheric Avenue, I heard how the bones of the dead were kept, separated, sorted and curated by their kind. I marvelled at the massy Sarsen stones and the achievement of moving them so long ago, and heard how they were formed when this part of England was a swamp not unlike today’s Everglades.
It was here too that I first appreciated a mediaeval site, the beautiful Salisbury Cathedral with its stiletto-spire climbing into the heavens (the daintiest 6,500 tons in England) and its achingly-beautiful Chapter House, where the sun throws the colours of its stained glass all over a space richly decorated with Biblical reliefs and you can gaze on an original of the first issue of Magna Carta - another beginning. It retains that sense of origins for me: England as one kingdom begins with Wessex, so much of the mediaeval church was rooted in Salisbury’s organisation, the Arthurian legends sprout from Glastonbury and at West Kennet you stand on that rise by the mighty slabs of its forecourt before dipping your head to enter, at three-and-a-half-thousand years old, just about the oldest stone-built human structure in England. Sure, there might be a road visible when you come out again, and a waiting pub not far off, but sometimes, in Wessex, all that feels very far away. If you want to stand at the beginning, here’s the place to do it.
If you'd like to create your own Wessex, Paul Beston will be leading a tour to the region with Peter Sommer Travels, from July 1st to July 7th, 2018, with packages for a week long tour or single day participation. Check it out at www.petersommer.com/tours/exploring-wessex-england.