“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
‘Though most people are fond of Chanctonbury Ring, there are also many who feel strongly that it has a ‘cold, evil feeling’, and will point out that ‘no birds ever sing there’. Many refuse to go among the trees or picnic near them, but give no specific stories to account for their impressions.’
– J. Simpson (1969), ‘Legends of Chanctonbury Ring’. Folklore, 80 (2), pp.122-131.
On Sunday 1st February, Rupert Griffiths and I joined Rob Irving for a guided walk around the mytho-archaeological landscape of Avebury, Wiltshire, as part of the ongoing Public Archaeology project that both Rob and Rupert are contributing to. This was the first time I had visited Avebury and I’ve no idea how or why I have avoided going there before but somehow I had managed to. As those of you familiar with Avebury will know, the entire landscape exists as a series of interconnected earthworks and standing stones and is quite simply staggering to behold. Without question, Avebury is unlike any place I have ever been before and for me, it has an unrivalled sense of wonder; it is peculiar even among other meso and neolithic monumental sites, not least because of the sheer scale of its surrounding henge construction – the largest stone circle in Europe.
Rob’s walk of the area was nothing short of epic, especially given the biting winds and borderline freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, our small but dedicated group made the five and half hour trek from the Waggon and Horses in Beckhampton, up to Windmill Hill, through a series of waterlogged meadows leading the way to Avebury village, across marshy borderlands skirting hillside crop fields to meet Silbury Hill and finally onto West Kennet Long Barrow to see the sun set over the West Country. Each of the sites we stopped at was entirely unique, in terms of both the materiality of the place and the affective workings on the body.
Our first stop, Windmill Hill, held a series of small, grass topped burial mounds, the largest of which we ascended to survey the landscape. From the elevation of this grassy knoll we were able to gain vistas over the entire area. Rob, with his wealth of knowledge of this landscape, was able to map out the features of the ridgeway that lay opposite us, pointing out a line of tree-topped barrows that ran along the ridge. It was evident that each visible feature was situated in correspondence with the next, placed within a zone of interaction so that a sort of placial conversation could take place. The barrows on the ridgeway focused their gaze down upon the henge surrounding the village, whilst simultaneously mirroring our own position atop of the burial mounds of Windmill Hill. Rising from below us Silbury Hill formed a central axis, a verdant spindle from which the rest of the landscape appeared to revolve from.
Rob commented on the placement of the ridgeway barrows, pointing out that they had been placed on the slope rather than the summit and in this sense allowed the ancestors to not only look upon their venerators, but forced the venerators to look back at them. This sense of interconnectedness, of being situated within a sort of topological conversation, belonged not only to the physical features of the landscape but also to us; we too had been coerced by our surroundings into both gazing upon and being overlooked by the earthy tombs that lay on the opposite side of the valley. One could easily become enveloped by the ‘deep time’ that ran through this environment, a sacred milieu that remains of enormous importance to those following the old religion(s) that engage to commune with the natural world. We were fortunate enough to visit Avebury on Imbolc, a Gaelic and (now) neo-pagan celebration of the mid point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The village was awash with tethered ribbons and folk adorned in robes and make up, all making a pilgrimage to the ancient stones.
Leaving the village, we followed steps to the top of the henge’s outer ditch bank, turning around to take in the full impact of the immense sarsen columns that created the outer circle. From the peak of the bank we were able to see the remains of the paired standing stones that marked the 1 1/2 mile causeway that led to The Sanctuary, a large circular formation of stone markers that lay at the southern extremity of the village. Briefly stopping to take a few shots of the huge mark-stone couples that formed The Avenue, it was evident just how important mobility was to this landscape. Each site led you to another, forming part of a continuous procession in and between places. One could sympathise with the belief that such movement is symbolic of a traveling between worlds. Indeed, a number of single stones continue to be identified as having mysterious properties attached to them; local folklore tells of encounters with the Devil, increased fertility, of stones moving of their own accord and of disembodied voices, music and shadows emanating from within the stones themselves. Legend is thick in Avebury, it smothers the entire landscape. Its viscosity, if we can speak in such terms, is a result of Avebury’s material presence (the sheer number of standing stones, barrows and mounds) and the extent to which a reasoning behind the placement and purpose of such materials remains largely undetermined, lost to ancient history.
Before entering Avebury, Rob and I had been discussing the largely dismissive attitude that academia has generally taken towards qualitative readings of historical(ly) sacred sites. I made the comment that in fact, of all the academic disciplines, it is Archaeology that has successfully refined the art of ‘storytelling’. Whilst this was said in jest, I do believe there is some truth in the claim. Archaeology works to fill in the blanks that exist between the material fragments of history and the individuals who would once have been attached to them. To this end archaeology works to create and restore narratives, to place things within a storyline that makes sense, historically speaking. I’m aware that this is something of an abstraction but it serves the purpose of questioning why then, archaeology is anymore valid as a means of explicating the past of sacred sites than say, performative art or music? My point is really this; that sensing a place, physically and sensorially engaging with a site, also works to determine a narrative; further uncovering the biography of (a) place. This I believe to particularly hold true of sacred sites.
That ‘legend is thick’ at Avebury, calls for us to not only understand the area historically (through rigorous examination and excavation) but to feel it, to make sense of the links between say the standing stones, the barrows and Silbury Hill, through touch, movement, sight and sound, through becoming immersed in the landscape, by letting it speak to us. I’m aware of a shift in archaeology (as with human geography) towards a more embodied reading of place (Chris Tilley’s excellent A Phenomenology of Landscape springs to mind – a cornerstone text for my PhD) and indeed there has been a sensory and affective turn the humanities in general, but still, it has to be said that spiritual attachments to place, that is those that become the foundation for a ‘deep’ temporo-topological engagement with a site, are still met with much cynicism.
Leaving The Avenue and heading south-eastwards along the A4361, I noticed a tree-topped barrow that marked the edge of the village ramparts. Behind the barrow lay a further two burial mounds (one of which is visible in the image below); all three seemingly in alignment with both the ‘inner’ henge and the mounds situated on Windmill Hill. Viewing the site(s) from this spot reiterated the sense of interconnectedness that the Avebury landscape engendered, demonstrating that these individual sites were supposed to work together, to ‘speak’ to one another through their locative interaction, through a moving in and between them.
Much has already been said about the ongoing desire to mystify this landscape, John Michell referred to the process in his The View Over Atlantis as ‘an aesthetic law which defies formation’. Indeed, the ongoing mystification of the Avebury landscape is heavily reliant on such a process, one that seeks to assert an obscufication of meaning in the strange material forms that adorn the area. This is a view that sees the historical, social and cultural context of this landscape become occulted, hence further necessitating the need to stand within the site so as to commune with it, to discern for one’s self how and what these barrows, mounds and stones exist for.
Moving further along the A road, we took a left, turning onto a footpath that followed the River Kennet southwards towards Silbury Hill. Edging along the side of the river the trees that lined the Kennet’s banks would frequently break, giving views out over the flooded meadowland onto Silbury Hill. Beyond the viridescent agricultural land, Silbury triumphantly rose from flooded marshlands; vast amounts of water had collected at its foot to form something of a moat, an ominous black lake that prevented passage to the slopes of the hill itself from all but one raised crossing point.
Led by Rob, who was still narrating the esoteric history of the landscape as we moved along, our group continued to edge the fields that surrounded Silbury. The closer we came to the hill the more sodden the terrain became. We were forced to clamber over barbed wire fences to avoid the boggy land but this led us to no drier resolution. Gritting our teeth, we marched on, one by one, through the uninviting foot-deep waters of the marsh, stepping on waterlogged tussocks of grass in order to keep just above the thick, mud-covered bottom. Cold, wet and facing a biting wind, one could easily become despondent, but the sight of the hill, now just meters away, and the promise of reaching the burial ground at West Kennet kept everyone motivated. This was hardly an expedition of a saga-like nature but after four or so hours of walking our feet were now soaked, cold and the wind seemed relentless, to me at least. Rob didn’t seem to feel the cold, or perhaps it was just irrelevant to a man who was clearly in his element, trekking ahead to the next stop in the walk.
Leaving the ‘mud flats’, our party joined the relative comfort of the soft verges that followed the A4. From here it was another twenty minutes of walking before we had made our way to the top of a (sprout?) field and reached the final site/sight of the day; West Kennet Long Barrow. Like each of the other places we had visited that day, West Kennet was at once both breath taking and haunting. The construction of this vast Neolithic tomb, some 100 meters long, is believed to date back to around 3600BC, and is situated atop a chalk ridgeway that overlooks Silbury Hill, Avebury and across to the burial mounds at Windmill Hill. Again, one couldn’t help but feel that the placement of this site was designed to allow a space of performance within the landscape, to view and be viewed by the surrounding sacred sites.
Our experiencing of West Kennet was heightened all the more by the fortunate circumstance of having arrived as the sun began to set, allowing an intense orange glow to permeate the glass skylights, melting away the darkness that would otherwise fill the tomb’s chambers. It would be impossible not to feel awe-struck in a situation like this, where natural elements seem to come together to display the otherwise hidden vitality of a site in all its glory. Even as a sceptic, I could see past the problematics of assigning agency to nature here; the true mystery of the Avebury landscape has to be its ability to coerce you into becoming part of it, to look beyond reason and doubt and to prioritise experience alone as the point from which an understanding of place might be found. In doing so we might be no nearer the historical truth behind these mysterious sites that lay strewn across the Wiltshire countryside but the intensity with which such places act upon us, aesthetically and sensorially, demands a unique kind of veneration, one that exists beyond any prescribed spirituality.
Having reached the final point in our walk, we made the trek back down the ridge and along the main road toward Beckhampton from where our journey had begun. Pairs of headlights sped past us through the dusk as we followed the road leading to the village and I think all were glad to soon find themselves in a log fire warmed dining room, lamenting past travels over hot food and decent ale.
Avebury is special, not only because of its continued spiritual significance or site of seemingly unsolved mystery, but because it demands something from us in order to be seen, felt, heard. Each of the sites relates to another in such a way that I have experienced in no other place. This landscape is ancient, obviously so, and a desire to decode or unravel the deep history that surrounds it is surely something felt by all who visit Avebury. But Avebury seems to require more than this, offering trajectories that run in and between its myriad hills, mounds, trackways, standing stones and barrows, so as to invite the walker inwards, to become part of the landscape. As such, Avebury is a place that becomes excavated at ground level, through perambulation in and between its ancient features. To move through this place is to wade through the mires of a landscape saturated in lore and legend, it really is an area that demands to be explored – my only advice, bring your Wellies!
“He rises from the blackness And races through the lanes To reach the lonely estuary track And sneaks along the sea-walls The saltings and the flats With no-one but the wind to call him back” – Martin Newell, Black Shuck As a child I was terrified by the tale of ‘Old Shuck’, the ominous phantom hound reported to roam the coastal paths and backroads of Norfolk and Suffolk. I remember my grandparents telling me stories of the many sightings that had taken place and the grim demise of many of those who had claimed to of seen him. I first heard about the Shuck from a collection of Norfolk ghost stories I had been given one christmas in the late eighties and of all the eerie tales this was the one that had scared me the most. The legend of Black Shuck was (and remains) terrifying for two reasons; firstly, Shuck is a gigantic ghostly black dog with glowing red eyes the size of saucers. Secondly, seeing the hound is often said to be ominous of one’s own death or that of a near relative. Leaving to return home from the beaches of the North Norfolk coast in the waning light of autumnal evenings, I would sit in the back of the car with my eyes firmly closed for fear of seeing the Shuck. Recently my grandmother told me of her own encounter with the phantom black dog; she spoke of having met a gigantic shadowy hound in the middle of the road one night when returning from a craft evening in a nearby village. Breaking hard, the dog failed to move until the last second when suddenly it leapt before the bonnet and darted into the darkness of the surrounding woodland. ‘Certainly’, she said, ‘it was Old Shuck’. It would appear then, that not all meetings with Shuck are followed by misfortune. In fact the fisherman of Sheringham and Cromer are said to believe that the presence of the dog indicates a great storm and so refuse to sail after a sighting has been reported so as to ensure the safety of the crew (Kingshill and Westwood, 2014). Sightings of ghostly black dogs are common throughout Britain and are a staple of its folklore; Yorkshire is menaced by the Barghest or Padfoot, Hertfordshire by the Leandog, Lancashire has The Grim, Linconshire is haunted by ‘Hairy Jack’ and Devon the Yeth Hound. Other black dogs are said to roam the counties of Bedfordshire, Surrey and Wiltshire. Wales and Scotland also have their own wealth of spectral hounds. But of all the tales of all the dogs, it is Shuck who is the most infamous and indeed the most terrifying. The tale of the Shuck is often attributed to the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk. According to local legend, Shuck first appeared in 1577 when he attacked the parishioners of Bungay, breaking into the church during worship and killing two men before fleeing to the village of Blythburgh where the beast left scorched claw marks on the inside of the church’s door. It is said that the markings can still be seen today. Numerous other sightings have been reported all over East Anglia; in 1970 Shuck made the headlines when people claimed to have seen an unnaturally large black dog bounding across the beaches of Great Yarmouth. A decade later and there was another reported encounter with the dog, this time from a mother who was out walking her son near the fenland town of Wisbeach.
Norfolk’s own Shuck tales tend to be geographically focused on the coastline and particularly around the land and coastscape between the villages of Overstrand and Sheringham. Alleged sightings of Shuck were said to be so frequent in Overstrand that the ghost was included in the old village sign and as legend tells, an old section of the coastal path called Tower Hill Lane is affectionately referred to by locals as ‘Shuck’s Lane’. One story states that after hearing the sounds of panting, howling and claws scrapping at the floor, a petrified witness fled only to turn back and see the glowing paw prints of a hound scorched into the tarmac. The paths that lead along the cliff tops from Overstrand to Sheringham are treacherous even without the Shuck to roam them, the heavily eroded cliffs are rapidly moving inwards as they are forced to peel back from the corrosive waves of the North Sea. Shuck is said to roam these paths during storms, forcing onlookers to negotiate the crumbling cliff tops in the darkness as they are pursued by the thundering bounds and howels of the phantom hound. Shuck’s presence on these cliffs is connected to the landscape itself; legend tells how the dog rises from the depths of the nearby Beeston ‘Bump’, a grass covered hill that looms over the nearby village of Sheringham, before making his way along the ridgeway through Cromer and on to Overtstrand where he paces the streets before leaping into the churchyard and disappearing.
On visiting Overstrand at the end of the summer I immediately noticed that the village sign displaying Shuck has been replaced. Having spent quite some time in Overstrand, I now understand this as symbolic of the changes that have taken place in the village in general, an influx of holiday home owners replacing the local community and with it an erasure of the legend of the great black dog. I stopped to ask a number of people about their knowledge of or encounters with the Shuck, the majority of them were not local, having recently moved to the area or owning holiday homes along the coast. From twenty two people asked only two were lifelong residents and only one of these was aware of the tale of Shuck’s Lane. This person alleged to have witnessed the Shuck running along the beach away from Overstrand and made his relief over seeing the dog heading in the opposite direction very clear to me. The man provided me with directions to the so-called Shuck’s Lane, joking that if I happened to see the dog then he would happily take my camera off my hands: “Got no need for a camera if you see Old Shuck, boy”, he laughed.
I followed the man’s instructions to a narrow, cottage lined lane that was barely wide enough to fit a car along. The tarmac ran out after about twenty meters, leaving the car in dusty lay-by to make the rest of the journey by foot. I followed the lane as it turned into a hedge enclosed trackway, the wind blew heavily gushing through gaps in the hedge and sending twigs and leaves cutting across my path. The trackway went on for some twenty meters before turning to the right and opening up onto the edge of a field. I stopped to see a dead rabbit laying before me, partly disemboweled with a raven pecking at what remained of the eye socket. Startled, the raven left his grisly business and fled upwards into the mercy skies. I soon realised that the lane had led to nowhere; to the right of me lay fields and to the left and beyond was the edge of a steep cliff drop into the sea. I suddenly felt very alone and all too aware of the precarity of the situation; standing on the edge of a cliff top with biting winds now blowing about me, forcing me to back away from the edge. The grey skies made the space seem yet more desolate and after capturing some site photos I quickly turned to head back, the discomfort of being in that place was really quite unnerving. As I reached the end of the lane and started back along the road an elderly couple were unpacking groceries from the boot of their car. They were obviously curious as to where I had come from and what I might have been up to lurking about in the fields. I said hello and asked them about Shuck and whether they knew the story of Shuck’s Lane, which now appeared to be more ghostly in its absence than I might have imagined. Shuck’s Lane, they told me, had been lost to the sea sometime in the 1920s when the road disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Shuck’s Lane was as spectral as its ghostly canine namesake; I knew then that there was of course nothing to see as the lane was no more but still there remained an element of danger in returning to look for the traces of it. I didn’t go back to the cliff top.
The tale of Shuck is not to be taken lightly, the hound is indeed ominous and whether or not he exists in spectral form will have to be determined in the mind of the reader. But the point remains that as a folktale, Black Shuck serves to provide a warning to those who mean to treat the coastal paths lightly. Like the sea that serves the coastal communities, Shuck too is a transgressive entity, at once moving in and out of places. Shuck’s mobility mirrors the instability that surrounds both the spatial and temporal elements associated with the sea; the movement of and reliance upon the tides, the daily cycle of gaining and losing land to the saline waters and the erosion of the landscape proper. The low-lying land of the inner parts of the county, and of East Anglia as a whole, as well as the constant threat posed by the sea in these parts, is made manifest in the tale of Black Shuck in that the ghost acts as a conduit for the anxieties that have been and continue to be present in communities around this part of the country.
The above is a contracted version of two pieces of research I am currently working on; the first is Grey Area, a collaborative project with London-based artist Clare Parfree which uses a mixed methodological approach to examine the relationship between landscape and folklore. The other is an article on folk memory and the eerie geographies of Black Shuck. More on both projects to follow.
the spaces in-between
My World in Sound - Exploring "that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed."
Public Engagement with Archaeological Themes & Practices
Goldsmiths, University of London
For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.
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