Deptford dreaming

Credit: Shutterstock
DEREK TURNER pays tribute to grittily resilient S.E.8

Aircraft always overhead, trains pulling in and out, traffic backed up along the New Cross Road, pulsating rap from open windows, plastic bottles in the gutter, pigeons with fungus-eaten toes, gang tags on gritty walls, smells of exhaust, fast food, sweat and the shower-gel of the highly made-up, high-heeled woman who just clicked by oblivious, while texting someone worth noticing somewhere worth noticing…

Drake, Blake, and Nelson look not down on us but rather out, over somewhere in the storied past before this unremarkable moment. A gilded galleon glints on the weathervane above them, a naval battle is taking place in the tympanum beneath their feet, and tritons uphold the front door.

Deptford’s Town Hall is a rare outpost of exuberance to find in an inner-suburban sea, a neo-baroque flourish built between 1903 and 1905 for the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford, with iconography reflecting the area’s long maritime history. It was never the most practical of buildings, but it has been increasingly inconvenient since the 1960s, when the Borough was eaten by the new Borough of Lewisham, which eventually sold it to Goldsmiths College. Today, its architecture is even more inconvenient – and the swaggering statues are worse than that, facing calls by ‘activists’ for their removal and erasure. They are too confident role-models for an era in English history that doesn’t much care for confidence – or even Englishness.

Drake could never have imagined such Angst-ridden arguments, as he waited aboard the Golden Hind alongside at Deptford on 4 April 1581, looking out for a very special visitor – Elizabeth I, come to honour his epic circumnavigation. Before evening, he would be Sir Francis, knighted aboard by the French Ambassador rather than the Queen, who however privately proud, could not be seen to endorse Drake’s more dubious activities. He was hitherto ensconced in an island nation’s mythology, an unmissable inclusion for the Town Hall architects seeking English ‘immortals’ to keep permanent watch above the New Cross Road. Blake could not have foreseen all this either, as he kept an anxious eye along the Thames corridor for the Dutch – and Nelson would certainly not have seen that signal.

The Golden Hind lay at Deptford (and stayed there until she fell to pieces) because Elizabeth’s father had established the King’s Yard – later, the Royal Naval Dockyard – there in 1513, on a convenient bend in the Thames, downstream from the crammed Pool of London, in the flatlands of the north Kent/Surrey borders. On 19 June 1549, the young Edward VI toured his father’s Yard, and was shown an after-supper spectacle, a mock-naval battle:

…a fort made upon a great lighter on the Thames … of which Mr. Winter was captain, with forty or fifty other soldiers … To the fort also appertained a galley …  Wherefore there came 4 pinnaces … which … with clods, squibs, canes of fire, darts … and bombards, assaulted the castle; and at length … burst the outer walls of the castle, beating them of the castle into the second ward, who after issued out and drove away the pinnaces, sinking one of them, out of which all the men in it … leaped out, and swam in the Thames. Then came th’ admiral of the navy and three pinnaces, and won the castle by assault, and burst the top of it down, and took the captain…

Deptford seen from Greenwich, early seventeenth century

Between 1513 and the Yard’s closure in 1869, hundreds of ships were built, fitted out or repaired at Deptford, making it an epicentre of English seapower on the edge of otherwise quiet countryside – a teeming townlet of hovels, smithies, stores, taverns and workshops, the headquarters of the navigational guild Trinity House, and grand houses of those who needed to be near to the Navy for reasons of duty or state. There were always secrets, troubles and valuables to be found at Deptford, locked up in statesmen’s offices or shipwrights’ desks, bonded in warehouses, guarded by marines, yarned about or perhaps passed over furtively in pubs, like the one in which Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Francis Frezer in 1593, allegedly in a quarrel over the ‘recknynge’, although some think this was only a pretext, and the gay playwright was there on a secret mission for Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster,’ Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1993, we saw a tablet unveiled to him at St Nicholas Church, after a starry, strange dedication service during which Anthony Sher read from Tamburlaine the Great, Janet Suzman from Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Sam Wanamaker read Edward Blount’s 1598 reflections on his dead friend, while men dressed as nuns distributed leaflets about AIDS.

Christopher Marlowe

The Yard would remain a major strategic asset through the following century, when Blake knew the Yard, and after Restoration, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Pepys came down here often on Admiralty business, busily commuting between here and his house in the City, his head full of practical reforms and quidnunc preoccupations. On 16 April 1661, for example, he diarized ‘Then we put off for Deptford, where we went aboard the Kings pleasure-boat that Commissioner Pett is making; and endeed it will be a most pretty thing.’

John Evelyn

John Evelyn lived in Deptford for forty years, fertilely for local legend. In 1658, a 58 feet long whale was killed off Deptford Strand, and another almost as big in 1699. In 1671, Evelyn came upon a highly skilled woodcarver in ‘an obscure place’ in Deptford, and was so impressed he introduced him to Christopher Wren and Charles II. Grinling Gibbons would go on to adorn some of the greatest houses of England.

Evelyn’s house was Sayes Court – a rambling brick house with a famous 100-acre garden, an experimental station and pleasure-ground for the romantic but also scientifically-minded author of Sylva (1664), one of the first and most influential books about forestry. Evelyn was devoted to his garden, and wrote copious maintenance and management notes under the title of Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court, But which may be of Use for Other Gardens. A 1652 plan shows an elegant arrangement of ‘faire gravel walkes,’ fountains, grassy ‘plotts’, ‘long pourmenades’, box-hedged ‘par=terres’, an orchard and an evergreen thicket ‘for Birds private walkes, shades and Cabinetts’ – a haven of ‘choice flowers, and Simples,’ French walnuts and much else.

In 1696, Evelyn leased the house to Admiral Benbow, but found him a careless tenant. Worse came in 1698, when Evelyn, ‘asked’ by William III, allowed Czar Peter the Great and his entourage to rent Sayes Court while Peter was staying in England to study the latest shipbuilding techniques, as part of the modernizing monarch’s opening of a ‘window to the West.’ The towering, twenty-something Czar (he was 6 feet 7 inches tall) was none too careful with other people’s possessions. Evelyn’s servant reported to his master while the Czar was in residence, ‘There is a house full of people, and right nasty.’ Peter and his retinue trashed the house and garden, amongst other damage burning the bedding, using paintings for target practice, and crashing through an ilex hedge in a go-kart, causing the diarist to grumble on 9 June 1698:

To Deptford, to see how miserably the Czar had left my house, after three months making it his Court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the King’s surveyor, and Mr London his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Treasury.

Sayes Court, John Evelyn’s house, in the early twentieth century

Evelyn’s painfully repaired paradise has gone, although there is a park on part of the site, with a twisted old mulberry tree on metal crutches (sadly, not one of his). Part of the house survived somehow, latterly as a workhouse, until the 20th century, by which time Deptford had long lost the Dockyard and most of its greenery, and become synonymous with urban deprivation. But other things have survived.

St. Nicholas’ Church – ‘I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint’. Credit: Derek Turner

The first time I saw St Nicholas’ Church, it was snowing, it was dark, and I seemed to be the only soul in all S.E.8. The cast-iron gates in the tall, thin eighteenth century brick walls were closed and locked, and there were no lights on inside the round-windowed church or charnel-house. Looming over, blacker than black, were the chunky medieval tower, the oldest building in Deptford, and overhanging yews – and straight in front, two great stone death’s heads surmounting the gateposts, with snow piled up on their laurel-wreathed craniums, the silence and whiteness accentuating the unfathomableness of their eye-sockets.

I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint, the churchly assemblage a cautionary note in the silent townscape, like a backdrop from The Rake’s Progress, or one of Rowlandson’s illustrations for The English Dance of Death – the ‘Horrid’ caperers that burst in upon the frightened Statesman, silence the Virago, wheel the Sot to his long louche home. Like the skeleton grinning madly in the Porter’s Chair, making that unfortunate operative recoil, the skulls of St Nicholas seemed to represent ‘What watchful Care the Portal keeps / A Porter He, who never sleeps.’

A sombre graveyard lies through those gates, most grass killed off by the yews, mud and mean needles giving acidic emphasis to the monuments to chandlers, merchants, shipwrights and John Evelyn’s beloved son, Richard, who died in January 1657 and is remembered searingly in the Diary:

[A]fter six fits of a quartan ague, with which it pleased God to visit him, dies my dear son, Richard, to our inexpressible grief and affliction, five years and three days only, but at that tender age a prodigy for wit and understanding; for beauty of body, a very angel; for endowment of mind, of incredible and rare hopes.

Evelyn probably hoped to see Richard again, because he was a believer in ghostly miracles, as suggested by a scrap of local lore he gave to the Royal Society, which ended up in John Aubrey’s Miscellanies:

…a Note under Mr. Smyth’s Hand [the Curate of Deptford] that in November 1679, as he was sick in bed of an Ague, came to him the Vision of a Master of Arts, with a white Wand in his Hand: And told him, that, if he did lie on his back three Hours, viz. from ten to one, that he should be rid of his Ague. He lay a good while on his back: but at last being weary he turned, and immediately the Ague attacqued him; afterwards, he strictly followed the Direction, and was perfectly cured. He was awake, and it was in the day-time.

Off-duty sailors too sleep under the yews, like Captain George Shelvocke, whose 1726 memoir A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea included an incident that inspired one of English literature’s finest poems:

We all observed that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind since we were come to the southward of the Straits of Le Maire, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black albatross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, my second captain … imagining from his colour that it might be some ill-omen, after some fruitless attempts, at length shot the albatross, not doubting, perhaps, that we should have a fair wind after it.

Instead, they experienced six weeks of constant bad weather – but the senseless killing of the bird did at least have one positive consequence decades later. In 1797, William Wordsworth, who had recently been reading Shelvocke’s book, mentioned the incident to Coleridge, who made it the central motif in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Sunset over the Pepys Estate. Credit: Derek Turner

An even ancienter rime connected to Deptford comes from Chaucer – ‘Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme; / Lo, Depeford! And it is half-way pryme.’ The New Cross Road was the main medieval road to Canterbury, sometimes as thronged with pilgrims as it is thronged now with the profane. The ‘depe ford’ was not over the Thames, but the Ravensbourne – supposedly named in reference to the raven flags flown by Sweyn Forkbeard’s fleet, which rampaged up here in 1013 – which flows ten miles up from Bromley to debouch into the more famous river.

Deptford Creek, 1988. Credit: Peter Marshall

Deptford Creek is still a tiny port, where Kentish coasters go in under the lifting bridge (disgusting drivers, delighting me) and come alongside to unload aggregates. The river almost empties at ebb tide, revealing shining mud and shopping trollies perched on by herons. Cranbrook Road, that runs along the Ravensbourne higher up, carries the folk-memory of even less likely avifauna – the cranes that once must have danced and nested among reeds beyond fields. Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was a local, and wrote an eco-story about the poor polluted bourne (today’s Ravensbourne is greatly improved), linking a human down-and-out living on its slithery banks, with the last lesioned fish gasping in its filthy flood. Old quay walls host unusual species of crabs and plants, and a little upstream a fig tree, legacies of exotica trafficked through here over years. Earlier incarnations of the bridge were long strategically significant for forces advancing on London, like those of Wat Tyler in 1381, Jack Cade in 1450, and Thomas Wyatt in 1554 – and the scene of a battle on 22 June 1497, when Lord Audley and his Cornish rebels were easily defeated by the Earl of Oxford.

Late nineteenth century postcard of Deptford Broadway

Today’s Deptford has been gentrified – it has a Waitrose, even a Dance Studio – but in the early 1990s it was often cruelly distinctive, surrounded by areas with their own pathologies – Bermondsey, Elephant and Castle, Eltham, Kidbrooke, Millwall, Peckham. It was a little bit of East End that had somehow come south of the Thames. My flat had been built on a road that in the 1930s had been occupied by businesses like Brisbane Laboratories, producers of liquid paraffin and hospital disinfectants, and the Floetta Liquid Soap Co. Ltd., suggesting not only the noxious air quality of those times, but maybe the nature of today’s underlying earth. In summer, drunks lay prostrate in the High Street – I once saw a pitiable woman urinating onto the aghast A2 at midday – and there were high levels of crime. A man pulled a knife on me in a park, luckily just swearing and running away when I – instinctively, stupidly – declined to hand over my wallet. More serious criminals featured frequently in the pages of the South London Press, perpetrators of carried-through muggings, ‘steaming’ attacks on the old slam-door commuter trains (gangs would pass through carriages and demand valuables at blade-point, leaping exultantly out and through the ticket barriers at the next station), and even fatal drive-by shootings. This was an area with some terrible memories – desperate poverty and squalor which long after infused the lurid novels of local boy Edgar Wallace, and which in the 1990s was still in evidence – the 1944 V2 bombing of Woolworth’s opposite Deptford Town Hall, in which 168 were killed – the never-explained 1981 New Cross Fire, in which thirteen teenagers died.

Deptford Power Station, being demolished. Credit: Derek Turner

But there were also striking survivals, like the trilby and tie-wearing rag-and-bone man who surreally drove his pony and trap along the frantic A2, stabling his animal down a cobbled lane just behind Deptford High Street. Another cobbled street called The Stowage led to ‘The Light’ – Deptford Power Station, then recently closed, but whose chimney still stood gaunt landmark above SE8 – between scrap yards patrolled by Alsatian dogs that would throw themselves savagely at the corrugated iron fences when they heard you passing. Staff said the basement of No. 2 Turbine-Generator was haunted by those who had died on the gibbets alongside the dry dock. 

Watergate Street. ‘There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge.’ Credit: Derek Turner

Not far off were the surviving Georgian gates to the Victualling Yard, with their classical frieze decorated with bucrania (cows’ skulls linked by floral swags), an allusion to Greek and Roman ritual sacrifices. Suitably close was the site of grosser sacrifices, the hugely, horribly busy Foreign Cattle Market of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. In 1907 alone, 184,971 cattle and 49,350 sheep passed through the Market, many to die in the attached slaughterhouses with their notoriously heavy drinking ‘gut girls’ (who could have blamed these women for drinking to forget their days?) There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge, with cattle (or maybe whale!) bones visible at low tide, amongst dark and viscous sludge. Elements of these animals must have passed across the well-scrubbed surfaces of Wellbeloved’s, a family butcher which had carried on the same business in the same premises since 1828, and only closed in 2021.

St. Paul’s Church, ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford.’ Credit: Shutterstock

Albury Street had grand Georgian doorcases, plaster cherubim with dimpled knees holding up lead canopies over old sea captains’ houses. Nearby was St Paul’s church, John Betjeman’s ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford,’ an eighteenth century beauty built by Thomas Archer, famous for St John’s, Smith Square. Charles Burney, who was vicar and organist here between 1811 and 1817, was a son of the eponymous and celebrated music historian. He was also brother to James, who travelled with Captain Cook, and Fanny, author of Evelina. He also ran an academy for the sons of local naval officers, so severe that he provoked a rebellion by pupils, who barricaded themselves into the school and beat him with sticks when he burst down the door. In less choleric moments, Burney was a renowned classicist, collector of books and ephemera (who sold his collection to the British Museum for an impressive £13,500), and royal chaplain.

There were some of the oldest surviving shops in London, including a tailor where smirking men made vinegarish comments about the people passing outside as they measured lapels and inside legs, in a 1650s cubbyhole made even darker by racks of tweeds, and 1970s photos of hirsute men wearing flared trousers made of alarming cloths. There was even the last smithy in SE8, where I had burglar bars made by a hatchet-faced and taciturn man in a tiny forge smelling of hand-rolled cigarettes and hot steel. This tiny iron underworld felt at one with all the other outdated crucibles of identity, from shipbuilding and milling to imperial imports and industrial oils – all of them contrasting with, yet also oddly complementing, the elegant churches and stories of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian derring-do.

Outside grand Victorian villas on Lewisham Way stands Deptford’s 1930s war memorial, a stele with a stone flame on top, and a staring-down soldier, his rifle pointing to the ground – an irrelevantly outdated symbol, yet at whose feet every year the red poppies are renewed. All things combine, come together as symbols of a suburb past and present – a place that has changed, is always changing, but where even now old memory has not been entirely erased.

Something about Stonehenge

DEREK TURNER wanders in the West Country

“Quite something, isn’t it?” the American woman asked, nodding towards Stonehenge. “However many pictures you see, it’s something to see it for real!” I didn’t disagree. As over-exposed as the Mona Lisa, emblazoned on a billion brochures, co-opted into countless works of counter-culture, and passed by an often tail-backed road – still, there’s something about Stonehenge.

It was my third time to see it for real. The first as a boy, perhaps six, glimpsed from a hot car’s window (where were we going?) to see the much-smaller than expected stones sticking up from sheep-shorn grass. The second time, 20 or so years ago, a blurred stop-off during an idiotically over-ambitious idea for a road trip – to condense half of H. V. Morton’s In Search of England itinerary into a two week holiday. And now, again, once upon a time, this summer…

Stonehenge stands on a plateau of dreams, simultaneously preternaturally solid and seeming to exist somewhere beyond time. Clouds chase, clench and dissipate constantly over, sometimes emphasising the stones’ bulk, sometimes making them seem insignificant, sometimes like a baldachino over a high altar, sometimes piling up fantastical vapour-realms of their own before clearing them away again. Even in a scorching August, the fields around blond with wheat, there is constant movement in the air, and you remember Constable’s menacing skies surmounting what the 1836 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition catalogue called breathlessly

the mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath

Constable’s empyrean emphasis suits this “sky-directed open temple…a product peculiarly British” (1). The stones may be immemorial, but they are also unsettling – because they are immemorial, Before Present, beyond comprehension. Stereotypically seen as symbols of England, they antedate not just any idea of England, but the concept of Britain. Even sarsen, a word much-heard here, is exotically un-English, a Wiltshire dialect corruption of Saracen:

The country people called them Saracens because they felt that these harsh, angular blocks were alien to the yielding curves of the chalk on which they lay (2)

The great stones support the sky – are world-axes, around which the cosmos spins at staggering speed.

Lesser circles have been made into bathetic moral lessons – the villagers who danced on a Sunday, the men chasing the virtuous maid, arrows hurled unavailingly by the Old Adversary. But Stonehenge occupies an imaginative space of its own, cynosure of a country, the uprights like gnomons of a sundial shadowing the seasons, and the seconds of spans. We should not let our preoccupation with time colour our views of past practices (3), but the stones display some awareness of lunar and solar cycles, and such knowledge would have been important in ways inconceivable to us.

When the first wooden pillars were erected circa 2800 BC, the area had probably been sacred for five centuries – perhaps even longer, because nearby Amesbury is Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. When the wooden uprights were superseded with stones 600 years later, it may have marked the onset of a darker age, as suggested by all the arrowheads found with the Amesbury Archer, or “King of Stonehenge”, unearthed in 2002, one of several warlike contemporaneous burials in the vicinity.

Stonehenge is not just inert rocks erected with infinite labour, for obscure and quaintly irrelevant purposes. It is also illimitable horizons, gentled grave-mounds like the breasts of sleeping women, the stirring of wind in grass when you lie down to listen, tiny downland flowers bent over with bumble-bees, the cries of stalking rooks, the Bronze Age tang of sheep.

Like Tolkien’s Barrow Downs, close to the complacent Shire, Stonehenge evokes ancient dead, tangled genealogies, forgotten wars, grassed-over kingdoms, buried beakers and bladeless swords, epics returned to earth. Those who come to see it bring their own ghosts, ideas and memories at once achingly personal, and parts of huger stories. The unspeaking stones send signals to some – symbologists say monoliths have “lithophanic” qualities (4), and many visitors have claimed they can feel them vibrating – and of course within their own timeframe even the solidest stones are frozen movements. The old British name for Stonehenge was the Giants’ Dance, and that old imputation of restlessness revives itself for imaginative individuals in every age, like Peter Ackroyd:

At the time of their erection, these great stones seemed magnificent and immoveable in the earth; now, from a distance of 4,000 years, they dance in a pattern before us (5)

There is a theory that the Romans damaged the stones deliberately, and if true this may attest to uneasiness about the monument’s importance to the subjugated natives, but also the Empire’s inability to erase it. After the Romans themselves had been grassed-over, the Anglo-Saxons stared at these gallows-like “hanging stones” left by the tribes they were driving to the hilltops and further west. Their Stan-heng stood as they became English, and Wessex one of Europe’s powers. Wessex’s Edgar styled himself “King of England and Ruler of the Islands and of the Sea Kings”, just two generations before his House too went under turf.

14th century illustration of Merlin instructing giants erecting Stonehenge

Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (published c. 1129) judged Stonehenge one of the “marvels” of Britain, and said they seemed to float. Geoffrey of Monmouth turned the stuff of Britain into its Matter by claiming in Historia Regum Britanniae (1135-1139) that the circle had been ordered by one Aurelius Ambrosianus as a memorial to 460 British lords slain treacherously by Saxons. The stones, Geoffrey fantasized, had been taken from Ireland with the aid of the wizard Merlin, and Aurelius and his son Uther Pendragon (father of King Arthur) interred at their feet.

The Norman-French Wace augmented this Arthurian association, and cemented the stones in Christian and kingly culture, in his Roman de Brut (c. 1155), describing the magical healing powers of the “Giant’s Carol”, here describing the ceremonies after the Britons had “eased the Irish of the stones”:

The king rode to Ambresbury [Amesbury] to keep the Feast of Pentecost. Bishops, abbots, and barons, he had bidden them all to observe the Feast. A great company of folk, both rich and poor, gathered themselves together, and at this fair festival the king set the crown upon his head. Three days they observed the rite, and made merry, On the fourth, because of his exceeding reverence he gave pastoral crosses to two prelates…At the same time Merlin ranged the stones in due order, building them side by side (6)

Stonehenge was depicted in the anonymous 1440s history Scala Mundi, and mentioned in John Hardyng’s Chronicle of c. 1457,

Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure  
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere. 
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere

The answer to early speculation about how Stonehenge came to be built was usually – giants. Giant myths were ubiquitous in England, as everywhere, their existence attested in Genesis 6:4, Chronicles 5:4, Numbers 13:33, Ezekiel 38-39, and Revelations 20:7-10. The Ezekiel giant, Gog of the land of Magog, in particular became associated with England; the archaeologist T. C. Lethbridge claimed the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge harboured a lost giant turf-carving, and wooden statues of Gog and Magog (now somehow become two giants) peer down from the walls of London’s Guildhall (7). The name Albion itself was sometimes applied to an evil giant who had come to Britain before The Flood; Geoffrey of Monmouth and others spun epics about confrontations between giants and refugee Trojans in the days before England. Giants were not always Biblical monsters; they could also be heroic – hugely impressive ancestors, a demonstration of the degeneracy of modern men.

Dorset’s Cerne – “a demonstration of the degeneracy of modern men”

Dorset’s celebrated Cerne figure, not that far from Stonehenge, shows a regional sense of giants’ onetime reality. The giant is undoubtedly imposing – each of his fingers is seven feet (2.1m) long, and the club in his hand 40 yards (36.5m) – but no-one knows how old he is. The earliest written record is from 1694, when the figure was being recut. The effigy has been imaginatively ‘identified’ as an unknown fertility God, the Celtic huntsman Herne, and the Roman Emperor Commodus (8). He has often been simply an embarrassment to local or passing prudes. A 19th century priest ended the annual scouring of the giant because the event too often ended in couples having sex on the most obvious part of the figure. In the Dorset volume of The King’s England series (1939), Arthur Mee says prissily,

 All we know is that he is very old and very ugly, and we are glad that he is now the property of the National Trust which will look after him forever on his hillside throne

before passing on with palpable relief to the “pretty windows and doorways” of the village.

The Renaissance and Reformation gradually brought new perspectives – more classical, more realistic, yet also more cabalistic and Hermetic. In 1542, Henry VIII’s peripatetic chaplain John Leland mentioned Avebury in his Itinerary. In 1562, Swiss student Herman Folkerzheimer was brought to Stonehenge by the Bishop of Salisbury, and wrote amazedly to a friend that if he had not seen it for himself, he would never have believed it. In 1568-9, the exiled Dutch artist Lucas de Heere drew Stonehenge in suitably English watercolour, with a spurring horseman to show scale. Holinshed nodded to “Druiydes” in his Chronicles, and Michael Drayton’s long patriotic poem Poly-Olbion (1598-1622) featured “fearlesse British priests” under “aged Oakes” sacrificing white bulls, and cutting mistletoe with golden axes.

Writers on these subjects were inspired by numerous, newly-available Roman accounts – including Caesar, Cicero, Strabo and Tacitus – of the Druids of the barbarian west as fey combination of story-tellers, tribal leaders, and powerful necromancers. There was growing interest in this wild west of Englishness, where ancient warlike spirits of Albion were thought to reside – avatars for the England of Elizabeth, a romantic warrior-queen like Boudicca had been, and resister of invaders.

Tudor chivalric patriotism bled into Stuart-era antiquarianism. Dilettante-scholars combined classicism with an interest in ancient mysteries, astrology with astronomy, geomancy with geometry, mysticism with mathematics, and romance with something like science. In 1620, James I dispatched Inigo Jones to study the stones; the Rome-revering Jones wrote in Stone-Heng (1655) that they could not possibly have been erected by his own ancestors, but by the Romans as a temple, and to show the locals the principles of Vitruvian architecture. This was a rational response to the giants-and-magic farrago of the Matter of Britain, although Jones had to alter the monument’s ground plan to suit his theory. Jones went on to demonstrate these Vitruvian principles personally by redesigning Wilton House near Salisbury (the county name derives from Wilton, which means ‘settlement on the River Wylye’), and his innovative Double Cube Room has become an exemplar of that time’s tastes (9).

John Aubrey

Jones was employed by Charles I as a man of many arts – architect, costume designer, historian and image-maker. His son would indulge Wiltshire-born John Aubrey, a clever, clubbable proto-ethnographer, as a means of understanding the arc of English history. Aubrey came upon Avebury by chance in 1649, while coursing in the “thin, blew country” of the Plain. He was “wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before”. It may seem strange that someone of his tastes, who lived not far away, had never heard of the monument before; perhaps that was because, as Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson observed, there is “astonishingly little folklore attached to this site” (10). Aubrey returned, and went on to Stonehenge, to marvel and measure holes (11), incorporating the monuments into a county-wide collection of folklore.


Aubrey was an inveterate collector of folk-traditions, so much so that he got an unfair reputation for being credulous. But without his writings, a great deal of county colour might have been forever lost, and England’s identity impoverished. England owes Aubrey and a few others, like Joseph Glanvill (12), a huge debt for preserving such lore as the large white birds seen whenever a Bishop of Salisbury was dying – the melancholy boy-bishop tickled to death by his fellow choristers – St Aldhelm, who was conceived while his mother was walking by a churchyard cross, and later flew to Rome on a tamed demonic horse – the unwanted child burned in an aristocrat’s bedroom – fairy dances on Hackpen Hill – and the grains of wheat that fell in hailstones in 1681. In 1663, he induced Charles II to come and view these western wonders for himself, and this descent loaned the stones fashionableness as well as enchantment. John Evelyn came in 1654, Samuel Pepys in 1668.

The King’s stately progress en route to Somerset was in startling contrast to his 1651 visit to Stonehenge, when he had been a fugitive with a reward of £1,000 offered by those who had beheaded his father. He had been hiding at nearby Heale House, while plans were made to smuggle him to France, and at the suggestion of his hostess had gone out for a ride for a few hours in order to come back secretly while the servants were out. Even in such circumstances, he retained his famously enquiring mind (13) and whilst killing time disproved an old superstition, as his sole companion, steadfast Colonel Robert Philips, later told an amanuensis: 

Ye King and Coll: Phelipps rid about ye downes and viewed Stonnage and found yt ye Kings Arithmetick gaue ye lye to yt fabulous tale yt those stones cannot be told alike twice together (14)

A few nights later, Charles made a 3am departure from Heale, the hostile night made still more fraught by the breaking of his horse’s harness, necessitating hasty running repairs in the darkness. Those must have been intense memories for the proud 21 year-old; he would later say his six weeks on the run had been the best time of his life (15).

Aubrey and others made valiant efforts to square Biblical, classical and folk beliefs with a growing number of field finds; mammoths’ bones were thought to be those of giants, while flint arrowheads were “elf-bolts”. As Richard Morris has noted, “As well as being a humanity-science, archaeology is also a branch of Gothic romance” (16).

Aubrey’s suggestion that Druids were Stonehenge’s architects was backed up by the pioneering Celtic scholar Edward Lhuyd in his Archaeologica Britannica (1707). William Stukeley took up their errors enthusiastically and added to them in his 1740 Stonehenge, a Temple restored to the British Druids, and 1743’s Abury, A Temple of the British Druids. The first accurate survey of the stones was carried out in 1740 by John Wood, architect of Georgian Bath. All this informed Blake, who wrote of “the Druid’s golden knife / Rioted in human gore”, and depicted druids worshipping snakes, and Gray’s The Bard, “rob’d in the sable gab of woe, / With haggard eyes the poet stood”. (17) Even now, British identity cannot easily be separated from Druidry, as evidenced at every Eisteddfod.

Surviving and reinstated stones at Avebury

Where remains were inconsistent with ‘revelation’, or just seen as impediments to agriculture, they could be targeted for destruction by the ignorant. In the early 14th century, there had been a rash of stone-breaking at Avebury – a corpse found there, dating from the 1320s, may be the body of a barber-surgeon killed whilst trying to topple the stones. In 1719, Stukeley was infuriated to see the religiously-enthused (and building material-seeking) villagers of Avebury – one of whom he immortalised as “Stone-Killer” Robinson – engaged in systematic destruction and toppling of

this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe (18)

Wordsworth wrote On Salisbury Plain in 1793, and reworked and republished it under several titles between then and 1842:

Much of the wonders of that boundless heath
He spoke, and of a swain who far astray
Reached unawares a height and saw beneath
Gigantic beings ranged in dread array.
Such beings thwarting oft the traveller's way
With shield and stone-ax stride across the wold.
Or, throned on that dread circle's summit gray
Of mountains hung in air, their state unfold,
And like a thousand Gods mysterious council hold. (19)
Grand Conventional Festival of the Britons, by Robert Havell, 1815

The Romantic era had arrived, a time for national and personal expression, and crises of confidence. From the 1830s on, there was growing awareness of the idea of prehistory, a concept previously seen as unnecessary or even evil, by those who felt history’s trajectory had been set out in the Bible. The fossils of Lyme Regis had proven the almost inconceivable ancientness of the earth – the very chalk made up of centillions of individually insignificant creatures like the fairy shrimps that lie dormant in the dried-up puddles of the Plain, awaiting rain to spark off a frenzy of mating, dying and laying down more chalk. Ancient Britons and their real or supposed sites became common themes in the arts, the visual representations of Constable, Turner, Girtin, and the Havells strengthened by the verbal tributes of such as Wordsworth and Keats, whose Hyperion evoked a

…dismal cirque 
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor 
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,  
In dull November

The more conservative-minded Constable went on from Stonehenge to paint Salisbury Cathedral as beautiful but embattled edifice, haloed by rainbows in yet more unsettled skies, a symbol of the soul of England menaced by agrarian unrest and the Reform Bill that would sweep away rotten boroughs, like Old Sarum up the road – home of the venerable Sarum Rite (20), and pocket borough of the Pitts, preservers of English liberties. Constable, Roy Strong observes,

…paints his landscapes as Georgic images of Britain, visions of thriving husbandry and industry, a microcosm of the nation (21)

Constable would probably not have recognised the traces of ancient agriculture – the terraces of old lynchet strips, the false-oat grass that nodded where real oats once waved – but he was conscious of the terrible grandeur of time. Probably he too was struck by the Cathedral’s faceless clock, claimed to be the world’s oldest working timepiece, which is estimated to have ticked 4.4 billion times between 1386 and 1884 and 1956-2013 (unhappily, it was allowed to stop between 1884 and 1956).

Time ticked on across the heedless Plain, and the wool industry dwindled, making Wiltshire one of the poorest counties in England (it may be suggestive that the folk-song Salisbury Plain is about highway robbery). That poverty itself lent lustre to supposed ancestral vigour, and artists continued to stream westwards, drawn by nostalgic, romantic and post-religious impulses. They were joined by amateur geologists and tourists-cum-vandals – when Thomas Carlyle took Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stonehenge in 1848, they noted the “marks of the mineralogist’s hammer and chisel on almost every stone”.

The 19th century’s greats were joined in the 20th century by artists including Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious. As part of the 1960s and 1970s craze for anything folk-horror and ‘unexplained’, Derek Jarman took abstract photos of the monuments, and made an atmospheric short silent film, Journey to Avebury. Avebury and Stonehenge featured in the children’s TV series, Children of the Stones, and a TV mini-series of Quatermass. (Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale had earlier made The Stone Tape, a 1972 TV play about old stonework ‘recording’ ancient horrors.) Artistic interest is not letting up, as evinced by Jeremy Deller’s playful-serious 2018 life-size bouncy castle Stonehenge. The stones appeal, as Deller reflects, because

It’s a symbol of the nation and you project whatever your feelings are about the country on to it…It’s weirdly democratic in terms of ideas. It represents us but we don’t know what it is. It is a place we can turn to in moments of stress and anxiety to try to ask it for some sort of meaning, to give our lives some structure, to connect us to the past

World-wonders though they are, Stonehenge and Avebury are only elements of a greater geography, a ceremonial country of alignments, avenues, barrows, cursus monuments, ditches, enclosures, forts, hills, and trackways, that was only ever half-Christianised. In 2014, traces shown at Stonehenge after a spell of dry weather impelled a major subterranean survey which showed the stones as survivors of something even more substantial, and emotionally charged. What is visible at Avebury is also part of an even wider plan.

Silbury Hill

Wiltshire also holds Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe (40 metres/130 feet high). Silbury is a flat-topped, turf-covered cone, around which legends long clustered. Aubrey (who else?) recorded the Hill was thought the resting place of “King Zel”, that mythical monarch’s name conveying the pleasant Z-sound and burr of the local accent across the centuries. Others asserted the Hill held a life-size horse and rider made of solid gold. A lust for this trinket, or for insight into ancientness, has impelled several excavations, although little has ever been found – except the tiny remains of winged ants, suggesting that Silbury was begun in some August of around 2600 BC. Ants identical to those still alight on the Plain’s swards, its endangered juniper, squinancy-wort and bastard toadflax, and the backs of great bustards – Wiltshire’s emblematic bird, the crest on its coat-of-arms, reintroduced in 2003 after far too long an absence. It seems oddly relevant to note that Alfred Watkins, of “ley lines” fame (22), noted the proportion in size between a man and Silbury was the same as that of an ant and an anthill – Wiltshire’s anthills, inevitably for that author, falling “into certain patterns and alignments”.

Zooming out yet further, Wiltshire is part of an even wider west that is both older than archaic and bound up intimately with all kinds of ideas of ourselves. Some of these have firm foundations – the fossils of the Jurassic Coast, Portland’s and Purbeck’s nation-building stone, the quoits, rings and megaliths of Cornwall and Dartmoor, the graded, rounded pebbles of Chesil Beach.

Chalkland flora

Others are a combination of historical, national and personal – Dorchester’s Maiden Castle (to Thomas Hardy, “an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time”), Portland Castle, part of Henry VIII’s “Device” for national protection, the swannery at Abbotsbury, Eliot’s East Coker (“In my end is my beginning”), and the sheer loveliness of chalk downs, with their recherché orchids and resurgent red kites.

Still others are eccentric, albeit engaging, and bound up in bizarre ‘Britishness’ – Stonehenge being built by refugees from Atlantis, Joseph of Arimathea planting his thorn at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Tintagel, the “Beast of Bodmin”, landscape Zodiacs, crop-circles, geodetics, dowsing, magnetic, orgone and telluric energies, megalithic measurements and numerological schemes uniting Stonehenge with the Great Pyramid. Unreason adapts itself to new realities, just as the advent of air photography led to people suddenly ‘seeing’ landscape zodiacs. The West Country is big enough to carry all kinds of contradictory connotations – simultaneously locale of lands of youth, and the land of the setting sun. We can “go west” to find adventure, or the Holy Grail, or to die – or all of those at once.

It was not until the 20th century that serious attempts would be made to explore Avebury and Stonehenge systematically, protect what was left, and restore whatever could be restored. Stonehenge has long been blighted by mass tourism – the stones were fenced off in 1901, and since then have been protected, first by private landowners, then by the National Trust and English Heritage. Avebury was saved largely by the efforts of Alexander Keiller, who ploughed his inheritance from the family’s marmalade business into buying up as much of Avebury as he could, personally delving into the haunted earth in search of magic and truth. Even the starriest-eyed romantics can bring refuse in their wake; the 700 earnest Edwardian white robed druids who descended on Stonehenge for the Midsummer dawn of 1905 had become a litter-strewing free-for-all by the 1960s, the acolytes of the ‘New Age’ incapable not just of seriousness, but even of protecting the earth they affected to love.

In 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes repined –

It will never again be possible to see [Stonehenge] as Constable did when he made his studies, a place of mystery against a background of storms and flying showers; it is doubtful if it could ever again have the deep impact on any man that it once had on Wordsworth; it seems no longer a setting fit for one of Hardy’s gigantic stereoscopic scenes (23)

It is easy to agree with such assessments when considering the present plan to build a tunnel at Stonehenge (24), but even if the tunnel goes ahead, people don’t change just because roads move. There have always been people like “Stone-Killer” Robinson, and their numbers may even be growing. But there have also always been others, from the nameless Megalithic engineer-visionaries via medieval saints and chroniclers, Aubrey, Stukeley, Constable, Lewis Spence (25), Alfred Watkins, John Michell (26), musician-turned-antiquarian Julian Cope, and many more – all very different, yet unified in seeking what Michell called “poetic rather than scientific truth” in this otherworldly west. This is not to mention the Prince of Wales, whose “New Urban” Poundbury development near Dorchester is a slightly surreal attempt to overlay an ideal of an organic and harmonious England onto an uglier actuality.

Perhaps ironically, the chief guarantor of the Plain’s remaining beauty is the long-standing military presence. This has often been a land of war, as all those grave mounds show, but the War Office began buying up parcels of the Plain systematically in 1898. In 1943, the army annexed the village of Imber (it took Dorset’s more famous Tyneham the same year) and never gave it back. Now, roughly half the Plain is given over to the army, with large-scale exercises, artillery training at Larkhill, and secret research at Porton Down. The town of Wootton Bassett in the north of the county was granted “Royal” status in 2011, because of the movingly respectful response of townspeople to the sad stream of bodies of British soldiers being repatriated through the town’s RAF base after falling in the pointless Middle Eastern battles of the Blair years – an echo, in a way, of crusaders brought back centuries ago after falling in some sweaty Levantine skirmish, to await the day of judgment in less heated English earth.

Royal Corps of Signals emblem in the chalk at Fovant

Olive-drab lorries full of squaddies are frequently seen, live shells are fired by night, and roads have designated tank crossings. These lumbering behemoths are figurative and organisational heirs to cavalry traditions graven on folk-memory and in some places literally incised into the land, with outsize white horses cut into the chalk at Alton Barnes, Broad Town, Cherhill, Devizes, Hackpen, Pewsey and Westbury, giant steeds for giant riders.

Other martial memories are engraved on slopes near Amesbury and Fovant in the shape of huge regimental badges – the Wiltshire Regiment and Wiltshire Yeomanry, but also Empire-answering Anzacs, the Royal Corps of Signals (whose Mercury evokes the giants of myth), and even the Post Office Rifles. All those who carved all these are long under the earth, but still the chalk communicates – white abstract lines alive with meaning, signalling past glories and griefs to the present, and the poets of a future as unimaginable to us as we would have been to the builders of the petrified past.

Author’s Notes

  1. Grahame Clark and Stuart Piggott, Prehistoric Societies, 1965
  2. Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951. Confusingly, the word sarsen is actually applied to the local sandstone, rather than the igneous ‘bluestone’ brought from Pembrokeshire
  3. See John North, The Story of Time, various authors, including Umberto Eco and E. H. Gombrich, Royal Maritime Museum, 2000. Insofar as substantive astronomical or calendrical knowledge is demonstrated at Stonehenge (and elsewhere in Europe), the conventional idea that it must have emanated from the Near East was challenged by Harvard archaeologist Alexander Marshack in 1972, who suggested that the seemingly random notches and lines scratched on Paleolithic plaques were actually lunar calendars and numbering sequences. A useful discussion of this may be found in Richard Rudgley’s Lost Civilisations of The Stone Age (Century, 1998)
  4. See J. E. Cirlot, in his 1958 classic Diccionario de símbolos (A Dictionary of Symbols, my edition, Dover House, 2002, translated by Jack Sage)
  5. Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Macmillan, 2011
  6. Translated by Eugene Mason, and published as Arthurian Chronicles represented by Wace and Layamon, Everyman’s Library, 1912 (my edition 1928)
  7. T. C. Lethbridge, Gogmagog: The Buried Gods, 1957; his theory has never been generally accepted, perhaps partly because of his generic interest in what he called “the odd” – ghosts, dowsing, etc. The Gog and Magog effigies in London’s Guildhall are 1953 copies of 1708 originals which were incinerated in the Blitz
  8. Commodus sought to revive the Greek cult of Herakles, and was sometimes represented carrying a Herakles-style club
  9. The Double Cube Room may be glimpsed in famous films, including Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George.
  10. Jennifer Westwood & Jacqueline Simpson, The Lore of the Land, Penguin, 2005
  11. The holes (probably ritual pits) noted by Aubrey at Stonehenge are still called the Aubrey Holes
  12. Another influential intellectual was Joseph Glanvill, whose investigation of the poltergeist “Drummer of Tedworth” (now Tidworth), published as Saducismus Triumphatus in 1681, helped put Wiltshire on the unearthly map
  13. Charles was so interested in mechanics that he is said to have kept seven clocks in his bedroom, all set to different times
  14. Mr. Robert Phelipp’s Narrative of the Occurrences between September 25 and October 15, 1651, reproduced in The Royal Miracle, A. M. Broadbent, 1912. It might be more accurate to say that Charles attempted to disprove an old superstition, because many experienced difficulty counting the stones (the fear was that anyone who succeeded in tallying them correctly would die). In 1654, Aubrey made a total of 95; in 1690, Celia Fiennes found 91; in 1724, Daniel Defoe was certain there were 72; in 1740, William Stukeley insisted on 140
  15. The King may have dwelled rather too often on his adventures – “The moment that [Charles’] restoration removed the shadow of reprisals, he began to discourse on the subject and, in the view of some his courtiers, was all too ready to revert to it throughout the twenty-five years of his reign” The Image of the King: Charles I and Charles II, Richard Ollard, Phoenix Press, 1979
  16. Richard Morris, Time’s Anvil: England, Geography and the Imagination, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
  17. The Druid Source Book, edited by John Matthews (Blandford, 1996) offers an interesting survey of old and new writings on the subject
  18. Abury, A Temple of the British Druids
  19. There is a discussion of the poem’s evolution, and links to the different texts, here
  20. The musicologist Nicholas Sandon feels “Sarum chant cannot claim any great originality…the variants are insufficiently large, systematic or stable to constitute a recognizable dialect”. Quoted in Music in the West Country, Stephen Banfield, Boydell & Brewer, 2018. However, Banfield does cite an anonymous 13th century Paris-based (although possibly English) music theorist who discerned a noticeable (highly technical) difference between “westcuntre” plainchant and that heard elsewhere
  21. See The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts, Roy Strong, 2000
  22. See The Old Straight Track, 1925
  23. A Land, ibid.
  24. A government decision on this scheme is expected in November 2020, although it may be deferred again, over concerns about both costs and potential damage to the wider prehistoric landscape. This is the Highways Agency plan – and this the website of the anti-tunnel Stonehenge Alliance
  25. Author of The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored, 1905
  26. Author of The View Over Atlantis, 1970