Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent

Alan Moore Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

Down to Brighton to see Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore speaking at an event  in the Brighton Festival Spiegeltent celebrating the amazing history of Watling Street, a road so old, as John Higgs told us, that it may even predate humans, being carved out by migrating animals.
Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017
Iain Sinclair recounted his walk along the section of Watling Street from Dover to Westminster, with the footage shot by Andrew Kotting and myself projected on the screen behind. He talked of the mysteries of Shooters Hill, Andrew’s constant banter that on one occasion led to missing the last room at a Travelodge and having to sleep on the floor of a disabled toilet. He told the story of walking to Mortlake with Alan Moore to visit the home of John Dee, Moore arriving at his house with a bag laden with esoteric books.

Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

After a musical interlude Alan Moore took to the stage and gave a long and beautiful riff on a conversation with a scientist (I think) who’d explained the probability that we are living in a computer simulation. Alan’s own intervention on this theory was both funny, enlightening and poignant linking it back to explaining to some people in Milton Keynes how he could be their God as he had worked on the building of Milton Keynes. He also gave a brilliant explanation on the meaning and importance of psychogeography, how you can create your own epic mythology for where you live and your own place in that world. It was one of those evenings that makes you feel differently about the world around you, mind expanded, horizons widened.

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent 24th May 2017

Afterwards I went and ate fish and chips on the beach and pondered Alan Moore’s idea that perhaps we live the same life over and over again instead of merely ceasing to exist after death – this, he posited, was a good reason to fill your life with great moments. With this in mind I bought two cans of Adnams Southwold Bitter to drink on the train back to London.

 

Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.

 

The Pyramids of Essex – Bartlow Hills

Last May I was taken out to Pinehurst near Hertford by Dave Binns and Gary Lammin to look at a Bronze Age burial mound in the middle of a housing estate. Dave made reference to a paper he’d written about ‘The Pyramids of Essex’ (or that was how I remembered it) which sounded astonishing. A couple of weeks ago Dave led an expedition to the Bartlow Hills – ‘pyramids of Essex’ – with Gary and I in tow. I’m delighted to be able to publish Dave’s paper on the burial mounds at Bartlow. A video of the field trip can be found at the end of the article.

BARTLOW HILLS: PICTURES OUT OF TIME

DAVID BINNS

Bartlow Hills
A little known cluster of burial mounds stands to the south of Bartlow village, on the border of Cambridgeshire and Essex.  More conical in shape than their prehistoric antecedents, the structures are believed to date from late first and early second centuries AD.  That chronology locates their construction firmly within a period (in southern England) of Romanised hegemony, more than a century before the recognised beginning of the uneven, long term decline of Roman material culture. (Foulkner, 2000)  In view of the discovery of foundations from a supposed “villa” and other Roman artefacts in the vicinity (Hull, 1963), it is assumed that the mounds were associated with an established residential presence.

Initially the mounds present themselves as entirely distinct from the more common flat roadside cemeteries of Roman Britain.  As such they provoke reflection on the extent to which relatively indigenous cultural practices continued within the political edifice of empire.  The implications of such a line of reasoning are not easy to codify or contain.  Even so, one approach to interpreting apparently Romanised mound-building practices would aim to situate them within the dynamic and decay of empire itself.

But first, what remains to be seen by travellers to Bartlow?  Four of eight (some accounts suggest seven) original barrows have been spared annihilation by the dual assault of agriculture and railway building.  The tallest of the survivors, astonishingly, peaks at more than thirteen metres above ground level.  In addition to the structures themselves, just sufficient is reliably known to make speculation difficult to resist.  Most of the excavated contents were destroyed by accidental fire mid-nineteenth century, but surviving descriptions indicate rich grave goods, pointing to a high status family or group of families. (Dunning and Jessup, 1936)  The presence of such apparently elite goods suggests the expanding power of consolidating classes, but how far was the associated cultural nexus specifically Roman in character?

Bartlow Hills
An insightful early analysis by Cyril Fox suggests close resemblance between the contents of mounds and flat graves during the Roman period.  Discovery of wooden chests and brick tombs in both types of burial implies, for Fox, that mound burial at the time was “…not associated with any particular rite.” (Fox, 1923, p.198)  A mound, nonetheless, is not a flat grave.  The survival of mound building under occupation complicates the widely assumed image of a systematically Romanised social and political elite.  In David Braund’s strong formulation of that conversion model, across lowland Britain in particular, a thoroughly transformed ruling stratum “…competed to display its wealth through imported styles and architectural splendours.” (Braund, 2000)  Against that perception, while acknowledging the less rounded profile of the Bartlow mounds by comparison with earlier equivalents, Fox concludes that the former denote “survival” into Roman times of an older cultural custom (Fox, 1923, p.199).

Circumstantial evidence including that of accepted chronology provides support for Fox’s hypothesis.  Archaeological views converge on the decades around 100AD as the key phase of development at Bartlow.  The mounds, to put that another way, were raised just half a century or so after the final military suppression of both the Druid core on Anglesey and the specific tribal insurrection associated with Boudica.  The builders of the mounds and most of those whose cremated remains were placed within them were probably closer to Boudica in lived memory than today’s humans are to Winston Churchill or Ho Chi Minh.  It is even conceivable that the Bartlow mound builders were directly associated with the Iceni tribe that Boudica had come to head, with its substantial territories in what is now called East Anglia a few miles to the north and east.

For at least some of those directly associated with the mounds, it seems highly likely – almost inevitable – that recollections and interpretations of what the Roman imperial outlook had disparaged as sub-civilised existence and resistance would, one way or another, continue to reverberate.  Over time those memories, like everything else, were subject to change.  As the immediacy of the invader onslaught receded, culturally transmitted associations would be reinterpreted and reassessed.  Each recollection engendered new adjustments and unexpected tensions.  Eventually some multiply reinterpreted memories took on entirely altered significance.  Remembered, but increasingly distant experiences would shift and realign, recombine and reincarnate within difficult-to-recognise manifestations: a battle chant transformed into a children’s rhyme; a curse morphing into a lullaby, or vice versa.

Such echoes of reflections inspired, consoled and tormented human lives over generations through to the turmoil of the close of the fourth century (Laycock, 2006) and far beyond.  It is highly feasible that tribal identities and alliances of some type, as well as inter-tribal tensions, resurfaced within the implosion of empire.  Recent research tends to support the notion of the revenge of disparaged identity.  The tribalism of the late Iron Age, it is increasingly recognised, already had a fluid and in some respects ephemeral character.  Simon James notes the “often-transient” nature of the “‘tribal’ groupings” of the period.  For James the key to their kaleidoscopic quality is that “…these groups did not yet have substantial contacts with other, obviously different groups with whom to contrast themselves…” (James, 1999, p.94)

The indeterminacy in relation to ethnic identity that James describes has implications for the decades and centuries that followed. Who were the “Romano-Britons” of Bartlow?  How “Romano” as distinct from “British ” or “tribal” were they within the universe of their own self-conceptions?  From their descendents’ point of view, how, if at all, did Rome’s loss of control in the far west of southern Britain by early fifth century (Jones, 1996) impact upon identity in the south east?  Perhaps both most important and most elusive, to what extent did imperial consolidation of the social hierarchy already intensifying before Roman involvement encourage complex, many-sided identities to emerge and in their turn change?   Far from assuming some common early or proto-British identity, such questions permit an approach to ethnicity as fluid, shifting and more likely than not at odds with itself.  They also raise the potential of people, then as much as now, to be underwhelmed by resistible invitations to hide behind a flag – however often such behaviour is mendaciously theorised as a hallmark of being human.

Bartlow Hills
In connection with what is known of Bartlow, artistic and apparently wealth-expressive grave goods are also associated with mound burial in the pre-Roman “Iron Age”.  Typical grave artefacts from that earlier period are in addition commonly taken to signify what James Dyer has called “…a strong preoccupation with the after life.” (Dyer, 1997, p.157)   However that interpretation is interpreted, there is no doubt that on excavation the Bartlow mounds were found to hold remarkable, even poignant depositions.  Archaeologist Alison Taylor writes: “Lamps of iron or bronze had been left burning when each burial was sealed, and when excavated they still contained a ‘fatty substance’ and a partially burned wick.” (Taylor, 1998, p.18)  Such an arrangement strongly suggests intentionally prolonged internal illumination after the tombs were sealed.  Was the contrivance a means to enact some conception of conscious continuity across the transition to another world?  Was there, perhaps in addition, some recognition of the tendency of light – literal or metaphorical – toward eventual extinction?  What precisely did that aspect of entombment signify to the people who witnessed it with anguish, relief, indifference, even curiosity?

The poverty of available facts is an unavoidable element of the situation.  Imagination, it follows, must play a part in any attempt to account for the meaning – or meanings – of the flames of the Bartlow lamps to those who placed and observed them alongside the human remains that they illuminated briefly.  Ambiguity pervades all possible theorisations of those perishing flames which could even, in the end, be the most relevant metaphor for the changefulness and multi-potentiality of identity and ethnicity.

Certainly the presence of Bartlow’s towering “fairy hills” – as ancient and prehistoric barrows have been popularly visualised and imagined (Harte, 1997) – lends an otherwordly quality to the landscape of which they remain a part.  Much as with the mounds of Neolithic and Bronze Age centuries, it seems unlikely the creation of that experience of “otherness” is an unintended consequence of landscape transformation.  Go among them and to this day you enter another kind of space.


Selected sources:

Braund, D. (2000) “”Britain AD”, “History Today”, Jan. 2000.

Collingridge, V. (2006) “Boudica”, Ebury Press/Random House, London.

Dunning, G.C. and Jessup, R.F. (1936) “Roman Barrows”, “Antiquity”, 10.

Dyer, J. (1973) “Southern England: An Archaeological Guide”, Faber and Faber, London.

Dyer, J. (1997) “Ancient Britain”, Routledge, London.

Faulkner, N. (2000) “Decline and fall”, “British Archaeology”, 55, Oct 2000.

Fox, C. (1923) “The Archaeology of the Cambridge Region”, University Press, Cambridge.

Harte, J. (1997) “Hollow Hills”, “At the Edge”, 5.

Hingley, R. (2005) “Freedom Fighter – or Tale for Romans?”, “British Archaeology”, 83, July/Aug 2005.

Hull, M.R. (1963) “The Bartlow Hills” in “Victoria History of the Counties of England”, ed. R.B.Pugh “A history of Essex” vol. 3, University of London Institute of Historical Research/Oxford University Press.

James, S. (1999), “The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?”, British Museum Press, London.

Jones, M. (1996) “Rebellion remains the decisive factor”, “British Archaeology”, 20, Dec. 1996.

Laycock, S. (2006) “Britannia: the threat within”, “British Archaeology”, 87, March/April 2006.

Taylor, A. (1998) “Archaeology of Cambridgeshire Vol 2: South East Cambridgeshire and the Fen Edge”, Cambridgeshire County Council.

Text copyright David Binns_(c)2009