I would not want you to think we had been having a good time. No. Would we? Manfully (or, perhaps, hobbitfully in my case), we have sacrificed ourselves valiantly on the altar of history over the past week… the altars of medieval churches, ritual sites, ancient places.. the odd Roman temple… and the occasional bar, toiling ceaselessly in the unusual heat of the best British summer in years…purely in the name of research, of course.
It was, you will realise, a monumental effort to meet at the farmhouse breakfast table yesterday morning, facing the prospect of another gruelling day in the landscape. The patio doors that opened onto the flower-filled garden where we watched the rare chickens, finches and sparrows playing close to where we sat simply illustrates the hardship. The sunlight gleamed on a morning sea while we gallantly tackled fresh fruit, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, fortifying ourselves against the day to come.
Our first job was to conquer a castle. And it was already hot.
We had, of course, climbed the hill of the Cerne Abbas giant the day before with temperatures blazing in the mid-eighties farenheit. And it is very, very steep. Let alone the earlier foray up to the top of Cadbury Castle. The old song about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the noonday sun kept wafting through my mind…being female, I had a sneaking suspicion which part I would be cast in, so wisely, I thought, said nothing to my fellow adventurer.
The white of the chalk under the wheels rose in dusty plumes as we advanced upon our first target of the day… the incredible feat of ancient engineering that is Maiden Castle.
I have seen it in books, passed it on the road and never yet had chance to visit what has to be one of the most magnificent ancient earth-sites in the country. From the road it looks deceptively modest. The closer you get the more you are forced to realise the enormity of the task undertaken by our ancestors. Leaving the car we were treated to a spectacular airshow by a hunting hawk as we wended our way towards the labyrinthine entrance. The sky was a luminous, opalescent blue of unbelievable intensity.
Photographs do not do the place justice… not at all. Only aerial shots give any sense of the scale of the thing.. and these were what I had seen. Yet, faced with the sheer bulk of the looming ramparts and steep sided, cavernous ditches in person, there was a sense of unreality that only increased as we approached the enclosure.
The plateau itself is huge… enclosing around 47 acres of hilltop within its maze of ditches and ramparts. The site was first begun some 6000 years ago and grew in complexity over the centuries until it was abandoned after the Romans came. A Temple, possibly to Minerva, still holds its inner sanctuary on the northern edge of the plain there.
The air sparkles with motes of light, myths dance in the heat haze and legends people the imagination with vision. Circumnavigating the castle’s ramparts we passed two young boys, mere teenagers who had walked the long way up the hill to heal and to meditate. They continued that silent communion for over an hour, taking it very seriously. It was a beautiful thing to watch, especially in ones so young and we saluted them unseen as they departed much later, still on foot, still reverent. It is that kind of place.
We sat awhile at the western labyrinth, a place of beautiful vistas and the kind of timeless peace that could have kept us there all day. The only sound was that of the trio of playful skylarks and the keening of a solitary red kite… even here…and the caw of the ravens that broke the stillness. There are stories to write of the visions painted on the canvas of imagination in this place of deep belonging within the life of the land. We sat, too, amid the simple ruins of the Roman temple, spinning wool into thread between our fingers in a gesture as old as those who had first lived here.
So many illustrations show the inhabitants as uncivilised savages dressed in draped pelts, lacking intelligence and sophistication. I think not. Not having seen this place and what is, after all, both a feat of incredible engineering and a work of art that has survived the ravages of invasion, erosion and time.
It was late morning when we finally left… and we had started early. We detoured to catch a glimpse of the Nine Stones beside the road before repairing to yet another ancient inn for a cold drink. We planned to stop off again in Cerne Abbas on the way home…the prettiest, most peaceful of places, with some books we needed to acquire and a nice line in ice-cream… then head on homewards.
However, as you may have begun to expect, we were sidetracked again… and though we made it to Cerne Abbas and the ice cream, we would not be home till much, much later than we had planned…we had, it seems, a rendezvous with more ancient wonders and a sunset before we were done…..