Stuart arrived late Tuesday evening and the Burgundy ensured we talked till the small hours as usual. We were, however, ready to roll early next morning. By the time my son phoned to ask if we would be calling in before we left we were already in Marlborough and parked. Yes, I know we were heading for Glastonbury, but you know well enough by now that we are easily sidetracked by archaeology and churches. And Marlborough has both. In abundance. And coffee too.
Glastonbury is 120 miles away and Marlborough, a beautiful little town by any standard, lies almost exactly at the halfway point. An ideal place to stop. Not only it is the mid-point of the journey, it is also the gateway to the ancient landscape of stone and barrow that encircles Avebury. We had been promising ourselves a stop there for a while, so Wednesday seemed the perfect opportunity. Which is how a mere 120 miles took five hours…
We walked through the pretty town to the college. There is a large and lovely church there, but more importantly, behind it there is Merlin’s Mount, an ancient earthwork hidden within the college. Buildings have grown up around it, encroaching on the sacred space. Previous generations have altered and sculpted it, making it a pleasure garden rather than preserving its sanctity… even so, even having glimpsed it from the road in passing, the first look at this incongruously sited hill is simply awe-inspiring.
Of course, when it was first built, some four and a half thousand years ago, there was no enclosing college. It now stands some 62 ft high, though it is not really known how much the mound had been altered over the intervening millennia. It was once the motte of the Norman castle, some fifty years after the invasion of 1066; it has been at the heart of a 17th century garden, and now it is hidden within the private college grounds and is being restored. Those who have seen Silbury Hill some six miles west of Marlborough can imagine, though, how it may once have looked.
Were the terraces always there? They are said to date back to the 17th century, but who knows whether once the spiral path was a processional way such as that seen on Glastonbury Tor? Roman coins have been found there… in a place already nearly two and a half thousand years old when the Romans set foot there. The Romans themselves are closer to us in time than they were to those who raised the mound. There can be no doubt it was an important place, a sacred place… why else would so much effort be made to build an artificial mountain so close to the source of the sarsen stones that still stand in enigmatic silence at Stonehenge… even closer to the majesty of Silbury and the ancient circles within circles of Avebury?
The Mound has its place in history; the oath of allegiance to King John was sworn there in 1209 AD. It has a place too in legend, of course. The motto of Marlborough is Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini ‘Where now are the bones of wise Merlin?’ It is said that here was the place of Merlin’s imprisonment by the Lady of the Lake… and although that particular telling may date back only as far as the Arthurian romances, who knows upon what older legend that too now rests? Long before Merlin became known, an older Myrddin walked the landscape of legend here.
Whatever secrets the Mound holds close, it is undoubtedly a magical place. The veil is thin here between the worlds and setting foot upon the spiral path many things that logic deems impossible can become reality.
We left reluctantly; that heady feeling, the sparkling air and whispering of the trees made elevenses a necessity for grounding. The old church we had passed offered the promise of coffee and cake, so we headed back towards the High Street, little knowing what else we were to find. And the adventure, of course, had only just begun….