Home > Places, The sleep project > The Sleep Project VII: Midsummer among the Sarsens

The Sleep Project VII: Midsummer among the Sarsens

Midsummer sarsen I

Midsummer sarsen I

It’s barely dusk at 10.30, but the kids are asleep and out I nip. Why spend the night at Avebury or Stonehenge, when you can sleep with the landscape that birthed them?

No crowds, silence, and a remarkable and little known wilderness, here in the heart of one of the most densely populated regions of the planet. It’s called Fyfield Down; you can walk across it in twenty minutes; but its also a solid mile from the nearest road, and that twenty minutes is also a universe apart: a gently rolling upland of rough grass, in which every yard seems to wrinkle with its own age; and which more to the point into which are set countless great dense lumps: the sarsens, the Saracen-stones, slumbering amid the sheep-cropped herbs, waiting in ambush: geological terrorists.

What are they doing here? How did they get here? Even geologists disagree. The best bet is that much of the southern English chalk once formed the floor of a very broad, very shallow estuary — this is the chalk which itself, countless years before, was formed from the gradual impacting of quadzillions of tiny skeletons at the foot of a warm ocean — and that a huge qantity of silt came out of this estuary and dumped itself as a kind of dense sandy skin on the chalk. And that then, oh, several millenia more later, Africa crashed with its own tectonic stately weight into Europe, the Alps popped up, and somewhere at the north-western end of the resulting wrinkles the English downs where folded squashed uplifted into being — that ancient chalk, with its sandy crust. Which promptly began to break up. Further millenia of frost did the rest. Certainly the Sarsens are full of root-like holes; but how this could have made them so damn hard that us locals can barely put our shelves up with diamong-tipped drills, beats me.

Anyway, they have a way of attracting attention, these sarsens. People have called them after Saracens, as I implied; and after sheep – ‘the grey wethers’, which is Wiltshire for sheep; and they were one of the sights of the Great Bath Road which bisected

Midsummer sarsen II

Midsummer sarsen II

this landscape, following the yet-older line of the Anglo-Saxon herepath. And long, long, long before that, well, the makers of Avebury and Stonehenge were mighty impressed. All of Avebury circle; all of the local chambered long barrows, depend on the ability to manhandle these dead weights of impacted sand with their primeval rootholes; all the trilothons of Stonehenge, mighty things that tower over you with blind authority — had to be moved from here, down and up two steep scarp-slopes, and across Salisbury Plain. Everyone goes on about the bluestones at Stonehenge, and how they come from far-off Wales, and what did this mean: but floating a stone 1.5metres high along a series of rivers is nothing to what the sarsen-movers achieved. And they must have come here to get them.

Or near here. There are sarsen spreads inDorset. And the sarsens around here have been gradually rolled back by millenia of land-clearing, settlement, breaking-up for hardcore and building stone. They still crop up sometimes miles from here, in hedgerows, or blunting the tines of earthmoving vehicles. And when people started to write about them, in the C18, when they were a major ‘sight’ of the road to Bath, commentedon by Evelyn and Pepys and others, it’s clear people thought they must be artificially there; indeed it took some time to discern that Avebury was something seperate, something ‘made’, rather than a suburb of a great metropolis of slumbering saracen sheep. Avebury is the shriking of this landscape, which has itself curled back, as if in prehensile instinctive withdrawal, as man has tarmacced and pieced and ploughed away at the fringes and the valleys, leaving this last insurgent fastness.

Midsummer sarsen III

Midsummer sarsen III

As if. Time is collapsed on itself here: millenia flash by simultaneous, the hours crawl, the days are long and the nights are short. And one of the biggest shocks is to find that at the time of the Avebury-makers *this* was a great, organised, industrial-agrarian landscape, with a grid of fields laid out in cleared sandstone lumps across it as far as the eye could see, only to be remade on a different grid in the iron age, and hten abandoned to sheepwalk: the sheep that still prevent it returning to a scrubby chalkland forest. This wilderness is anything but natural. It is one of the first landsacapes of the anthropocene, the geological era in which Man is first visible as a landscape-shaping force. So much for sleeping my way back to nature.

The walk here always puts me off: the upland gallops, with their plastic guiding fences and lawn-cropped grass, always seem like the most industrial of modern rural landscapes, at once too perfected and too abandoned to the kind of fun that does no one but an oligarch any good. We lose our way in the dark, and the sarsens themselves, rendered down to light grey blotches in the shadowy grass, seems less impressive, less present-dense. On the ridgeway one of hte Solstice-travellers is playing techno; the an owl falls on something that screeches its own violent demise; a glowworm makes a neon glow on the dreamtime abstractions of moss.

Fyfield Down

Fyfield Down

I bed down on a sarsen: at once hard and affirming. The moon is rising, and sleep is the strange breed of  open-air slumber, at once catastrophically alert and strangely deep. I am aware: of the music ceasing. Of my back on the hard uneven rock, of my legs on the firm ground, thick with sheep-droppings. Of the moonlit profiles of copse, stone, hill-edge. Of moonrise. Of sleeping out atop a steep grass slope, and being caught by an angry farmer: but that was a dream, hiding imagined time within real time. Of a sudden blast of bongos and zithers coming from somewhere to the east, as Avebury greets the post-solstice dawn. Of this great thick landscape of oblivious presences. Of the way the landscape curves and dips like a great wave, and the panicking sheep rush back and forther with the rumble of a far-off tsunami. It is only random coincidence that the sheep seem energetic, rapid and hillside fixed, ancient: they are both particles, both carbon-based forms in mid-flow, and I caught between them, in mammal solufluction.

The sarsens crawl down these narrow dry valleys, flowing themselves on subterrenean frost-currents. Pepys rode through here, and Jane Austen; Coleridge would have walked it, if by then the road wasn’t turnpiked. Stukeley thought they were a kind of archaeology of the moment god set the earth a-spinning, and all the lumps of rock buried in the planet suddenly flung their centrifugal way to the surface.

Midsummer sarsen IV

Midsummer sarsen IV

It’s an hour back across the gallops, and still I’m home before everyone’s even stirred, having experienced at least a night and a day in the meantime; a geological era, a restless sleep, a restful wakening, as if it was all a dream. A midsummer’s night’s…

Midsummer sarsen V

Midsummer sarsen V

  1. June 24, 2011 at 6:24 am

    Wonderful, Jon!

  2. June 24, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Thank you! Needs an edit, I was a bit bleary-eyed…

  3. June 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    If you must sleep on a rock, sleeping on one of those seems like a good idea.

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