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Old Bath Road

It’s just a square car park, a rough extension of tarmac on the rising down. But a hump-sided scar runs from it, like a poorly-healed incision along the very ridge that rises with increasing energy from Beckhampton to Cherhill, and the bike runs clean and clear among the grassy lumps: a road made to be less travelled.

This is the archaeology of the Old Bath Road, the route taken by Stukely, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and many others west from London; a route bypassed when the current A4 was turnpiked about two hundred years ago; a route the skeins and intersects in rough sweeps with older way-scars: the Anglo-Saxon herepath; the great Roman road to the west.

Indeed this wrinkling and marking of the landscape is what makes these Downs; extraordinary landforms in the themselves; given their qualities – a kind of depth of experience, a human quality aping emotion, a character – by stratigraphic generations of lumping and bumping caused by the accidents of history, all intersecting in the present in the way that only Places can. And, to boot, kept clean and smooth as the emptiest steppe by centuries of flat-toothed sheep.

Almost as soon as I leave the car park, I enter a copse of ashes, planted as a game-hide by some landowner a century or more ago, and now a grey-walled enclosure of cathedral-like proportions. Trees make mini-places, little local environments, and this one is all the more redolent for the great sweeping lumps left within it, smooth-sided hefts within the earth. It runs on, ever higher, concealing a great scoop-like dry valley to the north that is today used as gallops.

Horses are one of the themes of this landscape: there is something in the collision of antiquarian rediscovery of a ‘noble’ British prehistory, white horse-cutting, copse-planting on barrows as covers for game and to break up the bleakness of the chalk, and the cult of the race embodied in the art of Stubbbs — all events that happened at about the same time — which is an interlinked moment in the cultural history of Wessex upland landscapes. But there’s no one practising now: just a few dog walkers, and two owls shocked from a tree and wheeling confused in the air, and a herd of deer on a distant expanse of grass.

Talking of barrows, here’s one: one of several biggies which line this route, looking over the plain towards Yatesbury and Windmill Hill. Except this, with the magnificent violence and collision of history that is this landscape’s greatness, is also a pillbox. Someone has excavated its cisty innards and inserted corrugation-lined cement and brick, leaving only a tiny gunport from which to peep at the the Panzer divisions as they make their way from Avebury to Chippenham, perfect cover for the local Dad’s Army butcher-turned-sniper. Vive la Resistance! La Lutte Continua! Keep calm and carry on…

I imagine acts of derring-do that never happened, and leave the bones of Bronze Age warlords and the hapless boys of Wiltshire and Wittenburg intermingling in this hollowed-out pilbarrow, forever trapped in a Dr Who timewarp in which 3000BC and 1941 cross breed to horrible effect.

Further on, my way curves north off the road, and climbs through rough sticky chalk-mud up to the whalebacked heights around Oldbury Castle. The dry valley turns behind me, forgotten linears striating its sides, outworks of Woden’s dyke, iron age estate boundaries, medieval sheep enclosures. A bedding line of flints has been dug and pitted along its geological length by hunters of holy tools from the deepest prehistory; the hilltop is massive with the collosal hill-works, almost urban in their pre-Roman might. The great smooth waterless curve and bowl of Upper Chalk underlies all.

And down the other side, through fields of industrial size, across the straight-as-a-die line of a Roman road (and parish boundary, and edge of a parliamentary constituency), past lines of barrows that drip across the backlands of Baltic Farm like frozen UFOs. Below is one of Wiltshire’s weirdest landscapes: a great series of scoops between Cherhill and Morgna’s Hill, as if picked out by the spade of a race of giants, their grass-edged steep sides and flat bottoms enhanced by the hand of man, almost sculptural to behold and move around in. Then up Morgan’s Hillside, though steep edge-lines of woodland, and down onto the Greensand to which those scoops drain.

Here is Calstone, barely a village, yet possessed of a tiny pure dark C15 church, covered in C18 graffiti, that seems to gather the draining forces of the landscape within it like a tiny holy battery. The vestry here hides a delicious secret: a pencilled disk opposite a window, and the words ‘Sunset, 1939’ or somesuch, a glorious sinking orb recorded at the dawn of war. And all around the steep and earthy gorges made by the draining of the downs, as thick and green as the chalk above was thin and open.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 6, 2012 at 7:15 am

    Dear Jon, what a beautiful piece of writing. Utterly lovely. I’m currently reading John North’s Stonehenge – Neolithic Man and the Cosmos. Are you familiar with it?

  2. February 7, 2012 at 5:50 am

    No, but I like getting comments like these! Salve for the bruised soul of the struggling author….

  3. Frances Mascarenhas
    February 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Historical grafitti .The vestry secret could serve as sunrise for me ! You should be a contributor to the Guardian’s nature diary.

    • February 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm

      If you can get me the commission, I’m game!

  4. Sarah
    February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Jon this is wonderful! Your evocation of Wiltshire’s landscape is very powerful. Your fascination with paths and roads, the conjoining of history and geography, the passage of time and evolving place, the sense of numinous in the landscape… that really hits the spot for me. Marc and I were walking in those scoops from Cherhill just a few weeks ago, but we didn’t make it to the church. Will have to do so next time.
    This was my very favourite line:
    “possessed of a tiny pure dark C15 church, covered in C18 graffiti, that seems to gather the draining forces of the landscape within it like a tiny holy battery.”
    Made me shiver. So beautiful and apposite. I love it.

  5. February 23, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Sarah, thank you *so* much for this. I use this blog for lots of things, but most importantly of all its a place to get this kind of writing out of my half-crazed notebooks and into places where people might actually see it. Though I spend my life dealing with facts and explanations, this stuff is at the core of what I’d like to do most. So I’m delighted you like it.

    Especially as I’m reading Amethyst Child to Ann at the moment. She;s read it before, but wanted me to get to know it too, and I’m so impressed. Fascinating idea/premise, great characters I feel I have met and known, lovely slow but irresistible plot-build — nothing happening and everything happening, very hard to pull off — and above all beautifully written. I’m impressed!

    Those scoops are amazing, aren’t they. A kind of sculpture, a hidden secret. Love to you both.

  6. February 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    You’re very welcome! It’s a great and enriching pleasure to read this kind of material. And so glad you’re enjoying Amethyst Child, it’s the novel I’m most proud of. I fell in love with the three main characters when I was writing it, and was sorry to leave them when it finished. In many ways, it’s the most personal of my novels.
    I’ve shared the link to this Old Bath Road piece and my enthusiastic recommendation on my Facebook page, and that has brought you a few new readers. :o)
    Love to you and your lovely family too. Hopefully I’ll be seeing Ann soon – I have her writing to read through.

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