Stonehenge

Plan of Stonehenge (Visitor Centre) 3

During our stay in Somerset two weeks ago we also visited  sites in neighbouring Dorset and Wiltshire. One of those sites was Stonehenge in Wiltshire, one of the most well known monuments in the world. We’ve passed by ‘the stones’ a few times as we’ve driven along the A303 and glimpsed them from a distance, but being close up to them is quite something else. The picture above is one from inside the Visitor Centre, showing Stonehenge as it is today.

Stonehenge is located in the county of Wiltshire, two miles west of the town of Amesbury and eight miles north of the city of Salisbury.

Approximate location of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK

The monument and its surroundings became a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1986. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. The surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. But Stonehenge isn’t the only ancient site in the area. This stone circle itself is part of a group of late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, including the timber monuments of Durrington, the small henge at Amesbury and the timber circle at Woodhenge. There are also several hundred barrows (burial mounds) in the area. In addition, 25 miles north of Stonehenge is the Avebury complex – argued to be the most impressive of all remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe.

The first thing we see as we pull into the car park is the new Visitor Centre, opened in December 2013.

Inside the building is a café, which was busy even on a Tuesday – and a school day at that. There is also a display area about the monument and the Salisbury Plain region in general, with information about the people who inhabited it during the period of Stonehenge’s construction. Artefacts included flint tools and animal bones (mostly cattle) and antler picks. There were also metal items from the later Bronze Age and a display about how the site has been used and interpreted by ‘tourists’ from the mid 18th century to the present day:

There is lots of illustrated information about the three main phases of construction of Stonehenge (as in the models below) as well as reconstructions and artists impressions of other nearby ancient sites.

The first model above (left) shows the first major construction on the site, 5000 years ago, during the late Neolithic/New Stone Age. It was a circular enclosure with a ring of fifty-six pits which probably held upright pillars. Whether the pillars were wood or stone isn’t certain but it is likely there were some wooden ones in the enclosure. The chalk and earth from the enclosing ditch was used to make a large inner and smaller outer bank.

Five hundred years after the enclosure was built (middle picture) enormous sarsen stones were raised in the shape of an inner horseshoe and a surrounding circle, with smaller bluestones between them. The stones were aligned on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. The huge sarsens were brought from 20 miles away, in north Wiltshire and the bluestones from several sites in Wales – some 140 miles away! Construction and alteration stretched over a period of 800 years, into the Bronze Age, by which time Stonehenge had become the greatest temple in Britain.

Shortly after the stones were erected, an earthwork was built, creating the Avenue (model above far right) leading to the entrance and the bluestones were rearranged. And that is how this great monument stayed for the following 4000 years. But destruction and decay took their toll and the following model shows what Stonehenge looked like in 1740, when the first accurate plans were drawn:

A ruined temple - 4000 years of destruction and decay. Stonehenge around 1740. 2

Many stones would have fallen naturally, others removed from the site for building material by local people. Visitors carved their names on stones and chipped off pieces as souvenirs. In 1908 a stone of the sarsen circle fell, leading to the first restoration project when the tallest stone, leaning dangerously, was set upright. Work continued and between 1959 – 64, all the stones that had fallen since 1740 had been re-erected and many others set in concrete.

The stone circle itself is approximately a mile and a half from the Visitor Centre. We decided to walk, but for anyone who would prefer not to, regular buses run back and forth – leaving roughly every five minutes. The site gets a lot of visitors and the buses are nearly all full, even mid-week. It’s a pleasant walk, either straight along the lane or across the fields. There are also things to see along the way. Right outside the Visitor Centre is a model showing one way in which the sarsen stones (which have an average weight of 25 tons) could have been moved:

Moving the Stones
The stone is secured to a wooden sledge which would have been pulled along over rollers or on rails. The ropes were probably made from lime ‘blast’ – inner bark – spun and twisted to form strong cord

There is also a reconstruction of part of Durrington village as it might have looked at the time of Stonehenge’s construction:

After a walk across the fields we reached the stones. Access into the circle itself is only possible on certain days but we were happy to just walk around it. The route takes us anticlockwise, so my photos bring us to the main entrance last:

The reasons for WHY Stonehenge was built has been the most difficult one for archaeologists to answer, but it’s generally accepted that the monument was built as a temple: a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.

Stonehenge has an axis that runs north-east to south-west, and was chosen because it reflects events in the annual movements of the sun and moon. The entrance faces the rising sun on the day of the summer solstice. The Avenue is also aligned with the winter solstice sunset.

That Stonehenge served as a solar calendar and marked the changing seasons is a plausible hypothesis. People of that time were dependent on the weather for the success of their crops and animals. During the cold, dark winter days they would long for the sun to return with his light and warmth – and at the winter solstice, they celebrated the fact that the sun would be doing just that. The number of pig bones found on the site have been offered as evidence of mid-winter feasts here, to celebrate this turning point.

Stonehenge as a place of burial is supported by the hundreds of human bones found at the site which show signs of cremation before burial. And of course, it has often been thought that Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice, notably human. One fallen sarsen stone in the main entrance to the Stonehenge enclosure has become known as the ‘Slaughter Stone’. This is because of the shallow indentations that fill with rainwater which reacts with iron in the stone and turns a rusty red. The guide book attributes the given name to the ‘over active Victorian imagination’.

Another idea put forward is that the bluestones were transported all the way from Wales because people there told of their healing powers.

So all in all, theories as to the purpose of Stonehenge are still being bandied about. One source suggests that Stonehenge can (perhaps) be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral, such as nearby Salisbury – built  for worshipping, but also as a place where people could find healing and hope and important people could be buried.

The Surrender of Newark!

May 8th 2016 marks four hundred and fifty years since the Royalist forces holding the town of Newark-on-Trent during the English Civil War surrendered to Parliament. This was done on the orders of King Charles 1, who had already surrendered himself to Parliament at the town of Southwell, eight miles away. Members of the Sealed Knot re-enactment group gathered last Sunday (May 8th) to commemorate the events of the official ceremony of surrender. And we hopped along to have a look.

First we headed for the castle grounds to watch the groups gathering before they marched to the Market Place for the actual surrender ceremony. A few tents had been set up and accompanying wives and children, also in costume, added interest to the scene. The soldiers in blue are the Scots, who had fought for Parliament. The royalists are in red, some of the more high-ranking ones dressed as cavaliers with red sashes and big black hats with plumes. One or two Puritan ministers were also present (in black, with white collars):

This is the march to the Market Place to the sound of accompanying drum beat:

Civil War broke out in 1642, for many reasons that I won’t go into here, other than to say that the causes can (very generally) be said to fall into three categories: politics, religion and money. King Charles and Parliament simply could not agree on so many issues. Like all civil wars, it split the country in two as people sided with either King or Parliament. Sometimes, members of the same family were on different sides: a tragic state of affairs.

Newark was staunchly Royalist from the beginning, besieged three times until it surrendered, reluctantly, in May 1646, on Charles’ orders. The town had been surrounded by enemy sconces (forts) and totally battered. Scars from cannon fire can still be seen on the castle wall facing the river, and the church in the town centre displays a hole beneath one of the windows in the spire where a cannon ball struck:

056 Newark Church Cannonball hole.2 +

So, by 1646, the town’s food supplies had been cut off for some time; people were nearing starvation and suffering from plague. War debts and damage to the surrounding grazing and farmland would impoverish it for generations. Yet still, surrender was only accepted under protest by the town’s garrison, the loyal Royalists prepared to hold out to the bitter end.

Newark played a vital role during the English Civil War. Not only was it was situated at the intersection of two major roads (the Great North Road and the Fosse Way) it was also sited at the last crossing point of the River Trent before it became tidal. Additionally, Newark’s central location, near to Parliamentary areas in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, made it particularly desirable to Parliamentary generals.

The Royalists held it  and the Parliamentarians wanted it! And in the end, Oliver Cromwell’s well-disciplined and organised ‘New Model Army’ won out over the less well organised, less well paid and less well fed Royalist troops. The execution by beheading of Charles 1 in 1649, is one of the most well known events of English history.

And finally, here are some photos of the ceremony. Unfortunately, as we were ‘roped off’ it was difficult to get close. The then Governor of Newark, Sir John Henderson (a Scottish military figure who was thought to add ‘clout’ to the Royalist cause) plays the major role. Several speeches were made.

Then it was back to the castle for the stalls and displays of musket fire in the afternoon. As we’d watched the Sealed Knot do this last September (which I posted about) we gave it a miss on this occasion.

Loudly Sing Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo. Author: Cuculus_canorus_vogelartinfo_chris_romeiks_CHRO791. GNU Free Documentation License

Every year, from April onwards, I listen for the distinctive call of the cuckoo when I’m out on my walk, and yesterday, I was not disappointed. It’s a little later than I’ve heard it in some years, when the spring weather has been warmer and the prevailing winds are more favourable. In 2012, I heard the first cuckoo in March – but that was an unusually warm spring. This year we’ve had some very cold, northerly winds which would not be at all favourable for migratory flights from Africa to Europe.

I find the cuckoo, and its habits, quite fascinating, and decided to look up a few facts about the bird to share on my blog.

The name cuckoo comes from the Old French word cucu. It first appears in 1240 in a poem Sumer is icomen in. In modern English, the first two lines are:

Summer has come in

Loudly sing cuckoo.

The cuckoo’s song can be heard on this video, appropriately titled, Cuckoo Song.  (A few moments of listening to this one might drive you cuckoo!)

The male’s song, goo-ko/cuckoo is usually given from an open perch, often at the top of a tree on the edge of woodland, although cuckoos can often be heard/seen in grassland and reed beds. During the breeding season the call can generally be heard in groups of 10–20 with a rest of only a few seconds between. The first note is higher than the second, as can be heard in the video. (The female call is quite different – more of a loud bubbling sound.) If you hear a cuckoo singing you will probably not see it until it stops, which is when it flies away from its song post.

The adult males have bluish-grey upper parts and a white belly with dark, horizontal barring. Females have two forms. One is similar to the male but the breast is light brown with dark barring and the other is reddish brown, and often covered with dark bars. In flight, the cuckoo can be mistaken for the kestrel or sparrowhawk because of its long tail and swept back wings, although the sparrowhawk does not have pointed wings.

Euopean Cuckoo and Sparrowhawk
Images of a European cuckoo (top) and a sparrowhawk showing the extent of mimicry. Author: Chiswick Chap. Creative Commons.

Other than its distinctive call, the cuckoo is perhaps best known for its breeding habits! It is known as a brood parasite – the only one to breed in Britain. This means that females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, known as foster species. Certain foster species are preferred, including dunnocks, meadow pipits, reed warblers and robins in Britain, although many more host species have been identified in cuckoo breeding areas. Each female specialises in using a particular host species and will establish a territory in which there are a number of potential foster nests. She will carefully observe activity and wait until the nests are at the right stage. Then she swoops down, ejecting an egg of the host bird and laying one of her own that mimics the markings of those of the host bird’s eggs.

Cuckoo eggs and reed warbler eggs
Four clutches of reed warbler eggs, each with one (larger) cuckoo egg. Author: Chiswick Chap. Creative Commons.

The female is helped in this dastardly deed by her mate who, readily jumps into his role of mimicking a sparrowhawk. His appearance close to the nest is enough to distract the small birds long enough for the female to hop in and deposit her egg.

Common cuckoo in flight
Common cuckoo in flight. (Deutch Kuckuck). Author: Vogelartinfo. Creative Commons

The host bird, knowing nothing of this, will incubate and feed the impostor.

Reedwarbler feeding cuckoo chick
Reed warbler feeding a common cuckoo chick in nest (brood parasitism). Author: Per Harald Oisen. Creative Commons.

Once hatched the cuckoo chick instinctively pushes all other eggs and chicks out of the nest, and continues to thrive. It often grows to be far bigger than its ‘adoptive’ parents.

Cuckoo Chick
Chick of common cuckoo in the nest of a tree pipit. Author: Vladlen666. Creative Commons

As a brood parasite, the cuckoo has become a symbol of infidelity and selfishness. A ‘cuckoo in the nest’ can refer to an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation – or something that grows quickly. In the novel, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is introduced by Nelly as a cuckoo’s story – which anyone who has read the book will understand. The word cuckoo is also sometimes used, informally, to describe a mad or psychotic person.

The cuckoo’s behaviour does little to endear it to us – our sympathy goes out to the poor little reed warblers, dunnocks and other birds who lose entire clutches because of it. But as they say, that’s life – and I still like to hear my first cuckoo of the year. Its call really is ‘the harbinger of spring’.

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

Vikings attack Wareham!

041 Pre Battle 4

I got home yesterday after spending a week down in Somerset – not an area I know at all, having previously only driven through it on our way to Devon or Cornwall. We did visit sites in Somerset during the week but over the last weekend of our stay we drove 60 miles into Dorset to visit Corfe Castle.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, UK.

We’ve been to this castle before, but on this occasion we were there to watch a re-enactment of one of King Alfred’s battles against the Viking Danes staged in the castle grounds.

The castle is a National Trust property and the car park and ticket office are on the opposite side of the road (A351). It holds a striking position high on  a hill, as can be seen in these two photos. The first was taken through the windscreen of our car as we approached on the A351 and the second from Corfe Castle village at the opposite side 0f the hill.

We arrived at 10.30 am to find that both Saxon and Viking groups were  already delighting crowds by demonstrating a variety of battle skills. Then we spent some time looking around the Saxon camp and the remains of Corfe castle. We have Oliver Cromwell to thank for the destruction (or slighting as it is properly called) of yet another magnificent castle. I intend to do a post about Corfe Castle, so I’ll say no more about that here. Here are a few photos of the many tents of the Saxon camp. Some show crafts and skills of the period.

The break for lunch was interesting, to say the least, as many of the re-enactment groups headed down into the village along with the crowds of spectators. Needless to say, most of the cafes were full, and we had to queue to get served in the one we opted for. But what the heck . . . it was all good fun and everyone was in festive mood.

106 Camp 12

The main battle was staged in the afternoon and was based on many such battles between Alfred and the Danes during his reign as King of Wessex. This one – in 893 – was late in Alfred’s reign, as he died in 899 at the age of 50. His eldest daughter, the fiery Aethelflaed, who became known as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ also features in the battle.

On this occasion, Alfred and his army held the castle and the Danes were attacking. Here are some of the photos of the event, although it’s impossible to differentiate between the opposing sides. There were several groups fighting with Alfred’s Saxons, including the Welsh and Cornish and different groups from the kingdom of Mercia. All had united against the common enemy, the Danes. In addition, Saxon and Viking battle gear was pretty similar (and Vikings most definitely did not wear horned helmets!). All had round shields and wore helmets, usually with nose guards. Many wore body armour of chain mail.

To his credit,  Alfred’s army won the day!

All-in-all, it was a great day out and I can’t praise the re-enactment groups enough. They did a wonderful job of recreating not only the battle, but the whole feel of events at the time. The battle was not without its humour and the costumes were excellent. Bring on the next one!