It’s a thousand years out of kilter. So unless there’s an error in the Destination-Date…
“Okay-okay. You know the workings, you’re the expert. I am not.” I’d held up my hands in surrender. My immediate grovel seemed to work, taking the sting and the steam out of Fliss.
Even so, after that ill-advised comment about the Destination-Date, I was glad to have Dave there as co-watcher for my first pod-trip. After all, I had annoyed Kenneth as well—though maybe that was only in support of his bitch. He’d made a remarkably swift recovery after.
Disregarding the upset, Fliss kindly allowed me an hour at Destination. Dave declared it a huge concession.
Kenneth agreed. “Though if you return a dud in toto, don’t go gunning for Fliss.”
Now the time had come.
I took a deep breath, lowered my butt into the ‘pod, swung my legs round to follow, and slipped, almost glided, into the horizontal. The granite was warm. That surprised me. Maybe the water, in being capillaried between granite layers, was naturally warmed (the predictable effect of friction). Or maybe the water was heated before it was pumped between the layers. The tubes passed through several box-shaped contraptions. Kenneth had explained their functions but, too technical for me, his words had skidded without adhesion. The second surprise was how comfortable the granite bed. Shaped to receive the reclining body, I could easily have drifted into sleep—which was just as well since, as Fliss and Dave had said, the ‘trip more resembled a dream.
I wasted no time. Before I’d yet fixed the eye-pads in place already I was into the breathing. Gosh, yea, I could so easily have fallen asleep, I was that relaxed. I hardly noticed the lid closing over. All my concerns of claustrophobia—telling myself at worst it would only be for fifteen minutes. Now I’d not a care of it.
Breath . . . Relax . . . Yawn.
I had a moment of fear, of what would happen if the air-pipe got blocked. But that’s why there were two people watching.
Breath . . . Relax . . . Drift.
I was so sleepy. I wondered if Fliss had added some kind of drug to the air.
Breath . . . Relax . . . Sleep.
I wake with a start. The ‘pod, the house—Fliss, Kenneth, Dave—all are gone. Above is a sky of ultra-intense blue, and cottonwool clouds slowly dissolving. And Dave was right of the birds. Gosh, their volume, their numbers. It’s like I’m face-up-tight to an aviary. But I’m no ornithologist, I can’t name them. I know only the ubiquitous crow (it wouldn’t be Wessex without the crows). There are no other sounds.
But that’s not true, of course there are sounds. It’s just they’re not very loud. I mean, the insects, yea, I can hear them chirring—though isn’t it early yet for them?(Something else that’s not my specialty). What I mean is there’s no sound of cars, of planes; no distant boom from the artillery range, no military transport-helicopters shaking the walls and the ground; no TV blaring two doors along, no music escaping the passing traffic; no kids shouting and squabbling, no babies crying, no women talking nor their menfolk bragging. There is quiet. It is bliss.
The air, too, is different. Clean. Sweet. And the colours; the riot of flowers. So many. Again, I can’t name them. Yet I can understand Dave’s excitement. It’s like everywhere I look there are flowers; no plain patches of grass anywhere. Admittedly, some are only tiny white stars, or red petal-things (could they be pimpernels?). There are buttercups, their dazzling yellow shining out from amid the grasses. Then the big ones, the showy ones. It really frustrates, having no names for them. But, so much variety. And it’s not only the plants; butterflies, too, flitting in unfamiliar profusion.
But my excitement is countered by a disappointment. I knew, from pollen studies, to expect a degree of deforestation. But the extent—it’s not how much is gone, but how little remains. Here and there, copses and thickets, little worked woods, mostly fringing the Vale (or rather, Dave’s fens).
I turn, to look up at the scarp, the northern edge of the Plain. Towards the top, above the grassland, is a dense gallery-growth of brushwood—like a monk’s tonsure, except there’s no bald pate to crown it. Instead, there’s what I’d call a proper woodland. Though that, too, may be no more substantial than a thin fringing. Regardless, decision made: that’s where I’m heading.
Kenneth has already told me the Ridgeway exists, if only as an infant track. I reckon following the track will make the climb easier. Actually, I haven’t much choice unless I want to start by climbing the fences. Today (C21st) the Ridgeway skirts the western rim of the Plain. But that’s not helpful. Ultimately my study will be of Durrington Walls, to the east of the Plain. So either I’ll need to cut a diagonal path, else follow the scarp east, along to the river, then follow that southward, almost to Amesbury. But as yet I’ve only this one hour at Destination and I want to use it to suss out the route for next time. I’ve figured the diagonal cut will only work if the Plain is as open as it is today (C21st). Yet there, ahead, is that proper woodland. If that continues across the fall of the Plain, then the scarp might be the quicker option. Safer too: there could be bears and wolves in that wood.
I laugh. Just that thought . . . seems I’m having problems with reality already. I’m not really here, thus there is no danger, I cannot be harmed. And yet it all seems so real. I can’t believe it’s just a memory, a recording, held in the water, stored in the rock. I walk on, repeating the ‘isn’t real’ mantra—and soon discover Dave’s comment of steeper hills is true. I climbed this track many times as a kid; it was never this steep.
While climbing, I’m looking around me, taking everything in (to make the most of my hour), when . . . Oops!
My foot hovers above the sun-basking adder. It rears back and hisses.
Nothing but memories, yea? Tell that to my heart. It lurches alarmingly. I slowly withdraw my foot, no fast movements—though the snake seems content not to move. A memory it might be, but I’m not about to kick it aside. I edge around it with great respect. It follows me only with its eyes, apparently too drowsy to repeat its warning.
Before this ‘trip I’d thought to ask Fliss what happens when my time is up.
“Oh, don’t fret, Jules-darling, we won’t leave you stranded, slumming it in some distant age with no modern conveniences.”
“You simply wake up in the ‘pod,” Dave cut across her sarcasm. She was still holding resentment at me because, as she’d discovered, I wasn’t as malleable as once I had been.
“No panic,” Kenneth had added. “The rig opens up within the minute.”
“Unless you’re back early,” Fliss said. “Then, horrors, darling, you’ll just have to wait.” She was again wearing cream, again fabrics soft and fluid. At our every meeting that’s what she wore. Was she afraid of colour? Or was that just me being bitchy?
Strange how the sight of the snake recalls that memory. I shrug it away. If I want time for a proper nose at the top, I’d best hurry the pace.
I’m not unfit, yet the steepness, the sun coming at me from across the Vale, I’m soon sticky with sweat. I had asked about clothes—what should I wear? What if someone sees us, all decked out in C21st gear? (Again forgetting I’m not really here.)
“T-shirt, jeans, and trainers,” Dave said (his habitual wear).
“Seriously? You could be there in the buff,” Kenneth said. “None’s to see you—isn’t that right, Felicity? But a word: Cut the caffeine.”
I’d looked at him, quizzical.
“You want to be peeing along the Ridgeway?”
“He’s teasing,” Dave said.
“I don’t want her piddling in my ‘pod,” Fliss said in a panic. (I swear, that woman has no sense of humour.)
Slogging it uphill, the snake behind me, the sun hot upon me, I again repeat the mantra: Everything here is nothing but memory. But whose memory? That still bothers me. I suppose it’s nobody’s memory. It belongs to the water—the water and rock. But memory or real, I have only an hour to climb the scarp, to reccie around and to make my plans. I know this hill (C21st-style). At most it’s a swift five-to-ten minutes climb. But that’s not reckoning with its Neolithic steepness. Nor with me being forever distracted and looking around me. C21st, the track is hedged either side with brambles and briars and thorn. But not here in the Neolithic. ‘Rustic’ fencing pens me in. A few weedy brambles struggle to catch hold. Here and there an occasional thorn tree, crowned in white blossoms. I read some place (don’t remember where) that may-blossom smells like death, and that since the Black Plague country-folk won’t touch it. What crap! It’s one of the sweetest smells I ever have known. To me, its the most welcome smell of early summer. More ubiquitous than the thorn-trees is the white froth of umbellifers (cow parsley, is that their name?). And beyond the fence with its flowers the open grassland in places is cropped: savage lawns carved from the longer grasses. I see no dwellings. That strikes me as odd.
I’m beginning to wonder if the entire length of this scarp is uninhabited—perhaps ill-favoured because it’s north-facing, or it’s the haunt of their gods, or perhaps it’s avoided because it is cursed—when I hear the unmistakable bleat of a goat. I squint against the sun to see it: a lone beast on the lip of a coombe.
The Plain is coombe-fluted, though particularly here to north. Internally, too, the Plain is deeply scoured by dry valleys. One wonders the forces that made them. Glacial meltwaters, yea, but at which of the Ice Ages. The last LGM didn’t reach this far south. Still, answering that isn’t part of this venture.
Higher up the hillside I can see into the coombe and, yea, as expected here are the goats. A herd, as many as twenty. Unlike the goats my parents kept when I was at school, these sport sharp flaring horns and long coats. Mostly they’re nannies, their udders heavy with milk. Some have kids with them though they’re now past suckling. I smile at this almost Biblical sight. Yet . . . where is their herdsman? The herd is clearly kept for the milk; their herdsman must be close. (Herds-man: how un-PC is that.)
Having seen goats, I now see the herders’ habitation. I suppose technically it’s a bender. Benders are a bit like a coracle turned upside down. Woven from stems and saplings, then either thatched with dry grasses or covered with animal-hides and tied down. This one is thatched; it merges perfectly with the grassland—or would have merged but that its thatch shows beigey-brown against the green of the brushwood-tonsure. It’s scarce a stone’s throw from the herd. It’s small. I imagine it home for a 2.4 family. And having seen one, of course, I now see another. Two families, living up here with their goats.
So intent on seeing the goats and the benders, craning my neck to see over the bushes, I’ve not realised how far I have climbed. I am here, already, at the green band. I recognise . . . is it privet? . . . and holly and hazel. Later, Dave was to tell me it couldn’t be hazel; that hazel likes to keep its roots damp. Yet it looks mighty like hazel to me. I recognise hazel only from my school-day nutting with Fliss in the woods on the Plessey estate. The greenery keeps the sun off me, for which I am grateful. But, alas, it’s also a haven for flies. They swarm around me like beggars in Cairo. I’m glad to be through them and into the trees. There my hopes for a fast cut across the Plain are sadly dashed.
The ‘proper’ woodland I’d seen from the valley turns out to be the closest I’ve been to virgin forest.
Okay, that’s not the correct word. This is how you get when you work in a museum: picky about the correct terms. A forest historically—at least in England—refers to the king’s private hunting reserve, and as such can include moorland and villages, farmland and marshes, with perhaps not even one lonely tree. Obviously these wide-leaved trees that now wrap their coolness around me are not a king’s hunting reserve.
Yet the alternative word is woodland, so called for it being a general source for all kinds of woods (poles and paling for staking and fencing, timber for building and furniture making, twigs and small branches, and huge logs that are rotting, for the fuelling and kindling of fires)—all of which implies it is worked: felled, cut, stacked. Yet these oaks and beeches, limes and hornbeams, with their rich lichen coats and long streamers of mosses (not seen in this country since the Industrial Revolution) show no sign of coppicing, pollarding nor otherwise pruning. There are no stacks of logs that I can see. What I do see is a magical place with the sun filtering through the high, breeze-tussled leaves to dance, as bright spots, at my feet.
But why hasn’t Kenneth said of this? Has he intentionally left it unsaid to surprise me? And it is a surprise. I stand awhile, enjoying a saturation of senses, before continuing with the reccie.
At the scarp’s crest, the fence that’s corralled me all the way up, keeping me to its straight and narrow, now allows me a choice. The track divides; the right arm disappears through the trees to the west, the left arm dittos off to the east and, as far as I can see, keeps itself aligned to the scarp-top.
I wonder the purpose of these fences. Not for controlling the smaller beasts; it’ll not even keep a piglet at bay, just palings and rails. Perhaps it’s intended to keep the wild deer—and/or the wild spirits—confined to the woodland? Or is it to keep the cattle from straying when, in the weeks preceding the solstices, they are driven from all points north, east, south and west, even from the most northerly Orkneys, to Durrington Walls, there to be made sacred before they are slaughtered for feasts? That’s not wild imaginings; that’s just one of the discoveries of the Riverside Project, securely based upon chemical analysis of bones and teeth. Indeed, I’d say that the sacred cattle drive was probably the first cause of the Ridgeway, all the way from the Wash via Icknield Way to Stonehenge.
The minutes relentless tick as I stand at that parting of paths. Then, when it’s almost too late, I notice a gate in the fence. It’s not what we’d think as a gate, and neither a gap. It’s merely a change in the arrangement of posts. Elsewhere the uprights are closely spaced, like a row of teeth in a mouth. But here, the emphasis lays on the horizontal bars. Beyond is a path, wide and dividing the trees, paved with lush grasses where bluebells grow. And now I’ve seen it, I grin. I’d put money on it, that’s the way to Durrington Walls.
My fingers curl around the top bar—but I freeze. There is movement; movement on the edge of that greenery, barely into the trees. And it isn’t a wolf, bear or deer.