Fliss had been reluctant. But Julia managed to wear her down until she was granted her desire: an eight-hour ‘trip to Destination to investigate Ken’s anachronistic long barrow.
“Which way?” I hadn’t thought to ask until I was lowering myself into the ‘pod. Ken didn’t understand my question, early in the morning, his face remained blank. “Which way is fastest,” I asked “—Top or bottom?”
“Oh. Yea, the top. You’ve seen Dave’s map; you’d be an idiot to pick round his pits. Just follow the fences, you can’t—” But I didn’t hear the rest of his words. Fliss closed the lid on me.
The trip wasn’t starting out good. I’d been talking instead of attending my breathing. And she shouldn’t have sealed me in so promptly, before I’d a chance to position the eye-pads. I’d seen her face, like a crumpled white sheet after a nightmare-sleep. I’d a niggling feeling she wanted me to have a bad time, to vindicate her insistence on many more trips before extending my hours. Now too late to apply the eye-pads, I closed my eyes instead. What the hell, what’s the difference. And with the attended breathing being second nature to me, I quickly slipped into it.
Relax … Breathe … Drift.
I could hear the faint hiss of the air feeding in. The tubing was plastic yet there was a vague whiff of rubber. Maybe that was the seal. I’d told myself, before stepping in, that this trip, my second, I’d stay alert, my senses keen. I wanted to catch the moment of transition. Ha! No chance. In no time the breathing had zoned me out, drifting me into sleep.
Is it the change in temperature? Or the quality of the air? Is it the bird song that tells me I am there? Neolithic Wessex. Perhaps it’s all of it banded together. The scent from a trillion flowers overpowers. I could stay here inhaling, but—
I’m not in a pod, on a bed, in a house. I’m out in the wilds, unprotected in nature. I jump to my feet, inhale and stretch. There’s another smell worming its way to my senses. God, but that’s familiar—though so out of place. A Sunday BBQ? No, it can’t be. Yet there’s the same blend of sizzling fat and charring meat. Only, no. Curdling through it is something other, something less pleasant. Several more sniffs elicits the answer. It’s hair. It’s not a BBQ, it’s a cremation.
By now I have sourced it. To the west, some place beyond the next fluted gulley. I can see the smoke, blue and thin. In respect of the dead I stand for a moment. Then, loins metaphorically girded, I head off up the track.
Everything here looks the same, it could be the same day. Except for one feature. Cowpats. They’re sufficient in number to suggest a sizable herd has passed this way—recently, like yesterday after being snatched back by the ‘pod. That sparks an question.
Is time at Destination in sync with time in our twenty-first century? Or is there some element of slippage? I’m thinking particularly of Kenneth’s trips, he being days rather than hours at Destination. That could be freaky, to be climbing the hill in his double’s company. I must remember to ask Fliss about this.
Thinking of Ken and his ‘trips, I wonder why he’d not mentioned the fences until just before my departure. And why Fliss’s scowl? Related? Has he not been telling her everything? But that’s not surprising, the way he reports. Perhaps he does it on purpose; he doesn’t want Fliss to know what she’s missing. How sweet of her so-caring husband. Anyway, I shelf the thought; I might ask him later.
I’m nearing the top of the scarp, making good time—considering the need to weave between ‘pats. But the day is already closing on hot and I’ve just hit that brushwood tonsure. The flies here are out in force. My head itches at the thought of them, I hardly can breathe. But all that’s an added incentive to make some speed. Head down I push on, a wary eye to my feet. I know as soon as I’m through the brushwood the flies will then disappear. And once into the woodland the air will be cooler. Once there I can look for some elder, despite it usually grows in a more open place. An efficient fly repellent, an old country saw says to plant it close to the kitchen door (Mother’s Remedy). The scarp-top in sight, I’m wondering if Mr Davy-Indigenous-Crockett will be waiting there for me. If so, will he hail me again? Will he speak?
No, Jules-darling, he was just a dream.
Apparently he’s not a repeating dream. No sign of him today. Alas, I’m disappointed in that. But there are plenty more cowpats. They look doubled in number. What’s more, the ground here is softer (leaf litter instead of hard stone) and the cows’ hooves have deeply churned it (the inconsiderate beasts). It needs but one shower of rain to turn the track into a total quagmire. I’m reminded of what Dave said of soil slippage. This beneath my feet is a good six feet deep, while in C21st there’s a scant six inches to cover the chalk. I flick a look at the sky, catching glimpses between the shifting green canopy, and pray for a dry day.
Heading eastward towards the river, the path is in every degree as different as possible to the one I walked yesterday afternoon (my timed jaunt to the river and back). Yesterday’s path ran through open country, sun-baked, with darting lizards and low-growing grasses. Today’s path, closed in and dark, weaves beneath the wide trees. But in truth they’re not the same path, though it takes me a while to realise. Yesterday’s path tracked along the scarp-edge, keeping exceedingly close to it. This path is set a distance away from it. In fact it’s so far south it’s in danger of tumbling into a yet another deep coombe. That’s an annoyance since I’d wanted to nose into that gulley where I’d seen the herders and benders. Now that won’t happen, not without me climbing the fence. Though I did plenty of that as a kid, I’m now reluctant, probably wisely. I have, however, found the required elder, growing in profusion both sides of the track. The track serves the same as the railways that cut through our towns: it provides an open corridor, a haven for plants that thrive in the light.
I try not to trample the flowers that grow by the fence but I need to stay close to avoid the ‘pats. Edging around them, my thoughts stay with the cattle. It’s not the right season for the feasts at Stonehenge and/or Durrington Walls. The evidence there points to celebrations only at the summer and winter solstices (winter attracting the greater attendance). So it’s unlikely that’s where these cattle are heading. To their summer pastures seem the more likely. Yet pastures by necessity are alongside the rivers, down in the valleys. Here is a long way from them. Yipes! I suddenly panic. What happens if I meet the herd head on?
No, Jules-darling, you’re not actually there. But it’s so real, so convincing, more so than any dream I’ve ever had.
I arrive at a three-way intersection. Which way now? I take it the south-turn will deliver me direct to Durrington Walls. I’m tempted. But no, that’s not my destination today. I take the east-turn and hope somewhere along the way it’ll veer to north for I’m sure I’m now south of Upavon.
More trees, more flowers, more bushes, more of the ‘pats to constantly dodge; the birds now are silent, the day is progressing. I wonder if I’ll see any indigenous wildlife, though most I’d prefer not to encounter: wild boar, wild cattle, bears, wolves.
Hush up, Julia, you’re scaring yourself. Just look through that hedge. No wild beasts; the land is worked.
I look and behold, beyond the elder and apple, brambles and rose briars, hazels and—is that a blackcurrant and gooseberry?—beyond these the land is open, a grassland (though true, more flower than grass) close-cropped by sheep—or goats—or whatever they are. Studding the hillside are a few patches of woodland-coppice.
So where is the agriculture, as in growing the grain? I suppose their fields are kept close to their settlements which, despite yesterday’s evidence of benders, will be sited nearer the river. I ought to find them soon enough; I need to cross the river to where I’m heading.
The track follows a spur that rises between two sharp-sided coombes—then drops me sharply into the damp gulley bottom. I try to picture my location on the Ordinance Survey map that’s pinned on the pod-room wall. No chance. I have to admit it, I’m a tad disoriented. I knew, before the junction, the track was taking me slightly south, but how far south? And now ahead of me is another junction—a T-junction (the previous was more of a fork).
North, or south? How much quicker my journey without these fences dictating direction. But without even moving I can see the south-track follows the gulley bottom. I’m guessing this is Water Dean Bottom, and that track will take me down to Enford—well, what today is Enford, But that is just too far south for where I want. I don’t mind walking the river bank, but not for that distance. So my decision, again, is easily made—I take the north-track.
The track almost immediately climbs out of the gulley. But once atop the hill it then insists I descend yet again—though at least now it’s taking me closer to where I where I would be. The way, cowpatted and muddy, is steep—and allows me an unexpected view of the indigenous people and habitation.
I count the benders. Five, though there may be more. As with yesterday’s benders, they’re widely scattered, but there are more children here. Indeed, they’re everywhere, running harum-scarum. Are they playing Tag? As to the women, three have toddlers, naked and brown as berries (my mother’s expression) who tag their mothers, a few steps behind. I know what Fliss will ask (and never mind her, I’ve an interest myself), so I attend to the clothing. The adults and older children wear gear fashioned from the same kind of skins as the Mr Davy-Indigenous-Crockett. Whatever the skin—deer, goat—it looks remarkably soft and fluid, like the chamois leather used to clean cars. I notice a gender-defined difference. Men wear trousers or chaps, women wear skirts to knee or calf. But over these, both sexes wear what yesterday I’d thought was a short wrap-around skirt. Now I see it’s made in two parts and tied at the waist. The women’s—call it an apron—are incredibly fancy with quill-work and tassels and various decorations, all no doubt intended as charms. No need to ask what part of the body they’re protecting. The male version, though it has its charms and amulets, is far less fancy. On their tops, both sexes wear a shirt or tunic; apparently it’s a unisex garment. And both wear hats.
There are more styles of hat than of any other item of wear – and many more uses. Religious, ceremonial, safety, weather-protection, fashion, as a status marker; amazing for such a small thing. These Indigenes’ hats, however, are all styled the same. Call it a mob-hat, though it’s made of that same animal-skin and as with the women’s aprons it’s thickly encrusted with charms. It strikes me as odd as I watch them about their business, that some show their arms, others their legs, but (unlike my Mr Davy-Indigenous-Crockett) none show their hair.
By now I’m hearing Fliss in my head, with her checklist. Complexion? Fair-ish: typical West European, perhaps cast darker by an outdoor life. But these folk aren’t blond; according to the men’s beards I’d put them as various shades of brown.
There’s an obvious division of labour. The women tend their children and goats, milking the nannies into leather-made buckets, while the men, as far as I can see, whittle at wood. I’m sure they have other occupations.
Then, finally, I see the cattle. They’re down by the river, perhaps thirty head. Not huge beasts but diminutive cows, red coated and shaggy. They do, however, sport horns that look nastily vicious. I’d prefer not to walk through a field of these despite, for now, they’re placidly chewing their cud. A nearby group of squawking, squabbling scanty clad youths are probably officially their herders.
I descend the hill, approaching the families. If I soften my tread and keen my ears, I might be able to hear what is said. Not that I’m expecting to understand the lingo. And in that I’m not disappointed. I’m no linguist but I’d say there’s something slightly Germanic about their speech, but softer, more labial. Regardless, it’s still double-dutch to me. And the day is fast wearing on; I’ve no time to dawdle and listen.
I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to reach the river. It hasn’t helped that the track zigzags chaotically across the plain instead of delivering me direct. But at least now I’m nearly there. I can smell the water, the fish and the mud.
I can see the Vale, too, though not in detail, obscured by lingering mist. It looks very green. I remember what Dave said of the Vale being all fen. Yet, stretching towards me there’s a peninsula of definitely dry land. Cattle graze it, a herd ten-, twenty-, fifty-times larger than the one tended by the youths this side of the river. Are they of two different people: goat-herders to south of the river, cattle-herders to the north? But I have still to see fields.
There ought to be fields. We know at this period they were growing both wheat and barley. Yet . . . where? There’s not a sign of them. It’s only when the track takes me close to the river, here shallow and narrow, and deliver me to a ‘slide-bar’ gate that I finally get a sight of their crops—though I have to stand upon tiptoes to see. Their grains are protected by a shoulder-height fence of woven hurdles. I suppose if one has goats on the loose, and cattle—not to mention the children—it makes sense to ring the crops with an impenetrable fence. It’s early yet; within the compound the plants have yet to make ears, straining instead to reach a great height. Our modern farmers would declare it an inefficient way to grow grain, but perhaps these early farmers have a need of the long stalks.
Two fields along—not consecutive; each field is separately fenced—is a different type of circular enclosure, its original bars and palings smothered by a scramble of bushes and briars. As yet I can see nothing within yet it’s not a copse for it lacks the telltale filling of taller trees. I can’t take my eyes off it, so intrigued by it.
Then . . . a colossal gate yawns, inviting. I stare.
I hear my mother chiding me, as a child, how rude to stare. But it’s only a rock-and-water recorded memory; I’m not really here.
I count four longhouses within, each as much as seventy or eighty feet long and maybe twenty to thirty feet wide. They’re an odd construction: A-shaped, a deltoid cross-section, its steeply pitched thatched roof serving as walls. The thatch continues beyond the body to make at their narrow end—the end facing the gate—a deep shaded porch. How many families live here? A dozen? Twenty? More? Is this where those five families belong? Perhaps their winter quarters?
Exciting though it is to see the settlement, something is grating. It’s the style of house, as anachronistic as Kenneth’s long barrows. This is Late Neolithic, typified everywhere, right across Britain, by that same square house they found in abundance at Durrington Walls. They might be individually fenced, and maybe ringed by bank and ditch, but they’re always square, never long.
Something else grates. Why hasn’t Ken said of this? He came this way, he must have seen. Anachronistic, yet this settlement presents important evidence. All but a scatter of the Wessex barrows and henges are archaeologically known. Most have suffered at least a cursory investigation. But not the settlements; these are rare, extremely short on the ground. To go to a university’s archaeology department and say, ‘Here is a settlement.’ Wow, that’s on a par with the astounding discoveries of the Riverside Project. Yet Ken has kept quiet of it. Why? Especially now that he knows I’ll see it.
Much as I want to linger, to observe every small detail, I still can’t get it firm in my head that I’m not really here. I’m on edge, fearing any moment now I’ll be seen and . . . I don’t know what then will happen. Whatever, it won’t be good. I’m not exactly their normal stranger. One look at my clothes says I don’t belong. So I hurry along.
Something else Ken hasn’t told me: there is a bridge. It doesn’t reach the full span of the river, which anyway here isn’t so wide or so deep that it can’t be waded. It’s formed of two jetties with loose boards stowed near. I use the boards to bridge the gap. It’s time I really quickened the pace. Till now I’ve been more interested in looking about me, as if I’ve no interest in the cursus and Kenneth’s anomaly.
There’s a scatter of hurdle-fenced fields twixt river and hill but no other signs of occupation. Maybe the people here don’t get on with their neighbours across the river, and don’t want their ringed settlement directly opposite. It’s probably beyond the bend, just a shout downriver. So, with nothing to distract me, I climb the hill which, as Kenneth said, is devoid of trees.
I can’t miss his earthwork as soon as I see it, its chalk is bright in the sun. I walk alongside it. Though I’d thought Ken’s description basic at best yet he covered all aspects. Seeing it, it can’t be other than a defensive bank, though not necessarily protection against human attackers. Set where it is, overlooking the fens, it’s more likely to be against malevolent spirits.
That sorted, I head off to the supposedly non-existent cursus. The hilltop’s free of restricting fences so here I can stride out and recover lost time. After a short plateau the hill continues to climb, steep at first before levelling out. From here I can see down into the valley. I was right of where the folks this side have their settlement. There are scattered benders, too, and goats and cattle. My thoughts on finding the invisible, I ignore them. I ignore, too, that I’m silhouetted against the skyline. So what of it; I’m not really here.
I don’t know the time, how long I’ve been at Destination, but the heat of the day is long gone, so I’m guessing the pod won’t be long in grabbing me. I need to find this cursus soon—if it’s there. I reckon, a thousand years old, overgrown and forgotten, it won’t be so easily seen. Even so, pacing the hilltop where it ought to be, I cannot see it. Ken was telling it straight. All is open grassland here, with no bump or lump, or anything telling. Yet before coming here I’d checked it out with County Records.
The cursus was identified in 1987 from an aerial photo. The O/S coordinates checked out. Though there’s been no excavation (initially it was considered an unexceptional monument) a geo phys survey in 2005 verified its existence. At that time a dig was mooted but postponed for lack of funds. While hitting their site I also checked for Ken’s earthwork; no record of any finds from.
A sudden chill breeze whispers around me. I shudder. Isn’t the sudden drop in temperature supposed to presage a ghost appearance? But it’s just a cloud covering the sun. I turn again northward. I still can’t figure the missing cursus, and I don’t want to leave it, yet at the same time I want another look at Kenneth’s anomaly.
I’m almost there when someone, a man, calls out to me. I don’t know the lingo but his single word i’s enough to stop me. Expecting to see just the one man there, I turn to face him.
Whoa! What’s this? It’s a veritable crowd, all bristling with vicious flint-headed spears.
But I’m not really here. I’m safe in the ‘pod, back at the Priory. They’re just a water-and-rock recording. Just ghosts. Not real.
But that doesn’t stop the launch of those stone-headed spears.