Saturday, 5 August 2017

In our ancestors' footsteps

I've been lucky enough to explore some ancient landscapes in the last week, together with a project all about returning to a wilder landscape hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Last Sunday we headed off to Avebury World Heritage Site for a walk among the ancient earthworks, burial mounds and standing stones. Our route took us passed the mysterious Silbury Hill (man-made but for no apparent reason), up to the West Kennet longbarrow, and along part of the Wessex Ridgeway before turning back to the village. Although it's now a relatively-intensive agricultural landscape, it's scattered with numerous signs of a much more culturally-important use for the land, with fragments of remnant chalk grassland clining on to slopes, such as on the Avebury stone circle.
The Hill dominates the landscape, and the longbarrow sits high on a hilltop, visible for a great distance. Notably, you can actually go inside part of the longbarrow, and it was made even more special by the presence of a swallow nest, full of chicks. The parents weren't put off by people walking by, as they swept in to feed them.

During the week, as part of a work trip, I was lucky enough to go glamping on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. here, they've given up intensive agriculture and left 3500 acres to return to wilderness, grazed by enormous herds of free-roaming (no fences!) long-horn cattle, red and fallow deer, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies. It's on its way to becoming a landscape more typical of the Bronze Age. What's interesting is not the botanical interest (relatively poor in parts) but the scale of the mosaic of habitat - ideal for a great wealth of invertebrates and birds, including purple emperor butterflies and rare arable plants found in the rotavated earth left by the pigs. Can we take some of this practice back to other areas in the country? Food for thought.

Finally, yesterday we headed off to Stonehenge, for the free walk I've talked about before. The old dismantled railway was looking beautiful in a kaleidoscope of chalk-loving plants such as wild parsnip, knapweed, field scabious, wild carrot, self-heal and red clover. Although there weren't any skylarks to accompany us (I'm pretty sure they've now finished breeding), it's usually a cacophony when you come earlier. We walked the whole length of the Cursus in the end - 1.7 miles of earthwork, possibly built for a ceremonial purpose. as with everything this old (4500 years in some cases), it's hard to tell exactly what some of the features were for, but I feel this mystery makes it even more amazing to walk in their presence.

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