The Sacred Valley of the Grey Wethers

gatebarrowmodA chill autumn day and the Mojo team were walking up a valley into the chalk downlands that lies between the town of Marlborough and the famous Stone Circle at Avebury four miles away.  

In the West of England such valleys are often called combs (pronounced cooms) a word derived from the Celts.  They are generally steep sided, meandering affairs created thousands of years ago by Ice Age glaciers or their melt waters.

In the summer they are carpeted with all manner of wild flowers; harebells, bee orchids, yellow rattle and cowslips to name a few. A myriad butterflies feed off the flowers while skylarks sing in their thrilling elevator flight.

poppies Fotor

Winter brings change and then the downs are ruled by rain and frost. The white ribbons of prehistoric trackways crossing the chalk stand out on the horizon. Red Kites wheel in the sky and ravens rasp their calls to one another.

That day stayed bright for the Mojo visit. There wasn’t a breath of wind and it was as still as stone. This was entirely appropriate because we emerged from the shelter of a hedgerow to be confronted by a massive sentinel. It was the cromlech of Standing Stones which guard the wonders in the valleys beyond.  

We were at a place known as the Devil’s Den. Not a name I like. I’m certain the devil played no part in its construction. I prefer to call them the Gateway Stones for reasons which will become clear. There are three huge sandstone rocks known as Sarsens. Two of them stand upright supporting a third laid on top as a capstone.

moregatebarrowmodErected 4000 years ago, in the Neolithic Age, these giants originally formed the inner chamber of a round barrow or burial mound. I have no doubt the people laid to rest in the tomb were prestigious as a huge effort must have been put into its construction.  

Today it marks a portal into the past where ethereal glimpses of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age can be seen and sensed. It’s truly a Gateway into another world.

But before we moved through this veil across prehistory the four of us sat in the meadow at the foot of the Stones and quietly reflected on the place and its innate peace.

The fun and good natured banter that inevitably accompanies Mojo expeditions had somehow been lost on the way to be replaced by a feeling of gratitude for life, for nature and for being.

Then we broke bread together and ate it with cheese and ham and fruit. A simple thing eating together but somehow it was imbued with more significance. The scene around us soaked into the senses.

We finished our simple meal then moved on quietly up the valley, rounding a spur in the hill, to be gifted with the sight of the Grey Wethers.

It’s hard to explain the effect of this flock dotted around a natural basin in the coomb. Wether is the old English name for a young ewe and at first glance we could indeed have been looking at a flock of sheep. 

But as we walked into the scene the ‘sheep’ were revealed to be thousands of boulders dropped by the retreating glaciers which created the valley itself.

sacredtreesIt is an extraordinary place; a special place. The hairs on the back of my neck never fail to tingle when I am there. The feeling of sanctity in that valley is palpable.  

You see, the wonder of it is, four thousand years ago the architects of the great temples at Stonehenge and Avebury wandered through that valley selecting the giant boulders they needed for their great works.

This relatively small area was the natural quarry which supplied the building material for Stonehenge, thirty miles to the south, and for Avebury just a couple of miles away to the west.

It also provided the sarsen rocks for dozens more sacred places in the area and hundreds of giant boulders were dragged away to be raised for the temples and burial mounds of the ancients.

Three of them, of course, had been used to build the Gateway Barrow just a few hundred meters behind us. I can’t help feeling the people laid inside its chamber were the surveyors and architects of the marvels we still hold in reverence to this day. I like to think they were given a resting place close to their sacred quarry.

The valley is tucked in the downs, away from the well trodden tourist routes. Relatively few people venture there and we saw no-one at all on our visit. So the Mojo sisters were able to walk in that unique place and feel its special atmosphere touch them.

gwmojosistersI always feel placid and content among the Wethers and I’m always amazed and gratified to see the effect it works on others. There is a feeling of timeless reverence and a resonance of past knowledge still electric in the air. 

I know it touched the Mojo sisters deeply. I believe they still call on their experience among the grey wethers as a balm to their soul.

We walked on among the grazing cattle and up the incline until we were poised to follow the steep Ridgeway track down to the World Heritage Site at the Avebury Stone Circle.

The sisters were wistful, loathe to leave the grey wethers behind them. One last look over their shoulders and they saw a rainbow had fallen to earth at their feet in the valley below

We watched the rainbow fade over the Valley of the Grey Wethers and turned to walk a mile and a half to the west. There we’d find the ancient and quite remarkable Stone Circle of Avebury. morerainbow

Our way into Avebury was down a twisting, white snake of chalk; a prehistoric pathway called the Ridgeway. And we were all conscious that four thousand years ago our ancestors took this route when they dragged the huge stones from the valley we’d just left to build their temple below.

mojoaveburyWhat they constructed is now a World Heritage Site. Rightly so as it is an awesome sight; a huge stone temple set within a deep ditch and a forty foot high bank

Avebury is the largest stone circle in Europe with 98 megaliths forming two small rings of stone within a huge outer circle.

Two avenues of standing stones lead into the temple from the south and the west and its builders dragged hundreds of megaliths, some weighing 40 tons, from the grey wethers on the downland above to complete their sacred masterpiece.

Avebury is really old, some 4600 years old. So old there’s evidence it was a tourist destination for the Romans! Nearby is Silbury Hill a Neolithic enigma yet to be explained but these days a regular venue for naked Solstice dancing by the pagan Moon Maidens.

Reams have been written about this extraordinary place but as we walked into the monument’s encompassing arms the MoJo team fell into contemplation. Personally I always feel an enduring sense of man’s connection to the landscape at Avebury. 

For me the fundamental thing is there is no roof over this temple.  Whoever worshipped here did so in tune with the elements; under the sun, the moon and the stars. Among the stones. I find that appealing.

aveburyfontOver the millennia time wrought its changes on Avebury and today the village has morphed itself into the midst of the Stone Circle so the Red Lion Inn, reputedly the most haunted in England, now lies at the heart of the whole complex.

We walked past the pub, promising to return for a pint, and carried on to the church of St. James which lies just outside the prehistoric circle itself.  I wanted to show the MoJo sisters something that isn’t on the general tourist trail at Avebury.

Something which offers a glimpse into the sinister past of the Dark Ages. It was around the time when the Roman Legions abandoned Britain in 425AD. The soldiers were needed to fight barbarians closer to Rome and they left the British to fight invading tribes from the continent on their own.

It was also a time when Christianity was surging across the known world carried by zealous monks holding a Cross and a Bible in their hands.

In those days many legends were born and included in Christian tradition. One of them was the slaying of the dragon by St. George. Another was the banishing of snakes from Ireland by St. Patrick. This despite the fact snakes had never been part of the Irish ecology because of the Ice Age.

And behind the creaking oak door of the Church of St. James in Avebury was another, fascinating clue to the serpent slaying credo of Christianity and I led the MoJo sisters to see it.

There on the ancient, stone font, in the nave of the church we saw the carved depiction of a man with a bishop’s staff and mitre smiting and stamping on two long-necked serpents at his feet.

aveburystandingstonesWhat does it mean? Why has St. Patrick turned up on an ancient Christening font in Wiltshire? Well he hasn’t but to understand the Christian serpent-slaying metaphor you have to understand something about the Druids. 

Like many ancient religions right across the globe the Druid’s were Ophites. They worshipped the great serpent of the universe embodied, they thought, in the stream of stars of the Milky Way.

So, in the ancient Welsh language, the word for a druid and a viper were one and the same. The word is gnadr – pronounced gunadder – and it’s the root of the modern name for the adder.

Clearly those first Christians in Britain were using a derogatory name for Druids when they referred to serpents. It was Druidic practices that St. George slew and it was the Druids who St. Patrick had driven out of Ireland.

Two thousand years after it was built the Druids were certainly at Avebury in the days of the Iron Age Celtic tribes. Whether or not the Bronze Age people who built Avebury and Stonehenge were Ophites whose beliefs passed down the ages to the Druids we may never know. 

redlionwellHowever there is one clue to a possible connection. The antiquarian William Stukely made a plan of all the avenues and circles that cover a couple of square miles around Avebury and concluded they were laid out like a giant serpent on the ground.

Food for thought. And so we headed to the Red Lion Inn, home to its own ghosts of the past, and sat near the ancient well in the centre of the bar. We reflected its waters would undoubtedly have been used in the long forgotten rituals performed within Avebury’s rings of stone.