In which The Author and his pals have an impromptu day out
This afternoon, just after the lunchtime news, I caught a repeated documentary on BBC Radio 4. It threw me back in time thirty years or so, to one of the most inventive, bizarre, mysterious and frightening children’s TV shows of that period: Children of the Stones.
In Everything Changes, I mentioned some of the great SF/fantasy shows that UK television produced during the 1970s and 1980s. Even though we grew up in South Wales, we had ‘piped’ television, which enabled us to watch HTV West and BBC West. We were spared Welsh-language kids’ programmes like Miri Mawr and Bilidowcar, and enjoyed thought-provoking dramas instead. Children of the Stones was one of them. It was set in the fictional village of Milbury – but filmed in the real village of Avebury, in Wiltshire. I fell in love with the place at first sight. After all, what’s not to like about a quintessential English village built inside a Neolithic stone circle?
In Happy Days: The Children of the Stones, the comedian and broadcaster Stewart Lee interviewed one of the co-writers, caught up with some of the cast, spoke to the curator of the Avebury Museum, and met the eccentric musician and antiquarian Julian Cope, in an attempt to find out just what had made the programme so memorable. I have to be honest and say that I don’t recall a huge amount about it at this remove. I know it involved an astronomer, a Black Hole in space which was somehow transmitting signals to a stone circle, and a very strange village where (Stepford Wives-style) nobody was quite what they seemed. People disappeared, stones moved around, and the theme and incidental music was unlike I’d ever heard before. It was remarkably atonal, which might account for the direction my own taste in music took in subsequent years.
Even though I’ve forgotten a great deal about the programme itself, it sowed the seeds of my lifelong fascination with that area of the country, where Neolithic monuments abound and the very landscape seems saturated with the ghosts of our ancient forebears.
An advertisement used to pop up on HTV West at around this period as well, for the newly opened Ridgeway Path. It’s a 76-mile long-distance path across the chalk uplands of southern England, from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. That ad captured my imagination as well. (I still want to walk the length of the Ridgeway Path, blogging my journey from wifi-enabled country pubs as I go. I should probably do it before my back gives out entirely!) Anyway, I made it an ambition of mine to visit Avebury as soon as I possibly could.
I had to wait until I was in my late twenties until I finally made my pilgrimage to this archaeological Mecca. The circumstances were suitably bizarre, looking back. Benji, Jason W., Deno, Nigel B. and Julia (who were an item at the time), and Sam and I had had a late night in the Globe in Cwmaman over the Xmas holiday. (It might even have been Xmas Night.) At the time, Jason and Deno were sharing a house in Aberaman, and we all made our way back there at stupid o’clock before crashing out in various chairs in the front room.
The only person who didn’t stay in the house was Nigel. Way too pissed to drive home, and afraid that his car would be stolen or vandalised, he slept in it, parked outside the house. When we all stirred in the morning, we decided we’d better wake him up. He was blue with cold when he came in, so we poured hot coffee down his throat until he thawed out. It was just the latest incident in a long sequence of mischief which had characterised the evening. While he was sleeping, the girls had painted Benji’s face with lipstick and eye shadow. He didn’t check the mirror before he left to go home, and greatly amused our friend Paul when he called into the shop to buy a paper on the way.
We were, not unreasonably, rather tired and hungover from the night before, so Jason put some music on to try and liven the place up. First of all we listened to Ogden’s Nutgone Flake by the Small Faces, which did everyone’s heads in! Then he put on another CD, and one track was the classic Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel.
During the course of the song, Jason suggested, quite out of the blue, ‘I know – let’s all go to Salisbury and see Solsbury Hill!’
[A digression: Our road trips had become something of a Bank Holiday tradition by this stage. Some of the gang would turn up randomly at Dad’s flat at about 9.30, I’d grab my road atlas, and we’d set off, destination anywhere. I’d been the navigator for a planned excursion a couple of years before, when one of the boys had a job interview in Esher, to the south-west of London. My reputation for going to interesting places was a bit of a legend. I walked into the Carpenters Arms early one Bank Holiday Monday evening, and the two Sharons (T. and P.) asked me why I was so late on parade. I told them I’d just got back from Bath.
‘It doesn’t take all day to have a bath,’ Sharon T. said in surprise.
‘No, I’ve not been in the bath,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been to Bath – the Roman city in England.’
‘You can’t get there and back in a day, can you?’ she asked.
‘Of course you can, girl!’ I told her. ‘It’s only an hour from Cardiff on the train.’]
This particular morning, my knowledge of the West Country, gleaned from hours of studying OS maps, history books, and travel guides while working on my Great Unpublishable Novel, came in handy once again.
‘Solsbury Hill isn’t anywhere near Salisbury,’ I said. ‘It’s just outside Bath. And it’s not really worth visiting these days – they’ve built a bloody great bypass through it!’
Jason looked rather disappointed, so I came up with another suggestion. ‘Mind you, we could always go to Silbury Hill …’
I was met with blank faces all round. Ever the salesman, I outlined the Avebury Complex, and within a few minutes we had a target in mind. Half an hour later, Deno, Nigel and Julia, and Sam and I were eastward bound!
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a great deal of traffic around, and we made good time into England. We came off the M4 and started meandering around the country roads, through small market towns and picturesque villages. Every so often we got a sudden lungful of the great outdoors – it’s valuable farming country – which didn’t do much to ease our queasy stomachs. Driving past one cluster of buildings, we spotted a heap of large black polythene parcels piled up in a field. Deno, who has always been a noisy bugger, bawled ‘Zoiledge!’ out of the car window. (It was his attempt to say ‘silage’ in a West Country accent.) A woman walking her dog looked at this car full of Welsh nutters in some alarm, and from then on, ‘zoiledge’ was the word of the hour. He shouted it at a middle-aged couple standing in a bus stop as well. We chuckled at them. They’d be a long time, we assumed. Soon after that, we saw a bus coming towards us. I could see everyone thinking, Public transport? In the morning? On a Bank Holiday? What strange world is this that the Doctor has brought us to? After our next blast of wholesome country air, Deno couldn’t help himself. He leaned out of the open window and screamed, ‘Fertiloizer!’ at a couple of local kids cycling past. He yelled his two new words alternately at everyone we passed, until we finally saw Silbury Hill loom into view ahead of us.
[A digression: Deno, like my late friends Alan Swanson and Stuart Cable, was born in Cwmaman. Like emergency vehicles or jet aircraft, all three of them could be heard around the corner several seconds before they appeared. Now, every time I go to the village, I lose my mobile phone signal. I’m not the only one; it’s a well-known communications black spot. I suspect that this inability to pick up broadcast signals accounts for the inhabitants’ need to bellow at each other, instead of speaking quietly.]
Silbury Hill is a man-made earthwork, 40 metres in height, which dominates the flat chalkland all around. It’s been excavated since Victorian times, and occasional digs still go on to establish more about its history. Shortly before I finished working in Waterstones, Jim Leary of English Heritage addressed the Cardiff Archaeological Society on the current state of research into the structure. I went to the talk at Cardiff University, and wished afterwards that we’d spent a bit more time exploring nearby. It’s an extraordinary landmark.
We arrived at Avebury a few minutes later and managed to park up a little way from the village. The car park was about half full, and free, and we made our way down a narrow lane and into the village itself. I wasn’t surprised to find it wasn’t very big, centred around a church, a pub called the Red Lion, a village shop, and a scattering of stone cottages. There was a museum, a restaurant in a converted barn, a Post Office, and a bus stop served by services between Salisbury and Devizes (see ‘What Do You Want?’ – ‘Information!’).
Most importantly, of course, there were the stones. We’d parked up outside the village and taken the obvious way in, but we’d made a mistake. If we’d walked from the south, we’d have followed a long straight track lined with small standing stones. Instead, we had to content ourselves with seeing the taller sarsens which ring the village. Unlike its more famous neighbour across Salisbury plain, Avebury is a true ‘henge’ – a raised bank of soil inside a shallow ditch, upon which the stones stand sentinel. (One theory suggests that the word derives from the fact that, in the early morning mist, the stones appear to ‘hang’ in the air.)
In that pre-digital era I was always running short of film, so I haven’t got many photos of the village. This is one of the few decent ones I took on the day.
We decided to have a quick one in the Red Lion, and played a couple of games of pool while we were chilling out. I liked the pub, and would really like to go back there again. As you’d expect for a place with such ancient associations, the village attracts an eclectic mixture of tourists, amateur archaeologists, pagans, hippies, New Agers, and other odd types from across the world. We felt right at home!
I had a quick look around in the museum, and bought a couple of postcards as souvenirs. One was a great aerial shot clearly showing the stone circle and the outliers, with the crooked cross where the roads meet in the centre of the village. The other one was a stunning photo of some of the megaliths in deep snow. I’ve kept the aerial photo, but gave the other one to Sam years ago.
We drove on across Salisbury Plain once we’d seen as much as we wanted to, and ended up at Stonehenge. The sun was just setting, and my pictures were very atmospheric.
I won’t put the rest of the photos on here, as it’s quite obvious that Julia and Nigel were a couple, and that Sam and I were together as well. Now, Julia and Deno are married, Nigel’s married, and Sam’s married. I’m the single one this time.
Since then I’ve been back there only once, and would love to stay for a couple of days so that I could really explore the place. I’ve got the 1:25,000 OS maps on the shelf at home, just waiting for their day in the sun. Yasmine from work and I were planning a trip in 2008, but she injured her knee and wouldn’t have been able to walk far. We put the idea on the back-burner for a while, and there it remained until we both finished work and went our separate ways. When I mentioned the documentary on Facebook earlier, she commented that she still hasn’t made it there.
I, in my turn, hooked Yas on the place after lending her Max Milligan and Aubrey Burl’s lavishly-illustrated book Circles of Stone: The prehistoric rings of Britain and Ireland (Harvill Press, 1999). I remember she was a bit unnerved by the caveat that ‘Avebury is best visited in the daytime.’ I assured her that the writers were talking about the best time to photograph the place. Then again, after being reminded of the spooky goings-on in Children of the Stones, I’m not too sure.