I am in the early stages of planning my second book (while still writing the first one – I hate having too little to do!). Briefly, it’s about places in the landscape which have a long tradition of spiritual significance. Looking beyond obvious places like Stonehenge, I’m interested in holy wells, hilltops and groves, and sites where, for example, a present church overlays earlier, even pre-Christian, places of worship. At a time when travel around the United Kingdom is constrained by regulations to control the pandemic, my early researches will mostly need to be limited to books and online, but there are a number of sites which I can get to easily from home, or which I know well, these seem like a good place to start.
Some years ago I lived in the neighbouring county of Dorset. Specifically, I lived at the foot of Hambledon Hill, and its green mass filled the view from my study window. In the summer, I would walk up to the top and lie flat on my back in the grass, squinting up into the blue sky and trying to spot the skylarks which I could always hear, but rarely see. If I was very lucky, I would be visited by an Adonis Blue butterfly, a rare species which likes the chalk grassland habitat where the grass is kept short by conservation grazing.
I never felt on my own up there. Even when there were no dog-walkers, butterfly enthusiasts or hikers, there was always a sense of people being present – as if at any moment I might glance up and see someone. The hill felt at once very peaceful and very busy, and also very, very old. Some places feel like that – as if the echoes of human footsteps and the shadows of their movements are left behind from the distant past, maybe even from before history as we know it. I notice it especially in places that have been inhabited longest – the landscape of barrows or stone circles, of hill forts or cave art. It is probably fanciful – but I think I’m not the only person who is sensitive to the fleeting impressions left by the people who were in a place long ago.
Hambledon Hill has drawn people to it for over five thousand years. The Neolithic peoples who had started to farm the land in the valleys below built an enclosure on the top of Hambledon Hill. It was a significant high point in the landscape, providing a good defensive position against both the east (the chalk uplands of Cranborne Chase) and the west (the fertile Blackmore Vale). There is archaeological evidence for at least seasonal occupation over several hundred years, with remains of goods originating as far away as Devon, and some of the earliest evidence of grape cultivation in Britain. These people buried their dead in the long barrows – burial mounds – on the crest of the hill. The site continued to be used by the Beaker People – early Bronze Ages arrivals – but the main impact on the hill as we see it today came in the Iron Age. Three rings of ramparts were built, changing the outline of the hill and creating an impressive defensive hill fort, complete with three staggered entrances. The enclosure created by the ramparts contained some hundreds of small roundhouses. Despite the scale of this endeavour, archaeologists believe that Hambledon Hill was eventually abandoned, probably about 300 BCE, possibly in favour of nearby Hod Hill, which was itself in turn appropriated by the invading Romans.
But Hambledon Hill continued to be a significant feature in the landscape, and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the area several hundred years later they adopted the hill as a cemetery site. Who knows whether their choice was influenced by an understanding that the long barrows were ancient burial sites? In any event, the Anglo-Saxons identified Hambledon Hill as a suitably exalted location for the burial of their own dead.
Nowadays, the dead of the village at the foot of the hill are buried in its churchyard, but people still come to Hambledon Hill. It is on a long-distance walking route, bringing many hikers to marvel at the view of Blackmore Vale, set out like a chessboard below. Locals walk their dogs here, naturalists come to study the rare species of plants and insects. And the ongoing significance of the hill, with its millennia of human history and its present role as a nature reserve, is reflected in its purchase in 2014 by the National Trust, the largest conservation charity in Europe.
Up on the hill, the skylark’s song seems timeless, connecting the stories of the people who have come to Hambledon Hill down the millennia. Sadly the skylark is on the Red List of endangered species, so it is unlikely that many more generations of visitors will be able to enjoy their ethereal trilling high in the summer sky. But the place has seen many species come and go, including humans, shaping it and leaving traces of their lives behind them. I wonder what relationship the humans of a thousand years from now will have with Hambledon Hill?