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Stonehenge before the First World War

Updated Thursday 23rd June 2016

In this extract from Afoot In England, the naturalist and author William Henry Hudson despairs of a site already being turned into a tourist spectacle.

That American from Indiana! As it was market day at Salisbury I asked him before we parted if he had seen the market, also if they had market days in the country towns in his State? He said he had looked in at the market on his way back from the cathedral. No, they had nothing of the kind in his State. Indiana was covered with a network of railroads and electric tram lines, and all country produce, down to the last new-laid egg, was collected and sent off and conveyed each morning to the towns, where it was always market day.

How sad! thought I. Poor Indiana, that once had wildness and romance and memories of a vanished race, and has now only its pretty meaningless name!

"I suppose," he said, before getting on his bicycle, "there's nothing beside the cathedral and Stonehenge to see in Wiltshire?"

"No, nothing," I returned, "and you'll think the time wasted in seeing Stonehenge."

"Why?"

"Only a few old stones to see."

But he went, and I have no doubt did think the time wasted, but it would be some consolation to him, on the other side, to be able to say that he had seen it with his own eyes.

Stonehenge in the snow Creative commons image Icon Xiana VB under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license

How did these same "few old stones" strike me on a first visit? It was one of the greatest disillusionments I ever experienced. Stonehenge looked small—pitiably small! For it is a fact that mere size is very much to us, in spite of all the teachings of science. We have heard of Stonehenge in our childhood or boyhood—that great building of unknown origin and antiquity, its circles of stones, some still standing, others lying prostrate, like the stupendous half-shattered skeleton of a giant or monster whose stature reached to the clouds. It stands, we read or were told, on Salisbury Plain. To my uninformed, childish mind a plain anywhere was like the plain on which I was born—an absolutely level area stretching away on all sides into infinitude; and although the effect is of a great extent of earth, we know that we actually see very little of it, that standing on a level plain we have a very near horizon. On this account any large object appearing on it, such as a horse or tree or a big animal, looks very much bigger than it would on land with a broken surface.

Oddly enough, my impossible Stonehenge was derived from a sober description and an accompanying plate in a sober work—a gigantic folio in two volumes entitled "A New System of Geography", dated some time in the eighteenth century. How this ponderous work ever came to be out on the pampas, over six thousand miles from the land of its origin, is a thing to wonder at. I remember that the Stonehenge plate greatly impressed me and that I sacrilegiously cut it out of the book so as to have it!

Now we know, our reason tells us continually, that the mental pictures formed in childhood are false because the child and man have different standards, and furthermore the child mind exaggerates everything; nevertheless, such pictures persist until the scene or object so visualized is actually looked upon and the old image shattered. This refers to scenes visualized with the inner eye, but the disillusion is almost as great when we return to a home left in childhood or boyhood and look on it once more with the man's eyes. How small it is! How diminished the hills, and the trees that grew to such a vast height, whose tops once seemed "so close against the sky"—what poor little trees they now are! And the house itself, how low it is; and the rooms that seemed so wide and lofty, where our footfalls and childish voices sounded as in some vast hall, how little and how mean they loo

Children, they are very little,

the poet says, and they measure things by their size; but it seems odd that unless we grow up amid the scenes where our first impressions were received they should remain unaltered in the adult mind. The most amusing instance of a false picture of something seen in childhood and continuing through life I have met was that of an Italian peasant I knew in South America. He liked to talk to me about the cranes, those great and wonderful birds he had become acquainted with in childhood in his home on the plains of Lombardy. The birds, of course, only appeared in autumn and spring when migrating, and passed over at a vast height above the earth. These birds, he said, were so big and had such great wings that if they came down on the flat earth they would be incapable of rising, hence they only alighted on the tops of high mountains, and as there was nothing for them to eat in such places, it being naked rock and ice, they were compelled to subsist on each other's droppings. Now it came to pass that one year during his childhood a crane, owing to some accident, came down to the ground near his home. The whole population of the village turned out to see so wonderful a bird, and were amazed at its size; it was, he said, the strangest sight he had ever looked on. How big was it? I asked him; was it as big as an ostrich? An ostrich, he said, was nothing to it; I might as well ask him how it compared with a lapwing. He could give me no measurements: it happened when he was a child; he had forgotten the exact size, but he had seen it with his own eyes and he could see it now in his mind—the biggest bird in the world. Very well, I said, if he could see it plainly in his mind he could give some rough idea of the wing-spread—how much would it measure from tip to tip? He said it was perhaps fifty yards—perhaps a good deal more!

A similar trick was played by my mind about Stonehenge. As a child I had stood in imagination before it, gazing up awestruck on those stupendous stones or climbing and crawling like a small beetle on them. And what at last did I see with my physical eyes? Walking over the downs, miscalled a plain, anticipating something tremendous, I finally got away from the woods at Amesbury and spied the thing I sought before me far away on the slope of a green down, and stood still and then sat down in pure astonishment. Was this Stonehenge—this cluster of poor little grey stones, looking in the distance like a small flock of sheep or goats grazing on that immense down! How incredibly insignificant it appeared to me, dwarfed by its surroundings—woods and groves and farmhouses, and by the vast extent of rolling down country visible at that point. It was only when I had recovered from the first shock, when I had got to the very place and stood among the stones, that I began to experience something of the feeling appropriate to the occasion.

The feeling, however, must have been very slight, since it permitted me to become interested in the appearance and actions of a few sparrows inhabiting the temple. The common sparrow is parasitical on man, consequently but rarely found at any distance from human habitations, and it seemed a little strange to find them at home at Stonehenge on the open plain. They were very active carrying up straws and feathers to the crevices on the trioliths where the massive imposts rest on the upright stones. I noticed the birds because of their bright appearance: they were lighter coloured than any sparrows I have ever seen, and one cock bird when flying to and fro in the sunlight looked almost white. I formed the idea that this small colony of about a dozen birds had been long established at that place, and that the change in their colouring was a direct result of the unusual conditions in which they existed, where there was no shade and shelter of trees and bushes, and they were perpetually exposed for generations to the full light of the wide open sky.

On revisiting Stonehenge after an interval of some years I looked for my sparrows and failed to find them. It was at the breeding-season, when they would have been there had they still existed. No doubt the little colony had been extirpated by a sparrow-hawk or by the human guardians of "The Stones," as the temple is called by the natives.

It remains to tell of my latest visit to "The Stones." I had resolved to go once in my life with the current or crowd to see the sun rise on the morning of the longest day at that place. This custom or fashion is a declining one: ten or twelve years ago, as many as one or two thousand persons would assemble during the night to wait the great event, but the watchers have now diminished to a few hundreds, and on some years to a few scores. The fashion, no doubt, had its origin when Sir Norman Lockyer's theories, about Stonehenge as a Sun Temple placed so that the first rays of sun on the longest day of the year should fall on the centre of the so-called altar or sacrificial stone placed in the middle of the circle, began to be noised about the country, and accepted by every one as the true reading of an ancient riddle. But I gather from natives in the district that it is an old custom for people to go and watch for sunrise on the morning of June 21. A dozen or a score of natives, mostly old shepherds and labourers who lived near, would go and sit there for a few hours and after sunrise would trudge home, but whether or not there is any tradition or belief associated with the custom I have not ascertained. "How long has the custom existed?" I asked a field labourer. "From the time of the old people—the Druids," he answered, and I gave it up.

To be near the spot I went to stay at Shrewton, a downland village four miles from "The Stones"; or rather a group of five pretty little villages, almost touching but distinct, like five flowers or five berries on a single stem, each with its own old church and individual or parish life. It is a pretty tree-shaded place, full of the crooning sound of turtle-doves, hidden among the wide silent open downs and watered by a clear swift stream, or winter bourne, which dries up during the heats of late summer, and flows again after the autumn rains, "when the springs rise" in the chalk hills. While here, I rambled on the downs and haunted "The Stones." The road from Shrewton to Amesbury, a straight white band lying across a green country, passes within a few yards of Stonehenge: on the right side of this narrow line the land is all private property, but on the left side and as far as one can see it mostly belongs to the War Office and is dotted over with camps. I roamed about freely enough on both sides, sometimes spending hours at a stretch, not only on Government land but "within bounds," for the pleasure of spying on the military from a hiding-place in some pine grove or furze patch. I was seldom challenged, and the sentinels I came across were very mild-mannered men; they never ordered me away; they only said, or hinted, that the place I was in was not supposed to be free to the public.

I come across many persons who lament the recent great change on Salisbury Plain. It is hateful to them; the sight of the camp and troops marching and drilling, of men in khaki scattered about everywhere over a hundred square leagues of plain; the smoke of firing and everlasting booming of guns. It is a desecration; the wild ancient charm of the land has been destroyed in their case, and it saddens and angers them. I was pretty free from these uncomfortable feelings.

It is said that one of the notions the Japanese have about the fox—a semi-sacred animal with them—is that, if you chance to see one crossing your path in the morning, all that comes before your vision on that day will be illusion. As an illustration of this belief it is related that a Japanese who witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa, when the heavens were covered with blackness and kindled with intermitting flashes and the earth shaken by the detonations, and when all others, thinking the end of the world had come, were swooning with extreme fear, viewed it without a tremor as a very sublime but illusory spectacle. For on that very morning he had seen a fox cross his path.

A somewhat similar effect is produced on our minds if we have what may be called a sense of historical time—a consciousness of the transitoriness of most things human—if we see institutions and works as the branches on a pine or larch, which fail and die and fall away successively while the tree itself lives for ever, and if we measure their duration not by our own few swift years, but by the life of nations and races of men. It is, I imagine, a sense capable of cultivation, and enables us to look upon many of man's doings that would otherwise vex and pain us, and, as some say, destroy all the pleasure of our lives, not exactly as an illusion, as if we were Japanese and had seen a fox in the morning, but at all events in what we call a philosophic spirit.

What troubled me most was the consideration of the effect of the new conditions on the wild life of the plain—or of a very large portion of it. I knew of this before, but it was nevertheless exceedingly unpleasant when I came to witness it myself when I took to spying on the military as an amusement during my idle time. Here we have tens of thousands of very young men, boys in mind, the best fed, healthiest, happiest crowd of boys in all the land, living in a pure bracing atmosphere, far removed from towns, and their amusements and temptations, all mad for pleasure and excitement of some kind to fill their vacant hours each day and their holidays. Naturally they take to birds'-nesting and to hunting every living thing they encounter during their walks on the downs. Every wild thing runs and flies from them, and is chased or stoned, the weak-winged young are captured, and the nests picked or kicked up out of the turf. In this way the creatures are being extirpated, and one can foresee that when hares and rabbits are no more, and even the small birds of the plain, larks, pipits, wheatears, stonechats, and whincats, have vanished, the hunters in khaki will take to the chase of yet smaller creatures—crane-flies and butterflies and dragon-flies, and even the fantastic, elusive hover-flies which the hunters of little game will perhaps think the most entertaining fly of all.

But it would be idle to grieve much at this small incidental and inevitable result of making use of the plain as a military camp and training-ground. The old god of war is not yet dead and rotting on his iron hills; he is on the chalk hills with us just now, walking on the elastic turf, and one is glad to mark in his brown skin and sparkling eyes how thoroughly alive he is.

A little after midnight on the morning of June 21, 1908, a Shrewton cock began to crow, and that trumpet sound, which I never hear without a stirring of the blood, on account of old associations, informed me that the late moon had risen or was about to rise, linking the midsummer evening and morning twilights, and I set off to Stonehenge. It was a fine still night, without a cloud in the pale, dusky blue sky, thinly sprinkled with stars, and the crescent moon coming up above the horizon. After the cock ceased crowing a tawny owl began to hoot, and the long tremulous mellow sound followed me for some distance from the village, and then there was perfect silence, broken occasionally by the tinkling bells of a little company of cyclists speeding past towards "The Stones." I was in no hurry: I only wished I had started sooner to enjoy Salisbury Plain at its best time, when all the things which offend the lover of nature are invisible and nonexistent. Later, when the first light began to appear in the east before two o'clock, it was no false dawn, but insensibly grew brighter and spread further, until touches of colour, very delicate, palest amber, then tender yellow and rose and purple, began to show. I felt then as we invariably feel on such occasions, when some special motive has called us forth in time to witness this heavenly change, as of a new creation—

The miracle of diuturnity
Whose instancy unbeds the lark,

that all the days of my life on which I had not witnessed it were wasted days!

O that unbedding of the lark! The world that was so still before now all at once had a sound; not a single song and not in one place, but a sound composed of a thousand individual sounds, rising out of the dark earth at a distance on my right hand and up into the dusky sky, spreading far and wide even as the light was spreading on the opposite side of the heavens—a sound as of multitudinous twanging, girding, and clashing instruments, mingled with shrill piercing voices that were not like the voices of earthly beings. They were not human nor angelic, but passionless, and it was as if the whole visible world, the dim grassy plain and the vast pale sky sprinkled with paling stars, moonlit and dawnlit, had found a voice to express the mystery and glory of the morning.

It was but eight minutes past two o'clock when this "unbedding of the lark" began, and the heavenly music lasted about fourteen minutes, then died down to silence, to recommence about half an hour later. At first I wondered why the sound was at a distance from the road on my right hand and not on my left hand as well. Then I remembered what I had seen on that side, how the "boys" at play on Sundays and in fact every day hunt the birds and pull their nests out, and I could only conclude that the lark has been pretty well wiped out from all that part of the plain over which the soldiers range.

At Stonehenge I found a good number of watchers, about a couple of hundred, already assembled, but more were coming in continually, and a mile or so of the road to Amesbury visible from "The Stones" had at times the appearance of a ribbon of fire from the lamps of this continuous stream of coming cyclists. Altogether about five to six hundred persons gathered at "The Stones," mostly young men on bicycles who came from all the Wiltshire towns within easy distance, from Salisbury to Bath. I had a few good minutes at the ancient temple when the sight of the rude upright stones looking black against the moonlit and star-sprinkled sky produced an unexpected feeling in me: but the mood could not last; the crowd was too big and noisy, and the noises they made too suggestive of a Bank Holiday crowd at the Crystal Palace.

At three o'clock a ribbon of slate-grey cloud appeared above the eastern horizon, and broadened by degrees, and pretty soon made it evident that the sun would be hidden at its rising at a quarter to four. The crowd, however, was not down-hearted; it sang and shouted; and by and by, just outside the barbed-wire enclosure a rabbit was unearthed, and about three hundred young men with shrieks of excitement set about its capture. It was a lively scene, a general scrimmage, in which everyone was trying to capture an elusive football with ears and legs to it, which went darting and spinning about hither and thither among the multitudinous legs, until earth compassionately opened and swallowed poor distracted bunny up. It was but little better inside the enclosure, where the big fallen stones behind the altar-stone, in the middle, on which the first rays of sun would fall, were taken possession of by a crowd of young men who sat and stood packed together like guillemots on a rock. These too, cheated by that rising cloud of the spectacle they had come so far to see, wanted to have a little fun, and began to be very obstreperous. By and by they found out an amusement very much to their taste.

Motor-cars were now arriving every minute, bringing important-looking persons who had timed their journeys so as to come upon the scene a little before 3:45, when the sun would show on the horizon; and whenever one of these big gentlemen appeared within the circle of stones, especially if he was big physically and grotesque-looking in his motorist get-up, he was greeted with a tremendous shout. In most cases he would start back and stand still, astonished at such an outburst, and then, concluding that the only way to save his dignity was to face the music, he would step hurriedly across the green space to hide himself behind the crowd.

The most amusing case was that of a very tall person adorned with an exceedingly long, bright red beard, who had on a Glengarry cap and a great shawl over his overcoat. The instant this unfortunate person stepped into the arena a general wild cry of "Scotland for ever!" was raised, followed by such cheers and yells that the poor man actually staggered back as if he had received a blow, then seeing there was no other way out of it, he too rushed across the open space to lose himself among the others.

All this proved very entertaining, and I was glad to laugh with the crowd, thinking that after all we were taking a very mild revenge on our hated enemies, the tyrants of the roads.

The fun over, I went soberly back to my village, and finding it impossible to get to sleep I went to Sunday-morning service at Shrewton Church. It was strangely restful there after that noisy morning crowd at Stonehenge. The church is white stone with Norman pillars and old oak beams laid over the roof painted or distempered blue—a quiet, peaceful blue. There was also a good deal of pleasing blue colour in the glass of the east window. The service was, as I almost invariably find it in a village church, beautiful and impressive. Listening to the music of prayer and praise, with some natural outdoor sound to fill up the pauses—the distant crow of a cock or the song of some bird close by—a corn-bunting or wren or hedge-sparrow—and the bright sunlight filling the interior, I felt as much refreshed as if kind nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep, had visited me that morning. The sermon was nothing to me; I scarcely heard it, but understood that it was about the Incarnation and the perfection of the plan of salvation and the unreasonableness of the Higher Criticism and of all who doubt because they do not understand. I remembered vaguely that on three successive Sundays in three village churches in the wilds of Wiltshire I had heard sermons preached on and against the Higher Criticism. I thought it would have been better in this case if the priest had chosen to preach on Stonehenge and had said that he devoutly wished we were sun-worshippers, like the Persians, as well as Christians; also that we were Buddhists, and worshippers of our dead ancestors like the Chinese, and that we were pagans and idolaters who bow down to sticks and stones, if all these added cults would serve to make us more reverent. And I wish he could have said that it was as irreligious to go to Stonehenge, that ancient temple which man raised to the unknown god thousands of years ago, to indulge in noise and horseplay at the hour of sunrise, as it would be to go to Salisbury Cathedral for such a purpose.

 

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