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A walk around... Kilmartin Glen

Updated Sunday, 26th October 2008

Take a walk around Kilmartin Glen in Argyll with Neil Oliver and guests, and explore its standing stones and ancient monuments

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Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to a walk around Kilmartin Glen. Nowadays, this place feels tranquil and fairly isolated from the outside world. But in prehistoric times, it was anything but.

A thriving community once lived around here and the whole area is studded with the monuments, standing stones and rock art they left behind. As we'll hear, they were a dynamic combination. Spiritual people who were self-sufficient yet worldly and well travelled too. And when the Bronze Age came to Scotland, they made the most of it and grew extremely wealthy. As tour guides, we have three experts on ancient history of Kilmartin. All of them closely linked to the area in different ways.

Before you set off, make sure you’ve got a copy of the map. If you set off from home without one, ask in the shop at Kilmartin House Museum here. They should have a spare copy.

We’re starting our walk up here at the back of the museum, point 1 on the map. From here, we get a great view out over the Glen before we walk down into it. In front of you, you can see what looks like a large pile of stones on a gentle rise in the middle of the field. This is a massive Bronze Age cairn or burial mound. If you look left, down the Glen, you can see two more of these, and maybe spy a third through the trees if you come in winter. The stories they tell are fascinating, and we'll get a much closer look on our walk.

Dr Alison Sheridan is an archaeologist who’s been studying Kilmartin Glen for over twenty years.

Alison Sheridan: This area is actually one of the richest archaeological areas in Scotland, and indeed in Britain, and certain elements of it are internationally significant as well, because it seems as though the Glen has been used as a special place since at least 3700BC. So it's a place for ceremony, a place for burying people, a place for observing the movements of the sun and the moon, and it's also a very atmospheric place because the line of the hills to the south is very jagged, very distinctive. And at the northern end, there’s this amazing gravel terrace that stops abruptly and would have offered a kind of almost like a viewing platform right the way down the Glen, and we know that that was a focus for very early ceremonial activity.

Neil: Let’s begin walking down into the Glen to what’s marked as point 2 on your map. We’re going to head out onto the road and then down the hill and round to the other side of the Glen and those trees you can see beyond the cairn in front of us.

While we’re walking, we've got time to hear about the geography of the area. Kilmartin Glen was a very special place for the people who lived here, but its origins lie in the desolation of Britain’s last Ice Age. Neal Ascherson is a writer and archaeologist. He grew up near the Glen and knows it well.

Neal Ascherson: It was created long before human beings came here, something like ten thousand years ago when the glaciers finally decided to melt, and when they did so, they began to pour down through Loch Awe, which is just to the north here, and then they burst through the hills forming great gorges. And then a river, a glacial melt river, poured down, something unimaginably violent and huge like a hundred Niagaras multiplied together, and it just carved out the whole of this landscape, which then filled up slowly to become a flat-bottomed glen. And then it also created, slowly, with the help of the sea coming in and out, these gravel terraces of rolled round stones, which first of all create beautiful drained earth on top of the terraces where people can live and have their activities, but also provided the round stones out of which the great burial cairns were made.

Neil: Several millennia passed, and into the area came its first human settlers, small groups who lived by fishing, hunting and gathering the abundant wild resources. We call them Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age people.

Alison: We know that, as the last ice sheets left Britain, people would expand, spread up. So they wouldn’t have come from very far. But certainly, at that time, after the last ice had gone, this would have allowed a lot of trees to grow and flourish. So it would have been much more heavily forested than it is now. But then, one of the stories that runs right the way through the history of the Glen is how, over time, people have cleared away the trees to make the landscape that we see nowadays.


Point 2: On the wooden bridge

We’re now in the Glen proper, and if you look across, you can see Kilmartin House Museum where we started out from. Sharon Webb is Director and Curator of the Museum, and she’s also here with us on the walk. As she explains, the Ice Age left this area with fertile soil and abundant resources.


Sharon Webb: When the very first people moved into this landscape, it would have been a landscape of plenty. The rivers and the lochs would have been teeming with fish and the woods would have been full of game and there would have been lots of plants that they could have eaten, nettles and berries and fungi in the forests, and it would have been a really rich place for the hunter gatherer people to move through and find enough resources to live.

Neil: The river you can see here has been straightened in recent times to help the farmers. But it used to meander across the Glen. In fact, when it floods, you can see the water sitting in some of the ancient meanders. We’re not going to cross this bridge yet. Instead, we’re now going to walk much further along this path until we get to a first cairn, Nether Largie South, point 3 on the map. Tantalisingly, we'll be passing the other cairns on the way but there’s a good reason for not visiting those yet. We’re going to visit the oldest one first. Keep walking right along the track for ten to fifteen minutes until you pass Kilmartin Primary School on your right and come to a tarmaced road. Join this road, bearing right.

If you’re into wild life, keep your eyes open for red squirrels, pine martins, buzzards, perhaps even ospreys, because this area is still rich in animal and plant life, as it was back in Prehistoric times.


Point 3: Nether Largie South cairn


This is Nether Largie South Cairn. It's one of the earliest monuments in the Glen, a few centuries older than even in Stonehenge, and it was built by one of the early farming communities who settled in Argyle, arriving several thousand years after the Mesolithic people. This cairn belongs to the New Stone Age or Neolithic Period.

Sharon: A cairn is essentially a place where people were buried. Although we think, with this particular type of cairn, that burial might not have been a one-off event, that people might have come back and maybe moved bits of the body or bits of the bones around. And, essentially, it's stone slabs that make up a long chamber with smaller kind of indents going off where maybe bones would have been placed or bodies would have been placed, and then it's covered over with cobbles, big stones that have been rounded by the glaciers and then must have been dug or quarried to form the tomb.

Neil: If you take a walk around, you can see the entrance to the chamber. You can climb in if you like and admire the incredible craftsmanship of the stonework. We'll hear more about the design in a moment. On the other side of the cairn, you’ll also see there’s a stone box known as a cist that’s been inserted into the mound. This is from a later burial.

Alison: This is an early Neolithic monument, and it's of a kind of monument that you do get in the South West of Scotland, and it's very, very similar to ones that you get in North East Ireland as well. It's called a Clyde Cairn and the chamber was divided into four segments. It was excavated in the 1860s by an English antiquarian called Canon Greenwell, and what he found was pottery and some burnt and unburnt human bones and also a tooth of a cow. And he kept the pottery, and also there were some stone artefacts as well, but unfortunately we don’t have the bones, and this is a great shame because if they had survived, we could radiocarbon date them nowadays.

But we know from the pottery and the flint tools that he found that the people who lived here were in contact with people who lived elsewhere in South West Scotland, on Bute for example. But also at the other end of the Great Glen in North East Scotland, you’d find exactly the same kind of pottery around this time. So we’re talking about 3600, 3500BC. Some of the other pottery, and also some beautiful flint arrowheads that were found, dates to much later. This dates to probably between 2300 and 2000BC. It's known as Beaker pottery, and it was a kind of pottery that was international in style, and when we look at some of the other sites, we'll be seeing other examples of Beaker pottery.

Neil: Many of the artefacts you’ll hear about on the walk are up in the Museum where we started, and what we've got here is evidence that the early farmers had a strong need to mark their presence within the landscape. By building this chambered cairn, they were both honouring the dead and showing that the land was theirs. As we've heard, these farmers were well connected with similar groups outside the Glen, sharing pottery designs with people in North East and South West Scotland, and sharing tomb design with the early farmers in Ireland.

The practice of reusing the cairn over time is something we'll see elsewhere too. The cairn here, for example, was more of a rectangular shape when it was first built but over a thousand years later, when the people were building the Great Circular Cairns in the Glen, this one got a makeover so that it would match the others.

We’re now going to walk to another ancient site - Temple Wood. So go back the way you came and out through the gate, turn left and make your way to point 4 on the map. Then find the gate by the Visitor Information Board.


Point 4: Temple Wood

This is Temple Wood. It's a very complex site, and it's kept archaeologists busy for decades. Despite the name, the trees here are a recent addition. So you can imagine that originally the monument would have been even more dramatic in appearance.

Alison: What we have here is two circles. There’s a very low ring of cobbles with a couple of stumps of stone, and this is the so-called Northern Circle, and then there’s another stone circle which has higher stones in, that’s the Southern Circle there. The Northern Circle probably constructed around 3000BC, and it started its life as a timber circle of upright posts, and they then converted that into a stone circle. And, for whatever reason, they then abandoned it and built the Southern Stone Circle instead.

Neil: You can see the position of the original stones in the smaller circle marked by concrete markers nowadays. But let’s walk over to the larger circle now and stand in the middle of it. This monument’s had even more changes and additions made to it over the centuries, and this is the first place where we'll see some ancient rock art.

Alison: Basically, the stone circle that you see was probably erected, again, about 3000 or 2900BC, and there are two stones in the circle that I want to point out. So if you look back along the valley towards the Museum and count, first of all, one, two, the third stone along, running to the left, has got a very faint two concentric circles on it - it's very hard to see. And then if you count along another two stones, there is a stone that has a beautiful spiral design that runs around two sides of the stone, and this spiral is really important because it has links with passage tomb art that you get both in Ireland in the Boyne Valley, places like Newgrange and Knowth, but also in Orkney as well.

And then you can’t see them now but there were two graves that were put in on the outside of the stone circle, probably around 2300BC, and in one of them, they found teeth belonging to a child that was four to six years in age, and in the other one, unfortunately the body had completely rotted away but they got phosphate readings, you know, they did a chemistry of the soil, and from that they said it was a person who was crouched, like a sleeping person, on the left hand side, and inside that cist they found a Beaker pot and some beautiful flint arrowheads and some other flint tools as well. And it's more than likely that this had been an adult man.

And because of their location, it's likely that these were quite important people in the community. Because what they’re doing is really taking over an ancient monument and saying look we’re important enough to be buried here.

Neil: So here, again, we can see that when the stone circle was built, these people had far flung connections outside the Glen. Circles of timber and stone were being built elsewhere in Scotland at the time, like the stones of Stenness on Orkney, Callanish on Lewis and Machrie Moor on Arran. So the builders of the Temple Wood circles were sharing in a widely held set of beliefs. But what were these beliefs? What were these circles for? They were certainly places where people came together to celebrate special times, and they may well have marked significant points in the movements of the sun and the moon, such as sunrise at midwinter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Right in the centre of the circle, there’s a huge cist that was probably added in the 22nd Century BC, some time after the other graves had been built outside the circle. Whoever was buried in the cist must have been very important. We've already seen at Nether Largie South how an ancient monument was taken over and given an early Bronze Age makeover, and that’s just what happened here as well. And it didn’t end there. Nearly a thousand years later, people came back to that cist, buried the cremated remains of other people inside it and built a little kerb of upright stones around it with a sort of entrance at its South East.

There’s still a lot we don’t understand about Temple Wood, but one thing is certain, it was used as an important sacred site on and off for two thousand years.

Neal Ascherson: When you look at these places, you’re not looking at the kind of religion which says a church or says a temple. You’re looking at a place in which people brought a general feeling of holiness and awe about a whole landscape, about their own way of life, probably about animals too, which they may well have regarded as having sort of souls, as indeed trees have sort of souls, but all these things came together. And I think one of the extraordinary things is that the way in which the expression of reverence changes so that people reused, as their belief systems appear to have changed and we know extremely little, next to nothing about what those belief systems really were, but you can see that they did change and yet that people could say well we don’t believe probably what those people who built this cairn or this circle originally believed, but nonetheless it is a deeply holy place, we think that, and we would like to be buried in our own way there too so that sanctity, in a strange way, carries on in certain places.

Neil: Now, follow the directions to Nether Largie Standing Stones, point 5 on the map. Go through the gate and stop there.

In front of us, we've got three groups of standing stones in a line, with an outline one off to the left at a jaunty angle. Start walking now to the stone in the centre of the alignment.

Point 5: Nether Largie Standing Stones

The reason we've come to the central stone here is because you need to get up close to see that one side of it is covered in rock art. You saw the spiral at Temple Wood, and what we've got here is another type of rock art, known as cup and ring marks. Elsewhere, in and around the Glen, you can find these designs carved, or as the experts say pecked onto outcrops of living rock. In fact, one of the biggest decorated outcrops in Britain can be seen just a few kilometres away at Achnabreck. It's very hard to date them but they were probably decorated sometime between 3000 and 2200BC. The fact that the rock art is on only one side of the stone suggests that people deliberately quarried a stretch of outcrop that already had rock art on it, but what the decoration signified is a mystery.

Alison: There’s something like a hundred and five different interpretations that have been put on these things, but the one that I think seems to make sense is that people would have had a very developed sense of another world, the world of the gods and the ancestors and the spirits, and it's known that if you take hallucinogenic substances, some hallucinogenic substances, you get to see things that are similar to when people have near-death experiences and they see the sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

And it may well be that the cups here represent that light that people see in their inner mind, and it's to do with the way the brain is wired, it's sort of brain chemistry, because you get the cup marks on rock art all over the world and you get people reporting, seeing these kinds of things when they take hallucinogenic substances. And it may be that by carving these things into the living rock, people were trying to make contact with the world of the gods and the ancestors, and it may well be that they were used in initiation ceremonies where you would take young people away from the settlement and you would tell them how the world came about and the secrets of life, and you would do this by taking mind-altering substances and then reproducing that experience by pecking into the rock.

And so by coming along may be a thousand years later or more than a thousand years later and deliberately quarrying this sacred rock, what they were doing was getting the ancestral and the other worldly power, and then by erecting it as part of a stone setting that itself was probably to do with observing and marking a particular point of the moon’s setting point at a particular point in its long cycle, what you’re doing is adding power, supernatural power to supernatural power.

Neil: Standing stones themselves have always exerted some sort of power over the landscape, and over humans too.

Neal Ascherson: Belief in the sacredness and the importance and power of these symbols has gone on through the ages intermittently anyway. It's obvious that there must have been a period when people were encouraged to overthrow these things, particularly the standing stones, in the name of Christianity. But in many cases, quite clearly, they did not, and that was partly because they were afraid of them in some sense, and this has always been a thing coming and going.

I mean, even in my own lifetime, travelling people around here in this part of mid Argyle had a tradition that, first of all, if you wanted to make a camp, it was good to be quite close to some standing stones because the standing stones protected you, and travelling people always feared of their children being stolen, and so they thought that within the protection of the stones they’d be okay. On the other hand, they were told never touch them, they don’t like that.

Neil: Now we’re going to head to point 6, Nether Largie Mid Cairn. Go back the way you came and back out onto the tarmaced road, turn right and retrace your steps to the footpath.

As you walk along the Glen, look up the valley past Kilmartin. To the left of the village, you can see the raised area that’s now the upper Largie gravel quarry. Here, during rescue excavations in 2005, archaeologists found a remarkable grave. The style of both the grave and the three Beaker pots found in it are identical to those created in the Netherlands at this time so it's likely that this was the grave of a Dutchman who had come to Scotland with a few companions. This may seem astonishing but we know that people were travelling long distances from Continental Europe at that time, by sea and perhaps even by pony. What’s more, the Dutch newcomer may even have been the person who introduced the Glen to a revolutionary new substance - metal.

Alison: The story of how people came to make and use metal in Britain and Ireland is a very, very interesting one, and it seems as though expert metal workers came from elsewhere, from Continental Europe, and one of the most important sites we know is a place called Ross Island in County Kerry in the South West of Ireland where around 2400BC people opened up a copper mine. And we know by analysing the composition of metal objects that the copper from Ross Island was exported far and wide, and the people in Kilmartin had been importing copper from Ross Island and exporting it to elsewhere in Scotland.

And what’s even more interesting is that from 2200BC, that is about two centuries after copper came to be made, somebody realised that you could alloy copper with tin to make bronze, and that set off a whole other exchange network where tin from the South West of England was moving around with copper from Ireland and people were then making bronze objects.

Neil: Bronze had the advantage over copper that it was durable, and the raw materials and finished objects were much in demand. The people who lived around Kilmartin Glen took full advantage of their key position and the route that linked Ireland and North East Scotland via the Great Glen. Certain families became powerful and very rich.

Alison: We know that they were powerful and rich because they showed off. They showed off their status mainly in their funerary monuments. So by arranging for yourself a grave chamber that’s twice the size of anybody else’s, in a cairn that is twice as big as anybody else’s, by having exquisitely made pots in the grave, by having bits that have been recycled from other sacred sites elsewhere so the cut marked rocks or little bits of stone from Temple Wood Stone Circle, what you’re doing is pulling into you all of the power of the ancestors and of sacred places and you are saying look I'm a really important person. And we can set these very rich graves against less rich graves that you find in the Kilmartin Valley and that you see elsewhere in Scotland as well. So it's by looking at these gradations of status that we can say okay some people were clearly marked off as being special people.

Neil: The next three cairns we’re going to visit are Bronze Aged ones, from this bonanza period in the Glen. Keep walking now until you get to point 6 on the map, Nether Largie Mid Cairn. Cross the stile and walk to the Information Board.

Point 6: Nether Largie Mid cairn

Nether Largie Mid Cairn may look smaller than the others we've passed, but the reason for that is that many of the cobbles that used to cover it were taken away for repairing roads during the early years of the 20th Century. Parts of the kerb that originally ran around the cairn can be seen poking out among the cairn slip.

Alison: This cairn here is very clearly circular. Although there weren't any datable finds within this one, in the other circular cairns in the Glen there was material that can now be dated to about the 22nd Century BC, and it's as though, at that period, that was when people who were really wealthy, and these are great symbols and statements of power, and it was probably at this stage that they actually went to Nether Largie South to the ancient monument and then reconfigured the cairn to make it circular, to make it look just like these ones.

Neil: If you walk around, you can see one of the two stone cists that were found under the cairn. Both the cists had massive cap stones to cover them and the cist that’s buried under the cairn had been made particularly carefully with grooves down the side slabs to help keep it watertight. On the cist that’s visible, look out for at least one cup mark and a carving of an axe head on the inner side of one of the end slabs. We'll hear more about these later.

Our next stopping point is the cairn you can see to the north, again, along the way we originally came. You might have noticed by now that the cairns form a line in the Glen, and this has been called a Linear Cairn Cemetery, and there was originally at least one more which was completely removed for road building.

Now, return to the footpath then turn right and continue on your way up towards the head of the Glen until you get to the Information Board at Nether Largie North Cairn. This is point 7 on the map.

Point 7: Nether Largie North cairn

This is Nether Largie North Cairn. You can see there’s a sliding door on the top and you can climb inside. If you’re up for it, press pause, climb in and press play once you’re inside. If small prehistoric spaces aren't your cup of tea, just keep listening. Our intrepid experts have gone in so you don’t have to.

Sharon: I guess the first thing that’s important to point out is the fact that the chamber we’re now standing in is a total reconstruction. It wouldn’t have looked like this in prehistory but it's been made to look like this so we can look at the enormous cist slab that sits in the centre of the chamber and also the lovely top slab that’s leaning up against the wall which would have covered the cist burial. And, of course, the interesting thing and the reason why it's propped upright so everybody can have a look at it is the fact that the cist slab has got cup marks on it and then also another design which is a representation of a copper or a bronze flat axe. Interesting also in the fact that in some places the flat axes have very clearly been carved over the top of the cup marks, which means that the flat axe carvings are of a later date that the cup marks.

Alison: Some of them are a little bit hard to see but if you get your eye in, there are actually forty of these axe head carvings. They’re fairly shallow but they look like trapezoidal, rectangular, wider at one end than another, and they’re all over this surface, and if you look carefully, as Sharon was saying, some of them clearly cut pre-existing cup marks.

Neil: What this means is that once again, as we saw at the Nether Largie stone setting, people deliberately sought out an ancient decorated outcrop adorned with the sacred ancestral rock art, prized it out and brought it here to be used as the cap stone for an important person’s cist. What’s more, they added a new design featuring metal axe heads. These relate to the person who was buried here.

Alison: These are the symbols of wealth. This was obviously the grave of a really important person, for various reasons. That the cist itself is bigger than usual, the stones are really big, the cairn is humungous, and it's almost as though you’ve made your living by selling Mercedes Benz and so you get buried in a Mercedes Benz. I think the person buried here was probably an entrepreneur who was responsible for shipping Irish axe heads up to other parts of Scotland. So he was in the sort of import/export business, if you like.

Neil: Let’s now climb back out and make our way along to the last monument on the route - Glebe Cairn - where other eminent individuals were buried - one with some stunning grave goods. So continue along to the wooden bridge we stopped at on our way earlier, and this time, let’s cross it and head towards the cairn you see in the field ahead. Glebe Cairn is point 8 on the map.

Point 8: Glebe cairn

Alison: Glebe Cairn here is the northern most of the early Bronze Age large cairns in the Glen, and this one was excavated in the 19th Century, and they found two cists underneath, and with one of them, it was surrounded by a double circle of low stones. And inside it, they found a beautiful pot, an Irish-style pot, and then on top of it had been laid a jet necklace that must have been imported from Whitby in Yorkshire. Tragically, that necklace was kept in a house nearby and there was a big fire in the 19th Century and it was destroyed in the fire. But luckily we know from other necklaces that had been found in this part of Scotland roughly what it would have looked like.

And it would have been for a woman, and jet itself, it's actually a semi fossilised monkey puzzle tree and you get, the only significant source of jet is in Whitby in Yorkshire, and it's been used as an amulet throughout history and prehistory, and so people probably believe that it had magical powers. It wasn’t just a beautiful and rare and precious rock but it probably was a kind of supernatural power dressing. So to bury a very important wealthy woman in one of these necklaces was to send her to the next world wearing something that would protect her as well as emphasise how powerful she was.

Neil: Alison describes this as supernatural power dressing. It really does emphasise the wealth that was here in the early Bronze Age and the cosmopolitan well connected nature of the elite. The jet necklace came from over three hundred miles away and was an ornate multi stranded beauty of a piece. You can see an image of this kind of necklace on your map. Before you ask, we know the person who was buried with the necklace is likely to have been a woman because some of the necklaces have been found elsewhere, and where the human remains have survived, they’ve been found to be female.

Other hot spots of wealth existed in Britain during the early Bronze Age. In one cist in Clackmannan, for example, a woman was buried with her head resting on a stoat fur, like a fur pillow, and there are a number of early Bronze Age graves where important men, usually in their forties and fifties, a great age in those days, were buried with their dagger. So it was clearly important to people at this time to give an ostentatious send off to the important members of the community.

Glebe Cairn is the last location on our walk. So if you now walk towards the garage, you’ll see a gate. Go through it and you’ll get to the road that leads back to Kilmartin House. So much has been discovered with the archaeologists working here, and forensic science has added another dimension to the process, but there are still many mysteries about the prehistoric community here, and some of them are huge.

Sharon: We know a reasonable amount about the burial practices of the people that were living in this area in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but one of the things we don’t know is where they were living. We haven't found any evidence of houses in the Glen at all, and that’s intriguing. Some people have suggested it's because the Glen was a ritual landscape that was reserved only for ceremonial uses, burial uses, ritual uses, and that actually the people would have lived further away. My own belief is that this is such rich agricultural land that they probably would have been farming it as well as using it as a ritual landscape and therefore they probably would have been living fairly close by. So it could be that we just haven't found evidence because we haven't done any large scale excavations in this area. I'm sure more work will start to reveal a more sort of complex use. Then again I might be wrong.

Neal Ascherson: I think the last thing I would like to know more about, and that isn't really known about, is the end of this strange now seems almost idyllic period of late Neolithic and Bronze Age in this area, in this beautiful Glen. Because it did come to an end and the weather, which was drier and finer than it is now, seemed to have come to an end, I don’t know, about 1000BC or something like that, it began to change and the whole ecology began to alter. And at the same time, probably coincidentally, culture changed as well, and the capacity to build or the wish to build those monuments and indeed to honour them or to take any account of them died away, and then what is generally known as the Iron Age, nobody took much account of these monuments and certainly nobody tried to build anything of the kind again.

Instead, you get a quite different kind of culture in which you get tiny fortified settlements and you feel everything grew colder and more hostile, and maybe the population diminished heavily. But whoever was left seemed to fear everybody else, and you get this idea of these little fortified duns, these little stone fortresses on every hilltop, each watching another, you know. Just a different backward time began, unhappier, less sunlit somehow, less enterprising and creative.

Neil: What strikes me in Kilmartin, and what I find almost overwhelming, is that you can walk around it during the course of a single day. But you have to remember all the time that this is a ritual landscape that took thousands of years to develop, and it involved the lives of countless thousands of generations of people, all of them making their own contributions to it. So if you come away from this place feeling overpowered, well, join the club.

This audio walk was produced in collaboration with The Open University.

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