On our visit to Old Sarum we were treated with a fine aerobatic display from a plane that had taken off from the nearby airfield. It was only later, when I returned from my travels that I realised that it was possible to visit the airfield site. Maybe next time
Once Old Sarum was a major centre of government but all that remains today are the great earth banks and ruined remains of the former buildings.
Uniquely, it combines evidence for a royal castle and cathedral within in a massive Iron Age fortification. During the century and a half when its castle and cathedral coexisted, Old Sarum was a major centre of government.
The earliest fortification was probably raised around 400 BC. Following the arrival of the Romans, Old Sarum begins to feature in recorded history as Sorviodunum, and it was intermittently occupied during the Middle Ages, when its formidable defences became an advantage during the Danish wars of the early 11th century.
However ; it was William the Conqueror’s decision in about 1070 to build a castle in the middle of the old earthworks that was to transform the site. He effectively divided the old hillfort in two, creating an inner set of fortifications which became home to a complex of towers, halls and apartments, and a huge outer enclosure or bailey. The hillfort was also chosen as the site for the new cathedral, and under Old Sarum’s most powerful and influential bishop, Roger (1102-39), both castle and cathedral were rebuilt on a grand scale.
Yet neither castle nor cathedral remained occupied for long. In 1220 the cathedral was moved to Salisbury, in the valley below, and only a handful of people continued to live within the castle or ramparts beyond about 1400. Old Sarum lived on, however, and as a notorious ‘rotten borough’ it continued to elect members of parliament until 1832.*
Standing on top of the earthworks provides an excellent view of Salisbury Cathedral formerly known as New Sarum.
* Introduction to the English Heritage Old Sarum guidebook
Whenever I visit Avebury I always feel compelled to stop and contemplate the mysterious Silbury Hill.
The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn; the bird waits in the egg; and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities.
James Allen (1864 – 1912)
St James’ church was founded in around AD 1000 and appears to be a ‘minster’ church, that is, a church held by the crown and serving a large area. A little of the history of the church can be found here.
The tub font is possibly of Saxon origin but has detailed carving of the first quarter of the 12th century. It was apparently done by a local stonemason and probably shows Christ trampling on two dragons, representing evil and sin. However the figure holds a crosier and so has also been held to represent a bishop, although Professor George Zarnecki believes that the rustic sculptor misunderstood the picture that he was copying and added the crosier.
One of the glories of this church is the 15th century rood loft, originally used to house the Great Rood, or large crucifix, the most revered object in the early church. In the top rail to the loft parapet are the original 17 sockets that held candles that were kept burning to light the Rood. The Rood would have been destroyed after the Reformation and the loft and screen were removed, probably following an order of 1561 from Elizabeth I. Normally the timber would have been reused but almost uniquely the Avebury church managed to hide and preserve their rood loft. The timbers were stacked against the east wall of the nave, above the chancel arch, and covered with a lath and plaster wall. This was a very risky business for all concerned but the secret was well kept and the timbers were not discovered until 1810. The rood loft was restored in the 1878 – 1884 renovations, and the loft parapet repainted with matching colours to those noted on the woodwork by the architect, Charles E. Ponting. A new panelled screen was provided below with paintings of the apostles, set against gilded fields, in the lower panels.
Circles within circles:
Within the encircling bank and ditch, the great Outer Circle of Avebury once held 100 standing stones and was the largest stone circle in the British Isles. Arranged north and south inside it, stood two inner circles of large stones, with probably around 30 stones each. Within those in turn stood more stones: in the Southern Circle there were a rectangular or trapezoid setting of (chest-high) stones, of which a line now remains, and a tall pillar of sarsen (known as the obelisk), which was broken up in the 18th century and is now marked by a large pyramid-shaped concrete marker; in the Northern Circle a now-buried setting of the stones, possibly curving rows, and at its centre three huge stones, two of which still stand (known as the Cove).*
Close to the road in the north-east quadrant of the henge are two of the tallest stones at Avebury. These form part of what has been know as the cove since the 18th century, named by the antiquary William Stukeley. Until 1713 (according to Stukeley) this setting had a third stone, standing as a pair to the tall, slim southern stone and forming, with the other two, a space rather like a stage without a roof.*
The Devil’s Chair:
This stone has a platform on it which is thought to be a seat. The stone is perfectly positioned to view the rising midwinter sun through the southern causeway entrance. The location of the chair also allows a view of the setting midwinter sun which can still be partly seen today.
In their book Avebury Sun, Moon and Earth, Maria Wheatley and Busty Taylor found that this stone had an active magnetic zone which when seated on the stone was near to the head and shoulders. The authors used a Spectrum Analyser and electromagnetic equipment to study the stones and found either three or five magnetic energy bands depending on the height of the stone. Their magnetic readings concluded that energy bands existed, but were unsure if the reading was from the stones themselves or due to their placement. The stone tapping into the magnetic energy of the earth.
*From National Trust 2008 guide book to Avebury revised 2011.
The West Kennet Avenue leading to the Avebury circle can easily be seen whilst driving to and from Avebury on the whilst travelling along the B4003. Originally there would probably have been around 100 pairs of standing stones.
Each pair arranged roughly 20-30cm from the next pair with the stones of each pair standing around 15m apart. The Avenue ran for about 1.6 miles from the southern entrance of Avebury henge to a double stone circle on Overton Hill, now known as the Sanctuary.*
There is a second avenue, The Beckhampton Avenue, leaving Avebury by what it now the high street. This was a similar pairing of stones leading from what is now the hamlet of Beckhampton. In 1999 stones from this avenue were rediscovered as part of a project by three universities to test for its existence. There is also speculation that there might once have four avenues but so far there is no evidence to confirm this.
Seeing the car in the first photo is a little poignant because that car was on its final holiday adventure.
*From National Trust 2008 guide book to Avebury revised 2011.