READ ALL ABOUT IT! STONEHENGE OF THE NORTH!

Just over a week ago, a couple of fields within two miles of our house hit the national news. Those of us who live round and about have long known about our very own piece of history: not as visually impressive from ground level at Stonehenge but still thrilling to think about. Now we can share it with the rest of you.

Thornborough Henges are two enormous, human made earth-circles – 200+ metres in diameter, from the neolithic/early bronze ages: somewhere between 3, 500 BCE and 2,500 BCE. Imagine the effort required to construct such circles, originally about 5 metres high, thought to have been coated with bright white gypsum, making them an extremely visible and potent part of the landscape. Why were they built? Nobody is sure, but they almost certainly had a spiritual purpose. Ritual is still important at this site. On Friday, I’ll re-blog a post I wrote one May Day about the ceremony of Beltane held here every year.

To walk here, with only the henge itself surrounding us, in an area normally busy with fields of crops or sheep, with woodland, and with gravel pits, is even now an almost unnervingly peaceful experience.

The henges have rather suffered from rabbits and livestock over the centuries. Now, the monuments have been gifted by Tarmac and by Lightwater Holdings to Historic England and to English Heritage and their future will be more secure.

There is a third henge too. This was planted up as woodland in the Victorian period. Though it’s not a large wood, it’s a peaceful place where I love to go and stroll and spend quiet moments, disturbed only by birdsong. Here it is in summer.

At ground level, it’s impossible (for me) to get decent photos of the henges. I offer you just one, as my feature photo, and then leave the rest to this YouTube video, courtesy of the Guardian.

Come and visit. You can pop in for a chat here afterwards. I’d love to meet you!

Monday Portraits of Dozens of Sheep

It’s Sheep Central round here. More than can ever – surely – enter the food chain. Far more than the wool trade requires. At shearing time, you’ll pass barns full of discarded fleeces, not worth the effort of gathering up and attempting to sell them. The sheep are well-fenced here – usually – so they don’t get out and browse the grass to the very ground, or maraud in any woodland they find. All the same, I do rather wonder – why so very, very many?

But here are two handsome enough specimens –

And here are some hungry sheep, requiring a top-up of food.

And here’s one on the moor above Dallowgill. Monarch of all she surveys.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Trust to Groundskeeping

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Kate W: Six Degrees of Separation

I wanted to read the starter book for this month’s chain, Trust, by Hernan Diaz. But for some reason, the library hasn’t yet satisfied my reservation of it. So I’m working with Diaz’s own comment about his book: ‘there are very, very few novels that deal with the process of accumulation of capital. This, to me, was baffling.’

I have to say it doesn’t baffle me. But I thought I’d go with a short book that looks at a world where capital was – for large swathes of the population – in very short supply. A bit like today. The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard was an International Booker Prize finalist in 2021. This is a vigorous and pacily written appeal for social justice, using the various Peasants’ Revolt type struggles of the Middle Ages, sometimes rooted in religious fanaticism to make its points. His focus is the life and times of Thomas Müntzer, German preacher and theologian, for whom even the likes of Martin Luther were too Establishment.  

In a mere 60+ pages, he conjures the atmosphere of discontent of the peasantry with the oppression and poverty which was their lot. It was a fight that could not be won, and in vigorous, emotionally wrought poetic language, Vuillard tells the tale of what he sees as one of history’s great injustices.

From one political struggle to another. Red Milk by Sjón (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb). This is the story of Gunnar Kampen, who grew up in Iceland a towards the end of WWII in a family fiercely opposed to Nazi oppression. The story depicts a happy enough conventional childhood which progresses towards his job in a bank. And yet … he comes into contact with Fascist ideas and ideals, and soon becomes a leader of Iceland’s under-the-radar Nazi movement. 

The book goes out of its way to portray Gunnar as a young Mr. Average, whose political proclivities are hard to spot in society at large, while pointing out those aspects of Iceland’s recent history that make it possible for Gunnar to entertain the views that he has. An unusual and compelling book, showing the mindset of a young man sucked into a belief system now regaining some political traction throughout Europe.

Gunnar is an unusual young man who presents as absolutely average. So does William, the young hero of A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe. The tragedy of Aberfan is one that no Brit of my generation or older is likely ever to forget. That 116 children and 28 adults, all from the town’s primary school should lose their lives when a colliery spoil heap collapsed and buried them was shocking, even from afar. For 19 year old William Lavery, just-graduated embalmer who volunteers to go and help prepare the dead for burial it was traumatising, and coloured his life thereafter. It wasn’t the first traumatic event in his life. The first was when he was a boy chorister in Cambridge – and actually, he had trauma to deal with before that too, as a boy of 8. This is the story of how his life unfolds, switching back and forth between the years, unpicking the various strands of his story that depict the damaged young man he becomes, and his eventual slow redemption. Beautifully and engagingly told, this story deals with big, unmanageable emotions, and is one of those books about which I can say ‘ I couldn’t put it down’.

I read another book about Aberfan, several years ago. Owen SheersThe Green Hollow. He paints a scene of ordinary families getting ready for the day, ordinary children chattering their way to school, an ordinary teacher taking the register. A series of letters explain why the Coal Board is taking no action about the slag heaps . And then …. a rumble, a roar develops. That is all.

Then we switch immediately to the rescue. To the young medical student who finds himself unwittingly part of the rescue operation, to the miners, parents, journalists. 

Now the town is different. Life goes on. It has to. Children yearn to appear on ‘Strictly’ while every year commemorating what happened all that time go. Scars exist alongside hope. This is a moving, powerful, poetic account. It’s dignified, quiet and respectful, and a fine tribute to a town that’s had to deal with utter despair.

A book now about other towns which have irrevocably changed – because they’ve disappeared: Matthew Green‘s Shadowlands. Here is a totally immersive account of how certain villages and towns in England simply got wiped from the map. By placing his chosen locations in the context of their history, their geography and their climatic or political turbulence, he offers a surprisingly varied set of stories of obliteration, drowning, geological change, historical unrest.  Every story is placed in the context of that community’s place in history, and offers a rounded, absorbing and detailed account of why and how these communities disappeared. A moving and haunting set of stories.

I wrote only a fortnight ago about – not towns and villages – but forests which have disappeared. Guy Shrubsole‘s The Lost Rainforests of Britain. You can read my review here.

For my last book, I’ve chosen a story where our young hero is a groundsman at an American college, in a small team responsible for its trees and woodlands: Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole. A love story set in 2016-17 at a time when Trump and his ideas were in the ascendant, although he hadn’t yet been elected President. Owen’s from a working class Kentucky family, earning a wage as a groundsman at a college, while still trying to further his education and career as a creative writer. Alma came as a young child from Bosnia, and this refugee family has made good – very good. It’s this tension between their two backgrounds when they catapult into a relationship that informs the whole book, and is painstakingly examined throughout. I turned the pages willingly enough, but felt 400+ pages was far too long to sustain the plot, and was mildly irritated by Owen’s self-absorption throughout.

I seem to have travelled quite a long way from my starting point. Let’s see what we can all make of next month’s: the 1970s self-help classic, Gail Sheehy‘s Passages.

A Novel: as generated by Artificial Intelligence

Last week, fellow blogger Brian D Butler who blogs at Travel Between the Pages. published an entire short novel on his site. He had come up with a prompt, but the story was generated by AI at the website InstaNovel. He thought it was awful. So do I. You can read it here. But what could AI do for me? I had to find out.

This was my prompt:

Pretty dire, isn’t it? If that’s the best it can do, perhaps bloggers, writers and illustrators have nothing to fear. But then … those very first cars had people solemnly walking in front of them, waving a flag as a warning. Things do move on.

By the way. My feature image? Generated by by AI as an experiment by WordPress. As is the final paragraph of all, printed below. I don’t think AI Mark 2 quite knew what AI Mark I was getting at, do you?

My AI novel is about a world where autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) exists, and people have to find a way to interact and live peacefully alongside it. The story follows a group of intrepid humans who strive to bridge the gap between human and computer-powered life. Despite various struggles, the characters eventually find acceptance and cooperation, building bridges between humans and AI in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

This novel explores how machines might change society and how people might react to and embrace technology. The story examines the impact

Messages in the Street

Walk along any street, anywhere, and it won’t be long before you come across a message. Maybe light-hearted, like this one spotted in Liverpool …

… maybe political. You can’t go far in Catalonia, Spain without coming across messages and slogans demanding independence. These shots were all taken in Berga, where the mood of virtually the entire population there was not in doubt.

The next shots were all taken when thousands of us took to the streets, again and again, in 2018 and 2019 voicing our misgivings about the prospect of Brexit. It gives us no satisfaction whatever to see that our fears were entirely justified.

In India, I saw messages that were more like public service announcements ..

And in Edinburgh, in the National Museum of Scotland, this …

Inuksuk, by Peter Irniq, 1998, uses a traditional technique used by the Inuit to convey messages about good fishing grounds etc.

Let’s end though, as we began, with a message, this time in Thessaloniki, simply intended to bring good cheer …

For Donna’s Lens-Artists Challenge #234: Messages

Flashback Friday Looks Skywards

Eight years ago, none of us knew that five years later, our local tracks – the only ones permitted to us during our Lockdown Daily Exercise – would become almost as familiar to us as our own garden path. This is a post I wrote about a nearby walk on January 27th 2015, when I thought that I’d seen all there was to be seen locally. I was wrong as it happened, and later realised how very much more there was to discover when Lockdown provided the incentive. For Fandango’s Flashback Friday.

Only Sky

The days are short
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.


John Updike, 'January', A Child’s Calendar

A bright winter’s afternoon.  Just time, before the evening cold sets in, to get out for a couple of hours of brisk walking: 5 miles or so along familiar paths.  So familiar that this time, I focus on the sky: changeable, unpredictable.

Sometimes it’s moody, sometimes cheerful, sometimes simply rather grey and colourless: at other times dramatic, particularly towards sunset.  Come and walk with me to watch the clouds.

Monday Portrait: Centre Stage? A Beetle

We’ve seen all kinds of creatures have their moment as stars of Monday Portraits. But usually animals and birds. Beetles? Not so much. But I find this Forest Cockchafer to be a handsome fellow. We spotted this one on our Balkans adventure last year, but he could just as well have lived in woodland or farmland here.

He’s large – up to 30 mm in length. He’s clumsy, and likely to bump into things. He chomps away on leaves and flowers, but not to a destructive extent. These beetles only live for five or six weeks: even though, as a larva, they spend maybe three to five years growing underground.

He’ll make a large whirring noise in flight and may well clatter into your window panes. Not yet though. Look out for him in May and June. Remember, you saw him here first …

The Principality of the Brothers Grimm revisited

The other day, I wrote about the rather mysterious and enchanting places which are Britain’s temperate rainforests. I’m not sure if France’s Labyrinthe Verte also qualifies, but it’s a very promising candidate. Here’s a post I wrote some eleven years ago, after we’d walked there.

THE PRINCIPALITY OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM: AND STONE SOUP

Sunday. We went to Nébias in the Aude. Just outside the village, you’ll find the Labyrinthe Verte, a natural maze, with winding pathways through a forest, where rocks and plants have created a bewildering array of natural passageways which are both beautiful and fun to explore. These paths are cut deep through limestone, often at shoulder height.  Somehow, we’d never visited.  But today, thanks to the Rando del’Aubo, our walking group, we did.

It’s been a lovely bright spring day today, but the forested labyrinth is never really sunny.  Trees, their trunks and branches bearded with feathery fronds of moss and lichen, crowd the limestone crags and fissured passageways.  Deprived of light and space, they assume crippled and fanciful shapes, or else aim straight for the sun, their thin trunks competing with each other for a place to establish their roots.  It’s not eerie however.  On this warm March day, we wouldn’t have been surprised to meet an ethereal band of fairies whirling through the dampened glades: on a bad night in November, perhaps a gnarled and wicked hag from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Every time of year has its own magic apparently.  On the coldest days of winter, the mosses and lichens are white and crisp with frost, making the forest fit for a Snow Queen.

At lunch time, since we were in France and eating’s important, the darkened passages unexpectedly cleared.  Suddenly, beneath blue skies and bright sunshine there was a fissured limestone pavement, providing surfaces and seating for our lunchtime picnic.  Which Malcolm had somehow left behind.  The members of the group magicked their very own version of Stone Soup for him. Do you know this tale?

Once upon a time, there was great famine throughout the land. Villagers squirrelled away any tiny amounts of food that they had. One day, a soldier came by, asking for a place to sleep for the night, and perhaps a meal. The villagers explained there was no food. ‘That’s alright, I have plenty. I have a magic stone that cooks delicious soup for me every night’. And he hauled a great cauldron from his pack, set a fire, filled his pot with water, and reverently placed a stone – also in his pack – into the water. Eventually the water simmered. The soldier tasted it. ‘Delicious!’ he pronounced. ‘Now, if anyone happened to have a carrot to add, it would be even better’. A woman in the crowd hurried home and found – two. The soldier declared the soup even tastier, but if anyone had some cabbage…? Then …. an onion? …some celery? … potato? The butcher found some scraps of pork and everything went into the pot. Before long, the soup was delicious indeed, and everyone filled their bellies. But the soldier wouldn’t sell his stone: no, not for any money.

On this occasion, within half a minute Malcolm had more food then the rest of the group put together. A mustardy ham baguette, some home cured sausage, a chunk of bread, a chocolate pudding, and apple…. The power of working together!

The afternoon was different.  Walking away from the enchanting and enchanted labyrinth, we came to more open country, where we passed first farmland, then the edges of forest with tracks showing where wild boar and deer had recently passed.  Finally, we climbed, and had views across to the mountains and the walks we’ve enjoyed there on other Sunday rambles, finishing up listening to the lively splashing of a waterfall.

7th March 2011

The featured image is from the archive of La Dépêche du Midi, our local paper when we lived in France.