Saturday, 22 December 2007

Run away!

I knew someone whose great dream was to visit Macchu Picchu. I don't know if he ever made it - but I think he would have been disappointed.

Too many great sites are now laid out for us in a way that prioritises crowd control and profit per head, rather than real experience. The tourist experience is nothing new of course - hawkers would have laid in wait for medieval pilgrims in Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca - but it's becoming difficult to avoid, at least if you want to see the 'top ten' sites.

Of course you can choose to seek out smaller and less well known sites. For instance, I'd definitely choose the Ridgeway at Uffington Castle and Wayland's Smithy, rather than the better known Avebury and Stonehenge. (Avebury should be a charming place but I have only ever met aggression and surliness in the village. Something seems really wrong there; when I heard that Silbury Hill was sinking in the middle it seemed to me that the whole heart of England was rotting away.)

On the Ridgeway a few years back I'd just paid my respects to Wayland Smith - as a silverworker and wordcrafter I regard him as a sort of patron saint - when I bumped into a woman treading the ancient path with her infant child.

"I thought I'd bring her  up here to introduce her to the grandmothers," she said. And the baby looked out with serious eyes that reflected the sky, tiny microcosms. I've never had a meeting like that at Avebury.

Stanton Drew is another fine site, just south of Bristol.  Quite by chance I was there at midsummer, on my way down to a folk festival. There were people playing guitar and flute and picnicking quietly in the  stone circles. And it wasn't till someone handed me a glass of wine and said 'Blessed be' that I realised it was Beltane.

Finding your own sites is one option. The other response to over-managed or overcrowded sites is  to take the advice of brave Sir Robin and 'run away!'

Not literally, of course. But suppose you turn your back on Stonehenge... you can then make your way from the great henge along pathways to Woodhenge or Normanton Down, or along the great Cursus, or out to the barrows of Winterbourne Stoke. And from almost everywhere, you can still see the stones of the great circle, focusing the sacred landscape.

Walking the chalkland,  you'll find relatively few other walkers. But you share the land with flowers and butterflies in summer, and with the elusive stone curlew, and with the ghosts of the ancestors, if your imagination is alive. Compared to the stage-managed experience of the imprisoned stones, I find the walks that lead away from Stonehenge far more evocative and enjoyable.

And of course you have that feeling of having earned your experience - having truly travelled, not just consumed a product.

1 comment:

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