Here in the UK we're almost immune to the wealth of the rich history that surrounds us. Indeed, most Brits would be hard-pressed to tell you if that crumbling pile of a townhouse on the corner is Victorian, Georgian or a Elizabethan. We have a hazy idea of a few of the major invasions that we've had, and boy, we've been invaded. Most people know about the Romans, the Normans, and the Norsemen (usually erroneously referred to as Vikings) but that's as far as it goes.
Of course, there are many keen amateur historians among us, but there's so much history to cover in our island heritage, that I suspect even those enthusiastic souls can wander past all kinds of landmarks with scarcely a second glance. I understand that this may seem odd to our Trans-Atlantic cousins, but we tend to become blase about our long history.
I'll give you an example. When I was growing up, I could go to the end of our garden and look out over the valley and see the remains of a Norman castle.
To one side, I could see the church spire and recall the medieval frescoes painted on its walls. In the bottom of the valley was a working steam railway. When we'd hear the trains whistling, we'd run up the garden and watch the puffs of steam emerging from the trees and hope for a glimpse of the locomotive as it drew toward the station. On most weekends, when we'd go to visit my grandma and grandad, we'd drive past a field that was ploughed and planted except for a strange, overgrown hump in its middle. That hump was all that remained of an ancient burial mound, and thank goodness, it had been discovered and protected from the plough. I've just tried to research the site for this article and I'm having trouble – not because there's a dearth of information, but because there are just too damn many ancient sites in the area listed online.
Sometimes, when we were kids, we'd go for picnics up at a place we referred to as “The Roman Camps” without really thinking about it. To us, it was just a place to play, but it was, of course, the site of ancient Roman fortifications. And this I can find for you: www.northyorkmoors.org.uk/visiting/enjoy-outdoors/walking/our-walks/walking-routes/cawthorn-roman-camps
I appreciate this wealth of history now, but at the time, it was just the backdrop to other, more interesting activities, such as riding our bikes, playing cowboys, eating sweets, and seeing if we could find a way to do all three at once without choking on boiled sweets and/or crashing into each other whilst we tried to pedal and aim our toy guns at the same time.
Now, I'm not claiming that this historical blindness is universal nor unique to us Brits. There are many ancient monuments in Rome that bear the scars of a thousand close encounters with speeding Fiats, and who knows how many traces of ancient civilisations have been erased by someone scratching their chin and thinking, That limestone would make a nice mantlepiece?
So, when I can, I like to try and redress the balance a little. It's always good to learn more of your heritage, wherever you hail from. When I was researching my novel, Trespass, some of which is set in the Neolithic period, I made sure that I visited some ancient sites to get a feel for them. Now, don't worry, I'm not going to start spouting mumbo jumbo at you. I do not believe that these places had any special powers, however, it's interesting to stand where others have stood thousands of years before, and see something of what they saw. Why did they feel these places were special? Was it the landscape? The micro-climate? Had they taken a funny turn after eating the wrong kind of dried fungus? Who knows?
No one. Not really. Which, if you're a fiction writer, is rather wonderful. So I don't over-research. I don't want to wear my research on my sleeve, but I do want to stand in the characters' shoes and inhabit their skin. I want to feel the aches in their knees and the sweat mingling with the crust of dust and dried skin on their scalps. I need to believe in them if I'm going to make my readers believe in them. So it's good to walk in their footsteps.
Fortunately, we live on the edge of Dartmoor, and while I haven't seen any sign of giant hounds or doped-up detectives, I have come across the scars on the landscape left by people over thousands of years. One such place is Merrivale.
Merrivale boasts a small stone circle, about 4,000 years old and of unknown purpose. It's presumed to be ceremonial in some way.
It also has a standing stone or menhir. Again, its original purpose is unknown, but it clearly stands as a marker of some kind.
There some small cairns – the remains of stones piled up as burial mounds – but more interesting are these stone rows.
It's impossible to look at them without thinking of a miniature airfield runway, which gives you an idea of how much we see the world through the lens of our own time period. People speculate that the stone rows mark a ceremonial path and may have been aligned using the Sun or the stars as they run almost exactly east to west. We'll never know for certain.
Easier to understand is the Kistvaen – sometimes also called a cist. The hole in the ground is lined with stone slabs and was almost certainly a tomb. It was sealed with a large flat rock that, rather deliciously has been split in two. Unfortunately for lovers of the supernatural, it was probably deliberately cut by someone many years after it was left, since the cut is so regular. Interestingly, the cist measures 2 metres long, 1 metre wide and 1 metre deep – which is almost the same dimensions as the Darkeningstone in Trespass. As far as I know, this is coincidence – I wrote the first draft long before I visited Merrivale.
And whilst we're dealing with coincidences, there is a rather bleak abandoned quarry nearby. AND it is a horseshoe shaped with very steep sides, which is exactly how I imagined Scaderstone Pit in Trespass. You can imagine, I was very excited to see this part of my totally fictional world brought to life.
I'd like to say this: open your eyes. Wherever you live, history is laid out for you to witness. Take a moment out of your day – perhaps glance out of your car window as you sit in traffic jam and see what you can spy, or glance up on a busy high street to see what architecture is still visible above the plate glass shop fronts. People fashioned the world we walk through – generations of them. They built and demolished, fought and died, struggled and survived, named their newborns and buried their dead, in the very places we call home.
And when you've looked, ask questions, wonder, imagine.
Just don't, whatever you do, go into any abandoned quarries. You never know what might find you there.
To find out more
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If you'd like to visit Merrivale, you can find directions here: http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/lookingafter/laf-landmanagement/laf-moorfutures/premier_archaeological_landscapes/la-merrivale
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