Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Sacred Spring

Despite the many visits to the immense and magnificent Neolithic landscape around Avebury and West Kennet in Wiltshire, I have never shown my progeny the sacred spring. This is not due to neglect - until the landscape was opened up as part of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, it was situated on private land. Nowadays, however, it is reachable without having to skulk around the landscape avoiding irate and protective farmers.
The spring is one of the focal points of the area, one of the mystical reasons that our prehistoric forebears invested years of effort and patience into creating one of the most remarkable landscapes in the country. They built the Avebury Ring, a massive stone circle almost a mile in circumference. They built the West Kennet longbarrow, a tomb stretching along the ridge of its hill like a huge earthen slug. They built Silbury Hill, the closest we have to a pyramid (and contemporary with those Egyptian structures), a conical mound of chalk dominating the valley floor. The entire complex, stretching over the Goddess landscape, seems - as I read once - to have been built by giants.
The answer is in the location and the etymology. The ancients worshipped water. They could not live without it. It was the fundamental element of their existence. They worshipped it, sacrificed to it, blessed it. Even today the country is dotted with sacred springs and wells, many of them craftily Christianised in medieval times by a growing church that knew it could never truly beat the old traditions.
Here, in the Kennet valley, two rivers dominate: the Winterbourne, which as its name suggests, dries up in the Summer months and returns in the Winter. It flows under the A4, that ancient Roman London-Bath road, and divides a field south of Silbury Hill before veering east as it hits the headwaters of the River Kennet. And here may be found the Swallowhead Spring, source of the Kennet, one of Southern England's most sacred rivers.
The A4 rolls on to Bath, another ancient and venerated spring. The Romans named it after the water Goddess to whom it was dedicated, Sulis. Here at Kennet the same Goddess holds sway, her name found in Silbury and Swallowhead. The Spring is the uterus of the Goddess, the pouring of life onto the landscape, the Kennet a corruption of the Latin 'cunnit', its modern contraction a vulgar slang expression with the same meaning. Here, the cone of Silbury is her womb, its shape an inverted image. Here, Sulis/Sil/ Suil enriches the land as she has done for millenia.
Moving toward Swallowhead Spring, we follow the course of the Kennet, carefully picking our way across the floodplain bloated by the recent thaw and the persistent drizzle. This is appropriate - water both hinders and caresses us as we move toward the sanctum of Sil. We find stepping stones, crossing the river and guiding us to the spring. We cross with difficulty, the newborn river torrenting between the sarsen footholds.
'I believe I can fly!' one daughter sings as she slides down the soft earthen bank next to the Spring, its immediate environs a riot of Pagan votive offerings.
'I believe I can sink,' her brother responds warily, watching his trainers pressing into the unstable soil. He moves away, back to the stepping stones, bounces onto one, then two, then slips and goes into the water.
His sister to the rescue, navigating the stones like a startled gazelle, reaching down and dragging her sodden, upset brother from the embrace of the Goddess
No sacrifice for Sil THIS day.
The Kennet can roll on, meandering east to its Reading collision with the mighty Thames, without our help.

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