Monday 29 October 2012

The Sarsen Route to Stonehenge - 1822

An interesting book from 1822 which proposes the same Sarsen Route from the Marlborough Downs across the Pewsey Vale that I proposed here and which Mike Parker Pearson's Stones of Stonehenge project is also exploring. It differs in proposing a river carriage down the Avon rather than a land route across the Plain.
Do click on the link and find more of his views on Stonehenge.

The miscellaneous tracts of the late William Withering: Volume 1 1822

... the opinion that the great masses of Stonehenge were brought from the downs about Marlborough ... still remains the only probable conjecture

A large portion of Wiltshire consists of extensive elevated and open downs mostly calcareous and naturally divided into two tracts never uniting northern and southern by an inclosed and lowland vale which at a mean may be between four and five miles broad.

The upper stratum of this vale is not calcareous like the downs that bound it on either side but principally consists of a loose powdery soil proceeding from a decomposed pulverized tripoly which in the banks of deep hollow ways &c frequently appears in its indurated state.

This tripoly is very common about Devizes for many miles round and seems to be the basis whereon the calcareous matter generally rests and even in the vale some eminences appear slightly overspread with chalk.

The ponderous blocks must cross this valley in their passage to the southern tract from off the northern the descents from which are steep and difficult Upon a contemplation of the face of the country it seems probable they were conducted down a pass between Milk hill and Work way the most practicable and easy of any that they afterwards proceeded by Alton Barns Honey Street Woodborough Hilcot Rushall and Upavon and here arriving at the southern tract of downs and the river Avon they easily and as it were on a level entered its vale along the western bank without ascending the hills on either side and that the conductors of the business being doubtless not unmindful of the advantage of continuing in the vale near the river thus proceeded beside the western bank by Compton Enford Netheravon Fighelden Dur rington and Bulford without encountering the difficulties of ascent and descent which would have occurred so very frequently had they departed from the vicinity of the Avon.

At Bulford they were obliged to quit the vale to attain the chosen site of the work about two or three miles further towards the south west and to pass over an intervening hill on which a very large and unwrought sarsen stone now lies conspicuous about midway between Bulford and Stonehenge

The whole course of these gigantic materials cannot be less than twenty miles In the lowland vale separating the northern and southern tracts of downs there was entire in 1773 near Woodborough an immense block popularly called the kissing stone.

This I learned with regret has been broken and dispersed for various purposes more than twenty years past and now not a fragment remains upon the spot.

It was probably of the sarsen kind so commonly broken on the Marlborough downs for building &c in default of other stone which is very scarce also about Woodborough.

It has perhaps been thus made use of and in truth I observed some neighbouring cottages partly constructed with sarsen fragments.

To deem it a mass destined for Stonehenge does not I think appear extravagant it seems certainly to have been brought thus far into the vale from off the northern tract of downs.

Although the mysterious ceremonies of ancient times had long ceased around this stone yet its modern name implies the celebration of other rites that succeeded them and that should have preserved it from destruction and this it would have done it is said had not the unrelenting possessor remained deaf to the entreaties of the villagers.

About a mile and a half south west from the site where this stone lay at a small arched footbridge over a rivulet is a spot called Limber stone where I noticed some large pieces of sarsen stone lying beside the stream.

To found a conjecture on this and the name only may be thought unwarrantable therefore I will only observe without laying any stress on it that by allowing a small latitude of signification to the word limber the present local name might possibly proceed from the ancient existence here of what is called a Rocking stone but to this idea I have not learnt any tradition that can give support.

About a mile and a half also from the site of the before mentioned kissing stone but more southerly near the village of Marden is a remarkable markable tumulus called Hatfield Barrow the only work of the kind I believe to be found in this lowland vale although so very frequent on the elevated downs on both sides.

It stands in an enclosure and is above the usual size and nearly hemispherical it is surrounded by a broad circular intrenchment which from being constantly supplied with water by innate springs forms a sort of moat which does not become dry even in the midst of summer a circumstance I have never found attending any other barrow.

In this watery ditch the Menyanthes trifoliata or bogbean plentifully grows a plant which I have not seen elsewhere in that neighbourhood.

The whole of the barrow is at present ploughed over and is said to be more fertile than the surrounding field I have seen it clothed with wheat ready for the sickle when the richness of colour and the beautiful undulations of the corn formed an object as pleasing as it was uncommon.

The ancient people who raised so many similar sepulchral monuments on the northern and southern tracts of downs are proved then by the testimony of Hatfield barrow to have been present at least for a short time in the intermediate vale and from its being the only barrow hereabouts it is probable their continuance here was but temporary This consideration strengthened by the concurrent though indirect support of the kissing stone seems to point out the path of those who slowly and patiently conducted across the vale such ponderous masses from one tract of downs to rear them on another.

... At my first visit to Stonehenge last year I omitted to obtain specimens of the third kind of stone of which the smaller series are formed and afterwards being unprovided with a proper instrument I could only avail myself of some very small fragments which the late exertions of some naturalist perhaps had loosened from the blocks such as they are I have sent them for your examination and to complete the natural history of the work They are different from the altar stone and from the large masses composing the transoms and their supports and are much harder than either The fresh broken fragments are of a deep bluish slate colour darker and finer in texture than the altar stone without those numerous glittering particles not fermenting with aqua fortis and containing sometimes a speck of seemingly metallic matter I cannot guess whence they came but the contemplation of the beholder dwells with astonishment only on the carriage and erection of the gigantic sarsen masses 

The stone in the river at Bulford though probably an altar seems too plain and unwrought for Roman workmanship it is destitute of mouldings or other ornaments and the cavity in Roman altars if I mistake not is always circular I was at Bulford again in August last and conversed with the farmer who occupies the estate on which it lies he assured me he had been upon it when a long drought had laid dry its surface and that the ring is certainly of iron But I found him inclined to invalidate the opinion of its antiquity by relating a tradition which I will here repeat it is said that formerly a railing extended across the river at this place to detain the fish that the square cavity in the stone received one of the supporting posts that another similar stone was once placed in the river also near the opposite bank for the same use and that the ring is of later date and fixed only to attempt the removal of the block Be this relation true or false I cannot but think it improbable at least that so much needless trouble and expense should be incurred when a post firmly fixed in the earth of each bank only would have been fully adequate to the purpose He says the nature of the stone is different from any of the three kinds at Stonehenge that it is softer and agrees with the productions of the Chilmark quarries situated about fifteen miles south west of Stonehenge and about twelve miles west of Sarum 

From Bulford I went to Fighelden and made many particular inquiries of aged and intelligent natives of the place concerning the stone said by Aubrey to lie in the river there Their invariable reply was that none such was ever known to exist at Fighelden or nearer than Bulford where added they is to be seen one corresponding with the description It is almost certain then I think that the Bulford stone is the real object of that writer who has fallen into a local error in the name and in about three miles in the situation of the place 
I have with as little success sought also after the prepared stone mentioned by Aubrey as lying between Rockley and Marlborough 
The intervening tract of downs which does not exceed about two miles I have attentively surveyed but nothing of the kind nor even a single sarsen in its natural bed is to be seen in that course on the the right hand or on the left
 And though the etymology of the name Rockley seems to imply an abundance of stony masses the complete reverse is now the fact however it might have been in past ages before so many of them had been broken for the construction of houses in Marlborough and the neighbourhood a practice that still continues and annually lessens their number in every assemblage 
In the opposite direction about a mile and a half north west from Rockley is a district called Temple farm overspread with numerous and vast masses of stone but this is foreign to our purpose Persons who have been long well acquainted with the country around Rockley and Marlborough concur also in having no knowledge or recollection of this remarkable object of Aubrey's notice 
Whether he had ever seen it himself or only related the accounts of others I know not but from the result of my search at Fighelden I am induced to suspect the latter I am however inclined to believe here also the existence of some foundation for the error and that he meant what I have described in my last letter the cromlech in Clatford Vale called the Devil's Den
 Although the incumbent stone of this actually rests on only two supporters about five or six feet high there is besides a third intermediate stone which has probably by sinking ceased to perform the office of a support 
The situation of this cromlech is certainly not in the line between Rockley and Marlborough but more than a mile distant south west from the middle of that line yet as nothing in any degree corresponds with Aubrey's description but this it seems probable that he may have by some means or other again fallen into a local error 
But the positions of the supporters are as artificial as the situation of the incumbent stone they are set up edgeways in the ground a needless labour only for the temporary resting place of a block in its way to Stonehenge and sufficient to refute that idea of its destination I believe it to have been intended ever to remain where it now stands 

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