Back to Uffington – but let’s start, not with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or Chesterton, or (even) Sutcliff, but with Rudyard Kipling. His poem A Charm suggests that connection with English earth allows us to escape our strife with Over-busied hand and brain. How does his charm work?
It is first of all a plea to remember the common folk of years past, the rude forefathers with their useful toil…and destiny obscure as Thomas Gray puts it. Kipling’s love for the Sussex countryside in which he embeds himself, and which he brings to life in his historical vignettes (discussed here) is, as his great resource cite describes it,
an expression of what Donald Mackenzie calls his ‘archaeological imagination’, his sense of the past in the present.Kipling Society: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_charm1.htm
The reference to Mackenzie’s introduction to Puck of Pook’s Hill is illuminating. Just as it is Kipling’s project to find himself a home, and to share it through his writing, it is the aim of Lucy Boston to bring her fenland manor to life in its historical context. And so here we are with Chesterton, Stallworthy (and soon Alan Garner) but principally with Rosemary Sutcliff, looking out to find the landscape of Lubrin Dhu and (following Sutcliff and her source, T C Lethbridge and his book Witches) Lubrin’s Iceni community and their Atrebates conquerors*.
They were an old Celtic people and their name was once, I think, ‘Eachanaidh’, the people of the Horse. Before the invasions of the Belgae, I fancy their lands extended right down the Chiltern ridge and over the Upper Thames. The Icknield Way is named after them.Lethbridge: Witches p79
I fancy. Lethbridge’s methodology is not unlike Watkins who, in The Old Straight Track (interesting article here), tries geology, human geography, the Latin and Greek classics and the Bible to unravel the trackway and camp and city lost. Lethbridge’s confident, rather definitive voice (The Icknield Way is named after them) is off-putting – his leaps are to be treated with caution, perhaps, like Kipling’s melancholy autochthony. But Miles, although he has a wider anthropological view and the impetus of modern archaeology urging him on, will also try the same, looking, in his section on Rites and Passages in The Land of the White Horse, at Giraldus Cambrensis and the mating of a new king with a sacrificial White Mare in Ireland, lines from the Rig Veda. Miles is cautious, however, in a way Lethbridge is not, and his prose is resonant with that caution:
…the literature of Indo-European communities speaks of the strangeness of ancient societies – rites that to us seem weird, even objectionable. But in the past our ancestors did do things differently, and their relationship to animals and to their gods was not necessarily the same as ours.David Miles: The Land of the White Horse ch 9: A People of Chariots and Horsemen
I wonder about the earlier stopping-off point of Wayland’s Smithy, out to the West, the clump of the trees around which are (I think) visible from just below the ‘Castle” on what we now use as the Ridgeway, beyond the field edge perforations of a row of smaller trees. What stories have we attached to it, what story might we add? I find myself wondering how many years it takes to learn to read a landscape.
Rosemary Sutcliff (who, I note, omits the Smithy from Sun Horse, Moon Horse) is a great painter of a Bronze Age landscape in this area; she returns in the Romano-British period for the Battle of Badon (“heart-stopping, tense and unpredictable” in this review) in her amazing and powerful Sword at Sunset. Today as the clouds clear I sit on the ramparts looking all around, but I also look at the maps and apps and compass (and Jaffa Cake we fed to a rook today, but the rook is by the way). I remain astonished – perhaps with every visit I am increasingly in awe – at her ability to read a landscape, and thus (I think the sequence is this way round) to embody a people.
While, as Miles states
It is easy to question the veracity of White Horse myths.David Miles: The Land of the White Horse ch 13: Reinventing the Nation’s Past
we also need to be aware the emotional pull of the places we celebrate, and that we try to make sense of.
David Miles translates the technical term “geoglyph” as “earth picture,” and this great horse springing from the escarpment is our picture from the earth, and also of the earth. It seems to me it demands an origin story, and Sutcliff is perfectly poised to give it to us. In Kipling’s terms she is giving us a way of grounding ourselves, of finding well-being by calling to mind the mere uncounted folk. And beside the path rising from the North West are two barrows – possibly of importnat figures, but now if not uncounted then unnamed. I stand on the long barrow and note the change in flora – but have no idea who they might be. No lamentation, perhaps, no report beyond the disturbed land which is itself hard to discern. The geoglyph of the White Horse is a glory, even though at the moment she needs a thorough grooming; the barrows are almost lost. Their intentions are clear – but for whom were these works undertaken? Some mute inglorious minstrel? Or someone grander, whose barrow might have stood white and cared for for generations, another writing on the hillside?
In a similar way, the paths up to Uffington Castle are themselves a sort of glyph, but a scribble of intentions. “This way,” they say. “No, this way.” As with the excavations at Danebury and the raven-burials I mentioned here, we make patterns, we explain, we tell stories…travel writing, nature writing, spiritual writing… and this brings us back to Uffington, to Rosemary Sutcliff and Lubrin Dhu.
From Wayland’s Smithy we can see the ramparts of Uffington Castle on the horizon to the northeast, commanding the highest point on the skyline about twenty minutes walk away. There is no sign of the White Horse. It can be an elusive beast. We have to skirt the ramparts and walk over the ground disturbed by shallow chalk quarries. Only at the last minute do the attenuated, abstract line become visible like a puzzling series of white paths. This is a figure designed to be seen from the north, from the Vale and the low hills beyond.David Miles: The Land of the White Horse ch 2: Altering the Earth: the Prospect from the Ridgeway
Kipling, I rather suspect, thinks that clutching to ourselves a sense of those who have gone before, will calm us into feeling we are part of a procession of splendid chaps, heroic exceptionalists. I do find there is an emotional pull in Puck’s Song, in A Tree Song, in A Charm because of the poetic gifts he employs and the love he shows – but I think the ambiguities of all these unknown people are another way of charming ourslvves into wellbeing: we are not a uniform bunch, defending White Horses as much as our own identity, but finding a locality and peace in the diversity of beliefs and languages across the centuries, with Miles’ warning in our ears:
…our ancestors did do things differently, and their relationship to animals and to their gods was not necessarily the same as ours
Today, as with last year’s Brambles, locality and peace came in small things: the sight of (and then from) the White Horse across a field full of skylarks. And maybe that is enough.
*As a complete aside, I note that Lethbridge discusses White (as opposed to Black) Dogs; my namesake Olaf Swarbrick also suggests that the Uffington Chalk Figure is a dog. We are into a syncretistic method of mythological investigation with Lethbridge: his white hounds are the Ghost Dogs of East Anglia, the hounds of Annwn.