On Silbury HillPublication date: 12/06/2014
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire has inspired and perplexed people for generations. Artists and poets have fathomed their deepest thoughts searching for the hill’s hidden meanings, archaeologists have tunneled through earth for fragments that prove its purpose. But for all this human endeavour, Silbury Hill remains a mystery.
We do know it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. But was it once an island, moated by water? Was it a place of worship and celebration, perhaps a vast measure of the passing seasons? Along with Stonehenge and Avebury, was it part of a healing landscape or a physical memory of the long-ago dead?
Silbury Hill is the sum of all that we project. A blank screen where human dreams and nightmares flicker. The hill has been part of Adam Thorpe’s own life since his schooldays at Marlborough, and he has carried Silbury ever since: through his teenage years in Cameroon, into his adulthood in southern England and France – its presence fused to each landscape which became his home.
On Silbury Hill is a chalkland memoir told in fragments and family snapshots, carefully built, layer on layer, from Britain’s ancient and modern past.
I expected this to be about 60 pages long, but Silbury took charge. The words flowed out as easily as the clear Kennet stream that runs near the hill, and I let the book run. This is the kind of energy that landscapes provide, and nowhere more so perhaps than the ancient ritual landscape of the rolling downland around Silbury Hill.
Paul Farley: July 2014
The late American poet Anthony Hecht opened his debut collection with a strange chiller called "A Hill". We are in Rome, and the poem's speaker is assailed by a kind of vision: a warm sunlit piazza, its busy "fretwork of shadows", "small navy of carts", even the marble of the Palazzo Farnese, are dissolved, and in their place he is stood before a hill, "mole-coloured and bare", looming in a childhood wintertime's cold and silence "that promised to last forever, like the hill". Hecht's hill poem is quite different from Adam Thorpe's Silbury Hill in prose, not least in the way the latter poet's imaginative excavations reveal something central and nurturing, wholly at odds with the "plain bitterness" of the former's. But looming, inscrutability and visionary elements are common to both; and it also calls to mind how Thorpe's astonishing debut novel Ulverton opens by picking out a figure "on the hill at first light". Perhaps, its speaker wonders, "the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us".
Over eight chapters, On Silbury Hill orbits and explores Thorpe's near-lifelong relationship with a manmade prehistoric mound, a flat-topped pudding dish of grassed-over chalk, whose origins and purpose are essentially mysterious. Fittingly, the book is a gathering, a layering, and Thorpe is at any moment liable to range backwards and forwards across decades and millennia. "The point about Silbury Hill is that she has no point," he writes, and yet two centuries of curious shaft-sinking and tunnelling had left its structure in such a parlous state by the turn of the millennium, he wonders what any collapse might precipitate psychologically. "This is probably unhealthy. To be so dependent for your sanity on a great prehistoric lump of chalky earth!"
Silbury looms alongside the A4, west of Marlborough: probably not the best approach (a walk south along the Ridgeway will afford a more dramatic reveal) but the one most people will be familiar with. The largest manmade hill in Europe, "if the Titanic sailed just behind her in your dreams, you would only see the smoke from the funnels". The site seems to have been built, in fits and starts, over millions of man hours, about 4,400 years ago, the neolithic giving way to the bronze age, though Thorpe understands how we view everything "from our particular hill in time": Silbury might be the result of overlap and intermingling, a unique cultural moment, rather than a neat succession. To our enlightened eyes, from John Aubrey's 1663 sketch to a real-time YouTube video where the equinoctial setting sun appears to roll down its slope into the horizon, Silbury has appeared obdurate, blank, unfathomable, open to endless interpretation.
While it reaps a record of many attempts to shed light, reading On Silbury Hill is a little like wandering through the Avebury world heritage site and finding interpretation boards juxtaposed with old diaries, field notes and family albums. Thorpe's father worked for PanAm, and his young son stares out from the edges of early memory, a succession of Rolleiflexed backdrops (Paris, Lebanon, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Bangkok) before the family settled in the Chilterns, at the end of the Metropolitan line, in 1962. Thorpe has an attractive willingness not to suppress or tidy up the knottiness of childhood and its attachments. He discovered the Wiltshire downlands and Silbury towards the end of that decade when he was sent to board at Marlborough College, but not before he had grown fond of the clear-floored, cathedral-lit Buckinghamshire beechwood; the new, austere billows and scarps required an adjustment, and biking on to the downs he felt their prehistoric mounds and barrows as "massive and mysterious dreams in the middle of a modern wakefulness". He was desperate for normality – beechwoods, meadows, suburban gardens – and these dreams frightened him. His Marlborough sounds like If …meets Tom Brown's School Days: lank Lynyrd Skynyrd hair, communal showers and casual sadism. To further complicate matters of belonging, Thorpe's father was posted to Douala during his second year; the family home was now equatorial West Africa, the school holidays coinciding with its rainy season, where Mount Cameroon rendered the BBC World Service "a murmuring hiss".
In the middle of all this, it is tempting to regard Silbury as forming a still point, an omphalos. "We flicker and zip around here, like a speeded-up film that squashes years into minutes, and she stays quietly the same, giving nothing away." At the same time, his book and the hill form obvious analogues: a life builds up in layers, and Silbury becomes a kind of book of earth, "a library that could not be physically opened or entered. Or even like a shoebox full of old family snaps." This, Thorpe suggests, is what the prehistoric mind might have understood: earth, moved and manipulated with antler picks and baskets, is the embodiment of the cyclical movement of time. "There is no such thing as the past. The hill lives and the generations live within it."
Silbury has found itself drawn into wider narratives and myths of origin, of Englishness, perhaps not so much as that other strange attractor to the south of Avebury's sacred precinct, Stonehenge, but nonetheless … Just before Thorpe made its acquaintance, Silbury felt the white heat of telearchaeology and became a topographical celebrity in the post-Quatermass 1960s. BBC2 did its proto-Time Team thing, the young channel pioneering a live dig and bringing science to bear on the implacable chalk, "pocked, prodded, drilled into and 'x-rayed' with a seismograph". Because the findings weren't visually dramatic – no sign of local legend King Sil mounted in his rumoured gold chamber – the project was seen as something of a failure, as if decades of cutaway Valley of the Kings diagrams and the Sutton Hoo treasure had formed a kind of mass expectation. But there is some crackly irony here: the pictures from Silbury would have been broadcast into our living rooms via hilltop transmitters, some of which, like Winter Hill serving the north-west of England, were once themselves sites of neolithic or bronze age activity.
Throughout On Silbury Hill, Thorpe is limber enough to explore subtle shades of mood and inwardness, remoteness and intimacy, but also what might be described as the louder anxieties of anyone living across this millennial gap of ours, when the world changed from black and white to colour and replaced transistor radios with Google glasses, and when the industrial resource-stripping of the planet was no longer seen as vaguely heroic but disastrous and unsustainable. The banished gods might only be in hiding, and could do worse than Silbury. Despite his vigilance and scepticism – even towards his own "tofu-knitting, yoghurt-weaving" susceptibilities – Thorpe arrives at something like his own theory of the hill. You should burrow in and discover this for yourself, but what makes On Silbury Hill such a rich and evocative book of place are the myriad two-way hauntings he proposes between people and landscapes over time. And when our world has gone for scrap, the A4 lies like a shadow in the topsoil, and the very words in On Silbury Hill form mysterious squiggles "like the mark of disease on a leaf", Silbury will most likely still be stood there, broadcasting on its own chalky frequencies.
Mike Pitts: September 2014
David Inshaw’s painting of Silbury Hill, one of many by the artist in which he works at his own relationship with the mound and the landscape of the Marlborough Downs, is entirely appropriate for the dusk jacket. Yet if you strip it off, you see a plain, blocky little book, like a diary a traveller might carry in a backpack, hiding behind the deceptively picturesque view. That impression is reinforced by sketches and reproduced paintings, family snaps and composed photos, gathered like souvenirs. There are frequent references to far-flung places – a childhood spent moving from Paris to Lebanon, Calcutta and onward, or descriptions of ceremonies witnessed in Africa, India and Arizona. Thorpe writes from his home in the Cévennes, the ghosts of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey surely not far off.
Yet this is no travelogue. The longest passage in which the author narrates an experience of people and place occurs at Avebury on the day (and night) of a Wiccan celebration. Here, he writes, near the book’s end,“I feel at home.” After introducing us to a collection of Silbury moments and characters, when all the right names pass through, from Stukeley to Maud Cunnington – “a novelist could not have invented that name” – HJ Massingham and Birtwistle, Thorpe launches an autobiographical reflection. Silbury is quirky, he says, conceptually and aesthetically strange, and intellectually empty: a carrier of thoughts and memories.
He was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, where Frank McKim (the first to resistivity survey Silbury, in 1959) was his admired physics teacher, and from where he escaped the “jungle with zits” and students “inured to the lack of affection”, onto the downs and its ancient remains. And so he returns throughout his life. He is (mostly) effortlessly up to date with his archaeology, giving his poetic insights rare analytical value. Regularly “seduced” by simplistic explanations – which, as he tells it, amount to almost everything said about Silbury and its early world – he soon rejects them, resisting “the alluring smoothness of prehistory”. Instead he seeks a blend of the personal and the scientific, an inevitably complex solution that raises profound questions about what archaeology can understand of the past. With the book’s attractive feel, and clear and often memorable writing, “interpretive archaeology” never came so seductively packaged.
Anthony Head: October 2014
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – a huge, flat-topped, Neolithic monument that looks like an overturned pudding bowl – is the most baffling historical relic in the British Isles. It was begun about 4,500 years ago, and it probably took over a hundred years to heap up the 250,000 cubic metres of chalk that mainly constitute its substance. Yet despite the numerous destructive excavations and intrusions by antiquaries over the centuries, its purpose – burial mound, religious sanctuary, military stronghold – remains unknown.
Adam Thorpe has been haunted by this enigma since his schooldays. In a work that blends anthropological speculation, historical synopsis and social commentary (sad reminders of congested roads and touristic tackiness) with large doses of autobiography, he takes the reader on a ramble through time, seeking less to unravel Silbury’s mysteries than to celebrate its conceptual and aesthetic strangeness. The journey is a paradoxical effort to convey a kind of timelessness such as the monument’s builders would have understood, since for them the past would have been “part of the same material as the present, a touch ghostly but just as potent as living flesh”.
A loose chronological framework enables Thorpe to cover much ground, not just in revisiting this numinous region of stone circles and sun-aligned avenues but in wandering off at tangents to Cameroon and India and into his own past, blending in nostalgia, fantasy and a wealth of literary references. If at times the prose seems a little blokeish (unlike the herder farmers, the hunter-gatherers of yore would have had “a more natural and varied diet of wild gleanings than the same old same old of crops”), equally there are numerous passages of impressive elegance and concision. The chapter on Thorpe’s days at Marlborough College is an evocative and moving vignette of English public school life.
The book is also partly a lament for something modern man has largely lost (Wiccans and New Ageists notwithstanding) – a mode of being. Thorpe notes that although we can now reconstruct the origins of the universe after billions of years by listening to the still-rippling echoes of the Big Bang, “the single thud of a ritual drum high up on Silbury has vanished for ever and can never be restored”. This engaging book, a deeply personal and idiosyncratic memoir, suggests how far we have travelled, and strayed, since those ancient days.
Hilary Mantel: August 2014
There is no contemporary I admire more than Adam Thorpe, whose novel Ulverton is a late twentieth century masterpiece. His new book On Silbury Hill is an experiment in pyscho-geography, partly a memoir, partly an exploration of the strange prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire, where he spent his adolescence. His publisher, the small but dedicated Little Toller Books, has produced a book that is not only fascinating to read but a pleasure to hold in the hand.
Ben Myers: August 2014
When it comes to the Neolithic antiquities that litter this island of ours… we keep returning to the same enduring question when confronted with this sentient mysteries: not always who or how or even when but why? Why is this here?
… Just as cynics react to modern art and sculpture with this same unanswerable question so centuries of English society and millions of visitors have tried to understand the reason for Silbury [Hill’s] creation. It is as if the answer holds a deeper truth and understanding of ourselves. .. In a book that combines historical fact with memoir and poetry, Adam Thorpe answers this over-riding question in his opening line: “The point about Silbury Hill is she has no point.” With that out of the way he is free to combine fact with speculation, memory with emotion. Perhaps, he wonders, it was a memorial, a burial mound or a sculpture of Mother Earth erected to honour the soil’s fertility. Or maybe it was none of these. Certainly it has housed wooden Roman and Saxon hill forts at various points. We know that it has been excavated several times, most famously during a live TV broadcast in the 1960s. And it has almost certainly been a destination point for over four millennia for young courting couples…
For Thorpe, who has written so well about changing rural English life in novels including Ulverton and Hodd, Silbury is “a hill of memories…a fragile museum exhibit; all she lacks is a glass case.” His response, like all the best nature and landscape writing, is entirely personal. He writes most movingly about his time as a slightly shell-shocked new arrival pupil at nearby Marlborough, where within seconds of his parents’ departure, a leg shot out to send him sprawling. The leg belonged to one Hawks-Gibbet: “And don’t you forget it”.
Thorpe’s Marlborough is one that has been inhabited by pupils who had already boarded for years before him; boys already institutionalised: “They knew the codes, and had grown inured to a lack of affection. They had, in a way, gone tribal – without the blood kinship of a true tribe.”
… But in time, the countryside provides solace, as he adopts “a Shropshire Lad solitariness, a roaming freedom.” Cutting through copses or sitting in spinneys, his young personality begins to form, increasingly defined through a love of landscape, animals, trees and clean skies. That Thorpe is within nine square miles that contain an embarrassment of historic riches – “Avebury henge, the Sanctuary, the two great Avenues, East and West Kennet Long Barrow, Windmill hill, the Marlborough Mound and various barrow cemeteries” – evidently helps in his development and, in fact his mental survival of school and then out into the wider world and all that the adult world reveals to him. But always at the symbolic centre sits the sublime enigma of Silbury mound.
Thorpe is sensitive and thoughtful as he outlines the life – and always referred to in the feminine, Silbury does appear to be a living entity – of the hill. All impressive detective-work and field research aside, On Silbury Hill is a fine stand-alone memoir. But it’s more than that. It is a love letter, a homage to an object, a place and a symbol that has provided succour and mystery and hope and wonder – and will long continue to do so.
Vicky Carol: July 2014
His writing spills out hot and fierce as summer wind, scouring the chalky, ancient Ridgeway and buffering up against the confounding slopes of Silbury Hill itself…
Bel Mooney: August 2014
In a fascinating series of interwoven strands, this book blends history, myth, archaeology, topography and poetry, and always leads us back to the haunting beauty of the question: ‘Why?’….
William Boyd: November 2014
On Silbury Hill [is] a remarkable and moving mix of history, autobiography and genius loci… packed with erudition, enthusiasm and rapt personal engagement.