Bath Orbital

The prehistoric stone circles of Stanton Drew stand in a flat of land between low lying hills; the fields broken up by scrubby copse and one hill to the north-east lined with a backbone of bare poplars. I visited during a week of torrential rain. It had relented for the morning at least but the wearied fields lay sodden and overhung with dank air. Herring gulls seeking refuge inland wheeled around like paper confetti gleaming white against the grey sky and reflected in the metallic sheet of flood water in the neighbouring fields. On a nearby slope, the conventional village complete with medieval church stood oblivious to the ancient ritual site in its midst, apart from its few squat bungalows which bear names like ‘Stoney Lea’.

There are three stone circles that date broadly to the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The largest is the ‘Great Circle’ and there are two smaller ones to the south-west and north-east. I found myself unconsciously tracing the circumference of the Great Circle, pausing at each of its megaliths. A recent magnetometer survey found that within this circle were nine concentric rings of wooden posts, each one metre apart and each post a metre or more across, all surrounded by a seven metre wide ‘henge’ or ditch. Circles have emerged as a theme of this journey. What I intended as an orbital around Bath evolved into an inwardly spiralling ammonite. With history, myth and legend you are compelled to jump in at a random stone and passively follow the labyrinth of story within story to wherever it leads. Thus though the city still remains its nucleus I end up beginning my journey ten miles to the west.

Bath-born John Wood the Elder, architect of the eye of that nucleus, The Circus (that better known circle, this time of Georgian origin) considered Stanton Drew a pagan site and believed its layout was based on a Pythagorean planetary system. An early Freemason with an interest in sacred geometry, Wood published the first detailed plans of Stanton Drew as well as Stanton Drew in 1740 and it is said that The Circus is based upon the exact dimensions of the latter. It is easy to understand his curiosity in these places. The megaliths have the aspect of fallen meteors from outer space. They are magnificent eroding boulders of clay-red rock pock-marked with dark craters, the recesses of which glitter with metamorphic crystals. Some are imposing giving an impression of the once vast temple or structure that stood here, and others worn to small stumps by thousands of year’s exposure to the elements.

The cold sun emerged from behind a lightning-struck tree on the hill, beaming its rays through the antler branches splayed skywards. Elongated shadows fell northwards from myself and the stones and the gentle dips surrounding each semi-submerged stone darkened. I began to wonder what lay beneath the land and the strata of millennia. What happened here? What savage sacrifices? What ritualised performances, barbaric sports? For John Wood these British stone circles were once more elaborate buildings built by King Bladud, the mythical founder of Bath, and this little known circle at Stanton Drew his palace; the seat of British Druidism.

From Stanton Drew I headed east towards Bath eventually joining the Wansdyke which threads through my next landmark, Stantonbury Camp. The Wansdyke is a linear earthwork thought to have been built during the Dark Ages as a defence by the native Britons against Saxons encroaching from the Upper Thames Valley into the West Country. The Saxon victors named it ‘Woden’s Dyke’ (from which we get modern day Wansdyke) in tribute to their pagan god of boundaries. Woden, the psychopomp, whose Wild Hunt has been witnessed taking to the skies; a phantasmal assembly of jet black mounted huntsmen attended by rabid dogs, boding wars or plague and dragging all mortals in their path to the land of the dead. Walking along this ridge raised between earth and sky there is the echo of old footsteps trod, a commune between those long dead pagans and the still worldly walker. I was reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s words: ‘Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. . . . Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.’ (1)

Dark was descending by the time I climbed the thickly wooded dirt track to the Iron Age hill fort which lies just north of Stanton Prior village. Icy rain spattered down. The swash of the close-by A39 could be heard and occasionally red and white car lights twinkled through the young beeches and evergreens. Crows cackled overhead. There are several wide rides that circle the 60m high hill and one must cut between them, scrambling up muddy slopes, to reach the summit. In the twilight I thought I saw someone among the trees. A motionless brown square with what looked to be legs. As I came closer its neck turned sharply and the blazing white eyes of a roe stag pinned me before he tripped swiftly off into denser cover. Further up near the summit young oaks stand tightly parallel to one another forming a curtain of skeletal figures, black against the murky sky. I finally crashed through the end of this oppressive maze into a wide open expanse where once would have stood a settlement of wattle and daube huts. Like Maes Knoll situated to the south of Bristol and marking the beginning of the Wansdyke, Stantonbury Camp would have been another boundary fort. These Iron Age camps are thought to have been defensive strongholds either against continental invasion or to keep a grip on social tensions. There are no stone remains here and instead large unkempt crop beds of shrivelled sweetcorn and all around the panicked flutter and shriek of farmed pheasants. I decided to disturb them no further and stumbled back down the hill to continue my journey.

A first sighting of The Circus, that kernel of my journey, comes once I penetrate Bath’s southern suburbs and have ascended the smart residential streets of Beechen Cliff. From the summit at Queen Alexandra’s Park the group of plane trees standing erect on The Circus’s green form a pin on the map of the city spread out below; a small beating heart at the centre of the vale which the ancient Britons called Caer Badon. Like Rome, Bath is a city surrounded by hills. Mount Beacon or Beacon Hill, Little Solsbury, Bathwick Hill and the edge of the Cotswolds offered the previous Roman inhabitants a strong military position as well as a more sheltered climate vaguely reminiscent of home. The severe cliff drop bordering the park gives way to a panorama that exposes the city’s topography. If you squint you can almost imagine yourself as Emperor Claudius scoping this settlement in 60AD. Now the wide brown path of the River Avon provides the spine from which the city expands like a neuron cell, its synaptic branches of infrastructure reaching out of the valley basin. As clear as the stroke of an artist’s paintbrush, Bath Spa railway courses decisively towards the capital with the Kennet and Avon canal at its side, and Palladian Bath Stone buildings sit within a golden weave of Georgian crescents and parades.

Of course it was the same thermal waters which led the Georgians to develop Bath as a popular spa town that originally drew the Romans. The Romans knew the city as ‘Aquae Sulis’. Sulis being the Celtic deity worshipped at the thermal spring, whom they identified as Minerva. But peel back the layers of onion skin yet further and in John Wood the Elder’s ‘An Essay towards a description of the city of Bath’ he is convinced that 900 years earlier in 863BC, it was King Bladud, Eighth King of the Britons, who first discovered Bath’s medicinal waters and attributed them to Sulis.

The story goes that while studying as a boy in Athens Bladud contracted leprosy and on his return was banished from his father, Lud Hudibras’s, court. He fled in exile to the Avon valley where he found employment as a swineherd. It was while driving the pigs in search of acorns in the then heavily wooded hills surrounding Bath that he came to the small village of Swainswick. Here a farmer advised him to try Beechen Cliff on the other side of the river where there may be some beech nuts. Wood continues:

…in a few Hour’s time he reached the Spot of Ground where the Hot-Springs of BATH boil up […] into which the Pigs directly immerged themselves; and so delighted were they in their Ouzy Bed, that BLADUD was some Days before he could get his whole Herd away; which had no sooner done, and got them clean of their Filth, with which they were covered, that he observed the Pigs had shed their Hoary Marks.

The Prince, in Astonishment of this, ran back to the Hot-Springs, striped himself naked, plunged himself into the Sedge, and Waters, and Wallowed in them, as the Pigs had done; so that in a few Days his White Scales began to fall off. (2)

The story ends happily with Bladud cured and accepted into his father’s court once more. On his succession to the throne Bladud recalls his gratitude to Bath’s thermal springs moving his whole court to Bath and building his palace at nearby Stanton Drew, the humble stone remains of which formed the starting point of my trail.

I pursued the upward curve of my orbit north-eastwards towards Bathampton Down at the summit of Bathwick Hill. The down, a fifteen acre limestone plateau, was once another Iron Age hill fort dating to the Mesolithic Period. Nowadays Bath Golf Club has dampened any enduring mysticism beneath a carpet of green velvet lawns. Where once would have stood ramparts is a barbed wire boundary fence lined with a plethora of hostile signs and it proves tricky identifying bunkers from burial mounds. I grew despondent, but still determined in my antiquarian quest I rose at dawn the following day to tackle my final mapped ascent of Little Solsbury Hill that stands on the city’s north-eastern edge.

One sole wren kept me company as I walked the lane to the hill’s base, its brave song cutting through the chill morning air. The hill above held an imposing black profile against the mauve-blue sky. I climbed higher through grass strung with frosted spider webs and decorated with dew droplets. From around 300-100BC the summit would have hosted a walled village of Iron Age people, enclosed by a univallate rampart of dry stone wall twenty feet wide and at least twelve metres high. Sitting on the edge of the plateau where the line of the rampart is still in evidence, I looked out to the valley and the city below. Bath and its surrounding hills emerged like islands out of a sea of mist. This timeless scene, as old as mankind, was brought into modernity as one by one scattered electric lights appeared in the semi-darkness.

In the mid-1990s this hill became the site of an environmentalist camp against the A46 bypass road which now wraps around its base. A turf labyrinth made by the protesters still remains and I sought it out. As I trace the indented channels round I am struck by that sense of orbit again, compelled as I was at Stanton Drew. An orange glow falls on me from over the crest of the hill warming my exposed face and hands. Like the sites of our ancient ancestors- forts, stone circles, pathways- this man-made labyrinth will fade with time. Visiting these places is a way to gain perspective, to break free of the grip of our current age and be strangely reassured of the insignificance of humankind. Through the ages of civilization, from Iron Age settlers to Georgian architects, it is the land which endures. We, like our forefathers, are but imprints in the sand to be washed away by incoming tides.

From the lofty heights of Little Solsbury Hill I feel a tug towards the journey’s end and gravity-pulled descend the final miles back into the hum of the city and straight towards The Circus.

(1) Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012.

(2) Wood, John.  An Essay Towards a Description of the City of Bath, Printed for W. Frederick, bookseller, in Bath, 1742, p.7. Digitized by Google in 2009.