The High Places

Why are we drawn to ancient sites? And what is it that has always drawn humans to these special places?

First of all what do I mean by ancient sites? This is my own definition really- a place where there’s evidence of human use going back at least thousands of years- Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Saxon…

Their attraction is so difficult to articulate (which is why I make art about them!)- for me it must be partly something to do with the elevated position most of them hold. Of course an advantage for any human group- to be able to see your territory or lands all in one go. I can’t help but think that the feeling of elation, of being ‘nearer’ to the sky, clouds, stars and moon may be part of the attraction too. For me watching weather pass over the land is deeply comforting and visually exciting.

The undulation of the land itself, on and around these places is also attractive- man-made or natural. The places I know best- Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset have a natural roll and flow, sweep and scale- sometimes the land appears like giant waves. The man-made defences, ramparts and burials- rubbed smooth over thousands of years, seem finally to fit with the land- though there is a satisfaction in working out what is man-made or natural.

From an artist’s point of view, the worn paths around these places- often white from the chalk the hills are made of, can add a beautiful element of line to the landscape- organic and definitely not straight. Line is also provided by following the horizon line- looking up from below- often as rewarding as looking down from above.

The overlaying of relatively modern agriculture and housing presents a challenge to the artist- trying to see underneath these to the body of the land below, yet also trying to allow the beauty of a ploughed field, barn or dwelling to be a part of the landscape as it is.

There was often a spiritual element to many of these places of course. We’ll never know why they were held sacred, and maybe we don’t need to know. I believe we can still feel the sacredness of these places when we visit today.

Some of my favourite inspiring sites include the famous and the lesser known. Near to my home is Cadbury Camp (one of many in England- this one is in North Somerset, near Clevedon), a beautiful, circular ‘camp’, Iron Age and Roman, with views out to the Bristol Channel. Stanton Drew is like a mini Avebury in the Chew Valley, south of Bristol.

Avebury itself, in Wiltshire, never fails to give me a special feeling- even when overrun with tourists. I do like to get out to the further landscape though and absorb the magic more quietly- I think perhaps because it shows so clearly how man lived within landscape, so closely intertwined.

Dorset brings Maiden Castle, a giant site, incredible steep sided, where there is, of course, no castle. Other favourites there include Eggardon Hill, Cadbury Rings and the Cerne Abbas Giant.

I’ve begun a new series of small pieces, based on a wonderful walk I had with my sister at Beacon Hill on the Berkshire/Hampshire border- they will be ready as small Christmas gifts. Join my mailing list if you’d like early access, here.