Near the Vignassa there is a rock which has been termed a prehistoric rock altar, which surprisingly is just what it looks like. I have been curious to know if it has an alignment for years so I though I’d check it out today, the day of the summer solstice.
4 o’clock in the morning. It’s hot. The full moon is over by a day so there was still a lot of moonlight around, enough to read by anyway. It’s quite amazing how still and peaceful the morning can be before the light, perhaps even more quiet than the dead of night. You can almost feel the stirring before the dawn chorus but you hear nothing, everything is pregnant with potential but as yet still and silent. It’s weird. The good weather gave me an unexpected first flush of fireflies to light my way to the rock altar. Now there is something mystical. The leafy branches hanging low lit by thousands of pin points of light. They seem as though they should make a noise as they fly but the whole ballet is carried out in total silence and this conveys and eerie feeling to the scene. The only sound, as usual, is the rushing of the water in the river down in the bottom of the valley. Other than that total silence. No cars, no motorbikes, no nothing. Total rushing silence.
I was attacked by a boar a couple of years ago and since then I have always felt a little overly alert walking at night in the woods. It is an irrational fear I know because it was my fault I was attacked, walking, as now, in the dark with no torch dead straight towards her young as it turned out, and they don’t attack unless they are protecting and this is not the boar season but then irrational fear is maybe the most difficult to control so I did feel just a bit uneasy walking out into the woods in the dark. And under the canopy of the trees dark it most certainly was.
When I got near the altar I stopped in the glade a couple of yards away as the altar itself was in pitch darkness and I sat on the grass to wait. It was a very beautiful experience. The bats were out too which is something I always love to see and I saw a huge, and I mean huge, moth, about small bird size flying about among them. I can just imagine the bats when they cotton that it is not a bat too “Zikes! Graham, WTF is that!! Does it bite?” Awesome.
Slowly, very slowly, the sky began to get lighter. Then the birds started, first the robins on their own for 20 minutes or so, then the blackbirds and then everyone else. Great tit, blackcaps, wrens, a couple of sparrow hawks which have young nearby, a woodpecker, a tawny owl and the one that made me jump for my gun sort of thing, the yaffle, the green woodpecker. Fast, beautifully green and with that malicious sense of humour which makes it wait until it is just behind you before calling out loudly. At least I know my adrenalin system works. In fact the noises when they start are quite disturbing. Blackbirds scuffle around in the undergrowth making a noise like human feet, the squirrels in the trees snap off branches and drop stuff just behind you (probably in league with the yaffle) then as the slugs and snails creep about they rustle along with the more serious rustling of the mice and voles. At a certain point I saw a bramble branch bobbing violently up and down, just discernable in the distance, so I crept closer and it was a small mousey thing too far away to tell which type, hanging off the end of the stem, probably trying to eat a shriveled blackberry or something, or maybe perhaps just having a good time. I’ve never seen that before. It was there for a good while too, just bouncing. Then it scurried down the stem and disappeared. Another solstice present.
Looking up towards the now deeply blue sky there were dozens of hoverflies. I’ve seen this before and it has always fascinated me, they all line up facing south, then they zoom off right, or left or higher, or lower and then zoom back again and take up the same position. All perfectly stationary in the air except when they are zooming off. I know nothing of hoverflies but it would be fascinating to figure out what they do and why they face south. It might just be coincidence and it may be the movement of the air up the slopes of the hills. Fascinating. There were still a couple of faint stars in the sky at this time and looking up out of the funnel of trees I could have been the only person on the planet. It’s humbling. You get the renewed realisation that you are just a part of the unfolding, not the reason for it, perhaps even an intruder though it didn’t feel that way today. More a part of things, on an equal level.
But then the stars fade away completely and as usual the clouds start to form. Slowly, as they multiply, they are tinged with red and soon the whole valley is washed with reflected redness and as the light increases I moved over to the altar.
Unfortunately early morning mist and the clouds and the trees made it impossible to see the sky almost let alone the sun. I cleaned the area around the altar of all the spring growth and had brekker. One thing I always love about being out in the morning, a memory of childhood, is drinking coffee from a thermos in a plastic cup. I didn’t have a plastic cup, just a china one but though I can’t fathom why, it always tastes better from a thermos. So I sat there drinking coffee and munching biscuits enveloped in the smell of crushed grass and honeysuckle and bobbing up and down like an agitated owl trying to get a glimpse of the sun through the trees.
The rock altar is about 6 feet by 2 and faces south. On it there are 9 man made holes arranged in a shallow arc and one out of alignment behind the others. At one time the rock was at the edge of a sheer drop but sometime in the 1500s or 1600s a terrace was built up below it so that now you can stand in front of it without actually dying.
It was good just to sit there and reflect. These altars, and carvings in general, are often associated with rock overhangs and springs. This is one of these. But I was thinking today how likely it is that you are going to find the combination of south facing rock, rock overhang and spring all grouped together. This set me wondering if perhaps the rock overhang might have been contrived and if the spring was diverted water which may over the centuries have found it’s path rather than being natural. Finding out will give me something to do in the near future. The rock faces south so they must have either used the sun or the moon as a reference body so in any case the sun or the moon was important to them. The flat bit of land behind the rock and in front of the overhang, the pick axe marks (which I have duplicated using an antler by the way) the closeness of the spring water would all make this a very good place to camp though I can’t see that it was for shepherds with grazing animals as it’s much too steep and if it was wooded back then the canopy would have been too high to allow bushes and grass to grow. It needs more thought of course.
But anyway, I noticed on the rock itself that three of the holes are in a straight line. Running north south, one very deep, one in the middle a little less deep and the one to the south very shallow. The one in the middle and the one at the north end are of radically different diameters. To me this implies that the tools used were different. They are too close to have been made simultaneously without banging your neighbours hand so maybe they were made at different occasions. Like the question of why they were made, I suppose I’ll never know.
So my solstice alignment check flopped. But in a way I am glad it did because I got the opportunity to ponder things I would not ordinarily have got round to pondering on site. And waiting for 3 hours in the woods brings with it its own rewards. I still welcomed the dawn which is not something I do every day or even every year but it lacked the dramatic moment though this was far less important than to just be a part of the transformation from night to day. I think I am remarkably privileged to have such a wealth of sites in the valley and to have them to myself too. Sure it would have been nice to go to a famous monument, for the dramatic effect but for my character I far and away prefer me, a stone and perfect peace and quiet to the crowds, even good natured crowds, you would get at any other site. I’m far too antisocial to ever be able to enjoy a crowded solstice. Far too antisocial to enjoy a crowded anything really. Anyway it seems likely that there is no solstice alignment on this particular stone.
I started to reflect on the solstice. I come from a country where we are quite used to thinking in terms of the sun’s positions. But I wonder if maybe this was because of the lie of the land. The sunrise at say Stonehenge does exactly that, it rises. Here in the mountains it doesn’t. There is no flat land to rise from. The sun comes out of the diagonal, something everyone knows but the implications of this becomes blindingly obvious when you think about it. How do you calculate a solstice when the sun gets to you and hour and half later than over the sea and without a horizontal reference plane? You’d get a reference position on the side of the mountain sure, but it would be very difficult to mark. The altar has another hole behind the front row which could be an alignment but unfortunately it didn’t line up with the sun as far as I could tell. I have a niggling doubt. What if solstices and equinoxes were just a flatland hobby. The sun squeezes out from behind the mountains here. I imagine, though I don’t know, that the mountains would have been wooded too which means that many of the sites which are wooded today, like the altar would maybe not have had a clear view even then.So after pondering many things and feeling much more intrigued by the whole altar site, when the crows started to call and hop about on the branches above me and the mosquitoes started to bite I paid my respects and left with more questions than answers but with a more profound sense of wonder at the activities of the people who once lived here.