In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves
Giovanni Boccaccio on the Black Death, 14th century
+ + +
Hecate is chatting animatedly, driving us through the Dorset countryside about an hour from Avebury, where we’ve been holed up most of the week. I thank god for GPS, because I can’t for the life of me imagine the cluster fuck of lost we’d be if we were trying to navigate by map. Between my inability to spot British road markers, and her tendency to do everything by instinct, we’d likely be somewhere off in the Atlantic Ocean by now.
“So Knowlton was never more than a hamlet, sprung up along the river Allen. It was pretty much wiped out by the Black Death in the 14th century, and what was left of the people were gone by the mid seventeenth century,” Hecate said, flicking the ash from her cigarette against the closed car window. A shower of burning embers rained down which she dutifully wiped away while my eyes stayed glued to the road. I figured one of us should be watching where we were going, even though traffic in these parts was almost non-existent.
She continued, “there were quite a few empty houses in Knowlton after the plague, obviously, but aside from farming there wasn’t a lot to attract a person to move to the area. Besides, I think it would be rather creepy, in a good way of course, to live in a house whose last tenants were wiped out by the Black Death.”
The Black Death is a bit of a mystery to Americans. The influenza outbreaks of the early 20th century are our closest counterparts, and those were quite devastating. But they were a walk in the park compared to the Black Death, which originated in central Asia before spreading to Europe, killing up to 200 million people along the way over several hundred years.
The very name itself conjures up a menacing evil worthy of this horrid disease, and yet at the time it was mainly referred to as the great mortality or the great plague. England didn’t pick up on the name till the 19th century even, by which time it was already being called that throughout Europe.
It’s easy to see how devastating an outbreak could be to an area like this. Sparsely populated to begin with, when the population died off there simply wasn’t enough people to repopulate the area.
We’re going to church, Knowlton Church which is situated inside a circular earthwork and henge built about 2,500 b.c. It’s one of the finest examples of how Christianity tried to take over the pagan landscape of Britain.
Hecate switched gears and continued, “if you consider a pagan landscape a threat to your immortal soul, then Knowlton was in great need of Christianization. The henge which encircles the church isn’t the largest circle there. That would be the south circle which is almost impossible to see from the ground, though you can still make it out and other ancient features on Google maps, if you look at the satellite view. There was a smaller circle just to the northwest of the Church henge, an ancient burial ground just to the west of that, and a collection of barrows including the Great Barrow just to the north of the Church. Whether the burials are ancient or from the middle ages is hotly debated, with the Christians claiming them as their own, as they are aligned east to west, so the dead could face the birth of the sun, or son if you will. And then there’s the Dorset Circus, two chalk banks about six foot high which runs for six miles very nearby. So the whole area was fucking littered with pagan sites.”
“It’s no wonder Christian missionaries felt the need to put their stamp on it,” I added as I eyed the GPS suspiciously, wondering how it could find anything in this confusing landscape of farmland and narrow lanes.
“In Anglo-Saxon times it’s thought that Christian burials took place next to the henge, and then the Normans erected the church inside the circle during the 12th century.” Hecate switched on her turn signal and sped down an even narrower lane and I spotted a small church in the distance. “They figure most of the congregation was wiped out by the plague, though people still came from the area to worship up till the 18th century. There was enough of a congregation that the a new aisle was added and the roof rebuilt in 1659, though shortly before that it had dwindled enough that it was set to be demolished. The new roof caved in though by 1750 and it was abandoned.”
“Knowlton bell is stole
And thrown into the White Mill hole
Where all the devils in hell
Could never pull up Knowlton Bell
+ + +
“So you know the story about the bell I assume?” I ask.
“Can’t say that I do,” she replied.
“Aha! There are conflicting stories of course. The more poetic version has the Devil himself stealing the bell and then tossing it into the river Allen, just across the field. The parishioners located the bell and attached a team of oxen, pure white in color, and I suppose presumed to be virgins, and as they strained on their yolk the bell began to come loose and reached the surface. They cried out ‘Now we’ve got out the bell, in spite of all the devils in hell!’ But you never want to fuck with the devil, who tightened his grip and the ropes snapped, the bell sank and was never seen again.”
By this time we were pulling up to the entrance of the site, having unknowingly passed through the larger circle just to the south. “What is more likely, if either story is likely to begin with, is some villagers from nearby Sturminster Marshal snuck in during the dead of night, took the bell and set off for home. The locals spotted the thieves and rallied a group to go after them, but were too late to catch up. They stopped off at the cottage of the local witch for assistance, who cast a spell so that when the thieves’ horses reached the bridge they stopped dead in their tracks. Panicked, the miscreants tried rolling the bell across the bridge, but lost control and it went into the river with a plop and a splash. But just like in the story with the devil, the bell couldn’t be budged from the river bottom.”
“And on quiet nights at midnight the people of the area can hear the bell tolling underwater?” she asked, nonplussed, opening the hatch of the car and letting Lyra and Stan, out to romp and run. The signs read that dogs on leashes are welcome, but unfortunately neither can read and Hecate neglects to read the sign to them. Current transgression aside, she really is a responsible dog owner. In America, even the dogs are fat. We buy big dogs because we like big things, and then forget that a big dog requires a lot of exercise. So their waistlines grow in accordance with our own. Most dog walks don’t even have the space for a mid size dog to run at speed, which is something they all need to stay healthy. Stan and Lyra are incredibly healthy, which can be attributed to the love, care and devotion showered on them by Hecate. I’m damned proud of her for that.
Standing at the gate of Knowlton Circles and Henge, it’s hard to see that you’re in the middle of a vast, prehistoric complex dedicated to pagan rituals. The Norman church is quite modest as far as churches go, especially those built in the modern era. The henge is expansive around it, but other than that all one notices is flat. The Great Barrow, on the other side of the henge looms just in view, covered by a stand of trees. Otherwise all the ancient sites are lost.
The dogs fly around the circle like an unhinged canine version of the Indianapolis 500. Hecate walks the embankment, I wander around looking for the right angles for photography, each of us lost in our own reveries. Standing on the bank I snap a photo of the church in profile, and am suddenly stuck with the urge to fall backwards into the grass, as though gravity itself is pulling me down to stare up at the sky. I fight the urge and set off looking for Hecate, and find her on her back, having seemingly succumbed to the same temptation which had afflicted me.
I stood over her a moment, stealing photos of her while she could do nothing to prevent it, then flopped down beside her. We looked up at translucent blue above us, silent until Stan stopped by on one of his circuits to give us each a lick, before continuing off again in pursuit of Lyra. I looked to Hecate, she looked at me and time stood still. There are moments you’ll carry with you your entire life, images which your mind will run to and hold as you’re breathing your dying breath. That’s likely the one.
The sound of a slamming car door broke the spell and Hecate hopped up to corral the dogs and attach the lease. Luckily though, our new company brought dogs of their own, sans leashes, and the four pooches had already met and befriended each other.
So we walked the circuit of the embankment to the rear entrance of the henge, which likely was the original entrance through the embankment. Just outside the entrance is a stand of ancient yew trees, and even from a distance I could see splashes of color in their branches.
Quite organically, the idea of leaving wishes in the tree became popular, and the branches of a weaker tree would be weighted down with the number of offerings. Some tokens are stuck in the crook of branches, or tied with string from the limbs. There are notes, some crudely written, some the work of children, some funny, some quite elaborated and decorated with illustrations. One wonders which god the prayers are to, and I realize it doesn’t matter. A church within a henge doubles your chances of some deity hearing you, and I leave my own wish behind, as does Hecate. We don’t share our wishes, not wanting to jinx it. Though she probably guessed pretty closely my simple request, “please let this last.”
We enter the henge once more and cross the lawn to the church. Our fellow visitors were walking the henge so we had the place to ourselves, which is the ideal way to visit a ruined, Norman era church. It’s easy to imagine the place full, as it’s quite small to begin with. It’s harder to imagine signs of life through the windows now, and one wonders why the church was built so far from the village. Was it simply to put the stamp of Christianity on a pagan site, or was it something more. Was there something here so powerful, so menacing that the villagers decided it had to be conquered?
We’ll never know that, and despite the fact that there were many attempts to sanctify the pagan sites, a church within a henge is quite rare. I found myself looking through a window of the ruined building, my arm resting on the window ledge. And it struck me that most of the finishing is gone from the stone. There are no pews, the roof is long gone and nearly any spot which people might have touched has been chipped away or broken. This one window ledge was quite unique, and suddenly I realized that countless people must have rested their arm here and looked out across this same landscape When Hecate comes up and delivers a small kiss, I wonder how many lovers have stood on this spot and done the same. It’s moments like these where the present rolls away and the past comes crashing in. You feel a part of an unbroken chain, and when you close your eyes you’re quite convinced that on opening you’ll be in a different time altogether.
Hecate’s lips on mine made me reluctant to open them again however, and when I did I saw her face, which was a fair trade for finding myself still in the 21st century.
The sun was beginning to dip down in the sky and we had the drive back to Avebury ahead of us, so Hecate whistled for the dogs. I asked her if there were originally standing stones here.
“They’re starting to think so,” she replied “A while back they found two sarsen stones buried, which though small would be in line with a size consistent of standing stones. It also had concentric rings carved into one, which matches ancient pottery found in the area. So it’s quite possible that there were once stones on each of the circles.”
I stood for a moment on the embankment, looking down at the church and over at Hecate, a bit further down, engrossed in the same site. It’s easy to see why rumors abound of secret rituals here, black masses, satanism, garden variety devil worshippers of all types. It’s easy to see how it could be a place of light and happiness as well. It all depends on one’s perspective.
Knowlton Circles is an ideal spot for contemplation, for dreaming, for finding whatever is lost inside one’s self. I found a moment there which will live inside me forever, and you can’t say that about many places. I also left a wish there in the ancient yew tree, which is likely there still.