I’ve always been intrigued by neolithic stone circles, hill forts and the archaeology of ancient Europe and have been lucky enough to have seen some of these in location in England, France and Ireland and have written occasionally about those encounters like in this early post on Standing with Stones I’m not sure what it is, but I’m not the only one drawn to the simple beauty and mystery of these ancient sites.
So, I was pleased that one of these poems ‘Stone Circles’ was published in a recent issue of Allegro Poetry Magazine UK. It was inspired by the question I asked myself when I first saw this circle: why here?
It was inspired by a visit to Castlerigg Stone Circle , near Keswick in England, in 2014. Here’s the poem, and a photo I took at the time.
The landscape came first, something captured in shared imaginations solidified in stone
Why build here? Someone found it beautiful and proclaimed it holy.
The rest follow as naturally as light falls across the soon-to-be-sacred stone on mid-winter morning
What do you learn when you consider this landscape as it once was?
Hard to say, but I thought there was something worthwhile in the consideration of that idea, as there I was, on a cold and showery Saturday morning, joining perhaps thirty others, to watch the launch of a series of heritage signs at a local beach: the appropriately named Fossil Beach, ten minute walk from my home, and a place I’ve written about before.
What did we expect I wonder?
We saw signs unveiled and launched, and we heard first-hand, the stories of the family who excavated this place. Those who told the stories were children then and returned to the place. They told of regular weekends spent unpacking the debris of the past.
We heard of the shifts in the earth that sent this place askew, pushing fossils out of the base clay, the layer called Balcombe clay, and how few places there are where you can see the evidence of how such things happen.
We heard of the indigenous people who live and ate here and walked these tracks and of the shells they left in heaps through the thousands of years of their passing. We heard how their oral history of a great flood matched the geological records of the bay filling, a thousand years ago.
Then, with settlement, industry; a short-lived cement works whose remnants lie in broken stones intriguingly half-hidden in the bush; this is progress you might be seduced into thinking, putting these stones together which have already gone to pieces.
Later, we heard of a young woman artist who painted the ruins of the cement works, a Romantic gesture like Wordsworth’s salute to the ruins of Tintern Abbey. She was eighteen, taught and influenced by the colonial artist Eugene von Guérard. An expert talked lovingly of the perspective and the frame; she’d spent months researching the provenance of the frame; what Melbourne company might have made this.
What do you learn from all this? Maybe you learn about the layers. First the primeval. The geological, the tectonic.
Then indigenous, their stories of the Bay as a great, open swampland, before the ocean rushed in, that ancient memory story, now backed by scientists.
How quickly progress became nostalgic in the art of the ruined romantic landscape.
And, finally, stories of the near-present, the place bordered up with warning signs and cyclone fencing, for years you couldn’t get in.
We listened to the speeches with rain coming in bursts from over the bay. Looked at the arrangements of rocks and the place where the tower was. A month later, and two of the fresh new heritage signs have been ‘tagged’ by some teenage vandal eager to leave his incoherent layer to all this as well.
Last week I walked down to the evocatively named Fossil Beach, not far from my house, and walked beyond the track and the sea-wall over a litter of sharp and chaotic rocks to where they dig for fossils.
Above: The work of fossil hunters
Fossil Beach is renowned in scientific circles for the fossils that have been found there over the years and I soon saw evidence of places where people had been tapping away, cracking open the rocks, looking for evidence of the ancient past.
But what struck me, once again, even before I reached the fossils was the layer of shells by the path, the edge of a midden in the process of being revealed.
This was a place where Aboriginal people, the Bunurong people, lived and ate and died, for thousands of years. These shells are remnants of their meals and their community.
It reminded me of a poem that I wrote ages ago when I first realised that the beach I thought of as my own, belonged to someone else, originally.
Maybe it’s worth re-sharing this Australia Day weekend.
At the end of my street
blackened mussel shells
layered under earth
on the track to my beach
I read Gwen Harwood
about Oyster Bay
is this what dispossession is?
You can read more about Aboriginal middens HERE and HERE and about indigenous Australians on the Mornington Peninsula HERE
On my walk this morning, along the bay near Safety Beach, I looked away from the sea for a moment, and there was a picnic table half-hidden in the ti-tree. A concrete picnic table, and the stump foundations of the benches that must once have been located along either long side. A forgotten little object, never important even on the day it was built, and mossy monolithic concrete now.
But, for me, there’s always been something about these lost and abandoned places. I’ve written about this before; on Abandoned Picnic Places, Buried Things and The Lost Highway but for some reason they still move me somehow: the transience, the hopefulness, the idea, I’m not sure. I do think that there’s something particular about the picnic place too; that families, or couples, or friends sat here by the sea, in moments that are long gone now.
I stopped, took a couple of quick photos and walked on. But the image stayed with me for the rest of the day. One day someone constructed this. I’m reminded of that lovely imagist poem by T.E. Hulme:
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
I was sad this week to hear of the passing of Roger Bannister, the English athlete who famously broke the four minute mile in 1954. I grew up a little after that, in the shadow of World War II, the British Empire’s last gasps, the ascent of Everest and the four minute mile.
Bannister, boyish looking, amateur athlete, running around the track at Oxford, represented a particular Englishness for me, partly because my father was a runner and told me these stories too. I remembered this week that I’d written a poem that included Bannister a few years ago, so I thought I’d include it here, now.
Child of the Empire
I was born under
The Illusion of Progress,
raised on the outskirts
of a great empire, believing
built things endure.
I was schooled in
The Great Tradition
near an airport
where the bright silver vehicles
of the future
descended from the blue.
I was coached in the exploits
of Roger Bannister and Baden Powell
and the self-determination of
Look and Learn
or the steady resolve of Churchill
in the Blitz.
All that certainty unravels slowly
and tangles as it does,
things change before you know them,
a stone, nestled beneath the tongue,
wont get you through all this.
It’s been a recurring thread for me in my writing and thinking: the idea that there are things hidden or buried, or forgotten and still intact beneath the surface of things. It’s there in some of my earliest writing, the very title of my first collection, Lost Things, and in images like the abandoned picnic place, the lost highway, Atlantis etc.
So, of course I’d be fascinated to see, last Friday when I walked to the beach after a busy week at work, the fragments and wreckage of past structures that had emerged over the winter at my local beach.
I’d seen glimpses of early constructions before; perhaps a pier, or foundations for a jetty of some kind, but nothing like these full and intact structures that had been beneath my feet all along, all these years.
I took these photos to preserve them, before they’re buried again.