Laurie and the 'Back of the Wight'
Yesterday Laurie and I took a walk up to the Longstone. Although the monument looks like two standing stones (one on its side) it is actually the remains of a Neolithic long barrow, the stones themselves once having been part of the barrow’s entrance. Known as the Mottistone Longstone, it is set in a beautiful enclosed valley on a plateau at the foot of Mottistone Down. Below the plateau is the western plain stretching out towards the ocean, the white chalk of Tennyson cliffs to the west and the striking Gore Cliff to the east. There are several paths up to the stones – one comes up through the valley and feels like a processional route towards the entrance of the tomb; others come up from the plain below through bluebell woods or up a wide path that climbs through heath land on the outer side of the hill. This last route doesn’t reveal the stones until you mount the top of the hill and turn into the valley itself. From here the incredible view of the sea is lost as the surrounding Downland enfolds itself around the monument, as if to keep it secret and protected. Looking back through the valley, the chalk ridge of the western downs is clearly seen and you get a sense of how the tomb’s entrance would have caught the rising sun, the shape of the earth here a perfect channel for its light.
It’s an incredibly peaceful place, the atmosphere ancient and timeless, not so much because of the age of the monument but more because of the spirit of this wonderful place. It isn’t hard to imagine why our ancestors felt inspired to build their tomb on this spot. Modern Druids worship here now, holding open ceremonies at each of the festivals. At Beltane they are joined by Morris Dancers and singers at dawn whose processional route climbs up through ancient woods full of bluebells and red campion.
Laurie and I took the route through the valley, passing the stones and following the path round onto the heath. The dark clumps of spiky gorse were softened by vast pools of pink: heather and rosebay willow herb abundantly blossoming. The view here is stunningly beautiful and yesterday it was particularly so, the grasses on the downs above and in wheat and barley fields on the plain below, turning from green to gold. The strong south-westerly propelled wispy patches of cloud, the path of their urgent shadows crossing the earth and dispersing into light. A kestrel suspended itself in the powerful stream of air, as easily as if the wind had lulled to stillness, whilst bees and butterflies feasted on the heather and bramble flowers: Gatekeepers, Meadow and Hedge Browns. We saw two Marbled Whites, their striking chequered wings opening in the heat amongst the low growth on the hill’s summit.
We walked down through the woods on to the drive of Brooke Hill House – this was once the home of J.B Priestly, now private and exclusive apartments – and then back up on the downs towards the stones once again, sitting for a while in their quiet presence.
This western part of the Island is known by Islanders as the ‘Back of the Wight’. It is remote and rural, the coast here beautiful but treacherous. The lighthouse at the Needles in the far western point of the Island shines a red light towards the lighthouse at St Catherine’s point on the southern tip – this lighthouse shines a red light back. These create a warning line of light not to be crossed by vessels with sails; once beyond this line the winds drive them on to the hidden rocky ledges that line the coast. A part of this stretch is called the ‘Graveyard’ – many ships and lives have been lost within its waters.
Our Neolithic ancestors who built the tomb, happily settled in this part of the Island. The thick oak forests in the north were mostly uninhabited at that time, the land on the southern coast much easier to clear and farm. Many ancient monuments and archaeology have sadly been lost due to coastal erosion, but it appears that this now sparsely inhabited part of the island was once relatively well occupied. Down on the vast sandy expanse of Compton Bay – the Back of the Wight’s most popular surfing beach – there is evidence of a much more ancient history: a prehistoric fossilised forest can be viewed at low tide, along with the footprints of dinosaurs.
In this landscape it is hard not to feel part of an ongoing story; so much life come and gone, from the fossilised bones on the beach and the mysterious barrows, right up to the lives lived and surrendered by all who have occupied this island in recent times. The chalk downs and cliffs themselves are the compressed layers of once living creatures; the soil is layered with countless stories.
The Rosebay Willow Herb up at the Longstone is also called ‘Fireweed’. It often springs up at the side of railway tracks, particularly on land ignited and scorched by the sparks of the passing trains. After the Second World War, it covered bomb sites, growing freely on land that had been seemingly stripped bare of life. It is a flower of regeneration, reminding us that life continues long after we ourselves have gone.
We create our monuments, their point and purpose obvious to us but perhaps mysteries for future times; we are born – we die; we celebrate and we mourn; the days pass and are filled with all the many small dramas that themselves become the greater narrative of our living, rich in pattern, complexity and meaning. At times we each suspect that what appears unique to our experience has been lived through infinite times by others long gone and this sense of continuity - of the passing on of the baton of our joys and failures, of our skills and lessons to be learned – when thought of deeply, encourages a greater compassion with ourselves and a bond with all life past and present.
Sat in the stillness of the Longstone’s presence I am reminded that I am not alone in my fears, my loves and passions; others suffer and endure and celebrate these; along with all those that exist with me in this time and space, to those who exist beyond the limits of my understanding. No mistake I could make is any worse than those made countless times before; no moment that graces me is one that hasn’t already been shared by someone, someplace, at sometime. It moves and comforts me greatly. There is far more that connects us than that which divides us.
The grain harvest will soon be upon us; our blessings counted; the wheat and chaff of our lives sorted and assessed. Like the Fireweed I have seeds that are regenerating ground that looks and feels a little like a bomb site; I have chaff that causes me pain and regret. It’s really ok. Looking out over the earth made golden by the sun’s ripening, I see countless seeds and endless harvests stretching back and – I dearly hope – forward; and me – one tiny golden seed of hope and potential amongst many – some who will grow and thrive, others who will be prematurely harvested or wither through lack of care or nurture. Either way, I am beginning to believe that we get to do it all again, many times over, feeding life’s hunger and desire to experience and understand itself more deeply. Perhaps our lives will one day appear as mysterious as those who once built the Longstone and yet beneath the initial sense of the foreign that time and distance might lead us to erroneously feel, there is this striking familiarity, something deeply known and understood.
The 'Back of the Wight'