Caught by the River

God’s Acre

5th December 2021

An extract from Andrew Rumsey‘s ‘English Grounds: A Pastoral Journal’, published by SCM press.

Into the winter mist, with Wiltshire crisp as Christmas. Green and tan-toned fields by the Bath Road have turned silver and fawn with an Advent frost and I am puffing along the track beyond Avebury’s Stone Avenue to where Silbury Hill rises from the ground, as if forced up by enormous moles. 

Over four thousand years from its construction (to no apparent purpose – not that artistry needs any other), Silbury still looks artificial: patted from a basin or slapped out by plastic spades. In fact, it is calculated that this unique Neolithic pudding took some four million working hours to create, across several generations. And though staying put, pert in the landscape, it’s an elusive thing – in and out of sight, crouched beside the undulating A4. Oddly hard to photograph, I find – and best viewed from here on the neighbouring slope where November sunlight now leaks lemony through the fog. 

Silbury Hill has a broad, moating border that stayed flooded until the spring. Dry so far (despite the swelling Winterbourne nearby) while I watch, this ditch fills with a filmy collar that leaves the flat top clear, as if for performance. A local band, pleading ignorance of the ban on people climbing it, played there a couple of years back and it’s easy to see why – being a stage like no other. A friend who was stationed here for National Service in the Fifties, at nearby RAF Yatesbury, recalls shinning up, as everyone did until fairly recently when fears for the mound’s erosion stopped all that. It now sits, sacrosanct – which I think a pity.

Thirty-five years ago, in his essay ‘On Living in An Old Country’, Patrick Wright observed the process by which Britain in the Twentieth Century commodified and circumscribed national history, culminating in the National Heritage Act of 1983, from which English Heritage was formed. ‘National Heritage’, he writes:

involves the extraction of history – of the idea of historical significance and potential – from a denigrated everyday life and its restaging or display in certain sanctioned sites, events, images and conceptions.

While easy to overstate this change – in many ways vital for the preservation of such sites – it has involved a new kind of enclosure of what was formerly common land. Even when releasing private property into public ownership, this has inevitably brought new demarcations and discontinuities of space and time that elevate the past into another realm and make it less reachable, somehow. Which is precisely the debate now digging in around the mooted Stonehenge tunnel, half an hour south of Silbury Hill. To what extent we trespass upon the past is a matter of secular holiness – in other words, which everyday things do we set apart and how far should we take that consecration? 

Given that the Church of England possesses such a large proportion of the country’s historic buildings ‒ the vast majority of which still house living communities of faith unbroken since their foundation ‒ the way in which we own and inhabit our heritage (and continue to pay for it) is for me a grave and urgent concern. Churches were already set apart – ‘God’s Acre’ in the Christian idiom – but in a way that drew others in to their sacred space, even where railed off. As a child in Luton, after Sunday services, I would hide under the high altar (a hefty concrete henge in a breeze block building), quite at home. 

Now that the heritage value of smaller places of worship is increasingly recognized ‒ and, like cathedrals before them, the local church negotiates the awkward boundary, turnstiled by admission fees, between visiting and devotion ‒ the right to belong in our past must include the right to interfere with it: to tread upon and thereby alter what is ours, for the present. Whether or not Silbury Hill was once a place of worship we won’t ever know – though this seems probable, given its situation amid what is now the Avebury World Heritage Site. Equivalent in height and volume to the Egyptian pyramids (with which it is contemporary), I love that this extraordinary heap is, despite everything, so neighbourly and self-effacing. Look to one side when driving by or ‒ like the disconnected past ‒ you might just miss it.


‘English Grounds is out now, and available from your local independent bookshop.