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by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action
Pentre Ifan, one of the great icons of our Prehistoric Past
Image credit and © C. Brooks
School wasn’t the greatest time of my life. For what ever reason, I always had trouble with my writing and spelling, I wasn’t looked upon favourably by many teachers and ended up being placed in the bottom groups in most subjects. But like most young boys growing up in the days before computers and video games, I had an insatiable interest in all ‘monsters’ prehistoric. At some point I think I must have borrowed every dinosaur book in the school library and closely raked over the lovely illustrations of giant horned reptiles and creatures of the deep with those razor sharp teeth! I was also fascinated by the fossilised shells found in the sedimentary rocks close to where I lived on the southern edge of the Cotswolds and would often take them home to look at under my microscope. I also had a great interest in astronomy and at the weekend would sit out in my back garden with my small telescope and gaze into the dark skies until the late hours. At school I was treated as the ‘font of all knowledge’ on the subject and often asked to help out with homework questions by other kids.
So I always have had an inquisitive mind especially in those subjects I considered subjective and open to interpretation and forever changing as more and more was discovered. I left school in 1979, in a time when jobs weren’t that easy to come by in a small market town in Wiltshire. I had no ‘O’ levels, no ideas and a handful of CSE’s (not as good as ‘O’ levels for those who can’t remember) but I managed to get a short term job painting door frames for a local carpentry company… but I digress. One day while visiting my local Careers Officer in search of a more long term income they suggested that maybe going to college to get a few of those elusive ‘O’ levels would help me in my job prospects. Those job prospects being to either work at the local slaughter house or at the only big employer in my area who happened to make railway equipment.
I sat at the enrolment interview with my dad and some college echelons hoping for a place at their establishment in order for me to get the qualifications to enable me to get a job in the second of my two options. They were quite nice actually and were happy to let me in to their nice college. They even suggested I did English and maths (I had managed to get a Grade 1 CSE in Physics at school which was a bit like an ‘O’ level back then so didn’t need to do it again) but as I had struggled at school, I should concentrate on those and choose three other subjects that wouldn’t tax my little brain too much (how nice of them).
So there I was at the enrolment session looking down the list of subjects I could do but which should it be? I had already chosen the Maths and English and was now looking for three others. Ah yes, Geography, I always wanted to do Geography at school but wasn’t allowed and ended up doing ghastly environmental studies or something with an even more ghastly, miserable and uninspiring teacher. Next on the list was Photography. I loved the idea of learning how to take pictures and to develop film, and my mate was doing it too (this was also something that would stay with me for the remainder of my life). But what else was there to do? That was when Archaeology caught my eye and I remember pondering over it for a while. Then the thoughts of those dinosaurs again entered my mind. That September I started my classes with a determination to succeed, to get my ‘O’ levels, to get a good job and prove my school teachers wrong.
My Archaeology teacher was in his late 40′s, a bit tubby, smelt of moth balls and reminded me a little of Terry Jones from the Monty Python team. I liked him for that. There were about 10 students in all (to start with anyway) and I felt quite excited about the course and everybody else also looked as enthusiastic as I did. Our first lecture began with an overview syllabus beginning with British prehistory, starting with the early Stone Age (what no dinosaurs I though to myself!!) up to and including the Roman invasion. At first I was a little disappointed with no prospect of digging up dinosaurs or even a hint of woolly mammoth (I was quite naive back then… obviously). But as the lectures began, and over the coming weeks, we talked about the daily lives of those people and the construction of the longbarrows, I found myself drawn into the world of our prehistoric ancestors. I was amazed at how, from scant pieces of evidence, we are able to make those assumptions and build up an image of their world. I remember having difficulty in accepting some explanations (and still do) but I still find the whole way archaeologist work absolutely enthralling.
Eventually we had our first field trip and were taken to Lanhill and Lugbury Longbarrows. These two places are just a few miles from my doorstep and I never knew they existed. I was particularly interested in Lanhill with its stone walled entrance and little chamber. This was my first barrow experience and until this day I feel quite protective about it. Our next field trip was to the Avebury Complex including Windmill Hill, Silbury and West Kennet which just blew me away. The lectures and the field trip had such a big impact on me and gave me a love of the Neolithic people and their awesome structures which has remained with me ever since.
I finish my year at college managing to get a grade ‘C’ in both maths and English (and prove to my old school teachers that I could do it) which would see me get a job in an industry I have worked in for the best part of 30 years. But what I was most proud of was getting my grade ‘A’ in archaeology and being forever interested in the stones.
As I hit my late teens I met beer, babes (can I use that word these days?) and bikes which would lead me astray from the stones for a good few years. But also by the end of my engineering apprenticeship I had met a girl and we had a baby on the way. The early 1980’s were desperate times and my company was in trouble, making many redundancies and unfortunately they had to let me go. Things were difficult (as they were for everybody) and work was now impossible to find in my town. In desperation I wrote to a company in Plymouth who also did railway equipment and they said they would be interested in seeing me if I moved down there. Two months after my first son was born we moved to Whitley in Plymouth and I started work again.
Now living on the edge of Dartmoor should have been a godsend to anybody interested in megaliths, and yes it would have been if I could drive and wasn’t working 6 days a week. However we did get the odd days out when my sister drove down and we would then all cram into the car and head up to the moor (or the coast if it was really nice). I would stand in front of a stone or two in the wind and rain admiring their beauty, until everybody got bored; not a pleasant experience for a young family… but I enjoyed it.
It stayed pretty much status quo for awhile and bringing up a young family is never easy. After the divorce and my move back to sunny Wiltshire, I learnt to drive and would still take the kids (two of them by now) to Avebury and Uffington. My wish to be near stones and photographing them was rekindled. The kids used to call chambered longbarrows ‘caves’ and it was my task to find new and interesting ones for them to explore. We found loads in the West Country; Hetty Pegler’s & Nan Tow’s Tump, Belas Knap, Wayland’s Smithy as well as a few stone circles such as Stanton Drew and the Rollrights. These places have such fabulous names which conjure up all sorts of images in the mind! Back in those days without the internet they were not as easy as they are now to see but it was just as much fun looking over OS maps and reading books.
Eventually I met a really nice girl, who I spent many years with exploring our ancient lands. She wasn’t a keen antiquarian but enjoyed a good walk which allowed me to fulfil my stoney and picture taking needs. We explored North West Wales including Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia and Cadair Idris. There’s plenty of prehistory in them there hills you know.
Time marched on and so unfortunately did my girl, but we are still friends and on her occasional holidays would show me pictures of stoney places she had visited. So it was nice to know that my passion had now infected another. As my boys grew up and found beer, babes and bikes as well, they left me to carry on exploring on my own. This was a bit of a lonely experience but made me take an old hobby of mine more seriously – photography. A mate of mine was a little tight for money and asked if I wanted to buy his digital SLR camera. As it was a Canon and the lenses from my old Canon film camera would fit it I agreed to buy it. I spent a good while revisiting all those sites over again taking pictures of all my favourite places. I now have thousands of pictures and need to store them on DVD’s as my hard drives are full.
One of my many early morning strolls near Avebury with Rex
Image credit and © C. Brooks
As I become more and more interested in the subject I wanted to travel further afield but it can be quite a lonely experience on your own (although good for quiet reflection and relaxation). Well I had a chat with my son and we ended up with a little black collie-X called Rex. Now Rex was a rescue dog with a few issues and to begin with he was also a bit of a handful. He could not be let off the lead and had to be muzzled when near other dogs, which was a bit of a pain, but after a lot of love and attention and walks about town, Rex became the most obedient dog you could ask for. I was able to take him off the lead and walk in the countryside quite freely… even when there were sheep about (but he was always put back on the lead) he would just ignored them. He did have a tendency to dislike cows though, so any fields with monuments and cows in them he would be kept on a tight reign. We went all over southern England and Wales sharing beautiful walks in very beautiful settings. Rex would sit patiently by my side while I took photos or would sniff around in any long grass. Well Rex has now been and gone (poor dear friend), but I am happy I gave him a good life outside that animal rescue centre and after after all, life has to go on.
Through Websites such as Heritage Action and The Modern Antiquarian I have begun a new interest in the preservation of our great ‘hidden’ history. All such places are at risk from developers, nature and just neglect no matter how famous or remote. Houses are being build just metres from the Avebury Henge, unnecessary roads have been built over an ancient bronze age serpentine track way called the Rotherwas Ribbon and barrows are ploughed, inch by inch, back into the soil all over the country. All those places that have survived the previous 6,000 years and those I have visited over my mere 47 years, need to be looked after, protected and respected in order that future generations can study, enjoy and photograph them as I and other people like me have.