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Silbury
Image credit Littlestone
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Silbury: Resolving the Enigma by Michael Dames is published by The History Press Ltd. Paperback: 192 pages.
ISBN-10: 0752454501. ISBN-13: 978-0752454504.

Book review by Alan S> Heritage Action Site Inspector

I was recently intrigued to see a new booklet announced by Seven Stones Publishing: ‘The Stone Circles, Standing Stones and Chambered Tombs of West Penwith‘ and so promptly ordered a copy, along with ‘The Lost Stone Circles of Shropshire‘ by the same publisher.

West Penwith (the ‘toe’ of Cornwall) is an area that I’m privileged to know quite well as far as the ancient monuments of the area go, having spent multiple stone -hunting holidays there every year for the past 9 years or so.  Any new book on the area therefore immediately grabs my attention lest it can impart any new information. Shropshire, on the other hand is an area I know very little about, archaeologically.

Both paperback booklets (at 26 and 30 pages respectively, they can hardly be called books) follow a similar format. Brief introductory essays on the development of the monument types under scrutiny, then  a more local overview of the prehistoric landscape of the area in question. Finally, gazetteer sections list the monuments by type.

The Penwith volume includes some coloured photos, the Shropshire one is B/W only. Each site entry gives OS co-ordinates, a brief description  of the monument and any known folklore or historical notes about the monument. Each booklet includes a brief bibliography.

I was somewhat disappointed with the line illustration on the fly pages of the Penwith booklet; a stylised stone circle with a campfire fully ablaze in the centre, watched by an owl and a hare. A lovely, evocative image, but I’ve seen enough illegal firepits at ancient sites to know the damage they can do. Illustrations like this can only encourage what is an insidious and I repeat, illegal practice. I would hope the illustration could be amended for any subsequent reprints, and will draw the author’s attention to this review.

The list of sites in Penwith is reasonably comprehensive, but I note that both Brane and Tregeseal Entrance Graves have been omitted from the listings.  These minor omissions will apparently be corrected in the next reprint.  I cannot yet comment on the range of sites in the Shropshire volume but the author assures me all possible sources have been scoured.  I hope to put the information given to good use over the next few months, when I hope to visit the area for the first time.

The booklets could be improved by closer attention at the proof-reading stage.  My (possibly pedantic) eyes jarred several times at incorrect punctuation and grammar (e.g. there/their).  But that said, the books should prove a useful starting point for anyone wishing to explore either of the two areas.  A companion volume, Stone Circles of the Peak District is apparently forthcoming.

Stonehenge Restored, by Charles Philip Kains-Jackson, circa 1880

We thought this article, adapted from Solving Stonehenge  by Anthony Johnson, published by Thames & Hudson, 2008 ISBN 978-0-500-05155-9 was well worth highlighting.

It is refreshing to be reminded, at a time when theories about the monument seem to outnumber its stones that the main knowledge we have comes from a careful examination of its actual construction and that there is not a single ‘modern’ theory that is not at least 100 years-old!

Avebury, south-east quadrant. Image credit Littlestone

A book review by Moss. 

This is a story set in Bronze Age Britain C1500 BC, when the great circles of standing stones that were such a feature of the Neolithic Age were already more than a thousand years old…

This time pure fiction, Christmas festivities over and a chance to explore a very attractive telling of a tale of stones and magical priests in the Bronze Age.  Spirit energies may not be your thing but Moyra Caldecott is winding her story round Avebury (Temple of the Sun) and Stonehenge (College of Star Studies) with sympathetic characters, that you fall in love with and hope they don’t come to a sticky end. 

There is Kyra who we follow through the three books from young girl to high priestess, her brother Karne not gifted in the way of his sister but who ends up a leader in the battle against Na-Groth, the evil dark seeking giant leader who rules with such wickedness.  Then there is the ancillary characters, Fern, wife of Karne, she has special powers that make her alive to the animate life of the plants and trees around her. Their child Isar, though he is born through the rape of Fern by Wardyke , an evil priest  who appears in the flesh in the first book and as a malignant spirit in the other books.

One of the themes of the book is reincarnation, each person coming back in somewhat similar forms over the ages, this thread of history unites the main protagonists, at first their fates seem sealed but this is not so, they can escape to live lives of fulfilment, but they must always come to terms with the spirits of the past.

Kyra marries another priest Khur-en, they have a daughter Deva, who will lead them a merry dance as she flits between the present and her past in an Egyptian garden and she almost dies towards the end when she enters the forbidden sacred stones.

It is perhaps here, that I would recommend the storytelling, for it is Caldecott’s use of the stones that perhaps gives us a better understanding of the Bronze Age relationship with the sun, moon and stars.  Okay it may be fictionalised but she has expanded our understanding of ‘why’ or ‘how’ they may have been used.

A naive telling of a tale might be one of the criticisms bought against her, but the book gives an interesting insight to Bronze Age Britain and in that sense a good read for older children and adults who might want their knowledge expanded as to the standing stones and circles that are so much a part of our landscape.  Letting the imagination fly over the stones in spirit form is perhaps one way of seeing history and our appetite for flights of fancy should always be encouraged.

Guardians of the Tall Stones (The Sacred Stone Trilogy) by Moyra Caldecott. ISBN 0-89087-463-8

 
Piggledene, the Valley of the Grey Wethers. Image credit Willow
 
Geoffrey Grigson’s 1960s guide to touring the countryside (The Shell Country Alphabet: From Apple Trees to Stone Circles, How to Understand the British Countryside) has been republished. See a review here, and here for a little more about Geoffrey Grigson, Paul Nash, Nikolaus Pevsner and John Piper.
 
Sophie Grigson (Geoffrey Grigson’s daughter) writes about her father in the forward to his book that, “He knew about Roman roads, poets and the countryside, Sheila-na-gigs and shooting stars. He knew where to find stone-age flints, fossilized sea-urchins, or glow worms in their season. You could ask him about fog-bows or gloops, the work of Richard Jefferies or the workings of windmills, and he’d offer an explanation that took you beyond the obvious.”
 

This really is a book packed full of fascinating facts and ‘beyond the obvious’ sums it up perfectly. A book either to just dip into for an idle half hour or to use as a more serious reference. The entries are arranged alphabetically, beginning with Aber and ending with Zodiacal Light. There are entries on Drove Roads, ‘Druidical’ Remains, Stukeley, Well-Dressing and Winterbournes, among many, many more. The lengthy entry on Henges and Standing Stones asks the question what they were for, and Grigson argues that they may have been no more than supports for fencing with the spaces between the stones being filled with thorn, hurdles or loose stones – corrals in other words (this suggested back in 1966!).

The book is peppered with poems, one of which is by Wordsworth which Grigson has used in his dedication to Colin Banks –

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, –
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, – the place where in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.

 

Diary of a Dean

 
Being an account of the
EXAMINATION OF SILBURY HILL
and of
VARIOUS BARROWS AND OTHER EARTHWORKS ON THE DOWNS OF NORTH WILTS
 
Opened and Investigated in the Months of July & August 1849
 
By Dean John Merewether
 
With illustrations
 
An online edition of the book is here

The Spirit of Portland cover

Reviewed by Alex Langstone

I  recently received a review copy of a brand new book entitled The Spirit of Portland, by Dorset earth mysteries researcher Gary Biltcliffe. Gary has spent 30 years investigating earth mysteries, ancient civilisations and lost knowledge around the world, and for the last 10 years has spent time investigating the ancient secrets of the historic Isle of Portland. Portland forms the central part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site on the Dorset and east Devon coastline.

For anyone interested in regional folklore and hidden history this book is very welcome. The author has thoroughly investigated the hidden side of Dorset’s Isle of Portland. Using long out of print and unpublished works by Clara King Warry, who wrote much about the folklore, mythology and archaeology of Portland during the first half of the 20th century, Gary has managed to piece together a forgotten history of the Isle. This paints a very different picture that most people may have of suburban Portland, which is justly famous for its fine quarried limestone and the proud maritime history of two world wars.

Weathered Megaliths 2

Above and below: are these weathered megaliths the remains of one of the many vanished stone circles on Portland?

Weathered Megaliths 1

Gary picks his way through the ancient megalithic sites, holy wells and geomantic landscapes of the area. This is particularly important as so many of Portland’s ancient archaeological sites have disappeared over the last couple of centuries due to the ever increasing encroachment of the limestone quarries. This is still affecting some sites, in particular the ancient and beautiful Culverwell holy well, a sacred healing well which has been in continual use for thousands of years. This well sits on the coast between Southwell and the Bill. Ancient stones line the well head, and a stream leads away towards the cliffs, where a waterfall crashes down to the sea.

Gary also discovers some of Portland’s ancient megaliths which are now incorporated into a stone wall. May they possibly be some of the ancient megaliths from the nearby site of the now vanished Saw Mill stone circle?

Culverwell

Above: the threatened Culverwell Holy Well at Portland, Dorset

Gradually the entire geomythic drama of the dramatic rocky peninsular is revealled through landscape geometry, ancient history, folklore and via some of the many old Portland families with their Masonic, occult and druidic secrets.

Links to ancient Phoenicia are discussed and the author makes many fabulous and intriguing discoveries including that of an unusual Semitic looking carved granite head which was dug up in a Portland garden. It was moved to the nearby museum after the garden owners found that locals were starting to bow in front it in a strange kind of Portlander ritual veneration!

Other legends are discussed including the giants of the island, and at the end of the book the author presents 5 sacred sites walking tours of the area which take in all of the sites discussed in the book.

The Spirit of Portland is a lavish production with many colour photographs, diagrams and maps. Though some may call to question some of the more outlandish claims made by the author, I for one can recommend this work as an important addition to achieving a better understanding of Britain’s ancient history, sacred sites and folklore.

The Spirit of Portland. 192 pages, with 90 colour plates. Published by Roving Press, 2009. Frampton, Dorset. http://www.rovingpress.co.uk. Available from the publishers priced at £9.95. See the publisher’s website for more details – http://www.rovingpress.co.uk/Spirit_of_Portland.htm

See also the author’s website here: http://www.belinusline.com

All photographs by Gary Biltcliffe, used with kind permission.

This review was first published on the Spirit of Albion website.

The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
ISBN 9781847672889
 
The Gathering Night, set among the hunter-gatherers of Mesolithic Scotland, is a story of conflict, loss, love, adventure and devastating natural disaster. This pre-historical novel is set deep in our stone-age past, but resonates as a parable of our troubled planet 8000 years on.”
 
“Nature” would not be graced with a separate word in Mesolithic culture, with the trials and tribulations of these humans co-existing in the same holistic world with animals, rivers, mountains; inextricably linked, not separate. It is Elphinstone’s formidable depiction of nature which is the greatest strength of this atmospheric novel. Nature is depicted as both cruel and benign, from the harsh and biting winter in forbidding terrain where the family pull lily-roots from the freezing mud, to a time of plenitude, when birds flutter throughout the land.
 
“Water and islands are at the heart of her work and here a river runs throughout the narrative; Elphinstone is in her element in depicting the sea flooding into estuaries, white gulls wheeling overhead. Here the river is a metaphor for storytelling, and this indeed is a novel which flows at its own pace, with many voices trickling into its main current. The powers and pitfalls of storytelling are explored and also exemplified; the voices of the multiple narrators oscillate so rapidly that it is difficult to build up fully-developed, three-dimensional characters.”
 
More here –
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-gathering-night-by-margaret-elphinstone-1696219.html

We have written here before about the pull of the stones at our ancient sites, and the passion that draws people to visit and write about such places.

(c) Andrew Johnstone
(c) Andrew Johnstone

Andrew Johnstone, a graphic designer by trade, has such a passion, and has recently spent a considerable amount of time in the Peak District National Park. An exhibition for MA Design graduates, held recently in Islington London, provided an opportunity for Andrew to showcase the results of his endeavours in this field, putting together a portfolio of products for which he is now seeking a publisher and distributor.

As he says in the preface to his book, The Prehistoric Peak, the central piece of his exhibition:

Despite being born and raised in England, my interest in British prehistory began after moving to Canada in 1991 when I was inspired by singer/songwriter and author Julian Cope who had begun his own inquiry into the subject, culminating in his two ground-breaking and highly recommended tomes on the subject of European megalithic monuments, The Modern Antiquarian (1998) and The Megalithic European (2004).

I didn’t return to live in England until 2007, so the only chance I had to visit these places was during infrequent trips back to Britain. What began as a casual curiosity very quickly grew into a keen interest and I started to realize, as Cope had himself, that a whole swathe of British history had been kept from my knowledge. At school we are taught that our history begins with the Roman invasion in the 1st Century Common Era (C.E.) and prior to that we were simply illiterate barbarians, but by visiting megalithic sites and reading as much as I could about them, it soon became apparent to me that this simply is not the truth.

Anyone who chooses to look into this aspect of our history will see that the builders of these monuments were far from backward or uncivilized. They had a complex understanding of the world in which they lived, based on millennia of living, studying and moving within it. Most of us will know of sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, but what many don’t realize is that this land is inundated with the monuments of those ancient societies. I have long felt it a shame that we don’t celebrate the truly amazing civilizations that walked on these islands long ago. It is time we stepped out of this denial and into a new era of full and complete recognition of all our past. Thankfully, I believe we are.

[The] intention [of this book] is […] to encourage people to go out there and see these places for what they are today, after all, they are often located in some of the most spectacular landscapes available to us in Britain today, which to me is reason enough. They make fascinating destinations for journeys that are about experiencing all the wonders of the world around us. Yes, the destination is certainly something to aim for, but sometimes, as the long process that has brought me to this point has shown me, it is often the journey that informs us the most.

First on the list of items in the exhibition is a large coffee-table book of stunning black and white images. Very stark, and very stoney, Andrew admits that the book was largely put together for purely personal reasons, to fulfill his own desire for such a book.

The majority of his efforts however, went on the companion travel guide, from which the quotation above was taken. This is a fantastic piece of work, detailing over 70 sites in the National Park in over 300 pages. Each site has been personally visited by Andrew, and has a full colour photo and map of the area, as well as diagrams of what can be seen at each site, straightforward directions and a full description of the site and surrounding terrain. For the exhibition, the volume is printed on high quality paper which is fully bound in hand stitched leather – a true ‘deluxe’ edition!

Peak_01

There is also a set of individual foldable ‘pocket guides’, one per site, containing much of the same information as in the main guide. These were nicely presented in a ‘box set’, but the idea is that each mini-guide would be available for sale within the immediate area of the site.

PocketGuide_01

All of the above were presented within a backdrop of some stunning full size posters depicting a couple of the sites in photographic, map and diagrammatic form.

It’s obvious from the care that has gone into the items than Andrew feels a strong affinity with the sites and as he explained to me, whilst visiting the sites for the book one day he had a realisation that “I was over there yesterday, over there the day before and will be there tomorrow, and suddenly the interrelationship of the sites clicked for me”, a true Road to Damascus moment that he wanted to convey that others may understand too.

If only that understanding could be bottled and presented (force fed?) to the official custodians of many sites across the country that are in danger of neglect.

Andrew hopes to show the results of his work in the Peak area later in the year. And I’ve already ‘pre-ordered’ my copy in the hope he finds a publisher soon!

Update: More information can now be found on Andrew’s web site, and we hope to have an article explaining Andrew’s personal perspective on his quest here soon.

…or The adventures of two men and a camper van.

By Rupert Soskin

It was back in 1999 that I first approached Michael Bott with the idea of making a documentary series on little-known aspects of one of my other passions: Natural History. I was already familiar with Michael’s work. He had made a couple of films with my father, Henry Lincoln, and his impressive talent made the normally painstaking decision of who to approach, a complete no-brainer. Michael loved the idea but he very sensibly suggested that, as this was such a massive project, it would be more sensible to kick off with something else. Something we were both familiar with and could do more easily, to see how well we worked together. Little did we suspect, how an intended ‘interim’ project would become such a life-changing experience.

Michael has been enthralled by ancient sites since childhood, and for a number of years I had been leading trips and walks to ancient sites in Britain and abroad, so the decision was easy.

“Why don’t we make a pilot for a documentary about standing stones?” said Mike.
“Great idea.” I replied.
“Excellent” he said, “You write it then.”

And so a monster was spawned. As things progressed, Mike decided early on that we should aim the film towards short ten-minute programmes and if all went well, we could make an indefinite amount of these short films, working our way across the whole of the British Isles. I have walked over Dartmoor’s hills and vales more than any other part of Britain so rather than make life difficult, I stuck with what I knew best. I spent six months choosing locations, researching and writing until, in 2001, after Mike had turned my pages of writing into a format we could film, we were ready to hit the road.

That short film (which is included in the extras on the Standing with Stones DVD) once I had overcome the extraordinary sense of feeling a complete berk in front of the camera, was a joy to make, and thankfully, was very well received. However, what became increasingly obvious to us was that in taking it to broadcast companies like the BBC, with all the logistics of film crews traveling across Britain and ultimately losing control of schedules and the final edit, we risked ending up with a very different film from the one we wanted to make.

We took a break.

For the next couple of years it all sat on a back burner until, with a healthy mix of bravery and madness we made the insane decision to go it alone and produce a single film which covered as many sites as was feasible for a dvd. After another few months we had decided which sites we would include and I had researched and written chunks of script. We acquired a camper van to act as mobile office, hotel and high vantage-point, stocked up on film, batteries and food and set off.

I had already decided that I would try to produce a book to accompany the film, so each trip involved carrying Mike’s film gear which included cameras, sound equipment, lights (just in case) and walkie talkies so we could communicate between vehicles and across hillsides. Then there was all my own camera gear for shooting the pictures for the book.

Taking Britain and Ireland in chunks, we worked in bursts of roughly a month at a time and, weather permitting, managed to sustain a high pressure approach to make the most of every minute. Up before sunrise most days in case the light was perfect for a dawn shoot, driving, walking or filming all day and researching and writing script in the evenings.

Most of the time our mass of equipment was fairly manageable. The only time it became a challenge was when we were filming the axe factory on Pike O’Stickle in the Lake District. The weather had been appalling for days so we waited… and we waited. We were traveling at such a ludicrous pace that we had no choice but to shoot in whatever conditions presented themselves at the time, especially as the filming had to take priority over the stills due to the complexities involved. Frustratingly, we arrived in the lakes at the time in 2007 when most of Britain was under water. Places that could have been stunningly beautiful were flat, grey and soaking wet. The Lake District could have been remapped to show new lakes which I am quite sure were fields when I last visited.

However, we did have some time in hand so the lashing rain on day-one didn’t worry us unduly. We stayed in the bus, researching and writing. Day-two offered slightly less rain but heavier fog so, carrying all the gear and a stack of emergency stuff in case we were stuck up there overnight, we started the climb. Two hours later we were back in the bus: what had once been a gentle stream burbling its way down the mountainside had become a boiling white torrent of water. The risk to the equipment was too great, so day-two was abandoned.

Day-three was no better than day one but day-four we had to be somewhere else entirely. So whilst our original thoughts were to take a gorgeous colour-rich footage from high in the mountains, we had no options here, it had to be done in high winds, lashing rain and mists. Not even a dramatic sky to rescue the inevitable poor light. In the event however, it turned out to be one of the highlights for us. The swirling mists and buffeting winds did make filming a serious challenge, but so much more memorable than another sunny day in the hills.

It took two years to complete the film and left Mike and me with so many memories, (a number of them at my expense, which Mike delighted in putting in the out-takes). One occasion which stretched my outdoor skills to breaking point was the Barclodiad y Gawres stew-cooking scene. Me, in the dark, in a forest, stirring a brew over a camp fire. It was actually the last scene of the whole film to be shot, not least of all because Britain couldn’t have been wetter if the entire Atlantic ocean had been emptied over it! We had spent a weekend in Devon recording the last pieces of voice-over and grabbed our chance when, miraculously the rain stopped and the sun attempted a feeble push through the blankets of grey.

Arriving at our chosen location I set about collecting firewood for our eerie night-time session. Everything was sopping wet, not a dry twig to be found amongst the puddles and sodden leaves.
“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure Mike, “Ash, Pine and holly, that’ll do the job. Ash will burn come-what-may, resin in the pine will catch and holly leaves will always give a bright but brief flame.”

Well, there was holly, but no pine, nor any ash, so I collected the best of a soggy lot… where was Ray Mears when I needed him?! In the end I used my emergency stash of charcoal and fire tablets, but in sprinkling the last powdered crumbs of tablet onto the paltry fire, much to Mike’s amusement I nearly sent myself up in flames. Fortunately the holly did its job, as did Mike, and the final footage kept its secret… alas not so the out-takes.
Thanks Mike!

Filming over, Mike had nine months of editing ahead and it took another year before the book was complete. I could not have been happier that Thames & Hudson wanted to produce the book, and the icing on the cake was when Professor Tim Darvill agreed to check my text and write my foreword. The entire making of Standing with Stones, even though it was at times difficult and hand-to-mouth, turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. Almost every day, even in the harshest conditions, Mike and I would look at each other, grin like Cheshire cats and shout at each other, “We’re working!”

The book: ‘Standing with Stones’

by Rupert Soskin and Timothy Darvill

(Thames & Hudson) £19.95

The film: ‘Standing with Stones’

by Michael Bott and Rupert Soskin

£15.99 at www.standingwithstones.com

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