The Stones of Avebury


Rooks wheel and cluck overhead, exiting their trees elegantly, their calls echoing across a mystical landscape. The clearing storm has left the sky blue, bruised and tender. A nagging, insistent wind whips off the downs bringing tears to eyes and the smell of open fields and a life long ago.

In the half-light of a late November day, heading towards the winter solstice, the shortest day, the day it can’t get any worse, the day from which it all starts to get better, the day our ancestors worshipped —is surely the best time to visit the stones of Avebury. The summer tourist throng has ebbed away, leaving the stones and their earthworks alone once more. Sentinels, keeping watch, marking time, somehow capturing the spirits of all who have worshipped and toiled.

Spending time amidst the stones of Avebury and its restorative landscape is a nourishing experience. The majesty of the giant megaliths reminds us of something we once knew, things that were important to us, echoes from the past, resonating here and now.


If Stonehenge is a beautiful church, that we can look at but not touch, then Avebury is the spectacular cathedral that we can enter into, engage with, touch the fabric. Stonehenge is the newcomer: all innovation, new technology bristling with flashy new techniques but Avebury is old school, predating its upstart neighbour by hundreds if not a thousand years.

This is a landscape rich in ancient treasure, man-made hills, enormous barrows stretching out to the horizon, burial mounds peppering the rolling hills, stones standing, lying, hedges carved into the chalk. Impressive though this all is, what we see is but a pale echo of the grandeur of the past. Avebury was abandoned in the iron age, actively ignored and to this day, we have no idea why. Perhaps the next new thing came along, all bells and whistles, new ideas and all that — stones are so last millennia darling.

The dark and middle ages were unkind to the stones, fear and myth grew up around them and in an attempt to confront their power, they were used in church buildings and a village settled in their midst. Eventually revered antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley identified their importance in the 17th century, recording amidst systematic vandalism and wanton destruction.


It’s a miracle of sorts then that we still have something so impressive. Concrete pegs take the place of giant stones hauled away; their aligned brothers remain, still standing, stoic and silent. The modern Avebury visitor can get a real feel for the place, although the busy A road that bustles through the middle of the site can prove a distraction, another ploy by our descendants to destabilise the importance of the site, failing miserably.

To wander amidst the stones is to get back in touch with our past, to try to understand who we were and in some odd way, give us some clues as to what we are now. Touching the ice cold stone, fingers running over rough hewn sarsen, a worn smooth lunar landscape, weathered by time, moss clinging, there is no magical sizzle of energy for me, but a connection to lives lived across the millennia.


From the sea to the land beyond


Cornwall is a special place for me.

The first time I ever visited was just before we were married and it has been a constant in our lives ever since. I’m not quite sure what it is that captures my imagination, it just feels so completely different to Yorkshire and if I think about it, pretty much most counties in the UK.

As the traveller heads South West in England, the counties get more mystical the further west one travels. From the ancient prehistoric majesty of the stones in Wiltshire, to the spirituality of Glastonbury in Somerset and the deceptive chocolate box beauty of Devon, these are all precursors to the unique county (or some would say country in itself) of Cornwall.

We holidayed with the kids for many years in Cornwall, camping at the same campsite – Rose Hill in Porthtowan – on the North Coast. Cornwall is a small county and it doesn’t take many visits to become accustomed to its charms. The North coast has the crashing drama of the Atlantic and the south coast has a delicate coast of inlets and beautiful ports. The land in between ranges from rolling countryside awash with sleepy villages and hamlets, seemingly lost in time, surrounded by rugged moorland and magical valleys locked in their own eco systems.

It does have an otherworldly feel too. The far western tip of the county is the western most point on mainland UK and this feels like nowhere else in the country and the Lizard peninsula to which it is attached is full of mystery and Cornish legend. There are of course more workaday cities and towns in Cornwall that to be fair look and feel very similar to every other high street in the country, but that seems to be the blight of modern living with homogenised towns and to some degree lifestyle.




Cornwall does its own thing and wears its tourism crown lightly. In summer, the tourist hotspots and jammed and the spectacular beaches full to bursting, just as they should be with tourism being the major source of income. In the winter it has a very different feel. The masses have long gone and the towns and cities get back to living a relatively normal life.

This week I took the girl down to Falmouth for her University interview. She’s looking at a few options and Falmouth University College is one of them. Falmouth on a cold, stormy day in February is actually pretty good. There are still a few half-term visitors milling about listlessly and the locals and students seem quite happy to have the place to themselves.

We booked into a very nice B&B and whilst the girl was being interviewed, I had a wander. I know Falmouth very well of course from previous visits as it was always our default place to visit on a wet day when the beach wasn’t an option. It’s always therefore a surprise to me that the sun does shine there from time to time. Falmouth has an edge to it in comparison to some other towns in Cornwall and I think it’s the seafaring history and although lots of the maritime links have long gone, there is still a large ship repair yard on the outskirts of the town.

In 1688, Falmouth was made the Royal mail packet station and news from around the world landed there first, including the Victory of Trafalgar and nelson’s death. I was also quite taken with the fact that Darwin landed here in the Beagle after his voyage of discovery that changed the way we think about evolution. The excellent book by Harry Thompson This thing of darkness uses Darwin’s voyage of discovery to wonderful effect – I wrote about it here.


It’s this history that adds to the atmosphere in the town and although it’s generations since British sea power ruled the waves, Falmouth still proudly sits at the mouth of one of the worlds most stunning natural estuaries, waiting for its time again.

In the meantime, I enjoyed a cracking pasty, had a very nice pint of Doombar and hope the daughter gets a place at the University ensuring plenty of future visits.

The Scarlet

I’ll come clean. I love Cornwall.

It’s a ludicrous obsession I know, living in Leeds.

It’s miles. Approximately 385 miles from mid Cornwall to Leeds in fact. When the kids were young, travelling down in the school holidays, it could often take 10 hours. The A30 is a tough mistress.

But it holds a special place in our family’s heart – magical camping holidays where the sun shone and the rain hammered and we didn’t care. Families and camping holidays are about as good as it gets in my book (as long as there’s somewhere to plug in the straighteners for J).

In recent times we’ve started to enjoy a more sophisticated relationship with Cornwall: anniversary trips to Padstow and new year visits to eco lodges in Porthtowan (all good, by the way). I still hanker after the laid back camping fun at Rose Hill and I’m sure we’ll all do that again.

This year’s wedding anniversary wasn’t quite the big one, but we;re getting close to being married for a quarter of a century and that in itself is a cause for celebration in my book (what isn’t?). J had seen a stylish looking hotel in a magazine and I decided to book a weekend there as a surprise.

The Scarlet Hotel is situated on a clifftop overlooking the ocean in North Cornwall in the village of Mawgan Porth. It’s a wonderful location. The hotel itself is relatively new – less than a year – and is modernistic in its design but chilled out at its heart. Imagine Norwegian cool meets Californian relaxed. We spent a weekend there recently and were blown away by everything from the service to the location, from the design to the food, from the art to the super friendly hotel dog, Casper.

It looks amazing too. Wood fired hot tubs can be hired to sip champagne whilst watching the sun go down, exotic spa treatments are available for all manner of modern ailment (and booked well in advance, please note) but the thing that strikes is the space, the quiet, the design and the consideration of the hotel and its relationship to the Cornish landscape.

One moment did make me smile. As I eagerly unpacked my iPad, I searched  for the wireless access code in the hotel guide. I discovered that they had made a conscious decision NOT to install wireless after thinking about it long and hard. The Scarlet is about relaxation and escape – and you know what, after a nanosecond of disappointment, the lack of wireless (and mobile signal) was in fact liberating. Just what I needed. In fact, just what we both needed.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

PS – My top tip would be to fly to Newquay airport and don’t bother with a car: there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a long weekend without getting on the road. That’s what I’ll do next time we go.