History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.

During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.

I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!

It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.


Out & About

Great Rollright, Long Compton, Little Rollright & The Rollright Stones;
Cotswold Walk no. 27; 9 miles (5 hours inc. stops)

This is the penultimate walk in the Jarrold book of Cotswold Walks; 28 walks in all and they’ve lasted me about twelve years (I think I did the first in 2006, though I’d have to check). It’s a circular walk which, according to the book, should start off in a lay-by just outside Long Compton. As this village is home to the only pub on the route, I park up in the village of Great Rollright, diametrically opposite Long Compton, aiming to hit the pub at lunchtime. I mean, come on! Also this means visiting the neolithic Stones nearer the end of the walk which seems proper.

I couldn’t have pocked a better day: the sky is azure with just a few wisps of my second favourite clouds, high cirrus, as if castor sugar has been blown across a blue tablecloth, here and there. The temperature is mid-teens and there’s just a hint of fresh breeze; the sunshine still has the power to warm the muscles; perfect walking weather.

The preamble in the book warns it is “quite demanding and hilly” but the last leg, which for me is the first leg, is all downhill. Will I regret this? Actually, it isn’t bad at all in the end, just a steep climb out of Long Compton – straight outta Compton, I want to say – there, I’ve said it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Red Lion at Long Compton is a beautiful pub with a fabulous lunchtime menu. I’m walking so settle for a fish finger sandwich in ciabata with tartar sauce and a lemon dressing salad, a portion of chips (fries) on the side. The beer is Hooky which is a local brew and pretty good too. They think I’m nuts wanting to eat in the garden; there’s a roaring log fire in the bar but it looks a bit too warm in there and I don’t want to waste the glorious sunshine.

Climbing up and over into Little Rollright, the views are spectacularly bucolic. This area is on the edge of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds and I can probably see clear across Warwickshire and a few counties beyond. As with the weather, the visibility is perfect.

There’s not much to Little Rollright apart from a quaint little church in need of love and restoration, a few select houses and soon I’m walking along a field and can see the Rollright Stones in the distance. It comprises three groups, the first I come across are the Whispering Knights. These are actually the remains of a burial chamber (3500 years BC) but the three upright stones are close together, it’s easy to see how these resemble three characters huddled together, plotting against the King.

Some hundreds of yards away is a circle of stones known as the King’s Men (2500 years BC). The myth is that these can’t be counted. If anyone can count the same number three times in a row, they get their wish. I counted 71 stones on the first go around. I only got up to 30 on the second pass, recognising the 30th stone as the 29th one on the first pass. I left it as that, life’s to short to disprove a thousand year old myth.

The legend with all these stones is that a witch or witches turned the men into stones, as witches do. Close to the circle, an artist has sculpted three witches from hazel switches, dancing joyfully in a ring, holding hands. They looked really good. (These are actually intended to be fairies, I now find.)

Across the main road stands the King Stone, alone. He’s just short of the most wonderful view on the walk, a panorama of lowland England in its glory. Yep, he was hoping to see it too but the witches blocked it from his view. Then they turned him to stone for good measure. This guy is a bit younger than the others, Bronze Age (1500 years BC).

From here, the book says follow the road but from the map I see if I back track to the Knights and head through a wood, I can pick up a path over fields back to Great Rollright. And this is what I do.

It was a fantastic walk, with the weather one of the best in the book. Only one more left to do. What then?

The Rollright Stones