Falling Down the Thames Blog 46, 28th January 2015
Richard Montgomery was born on 2 December 1738 in County Dublin, Ireland. He died on 31 December 1775. Montgomery perished on the field of battle while serving in the American War of Independence at the rank of Major General. When it comes to the upcoming paddling adventure of Krista and me, none of this has anything to do with the River Thames. Except…
On June 15 of 1943 the Liberty class ship SS Richard Montgomery was launched from the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Company in Jacksonville, Florida. One year two months and five days later it lay, wrecked, on a sandbank in the Thames Estuary. On Sunday May 3, Krista and I are going to paddle straight past the remains of the Richard Montgomery as part of our adventure called Falling Down the Thames.
When she left port in the United States, the Montgomery was loaded with about 6,000 tonnes of munitions which were to be used in the WWII Battle of Normandy. She was anchored in the estuary awaiting the formation of a convey to sail to France. Regrettably her anchor dragged across the estuary’s bottom, and she ran aground on a sandbank.
Within days, efforts began to offload the ship’s deadly cargo, but her hull soon cracked and the cargo holds flooded. Recovery efforts were abandoned a month later with about one-quarter of her cargo of bombs still onboard. The Montgomery then broke in half. There she sits today, seventy-one years later, less than three kilometres from the coastal community of Sheerness, with her masts still visible above the water at all tides.
In 2013 Peter Sherlock posted a report about the wreck of the Montgomery for BBC News. It seems that the airports in and around London are stretched to capacity, and a new giant airport is badly needed to serve the region. With four runways, a gigantic new airport might handle 150 millions passengers each year. By comparison, Heathrow currently deals with just 60 million.
Where might such a super-airport be located? Some have suggested that it be a floating airport, situated on the Thames Estuary. Others feel that a more traditional airport on land adjacent to the estuary would be most suitable. In either case, the Montgomery poses a big problem. Sherlock wrote: “Who would risk building the world’s largest airport near a ticking time-bomb under the waves?”
With or without an airport, the upper decks of the Montgomery might corrode to the point where they dumped bombs on others on lower decks, causing a catastrophic explosion. The waterway is a busy one, and a ship off course might run into the Montgomery. The bombs that remain on board the Montgomery could serve as a target for terrorists. Experts disagree on whether to attempt to offload the munitions, encase the ship in sand, or just leave things as they are.
Not that Krista and I will be able to paddle right up to the Montgomery. We will need to ensure that we do not get within 500 metres of the wreck. An exclusion zone around the vessel is monitored continuously, and Krista and I would risk prosecution if we violated the exclusion order. As much as I like the idea of pinning a peace flag to one of Montgomery’s masts, I am not willing to go to jail for it.
Falling Down the Thames Blog 45, 21st January 2015
Treasures Beneath the Waves
I have been told by archaeologists that springs and wells have long held the fascination of humans. In a mystical sort of way, this makes some kind of sense; water is supposed to fall from the sky, and not boil up from the earth. Excavations at springs and wells often reveal large quantities of artifacts that appear to have been deliberately tossed into the water as votive offerings – items given by worshipers to fulfill a vow or to make a wish. In this era we might toss a coin into a well or fountain before making a wish.
Krista and I will begin our paddling adventure in April at the site generally regarded at the head of the River Thames. The site is in a dry field near the village of Kemble. Winter rains sometimes make waters rise up from a spring in this field, but when we begin our journey we will have a considerable hike to find the first stretch of water in which we can float our canoe. All of this leave me wondering what artifacts we might find if we used a metal detector at the spring, or if we started rooting around with a shovel and trowel. Roman coins? Saxon swords? Norman jewelry?
My imagination doesn’t end there. What treasures might be revealed if we were able to drain the non-tidal portion of the River Thames, even for an hour, while teams of archaeologists scoured the river bottom? Over the past two millennia of occupation, people must have dropped and thrown an endless array of precious items into the great waterway.
As the River Thames runs through London, this sort of investigation is sometimes possible. Where the river is tidal, the tug of the moon and the sun mean that the surface of the river is higher at some times of the day than at others. When the sun and moon are in alignment, high and low tides are particularly pronounced. In other words, there are times when evidence of London’s history is revealed to anyone willing to tromp out into the mudflats at low tide.
One woman has taken advantage of this opportunity to collected fragments of clay tobacco pipes, discarded in the River Thames centuries ago. After so long a residence in the mud of the Thames, many of these clay fragments have become smoothed and have taken up a beautiful stain. She turns these artifacts, some dating to the 16th century, into bracelets, earrings, necklaces, cufflinks and key chains, which are sold online.
Artifacts along our paddling route don’t have to be as tiny as the stem of a clay pipe, or as old as the Roman occupation of Britannia. On Sunday 3 May Krista and I will paddle past a really, really big object projecting up from the surface of the Thames. I will describe that history and current significance of that artifact in next week’s blog.
Photo credits: Roman coin cache – news.nationalgeographic.com; clay pipe earrings by Amelia Parker – www.amelia-parker.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 44, 14th January 2015
Fishing the Thames
There were times when segments of the River Thames were horribly polluted. In the past the river was seen more as a convenient sewer than an important part of English heritage. Luckily saner heads have prevailed, and the great river once again serves as an opportunity for contemplation and recreation.
Amoung those who utilize the Thames for outdoor pursuits are anglers. Those working the waters near Oxford might choose to be members of the Littlemore Angling Society, while the South Cerney Angling Club might appeal to fishing enthusiasts around Lechlade. The Old Windsor Angling Club has members in, not surprisingly, Old Windsor. Membership in the Thames Anglers’ Conservancy is free to anyone seeking to protect the River Thames against threat.
Angler can join the Thames River Anglers Association for just twenty-five dollars a year, and help to protect and enhance habitats in and around London. Twenty-five dollars? That doesn’t sound right. I think this group is concerned with the Thames River near London in Canada, and not the River Thames near London in England.
The Thames Anglers’ Conservancy maintains a list of the biggest fish taken by rod and reel on the flowing waters of the Thames. I understand this to mean the non-tidal part of the river. While anglers are a notorious group of fibbers, let’s assume that the following records are close to the truth.
In 2005, Guy Robb captured an 18 pound 2 ounce barbel, a type of catfish particularly popular with anglers. Jamie Drylie was able to surpass Robb in 2010 when landed a 64 pound catfish of a different sort. Duncan Green added to the list of records with a 40 pound 5 ounce common carp in 2011. Not satisfied with just one record, Green also caught an 8 pound 11 ounce tench in 2013. In 2008, Brett Ridley captured a Wels catfish that was so large, he couldn’t properly measure it, but estimated its mass at between 60 and 65 pounds. In parts of Europe, this type of fish can grow to 300 pounds and nine feet in length, so let’s hope that Ridley was practising catch-and-release.
At the other end of the scale, the largest ruffe ever pulled out of the River Thames was a 6 ounce tiddler by Paul Sullivan in 2011. I would probably keep that sort of news to myself.
Most records are comparatively recent, and that probably says something good about attempts to restore the water quality of the River Thames, but some of the records are a bit older. In 1964, R. Page captured a 1 pound 3 ounce dace, and David Booth secured his place in the record book with a 3 pound 5 ounce roach in 1927.
In April and May, Krista and I will be paddling England’s greatest river in an adventure called Falling Down the Thames. Fish along our route needn’t worry about our passage. We are both vegetarians.
Photo credits: Thames Anglers’ Conservancy – www.riverta.org; catfish – i1.ytimg.com; dace - uknatureblog.com
Falling Down the Thames Blog 43, 07th January 2015
Lighthouses fascinate me. They always have. Perhaps it is because they signify safety and from that all things good. But there is also something about their appearance, solitary and noble, confident yet reassuring. They are buildings like none other. To me they signify adventure, and in its lifespan each must have many stories to tell.
As Glen and I paddle down the Thames, we will be passing sixteen lighthouses between the City of London and our final destination of Richborough in Kent. It appears that many active lighthouses in Britain are owned and operated by The Crown (Trinity House), while others are operated by the local port authority.
Here is a summary, in chronological order, of what we can expect to view:
Trinity House Lightship 93 (1939-2002) Royal Victoria Dock, London. Inactive. 134 ft tall red steel tower, which is currently owned by a photographer and is used as a studio. In 2014, it was relocated from Blackwall to its current site.
Trinity Lightship 95 (1939-2004) Trinity Buoy Wharf, London. Inactive. 134ft tall red steel tower. Currently privately owned and used as a music studio.
Blackwall (1863-1988) Trinity Wharf, Blackwall. Inactive. Brown hexagonal brick tower with black lantern. Was used for training by Trinity House Lighthouse Depot. Owned by Trinity Buoy Wharf.
Crayford Ness (1981- ) South bank of Thames, east of Erith. Active. 62ft tall square metal skeletal tower.
Northfleet Upper (1972- ) Active. White, red or green light. Red lantern on roof of building. Operated by Port of London Authority.
Northfleet Lower (1883- ) South bank of Thames at India Armes Wharf, Northfleet. Active. Red or white light. 53 ft tall red circular metal skeletal tower. Oldest lighthouse on the River Thames. Operated by Port of London Authority.
Gravesend Tower Pier (1830s? – ) Gravesend Town Pier, Gravesend. Active. 23 ft tall white post on square base.
Gravesend Royal Terrace Pier (? – ) Royal Pier Road, Gravesend. Active. Red light. Brown tower and white lantern on roof of building.
Shornemead (1913-2004) Denton Pier, Gravesend. Inactive. 36 ft tall hexagonal skeletal tower.
Shornemead 2 (2004- ) Offshore near south bank of estuary, Gravesend Reach. Active. White, red or green light. 49 ft tall red-with-white-band cylindrical tower. Operated by Port of London Authority.
Isle of Grain (? – ) Eastern end of Isle of Grain. Active. White, red or green light. 66 ft tall red triangular skeletal tower on wooden room. Leading lighthouse for ships entering River Medway.
Herne Bay (? – ) Offshore, Herne Bay. Active. White light. 49 ft tall octagonal lantern on octagonal building.
St Mary’s of Reculver (12th century) Near the beach, Reculver. Inactive. Day beacons on twin church towers.
Margate Pier (1954- ) Breakwater Pier, Margate. Active. Red light. 66 ft tall octagonal stone tower.
North Foreland (1691- ) NE corner of Kent. Active. White light. 85 ft tall white octagonal stone tower. Indicated start of Thames Estuary and Port of London. Operated by Trinity House.
Ramsgate West Pier (1842- ) Ramsgate Pier, Ramsgate. Active. 36 ft tall cylindrical granite tower with red lantern. Operated by Port of Ramsgate.
Falling Down the Thames Blog 42, 31st December 2014
All Alone on the Thames
In 2012, the riverside community of Staines changed its name to Staines-upon-Thames. It seems that the community had been unflatteringly lampooned by a comedian rapper, and it wanted to improve its image. Krista and I will paddle past Staines on Monday 27 April, and I am sure that we will find it to be a delightful place full of wholesome, enthusiastic people.
Curiously, in the Wikipedia entry for Staines, the first listed “Notable Resident” is All Alone, a pigeon.
The National Pigeon Service was established in 1938. During WWII, more than 200,000 young pigeons were donated to the service. These were used by the Royal Air Force and the Army Intelligence Services. By the end of the war, more than 16,000 pigeons had been parachuted onto the continent, used to return critical information to the UK when other means were unavailable or inappropriate.
One of these was All Alone, whose service number was NURP.39.SDS.39. In 1943, this bird was parachuted into Vienne France, along with a British agent. The agent collected information vital to the war effort, and sent it back to England with All Alone. The pigeon made the trip of 645 kilometres in just 24 hours. In 1946 she was decorated with the Dickin Medal which recognizes acts of animal bravery or exceptional devotion to duty.
The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943. The medal has been awarded 66 times, some recently, but most for action during WWII. Most of the recipients have been pigeons, with a few horses and dogs, and one cat. One-fifth of all Dickin Medal recipients (twelve) are buried at the Ilford Animal Cemetery in Ilford, London. All Alone does not appear to be among them.
All Alone’s owner was Jas Wilfred Paulger, who owned the Blue Anchor pub in Staines. I have found some details about Paulger online, but have not been able to verify any of them yet. I gather that Paulger lived from 1880-1946. He may have acquired the Blue Anchor in 1937. The Blue Anchor was situated at 13-15 High Street, Staines. The pub existed before 1700, but ceased operations in 2006, when it was converted to a restaurant. The building is just 100 metres from the River Thames.
Online sources suggest that the Paulger family lived in England, perhaps near Manchester, before moving to New Zealand. I suspect that Jas Paulger either remained behind in England, or (far more likely, given the dates), moved back to England at some point. When he died, just after the end of WWII, he was a publican and pigeon-fancier. If this is all correct, then I strongly suspect that Paulger would have had one or more pigeon coops on the roof of the Blue Anchor.
That is not the only connection between beer, birds and Staines. The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon is the most celebrated pub in Staines, having won an award as Best Thames Local pub in 2012. It is about 260 metres from the River Thames. Reference to a pigeon may be a coincidence, but that seems statistically unlikely to me. I can imagine the pub being renamed when All Alone received her medal.
As part of our River Thames adventure, Krista and I are looking further into this story. We are, for instance, trying to determine whether the Wheatsheaf and Pigeon is named, in part, after All Alone. We would like to know the location of the remains of All Alone. It seems unlikely that her body would have been tossed out, considering her fame. She may have been stuffed. If so, she might be at the Blue Anchor, the Wheatsheaf and Pigeon, or at a war museum. Perhaps evidence of a pigeon coop remains on the roof of the Blue Anchor building.
Let’s see what we can find.
Photo credits: All Alone – www.rpra.org; Becket medal – www.telegraph.co.uk; Wheatsheaf and Pigeon, Staines – www.thamesriver.co.uk
Falling Down the Thames Blog 41, 24th December 2014
Take Your Elephant for a Walk this Christmas
Growing up on the Canadian prairies, I developed a keen sense of Winter weather. No one knows Winter better than a child who has to walk to school through drifted snow and howling winds. For instance I knew that any snow that fell before October 31 would shortly melt. However, any snow that fell on or after Halloween would still be around five months later when Spring finally arrived.
Decades have passed, and my memories of frostbite and wind-chill have faded. What remains is rather more romantic, and looks like something from a Currier and Ives Christmas card, complete with ice skaters and horse-drawn carriages.
I suppose that I would have had a completely different perspective on the winter months if I had grown up in my ancestral land of southern England. Thanks to ocean currents bringing warmth north from the equator, Great Britain never gets very cold, right?
Well, not for the past two centuries, maybe, but there was a time when Winter meant Winter! in the UK. According to Tom de Castella of the BBC, the River Thames froze at least twenty-three times between 1309 and 1814. One five occasions, the last in 1814, the ice that formed on the Thames was thick enough for Londoners to turn the situation into an impromptu celebration. People engaged in bowling matches, dancing, football games, horse races, puppet shows and the roasting of oxen were spurred on by the establishment of temporary pubs serving rum and gin. Reporting for Historic UK, Ben Johnson reported that the River Thames sometimes froze for as long as two months at a stretch. There were even reports of an elephant crossing the Thames near Brackfriars Bridge. He was, presumably, part of a circus troupe, and not a startled visitor from India.
The Thames is unlikely to freeze again in my lifetime. Part of this is the result of global climate change, but part is down to local geography. Old London Bridge had many more arches than its successor built in 1831. The newer bridge allowed a faster flow of water upriver on the flood tide. Construction of the river embankment later in the century also made the narrower river flow faster. These changes allowed the tidal Thames to carry salty seawater further upstream, which depresses the freezing point of water. The frost fairs of old are gone.
On behalf of the parade of elves who are helping to put Falling Down the Thames together, I would like to wish you a warm, safe and very Happy Christmas, even if you don’t get to walk your elephant across a river.
Photo credits: Polar bear on the Thames – taylorherring.com; winter games on the frozen Thames in 1885 – thames.me.co; frozen fountain in Trafalgar Square, 1963 – britmovie.co.uk
Falling Down the Thames Blog 40, 17th December 2014
Thames River Ducks and Flowers
Malta is a small island nation off the south coast of Italy. Despite being only 320 square kilometres in area, much smaller than the Isle of Wight, it manages to pack in 423,000 citizens. It is, by anyone’s reckoning, the most densely-populated country in Europe.
The second most densely-populated country in Europe is a surprise to many. It is England. Slightly smaller than Greece but with nearly five times as many people, England’s green and pleasant land is kinda full. Not surprisingly, the whole nation has been transformed by the actions of humans.
That isn’t to say that England doesn’t have a large number of regions of great natural beauty and biological diversity. Next April, at the end of our first day of paddling, Krista and I will arrive in the community of Cricklade. Immediately adjacent to the River Thames is the Cricklade North Meadow National Nature Reserve. In addition to being a Special Area of Conservation, the nature reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, operated by the group Natural England.
The single most significant thing about the nature reserve in Cricklade is the snake’s head fritillary, a flowering plant known by the scientific name Fritillaria meleagris. Eighty percent of the total British population of this flowering plant is found in Cricklade. When the fritillary is in bloom, guided tours of the area are provided by the reserve’s manager. Conditional on the Spring weather, it is likely that the flower will be at its peak of flowering just as we paddle past.
However, I have never taken the opportunity to do one fun thing when two fun things are on offer. On the 23rd of April, Krista and I are scheduled to paddle the thirty-three kilometre segment of the River Thames between Tadpole Bridge and the city of Oxford. A short distance north of the river is the community of Ducklington. It sounds like an absolutely smashing place. Locals claim that the village’s name is derived from its duckpond where ducks have dwelt for centuries. The community has a cricket club, a football club, and its own Morris dance tradition. Each of the years at the primary school are named after birds, and year five is the “Kingfishers”, just like our mascot, Alfred. Best of all, each year, Ducklington hosts a festival dedicated to the snake’s head fritillary. The exact timing of the festival depends of the blooming of the weather, but it is always scheduled for a Sunday…
Darn it! April 23 is a Thursday not a Sunday. Does that mean that Krista and I will miss the flower and the ducks? Not at all.
One of the nicest things about planning Falling Down the Thames has been the positive responses to our requests for information and assistance. The minister at the church in Ducklington, Bob Edy, responded enthusiastically to our request for help. He explained that someone from the village, possible him, would meet Krista and I at the river, drive us to Ducklington, and show us around before returning us to our canoe. With any luck we will see the special plant, toss a few chunks of bread to the ducks, and then set off for new adventures. And what could be better?
Photo credits: snake’s head fritillary - www.flickr.com/photos/chodhound/7107620233/; duckpond in Ducklington - www.ducklingtonparishcouncil.gov.uk/services/village-pond/
Falling Down the Thames Blog 39, 10th December 2014
Lost Rivers of London
Last week I wrote about the rivers that feed the River Thames as it flows through London. Long hidden below the streets of the great city, The Wandle, the Walbrook, the Neckinger and the Effra are among London’s lost river.
“The Fleet is probably the best known of London’s missing rivers…and has secured a lasting place in London culture and mythology.” These are the words of Tom Bolton in his fabulous 2011 book London’s Lost River: A Walker’s Guide. At its height, the Fleet inlet was London’s busiest port. Tom explained that the people and industries that grew up alongside the River Fleet made the river insufferable (“London’s foulest sewer,” according to Tom) by the late 17th century. Efforts to cover the Fleet over began in 1732, and by 1769 most evidence of the river had been lost.
Lost, except to an expert…
Krista and I have consulted with endless experts about our upcoming Falling Down the Thames paddling adventure, and almost every one has responded with grace and enthusiasm. This has been one of the great joys of planning for FDtT. Tom Bolton was one of these who responded with a happy heart. He suggested that walking the lower Fleet from King’s Cross to Blackfriars would take us about two hours.
In his book, Tom explained that the River Fleet has two sources on Hampstead Heath and these flow along independent routes until joining at Kentish Town. Even after it disappears underground, evidence of the Fleet remains. At the intersection of Royal College Street and Lyme Street is the Prince Albert pub. “The Fleet flows under a circular drain cover in the road outside, and cannot only be heard but also seen, deep below the grating.” This sort of thing makes me tingle.
If I have followed Bolton’s narrative correctly, from King’s Cross we will find our way to Gray’s Inn Road. Then it is St. Chad’s Place, to Wicklow Street to King’s Cross Road. Calthorpe Street will take us to Phoenix Place. We will walk along Warner Street and turn left along Ray Street at a pub. Passing over Ray Street Bridge, we will turn right down Farringdon Lane. Then we will cross Clerkenwell Road, and head down Turnmill Street, turning right at an intersection with Cowcross Street. We will continue along Farringdon Street, as it becomes New Bridge Street. Crossing Victoria Embankment, and turning right down steps will lead us to the river path at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge. At the Blackfriars Pier platform, by looking back toward the bridge, we will be able to see the outfall sewer of the River Fleet.
And so, at 07:30 on Thursday April 30, Tom will meet Krista and me at King’s Cross to begin tracing the route of the River Fleet. He also suggested that we might wish to encourage others to join us in our adventure by advertising the event on the Walking Artists Network website. And, at this time, I would like to formally invite you to join in. If it sounds like fun, and you would like more details, please write to me at email@example.com.
Photo credits: the River Fleet, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2038281/London-underground-photos-Miles-ornate-brickwork-tunnels-hidden-Fleet-River.html
Falling Down the Thames Blog 38, 03rd December 2014
The Thames and Its Myriad Tributaries
In our attempt to make sense of the world, we name things. This doesn’t always help. For instance, you could take a short walk through the English city of Canterbury following Whitstable Road, St. Dunstans Street, St. Peter’s Street, High Street, Parade, St. George Street, St. George’s Place and New Dover Road without ever turning to the left or the right, as they are all the same road.
Similarly the names we give topographic features don’t always guarantee a sense of order. As you read in last week’s guest blog by John Grigsby, if Krista and I plan to paddle the River Thames beginning in a field near the village of Kemble, we may be starting in entirely the wrong place. But that is the nature of rivers. Most of them are an amalgam of water from endless tributaries.
The River Thames is no exception. Fifty or more rivers add their water to what we traditionally think of as the Thames. Along its highest reaches, three rivers, the Churn, the Key and the Ray, all join the River Thames at Cricklade. Some tributaries have their own grand histories, but I prefer the ones with amusing names. I want to believe that the River Crane which flows fourteen kilometers from the town of Hayes to join the Thames at Isleworth was named after the bird. It wasn’t. According to the Environment Agency, the River Mole has more species of fish in it (fourteen) than any other in the nation. Emptying into the Thames near Hampton Court Palace, its name has nothing to do with moles. It is probably best not to ask about the origin of the name of the River Kennet.
On Friday April 24, Krista and I will paddle past the junction of the River Thames and the River Thame. And if that isn’t confusing enough, the fifty kilometre long River Tame is in Manchester, nowhere near the Thame or the Thames. River Tam is a character is a science fiction television series, but I digress.
Some of the River Thames tributaries are not what they might appear. The Longford River and the Duke of Northumberland’s River are both artificial; the latter was created as a source of power for mills during the reign of Henry VIII. The lower reaches of the Stream Sudbrook are wholey contained within a culvert. And those are not the only rivers feeding the Thames that have been fiddled with. Hidden from view below the streets of London are the rivers Westbourne, Tyburn, Walbrook, Peck, Neckinger, Effra and Wandle.
Next week I will tell you about London’s greatest hidden river, the Fleet, and how Krista and I will add it to our Falling Down the Thames adventure.
Photo credits: The River Kennet – riverkennet.blogspot.com; the River Westbourne, www.thebeardedotter.com
John Grigsby is a doctoral student (or doctoral candidate) at Bournmouth University. He is studying “shaping mythology” at British Neolithic sites, under the direction of Professor Tim Darvill. Learn more about John and his work at www.johngrigsby.co.uk.
Falling Down the Thames Blog 37, 26th November 2014
Guest Blog by John Grigsby
Anyone wishing to navigate the Thames from source to sea finds themselves having to choose a starting point from a number of possibilities, for a number of tributaries feed into what we now call the Thames – but for ancient man it seems as if the starting point may have been reckoned as the source of the river Kennet in the environs of the monumental landscape of Avebury in Wiltshire.
Avebury is a good choice as a starting point – it is, according to archaeologist Tim Darvill, the furthest point ancient man would have been able to navigate inland from the sea by canoe, and it may be that the monument we now call ‘Silbury Hill’ somehow acted as a marker for this special location.
Silbury Hill is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and today it sits beside the road just outside Marlborough like a giant upturned pudding-basin. This mound would have once have been gleaming white from the chalk used in its construction, though we now believe it was created over time not as a single planned monument but as a series of raised mounds added to over time.
The question of why the mound was built has eluded archaeologists, though folklore records it was the tomb of a King Sil, buried in gold armour on horseback, and that it was built in the time it took a posset of milk to boil. Folklore aside many European and Near Eastern myths recall a ‘primal mound’ that at the beginning of time arose from out of the primeval waters of chaos, and it may be that Avebury, with its multitude of springs, was seen as the birthplace of both the river Thames and of creation itself, and that Silbury Hill was symbolic of that first mound of dry earth that rose from the water at the beginning of time. In Egypt this primal mound is known as the Benben and on its summit the Bennu bird, or phoenix, would alight – an occurrence that was mirrored in the temple of Heliopolis where the first light of the rising sun would fall upon the pyramidal BenBen stone at the centre of the temple on New Year’s day.
There are Hindu traditions that talk of the coming of the light of day as the release of the ‘dawn cows’, and the illuminated dawn sky as the milk of the self-same cows. One ancient Hindu ritual sought to encourage the coming of dawn by heating a vessel of milk, which would boil over as a piece of sympathetic magic aimed at helping the sun to rise. Might the folklore of Silbury that speaks of the boiling posset of milk be some echo of a similar rite? Silbury itself contains the element ‘Sil’ which can be linked back to an Indo-European word for sun *Sawilo (the origin of Latin ‘Sol’) but which also seems to be remembered in the name of the spring that lies just beyond Silbury which is known as the ‘swallowhead’ spring.
It is easy to imagine, when stood at the base of the giant mound of Silbury, that our ancestors might have once ascended the summit of the hill in winter, when its base would have been surrounded by flood-water, to light fires and boil milk to encourage the return of the warmth and light of the sun in the spring – and who knows, once the golden light of the early morning sun had struck the mound, maybe they would have travelled along the river, carrying the sacred fire and ‘posset’ of milk; on a celebratory journey all the way along the Thames to the sea?
We are never far away from such pagan musings as we travel along the Thames, whether this be because as we travel we pass over the sites of ancient ritual offerings to the gods of the river, such as the Waterloo helmet or the Battersea shield, or because we recall the strange chapter in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ – called ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ that is nothing less than a paean to the Greek god Pan. To journey along the river is to become a pilgrim on a quest for the place of the rising sun, a journey through history itself. And if Conrad starts his ‘Heart of Darkness’ with a description of the Thames as seen through Roman eyes, as leading into savage, dark, places, we must also remember that the prehistoric source of that same river was not a place of darkness but of creation and light.
- John Grigsby
Photo credit: Aerial view of Silbury Hill, www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk