Wednesday, 15 September 2010


James Watson

Blog 15
The Bull Ring
Three Thousand Years When Nothing Much
Happened: a Derbyshire reverie

Takes some finding: not a lot of people stop in Dove Holes; and unless you’ve read the guidebook you could be forgiven for walking past it without noticing. The locals do. Asked a Mum hastening home with her child from playschool: ‘Ancient site? Ooh, don’t know about that. But there’s this field where they do the fireworks.’

At least 2800 years old and it’s still scarcely on the map: an earthwork, bereft of fallen megaliths; a grassy entrance between modestly-raised grass furrows, a grassy exit. And yet a scene to wonder at.

They have it all at the more famous Arbor Low, and many more visitors, dropping a pound in a box before passing through a farmyard and to a site both ancient and famous; yet somehow a location steeped in loneliness.

One comes away with the wrong impression, for both Arbor Low and The Bull Ring were meeting places, and probably for hundreds of people, decade after decade, century after century.

Where did it all go?
Today, we have no time. Today, when people meet, they’re as likely to say, ‘Doesn’t time fly?’ as commune about the weather. Time – where did it go? What’s left of time is a chorus of ‘If onlys’. But not for the ancients assembling at the henge sites (there are scores of them in Derbyshire alone).

We know practically nothing about these sites, who actually used them, what they used them for, whether they were for worship or mainly communal gatherings, ancient equivalents of Appleby or Glastonbury. Was there music; were there games, buying and selling, parleys with sun, moon and stars?

Yet while the Bull Ring offers us less than Arbor Low in terms of furniture, its location gives us more clues. Its circular mound, with evidence of an outer rim, is more spacious than Arbor Low. The solitary tree in its centre has no ancient lineage; what counts, though, is what surrounds the Ring – a living community, and thereby ancient and modern connect.

The circular mound, with evidence of an outer rim, is still distinctive, though the mounds would have been higher and the ditches deeper. What the site was like has to be left to the imagination, for since it was abandoned there have been enclosures, the creation of a cemetery and the layout of football pitches.

Unlike Arbor Low, the Bull Ring remains a centre of community activity complete with a primary school and a children’s playground. And it’s to this Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age location that folks from miles around gather to watch the fireworks – the stars and planets and rockets bursting into the sky, sharing pleasure, experiencing a sense of awe.

I was reminded of the travellers congregating at Appleby, and the crowds gathering at Glastonbury, coming together for ritual, for social pleasure. In contrast Arbor Low is isolated, with a farm close by, but otherwise a lonely and abandoned outpost; disconnected yet no doubt once drawing thousands for purposes similar to these at the Bull Ring over hundreds of years.

Quietness that deceives
The modern visitor relishes the silence, the abandonedness, the contrast with the bustle of life in towns and cities, yet there is something of anachronism about the preference. As Mark Edmonds and Tim Seaborne say in Prehistory in the Peak (UK: Tempus, 2001), ‘far from being places of “quiet solitude” that we now seek to conserve, Arbor Low and the Bull Ring were sometimes alive with people’.

The authors write of a 'confusion of camps and animals in the environs; people moving in and out of clearings and approaching along different paths. The mess of building gangs or companies gathered around fires; cooking, eating, talking. And then, when the time was right, an order amongst the multitude; people taking their places to participate or to watch proceedings in the henge itself. A broad social geography mapped to a tight scale'.

What the authors refer to as ‘the shock of the multitude’ is compounded by the difficulty we have in imagining how these henges were built. The ditches would have been deeper and steeper, the banks possibly three metres above the ground surface – altogether more formidable, suggesting purposes beyond that of assembly. The mounds would serve as a ‘steep and dramatic barrier that fostered a sense of containment’, hinting at exclusion as well as inclusion: ‘Children would not have rolled down the slopes as they do today.'

Questions concerning leadership, control, social hierarchy, privilege and authority will go on being debated, especially whether these were memorials to heroes, gods or spirits. Edmonds and Seaborne are wary of such conjectures, for ‘to see henges only as monuments to leaders misses the broader and more varied purposes they served in bringing dispersed communities together’.

Multiple purposes
Nevertheless, whatever the many functions of henges there is high probability that they had something to do with the dead, with the ancestors of the tribe; and that the purpose of large gatherings was reunion, of communion with the spirits of the dead – not unlike the way the Chinese picnic beside the graves of the deceased.

According to the authors of Prehistory in the Peak the ceremonies that might have taken place at the henges ‘tied the flux of the present to tradition, and tradition in turn to the timeless'; all this set against ‘a backdrop of communal events’ suggesting that ‘participation in rituals renewed ties between people’ while at the same time, perhaps, honouring ‘the standing of particular individuals’.

It is this sense of framing and contrast, of the constant changes of the present day with a ritualised, and thus treasured, past that probably fascinates us most as we explore the sites of antiquity. We have minimal or modest fact to rely on, consequently we are left space not only to imagine who these ancestors were and what they did here, but to empathise with them; wondering, perhaps, what lessons the present might learn from the past.

My visit to The Bull ring inspired the following:


Appleby is where the travellers meet
As compulsively as migrant birds
Flock to foreign shores, driven
By the seasons, and past habits;
To the rational mind beyond all reason.

The scholars surmise such gatherings
Were witnessed across millennia.
At Arbor Low, its concentric rings home
To standing stones anchored in earth
Signalling a long journey’s end,
The prize of community awaited,
The blessing of renewal, the promise
Of encounters old and new.

The bleakness here waylays witness,
Misleads with its sparse emptiness,
Its tune of silence imposed by mystery.
For this site probably teemed with assembly,
With music and gossip, tall tales and laughter,
A place neither still nor calm nor even holy;
But a goose fair, pop festival, highland fling,
An assertion and confirmation of origin,
Breed, race, tribe, restoring patterns of us and we,
Refurbishing the spirit of belonging.

While Arbor Low speaks poetry but no people
The Bull Ring a day’s hike to the north, nestles
Within the limestone village of Dove Holes;
Again the circles, the grassy banks, the sense
Of waiting; yet here continuity stands out
As prominently as the megaliths of Arbor Low –
The playtime voices from the school yard; kids
On the merry-go-round, the climbing frame,
The Saturday cajolings from the soccer pitch.

Here fondly and without ritual, ancient and modern
Are accommodated to the point where
The walker and her dog shows hesitant recognition
Of the earthworks under her feet, no notion
Of the tread of others down the centuries, where or why
They came, but at least with this knowledge
That on days of celebration, there are fireworks here;
The crowds are something to see, gasping in delight,
In childlike awe at fire, cascade and fountain
Exploding in the dark memory of the sky.

As we pause at such meeting places, we sense
The flicker of recognition, and possibly of regret
That what must have been a constant gradually
Or swiftly, we do not know, ended, to be replaced
By other cultures; by hierarchies favouring
Property over access, the power of privilege
To bar passage to what once was communal ground.

We see the face of the past in many disguises,
Often little realising that as we enact the present
We re-enact the past; walk the same ancestral paths,
Resist in our unique ways those driven appetites
For change, improvement, betterment, profit,
That the ancestors of those who became masters
Nurture for their own interests and comfort:
History is re-defined, curtailed as heritage.
If we step off the roped path we are guilty of trespass.

Our possibilities now are largely substitutes:
We join the crowd, do Glastonbury, stop to snap
A bikers’ reunion; more quietly strive
To piece together the mysteries of hallowed sites,
And sometimes imitate the rituals we guess
Celebrated sojourn and solstice, solemnly
Noting that here the dead, enticed with gifts,
Asserted their right of presence and inclusion.

As with the Chinese gathering each decade on Tap Mun
For the Festival of Peace, combining thanks and praise
To Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, with family picnics
Beside the graves of their dear departed, honouring
The space of those who failed to make the journey,
Introducing them to those arriving, those to come.

Whether at Arbor or the Bull Ring, Gibs Hill,
Hay Top, Withery Low or Gardom’s Edge
The visitor can expect a moment of reverence
But also of regret, as though discovering
A sudden loss; a feeling of having missed
An appointment with someone precious;
The same, perhaps, experienced aeons ago
By those gladly closing in on their destination
Only to count and mourn the missing faces.

From the Writer’s Notebooks
March 2009

Picasso: Challenging the Past was, on its first day out at the National Gallery, packed. I wonder how many felt numerous questions arise about a genius of prodigious energy spending so much time mining the past, for I wasn’t convinced ‘challenging’ was the right term.

Much of the work is, or borders upon, caricature. The pleasure of recognition is obvious and one is intrigued at what Picasso actually does with masters of the past; and the range, from Ingres back to Velasquez. He matches Ingres for sheer painterly bravura; but Velasquez remains so infinitely superior.

The homage is there and welcome, but why did he do it? The exhibition organisers seem reluctant to go beyond their own awe and admiration. My own favourite was not really reworking the past: it was him, Picasso, his Cubist portrait of a woman. Yes, the derivation is rightly claimed to be Cezanne, perhaps the first ‘cubist’. But this did not represent a play on Cezanne, rather a development from him. Here Picasso builds on the art of the past rather than exploits it (however pleasurably).

Just another Nabonidas
So many of these big and expensive exhibitions, like Babylon at the British Museum which I toured today, would be so much better if they were simply in book form. The items on display are small; often hieroglyphics on stone letter scrolls; and the print instructions gather so many people round them that one’s tempted to skip… At least it was interesting to learn that with his tormented Nebuchadnezzar Billy Blake got it wrong.

Nebs it would seem never went down on his knees with torment and madness. It was a later Babylonian monarch, Nabonidas, who, like King Tut, attempted meddlesome changes to religion; in his case switching allegiance from Marduk to the Moon God, and paying a price of condemnation and dismissal.

Apologies it would seem are due to Nebuchadnezzar. What, however, was especially memorable was the epilogue to the exhibition – photos of post 2003 invasion Babylon, the site occupied by a Yankee military camp: you destroy a country, it follows that you trample on its history.

To be fair, Saddam had already re-cast himself as the hero of Babylon and built his own palace in the grounds of the ancient city. Just another Nabonidas.

Moral: beware of tampering with the gods; or the Yanks.

For King and Country
Just a reminder of something I heard on radio: how the US, UK and France excluded black soldiers from the Liberation of Paris parade in 1944; at the same time as some British general issued instructions that black GIs should not be invited to people’s homes.

The general wrote in a memo that while there was a minority of normally educated negroes, the majority of them were simple and unsophisticated. I suppose the same sentiments would equally have applied to the Tommies, the British working class, reflecting an attitude that had come down the class divide for centuries. 6 April 2009.

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