Not really an art piece, but it belongs here more than in the people section.
The air feels like it’s been baked, but the stones don’t care. They’ve been here too long and seem too much, and besides, they are lumps of mineral and don’t have emotions.
Visually, the circle isn’t particularly impressive. This is no heroic Stonehenge, epic Avebury or breathtaking Callanish. The circle is not actually a circle but egg-shaped, and no more than about 25 feet across. The stones themselves are small, even stumpy; some are level with the ground, though whether hacked off or sunk is impossible to tell. Most are less than a foot high, and the two tallest are the height of a small stool, though not flat at the top and therefore impossible sit on; but they stand in shallow depressions which show that many people have rested against them with their feet outstretched.
How many people? Again, impossible to say. Three and a half millennia these stones have stood here; that’s a lot of people, a lot of bottoms, and nearly twice as many feet.
This is the Preseli Hills, where the bluestones of Stonehenge came from. But these aren’t bluestone. I’ve seen bluestone only a couple of days ago, not far from here, up on the ridge at the great chambered tomb of Pentre Ifan. That improbable monument stands in a spacious field, and just at the gate where you enter are two pieces of bluestone set into a bank. They are flush with the grass, and once again impossible to say whether a natural outcropping or placed there, but they are quite obvious. Bluestone is strange, unearthly stuff. Those stones are smooth and glossy, and the eerie colour of the air at dawn or a pale Common Blue butterfly, and almost metallic looking. It’s like the stone is covered with a thin transparent film and the colour comes from some depth below the surface. Unmistakably a mineral, inorganic colour.
But the stones in this circle are grey, patched with pale lichen that has accreted over the centuries in the clean air. They don’t look like they are worked, there is no sign of a square corner or a flattened face, but they must have been. At one point, these were part of the earth, and somebody freed them, whether cleaving them along existing cracks or chiselling them from a hillside, and brought them here. Placed them deliberately.
Like with all of these sites, it’s not really the stones themselves are important, but the landscape in which they are placed. Hold out one of your hands and cup It with the fingers tensed. Now lifted to eye level and ignore the fingers, just focus on the flesh of the palm and how it rises and falls in hills and valleys around the depression in the centre. The land here holds the stones just like that. On the horizon, the hills role and fade in gentle waves, a hummock here, a whaleback shape breaching after the next dip. The most marked feature is a nearly hemispherical hill crowned with a spiky outcrop of rocks. In line with that stand two outlying stones, actually larger by far than any stone in the circle.
The circle stands on a slight flattened rise, and walking from this plateau towards the crowned hill and its marking menhirs it becomes obvious there is a small avenue, a cursus: the other stones fallen, sunk or levelled but still clear. This was a route that was walked. The crowned hill must have had meaning.
The ground here is soft and difficult to walk on, despite the heat of the past weeks which has left other earth hardened and cracked. Grass still grows thickly, although it has faded to a dusty greenish dun colour, and spiky clumps of some hardy vegetation are interspersed with the shiny lobed nuggets of sheep shit. There are patches of gorse, although low and not bushy. The softness of the ground is due to a thick layer of sphagnum moss, so dry there is a noticeable crunching feeling as you step on it. Under normal conditions in south Wales – that is to say, frequently raining – the moss would soak up vast quantities of rainfall and your feet would be in pools of muddy standing water. But not now, in this unusual July furnace.
Although it’s unspectacular, there is a particular atmosphere here. It reminds me of being in a cathedral, but not because it’s peaceful. It isn’t peaceful; two stonechats are yelling at each other harshly, and although the nearby road is quiet, there is a definite hum of traffic. But cathedrals aren’t peaceful either. They never have been. Today, there is the inescapable bustle of tourists; in times past the constant business of worship. But there is a heaviness to them, inside, as though somewhere there is a definite mass whose gravitational effect slows down time in its vicinity. Time feels slower here, too. It isn’t haunted. The spirits of whoever made this place and aligned it with in its landscape are not here; although someone has been. Despite the notices banning fires, a blackened patch in the middle of the stones shows that some idiot pagans thought it would be a good idea to light a fire in the middle of all this tinder-dry vegetation. Lucky the whole lot didn’t go up. What feeling here is generated purely by the rise and fall of the land, the way the air sits in its folds and moves through its channels. It puts a quietness on you. This unnatural intrusion makes it feel all the more natural. Perhaps that’s the point after all.