Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Stonehenge as a Recycled Monument

December 7th, 2015 No comments

Excavations at Craig Rhos-y-felinEvery year brings new theories about Stonehenge – some loopy like the one I covered in an earlier blog about the idea that Stonehenge was a platform monument.

But these discoveries in Wales come under the auspices of the respected Mike Parker Pearson.  And while it has long been known that the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills, the idea that there was an earlier monument in Wales, which was re-cycled to form Stonehenge, is a fascinating one.

It comes about from the discrepancy in dates. The Craig Rhos-y-felin bluestones seem to have been extracted around 3400 BC – but not erected in Stonehenge until 500 years later, in 2900 BC. While Wales is some way from the Salisbury plain, it can’t, the theory goes, have taken a full 500 years to transport them. So there may initially have been a Welsh monument using the stones, which was later recycled by the builders of Stonehenge who may have valued their provenance.

The possible method of extraction is also fascinating. “They only had to insert wooden wedges into the cracks between the pillars and then let the Welsh rain do the rest by swelling the wood to ease each pillar off the rock face” said Dr Josh Pollard  of the University of Southampton.

This is all highly speculative. But the investigation of a possible site for the Welsh monument is proceeding apace.  Professor Kate Welham of Bournemouth University thinks the ruins of any dismantled monument are likely to lie somewhere between the two megalith quarries in the Preseli Hills. She said: “We’ve been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising – we may find something big in 2016.”

A recent issue of Antiquity has more detail on this

Spring: The Blue Road into the Trees

April 23rd, 2014 No comments

bluebell woods (c) Hugh Thomson

“The bluebells in the beech woods that surrounded and disguised the embankment came as a shock.  I had forgotten that they would be there, a soft purple rather than blue, as I came in from the bright sunshine of the fields and saw waves and islands of them spreading below the trees, not so much lighting up the forest as glowing within it:  purple shadows.

They spread across the ridge.  A heavy-seeded plant, bluebells travel slowly across the ground: it had taken many, many generations for them to cover such distance.  The carpet of blue flowers managed to be a celebration both of the transience of spring and of the permanence of the English landscape.

I followed a path that was covered with beech-mast and threaded through with white wood anemones.  Looking down through the trees at the wheat fields to either side, with the young wheat still tight in bud, the stalks shimmered blue under the green of their tops, so that when viewed from certain angles they looked like water, an effect exaggerated when the wind blew across the fronds and sent a ripple of green-yellow across the underlying blue.”

a seasonal extract from The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England, which has just won the first Wainwright Prize for Nature & Travel Writing

Penguins and Battlefields

January 11th, 2012 No comments


No one would ever go to the Falklands for either the weather or the view.  That at least has been the traditional opinion ever since Darwin commented on his first arrival, ‘scarcely any views can be more dismal than that from the heights: moorland and black bog extend as far as the eye can discern, intersected by innumerable streams, and pools of yellowish water….. These islands have a miserable appearance.’

Like the Hebrides though, catch them on a good day with a bit of sun and they have their own wild beauty.  Throw in some accessible colonies of penguins and you have the beginnings of a tourist trade;  a surprising amount of passenger boats now stop there for a combined ‘Penguin and Battlefield’ tour, with fish and chips in one of the pubs in Port Stanley afterwards.

One reason for the bitterness the islanders feel towards Argentina is apparent as soon as you drive out of Stanley – the amount of land that is still uninhabitable because of landmines, including many of the beaches which they used to play on as children. The cost, both human and economic, of trying to clear such large areas has proved too much.

Read more…

Stonehenge – a national disgrace

July 13th, 2010 1 comment

Stonehenge was given to the nation in 1918.  So far, almost a century later, the nation has done a remarkably bad job at looking after it. 

The situation at the site is currently, as its custodians English Heritage put it, ‘severely compromised’ and as others like leading archaeologist Mike Pitts would say, ‘ an embarrassing, abominable, inexcusable mess’. For decades, plans have been put forward to improve the site and then postponed.

Two main roads not only thunder past but divide the circle of stones from the Avenue that should lead to it.  The findings from Stonehenge are scattered piecemeal between some sixteen different museums and private holdings around the country.  For the almost one million annual visitors drawn there, it can be a dispiriting experience, with the stones themselves fenced off and the current ‘visitor centre’ resembling a British Rail station built in the 1970s.  Overall, it can be a bit like having a picnic in a car park.

Just last week the Government announced that it would no longer help finance the proposed new landscaping and visitor centre which Labour had announced last October. 

On the face of it, this might seem perfectly reasonable.  A saving of £10 million would result.  We all know that cuts have to be made;  the Government claims that Labour committed to projects that were never affordable. Read more…

Edinburgh Festival and News for Summer 2009

August 8th, 2009 No comments

…and a summer of Festivals continues.   Highlights of Edinburgh so far?  The opening of a new show by John Bellany at the Open Eye gallery;  the opening of a new gallery, the Glasshouse; and the scabrous and very funny stand-up show by Greg Behreindt, the script-writer of Sex in the City and He’s Just Not that into You.  Which is odd as not normally that ‘into’ Cosmo movies.  Best of all it’s been sunny. 

But the show that is a model of how to explore ‘the idea of a country’  is The Discovery of Spain at the National;   the curatorial work that’s gone into the exhibition and catalogue is impressive – and there’s a sense of how Spain went from the melancholy decaying empire of the 18th century to a place of duende and the unfettered imagination that the poets of the 1930s would go out to fight for.

Meanwhile I recently gave a reading at the Latitude Festival myself which was a lot of fun as could see Tricky do the ultimate crowd-surf (he was carried so far off from the stage-tent that he emerged in a field somewhere and the concert was over); Tequila Oil has been reviewed by the Independent, Guardian and Financial Times – and by Top Gear Magazine who said I was a good writer but clearly a lousy driver.

Also returned to Peru and the Inca site of Llactapata for a National Geographic and PBS Nova production:  we filmed there at dawn on June solstice as the sun shone down the narrow passageway designed to mark that day.  Then I had to do a piece to camera on what it all meant.

50 Wonders of the World has just been published  by Quercus for £25.  Which is a bargain, as it’s a handsome and very large book, which with a little carpentry could actually be used as a coffee table, not just on it.

The Reluctant Lama

July 26th, 2009 1 comment

We are used to tales of disaffected teenagers leaving Europe to join ashrams and communes in India.  Now precisely the reverse has occurred.

It is an extraordinary story.  The young man formerly known as Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche and venerated by Buddhist monks in India almost as a living god has renounced his status and told of the ‘unbearable’ conditions that he endured.  At present he lives in Madrid.

 Singled out as the reincarnation of a previous lama at just 18 months, the young Osel originally came from a Spanish family of Western Buddhists who had taken the boy to Dharamsala, where he was chosen by the Dalai Lama.  After being enthroned aged six, he then spent his youth within the walls of a monastery in Southern India.  From his previous incarnation, a guru called Yeshe who had died in 1984, he inherited the spiritual leadership not just of that monastery but of 130 other Buddhist centres worldwide.

Yet shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he cast off the saffron robes and fled to the West, where he has lived in anonymity for the last five years before deciding to speak of his ordeal:  ‘I was put in a medieval situation in which I suffered enormously.  It was like living a lie,’ he told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Read more…