In England, the ancient past is always just a footstep away. It’s one of the special treats of living in this green and ancient land. Walk out into the countryside of your favourite shire and there’s a good chance you’ll be treading the same paths taken by your ancestors thousands of years ago.
Take Fox Wood in Nottinghamshire, one of my favourite local spots for a Sunday afternoon stroll. On the face of it, this charming tangle of sycamore, holly, hawthorn and oak is just a nine-acre thicket standing guard over a rolling swell of arable farmland. Look closer, and you’ll discover that the paired ditches and ridges defining Fox Wood’s western edge are the remains of ramparts protecting an Iron Age agricultural settlement.
If I want to delve deeper into the past, it’s no problem. I just journey a few miles further north to Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge riddled with caves that were occupied by fur-clad troglodytes up to 50,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Take one of the underground tours at Creswell Crags, and you’ll get to stand before Britain’s only known example of Ice Age rock art – engravings and bas-reliefs thought to be around 13,000 years old.
Most of us Brits take all this for granted. As a kid growing up in England’s south-coast county of Dorset, my two favourite destinations for a family day out were Hengistbury Head and Badbury Rings. The big draw with both places was the proliferation of dykes and ditches perfect for a small boy to run up and down. Both also had excellent hilltops from which to fly a kite.
Only as I grew older did I learn that the terrain I loved galloping across comprised the remains of ancient earthworks. Hengistbury Head is known to have been settled towards the end of the Ice Age – around 12,000 years ago – and remained a centre of population through the late Neolithic, Iron and Bronze ages, and on past the Roman invasion. As for the three concentric ramparts of Badbury Rings, they once formed the outer defence of an Iron Age hill fort.
Even when I was born, and about as ignorant of the past as you can get, the air I sucked into my squawling Somerset lungs had almost certainly wafted in from nearby Glastonbury Tor. Famed as the supposed resting place of King Arthur, this medieval tourist magnet boasts steep terraced slopes of uncertain origin, but which are known to have been visited by people as long ago as the Bronze Age.
I can think of no greater inspiration for a writer than the landscape he inhabits. That’s the real beauty of living in this green and ancient land, with its castle and barrows and rings of standing stones: the past is there for all to see, a vast network of roots laid bare by the weathering effects of time, no less sturdy for being exposed, and filled with stories just waiting to be told.
Fox Wood photographs by Graham Edwards.