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On Silbury Hill
by Adam Thorpe

“fascinating” HILARY MANTEL

“a rich and evocative book of place” PAUL FARLEY, The Guardian

“It seems to me to be everything that a book ought to be or should want to be: beautiful, suggestive, personal, knowing and uncertain, old but of now, funny and modest and ripe in its lived-in ways.” TIM DEE, author of Four Fields

“a remarkable and moving mix of history, autobiography and genius loci”  WILLIAM BOYD

Silbury Hill is a mystery – perplexing and inspiring archaeologists, poets, artists and others for generations. Now Adam Thorpe turns his attention to its grassy slopes. This is a masterful chalkland memoir told in fragments and family snapshots, built from Britain’s ancient and modern past.

Author: Adam Thorpe

Published: June 2014

SKU: 9781908213242Categories: , Tags: , ,

£15.00

In stock

Silbury Hill in Wiltshire has inspired and perplexed people for generations. Artists and poets have fathomed their deepest thoughts searching for the hill’s hidden meanings, archaeologists have tunneled through earth for fragments that prove its purpose. But for all this human endeavour, Silbury Hill remains a mystery.

We do know it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. But was it once an island, moated by water? Was it a place of worship and celebration, perhaps a vast measure of the passing seasons? Along with Stonehenge and Avebury, was it part of a healing landscape or a physical memory of the long-ago dead?

Silbury Hill is the sum of all that we project. A blank screen where human dreams and nightmares flicker. The hill has been part of Adam Thorpe’s own life since his schooldays at Marlborough, which he would often escape in the surrounding downlands. He has carried Silbury ever since, through his teenage years in Cameroon, into his adulthood in southern England and France: its presence fused to each landscape which became his home.

On Silbury Hill is Adam Thorpe’s own projection onto Silbury’s grassy slopes. Twenty years after the publication of his classic novel Ulverton, the acclaimed poet and novelist revisits the landscape which inspired him. It is a chalkland memoir told in fragments and family snapshots, skillfully built, layer on layer, from Britain’s ancient and modern past.

Book of the Week, BBC Radio 4 (August 2014)

Longlisted for the Wainwright Prize 2015

“A book that is not only fascinating to read but a pleasure to hold in the hand.” HILARY MANTEL, Vogue

“You should burrow in and discover this for yourself, but what makes On Silbury Hill such a rich and evocative book of place are the myriad two-way hauntings he proposes between people and landscapes over time.” PAUL FARLEY, The Guardian

“It seems to me to be everything that a book ought to be or should want to be: beautiful, suggestive, personal, knowing and uncertain, old but of now, funny and modest and ripe in its lived-in ways.” TIM DEE, author of Four Fields

“His writing spills out hot and fierce as summer wind, scouring the chalky, ancient Ridgeway and buffering up against the confounding slopes of Silbury Hill itself, concluding that ‘ingenuity and accident and maybe a

“…a fascinating series of interwoven strands” BEL MOONEY, Daily Mail

“a remarkable and moving mix of history, autobiography and genius loci ” WILLIAM BOYD, New Statesman

“…impressive elegance and concision …. evocative and moving …  a lament for something modern man has largely lost … a deeply personal and idiosyncratic memoir.” ANTHONY HEAD, TLS

“He seeks a blend of the personal and the scientific… that raises profound questions about what archaeology can understand of the past. With the book’s attractive feel, and clear and often memorable writing, ‘interpretive archaeology’ never came so seductively packaged.” MIKE PITTS, British Archaeology

“Honest enough to admit that we cannot hope to do more than conjecture … and yet sympathetic to successive archaeological, psychological, poetic and spiritual interpretations, Thorpe proves an engaging guide to a landscape steeped in secrets.” GREG NEALE, Resurgence & Ecologist

“What I particularly love about the whole book … is the openness of this dry, wry, sometimes angry, often self-deprecating historian to… the intrusion of memory and magic.” RUTH DAVIS, Nature and the common good

ADAM THORPE
180 x 130mm hardback
232 pages
Illustrated by Ray Ward
Jacket illustration by David Inshaw
Colour & BW illustration throughout, including the art of Paul Nash, Richard Long, Henry Moore, Joe Tilson, etc.
ISBN 978-1-908213-24-2

Adam Thorpe reading from On Silbury Hill

Additional Information

Weight360 g
Dimensions24 x 135 x 185 mm

Reviews

  1. TLS review of Silbury Hill by Anthony Head

    Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – a huge, flat-topped, Neolithic monument that looks like an overturned pudding bowl – is the most baffling historical relic in the British Isles. It was begun about 4,500 years ago, and it probably took over a hundred years to heap up the 250,000 cubic metres of chalk that mainly constitute its substance. Yet despite the numerous destructive excavations and intrusions by antiquaries over the centuries, its purpose – burial mound, religious sanctuary, military stronghold – remains unknown.

    Adam Thorpe has been haunted by this enigma since his schooldays. In a work that blends anthropological speculation, historical synopsis and social commentary (sad reminders of congested roads and touristic tackiness) with large doses of autobiography, he takes the reader on a ramble through time, seeking less to unravel Silbury’s mysteries than to celebrate its conceptual and aesthetic strangeness. The journey is a paradoxical effort to convey a kind of timelessness such as the monument’s builders would have understood, since for them the past would have been “part of the same material as the present, a touch ghostly but just as potent as living flesh”.

    A loose chronological framework enables Thorpe to cover much ground, not just in revisiting this numinous region of stone circles and sun-aligned avenues but in wandering off at tangents to Cameroon and India and into his own past, blending in nostalgia, fantasy and a wealth of literary references. If at times the prose seems a little blokeish (unlike the herder farmers, the hunter-gatherers of yore would have had “a more natural and varied diet of wild gleanings than the same old same old of crops”), equally there are numerous passages of impressive elegance and concision. The chapter on Thorpe’s days at Marlborough College is an evocative and moving vignette of English public school life.

    The book is also partly a lament for something modern man has largely lost (Wiccans and New Ageists notwithstanding) – a mode of being. Thorpe notes that although we can now reconstruct the origins of the universe after billions of years by listening to the still-rippling echoes of the Big Bang, “the single thud of a ritual drum high up on Silbury has vanished for ever and can never be restored”. This engaging book, a deeply personal and idiosyncratic memoir, suggests how far we have travelled, and strayed, since those ancient days.

  2. Asked by US Vogue to recommend some books to their readers for the summer holidays, Booker-winning and best-selling novelist Hilary Mantel picked Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill along with Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk:

    “Every book deserves a committed reader, and when I’m writing fiction myself I often find it hard to make a true emotional engagement with other novels. So at the moment it’s poems, pictures and images of the natural word that are feeding my imagination.

    There is no contemporary I admire more than Adam Thorpe, whose novel Ulverton is a late twentieth century masterpiece. His new book On Silbury Hill is an experiment in pyscho-geography, partly a memoir, partly an exploration of the strange prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire, where he spent his adolescence. His publisher, the small but dedicated Little Toller Books, has produced a book that is not only fascinating to read but a pleasure to hold in the hand.

    Helen Mort is a young poet from Derbyshire, my own patch of England, and lines from her first collection, Division Street are running in my head this summer; she tracks the borderlands where grey urban sprawl meets grey moorland, and leads us through the old mining towns where the death of Margaret Thatcher was celebrated in song.

  3. We are over the moon here at Little Toller and want to share some amazing news… After gathering fantastic reviews, from Paul Farley in The Guardian to Hilary Mantel inVogue, the BBC have trumped all by turning Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill into Book of The Week on Radio 4. It is being abridged and recorded as you read this, and will be broadcast every morning at 9.45am from 18th August. Thank you for supporting us!

  4. Mike Pitts (British Archaeology) review of On Silbury Hill

    He is (mostly) effortlessly up to date with his archaeology, giving his poetic insights rare analytical value. Regularly “seduced” by simplistic explanations – which, as he tells it, amount to almost everything said about Silbury and its early world – he soon rejects them, resisting “the alluring smoothness of prehistory”. Instead he seeks a blend of the personal and the scientific, an inevitably complex solution that raises profound questions about what archaeology can understand of the past. With the book’s attractive feel, and clear and often memorable writing, “interpretive archaeology” never came so seductively packaged.

    Reviewed by Mike Pitts for British Archaeology Sep/Oct 2014

  5. “burrow in and discover”

    Paul Farley, a brilliant poet, broadcaster and writer of many acclaimed books, including the groundbreaking Edgelands, has published the first review of On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe. And what a review it is! We are tingling with excitement…

    “Throughout On Silbury Hill, Thorpe is limber enough to explore subtle shades of mood and inwardness, remoteness and intimacy, but also what might be described as the louder anxieties of anyone living across this millennial gap of ours, when the world changed from black and white to colour and replaced transistor radios with Google glasses, and when the industrial resource-stripping of the planet was no longer seen as vaguely heroic but disastrous and unsustainable. The banished gods might only be in hiding, and could do worse than Silbury.”

    Read the full review by Paul Farley in The Guardian

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