7.30am. I am sat on the edge of the bath watching planes make their final descent into Heathrow. I glance from the window to the mirror and see that my skin is pale and my eyes pink and blotchy. It had happened again, as it had month after month for years, but this time was different. This time I knew I had to do something. My sadness had pushed me to the edge of a deep hole and I needed to find something to stop me falling in. My first thought was of walking, my trusted cure for difficult times, but I dismissed it as too simple a solution for such a big problem. Still, the idea persisted accompanied by visions of open fields and winding lanes. I didn’t know how walking would help, but at least it would get me out of my claustrophobic flat and into the world beyond. Amidst the gloom and anxiety of this darkest of years, the prospect of a walk was a light.
This was how I found myself, a week later, stood outside an ancient burial chamber near Avebury. My moment of crisis had led to the formation of a plan to walk the Great Stones Way from Avebury to Stonehenge. I had grown up in Wiltshire and knew these landscapes lightly, but now I wanted to return in the hope that placing myself in the presence of ancient sites would strengthen my courage to confront an uncertain future. This first day of my walk involved an exploration of Avebury, Silbury Hill and the Sanctuary, but my first stop was the neolithic burial chamber of West Kennet Long Barrow. I had never been to the site, but I was immediately impressed by the size and heft of the towering stone slabs guarding the entrance. It reminded me of pictures from children’s bibles of the large stones sealing Jesus’s tomb, only to be miraculously moved aside three days after his crucifixion. I placed my hand tentatively against the cool, damp surface of the stones and trailed my fingers across them as I found the narrow gap between the two main guard stones leading to the tomb’s entrance.
Here I faltered. The tomb stretched much further back than I had imagined. Anyone or anything could be in the gloom of the back caverns. I walked out onto the grassy top of the barrow and looked down over the landscape. From my elevated view point I could see sky, fields and roads but no people. I suspected my ability to accurately assess risk had been negatively influenced by hours of true crime podcasts. However, most of the crimes they featured happened in America, so I could conveniently convince myself that those kinds of things only happened far away. Then I remembered a story from Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am, I am, where she had a terrifying encounter with a murderer on a remote hill in Ireland. This one was closer to home. So were the news stories of murders and attacks that flooded my mind as soon as I tried to block them out. I remembered my mum worrying about me walking the secluded bridle path to my grandmother’s farm and how it had made me decide, aged fourteen, that I would prefer to risk something happening than stop walking alone. Since then I had felt unsafe many times and had often walked with my keys clenched, sharp side out, or felt the dread of hearing footsteps behind me on quiet road.
I was right to be cautious, but some perspective was needed. There was no one else approaching and even if they were, the chances of them having any evil intentions towards me were miniscule. In Wild Cheryl Strayed flat out refused to be scared during her epic walk across America, telling herself that she was safe and brave and could not be hurt. If she could convince herself of that in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail, then I could stop feeling worried in Wiltshire. I reminded myself how rare it must be to find this place without visitors and how lucky I was to have an ancient burial chamber all to myself. It would be unforgivable not to explore. Pulling a torch from my pocket, I followed the small path behind the large guard stones and through the squared entrance of the chamber.
It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the gloom. The chamber was much bigger than I had imagined and had smaller rooms off the main corridor, which got increasingly dark the further back you went. The walls of the chamber were extraordinary. They were constructed with layers of flat rock stacked horizontally on top of larger upright stones. The cold walls felt damp to the touch, but apart from the odd drop of water the chamber offered welcome shelter from the strong winds and lashing rain outside. I thought about the idea of thin places: those magical locations where the divide between this world and the eternal is far thinner than normal, allowing for the possibility of crossing over and experiencing the divine or transcendent. I wondered if this burial chamber could be a thin place. I had heard stories of people experiencing acute feelings of dread here, but I didn’t sense anything malevolent or frightening. I closed my eyes and placed my palms against the cool walls, trying to connect with something beyond the immediate sensations of the stale air, the sound of the rain outside and the physical discomfort of my wet clothing. Nothing. This wasn’t surprising. I knew that thin places had to be stumbled upon rather than actively sought. Still, I was disappointed. Part of the appeal of walking in these landscapes had been a desire to encounter some form of otherness or mystery. An ancient burial chamber should be the perfect place to experience the liminal or otherworldly, but instead it just felt like a safe, friendly place that had offered me shelter from the rain.
It wasn’t a coincidence that my attraction to ghost stories, folk horror and the supernatural had developed since we started trying for a baby. I found fear to be a sharper, more defined emotion than the pervasive low-level sadness that had saturated my life for the last few years. Fear was one of the few things that could cut through my internal fug and shake me awake. I wasn’t scared of the supernatural because I already felt haunted, not by the dead but by the yet to be born. Ghost children who whispered in my ear, weighed down my feet or buried themselves painfully in my heart when a stranger asked me if I had children, or a friend made a surprise pregnancy announcement. An encounter with the supernatural would overshadow such moments and place me in the presence of something much bigger than myself and the little absence I carried. It would let me forget about my situation, at least for a while. That wasn’t going to happen here though. Small gaps for sunlight in its roof made the burial chamber gloomy rather than dark and I felt relaxed in the soft light listening to the rain. It was a friendly place. A sanctuary that wished me no harm.
I was pleased that I had gone into the dark of the burial chamber and felt the peace inside. It was a place of death, but it had made me feel more alive. I felt buoyed by its energy as I descended towards the village and saw Silbury Hill appear singularly in the distance. Given the numerous burial mounds in the vicinity, it would seem obvious that this was Silbury Hill’s purpose too; its size suggesting that it was reserved for particularly important Neolithic figures. However, excavations had failed to find any evidence of human remains within it. So what was the purpose of this conspicuous imposter posing as kin to the surrounding hills? I crossed a stile and walked towards it. Silbury Hill was a puzzle. Our ancestors created it, so there is a feeling that we should be able to access some communal memory of its purpose. Yet here was a physical example of how human actions can become disconnected from their meaning. I tried to remember the terminology of semiotics from my English degree. The hill is the sign, but it has been disconnected from what it signifies. There is the physical object in front of me, but knowledge of its meaning has been lost.
I thought of Edward Thomas’s poem, ‘Old Man’. The poem describes how the scent of the herb connects to a memory of something that the speaker is unable to recall. He is certain the memory exists, but what that memory is remains unreachable: ‘…I sniff the spray / And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; / Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait / For what I should, yet never can, remember.’ The association that the smell of the herb elicits exists somewhere in his mind but cannot be recovered: ‘I have mislaid the key.’ Any attempt to reach it ends with ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.’ It seems that all efforts to understand Silbury Hill conclude with the same dark absence. We see the sign of the hill, but the reasons for its creation remain tantalisingly out of reach.
The mystery of Silbury Hill’s existence may be frustrating, but the absence of certainty also allows space for the imagination and for personal interpretations. What strikes me is the femininity of its shape. Could it be a symbol for fertility? Or at least a place where fertility rituals mimicking the cycle of the death of each year in winter and rebirth in spring had been performed? It was an idea completely devoid of scientific evidence and heavily biased to my personal intentions, but I liked my theory. With no one to correct me, I chose to take Silbury Hill as a good omen for fertility and a friendly presence for the rest of my walk.
As I headed back towards the village, I realised that I felt happier than I had in months. When I was walking, I wasn’t a broken person constantly monitoring ovulation apps, but a capable woman moving independently across the landscape. A dangerous thought curled around my mind. I had seen wonders today. Ancient, mystical things that couldn’t be explained. Shouldn’t that teach me that nothing is impossible? Over the last few years, my life had been reduced to a joyless cycle of two week waits and negative tests, but this walk had allowed for the possibility of magic and miracles. Maybe it could still happen. The thought was painful and exhilarating in equal measures, but if there was sadness ahead then it was coming anyway. Crossing into the village, I paused beside a large Sarsen stone and traced my fingers across its cool, damp surface. The light faded, the road quietened and I decided to hope.
Elizabeth Black lives in London and works as a Writing Tutor at the University of Roehampton. Her academic research has focused on the relationship between nature and literature. Her first book was The Nature of Modernism: Ecocritical Approaches to the Poetry of Edward Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Charlotte Mew.(Routledge, 2017). Her new book is The Long Path to Motherhood, published by Troubador.
The illustration at the head of this piece is by Leah Risby, an illustrator who works with the themes of the natural and human worlds. She was the winner of the Stratford Literary Festival Young Poets Cover Design Prize, 2023. See Leah’s work on her website, or follow her on instagram.